National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala is setting off to explore Franz Josef Land, one of the most remote archipelagos in the world, only 900 km from the North Pole. Home to polar bears, whales, seals and more, the team will investigate how global warming may be affecting this crucial ecosystem in ways we still do not fully comprehend. Follow his adventures throughout the month.
Text and Photos by Andy Mann
‘We’re being attacked by a swimming polar bear?’ was my first and fleeting thought amidst the frenzied shouting flurries scurrying across the -1C water’s surface ; we already knew a couple of bears were further up on shore from the morning’s survey of Houen Island, our current anchor point.
Our divers had just reached the surface just moments before, from scraping microbial samples from yet another, carefully-scrutinized iceberg. They’d come up much earlier than usual due to a frozen-open valve driving an unbreathable amount of air into Forest’s regulator, forcing the team to the surface – a situation that ironically diverted a surefire disaster.
We’d left the Polaris in two zodiacs that morning with the dive teams working about 10 meters down on the iceberg. I was shooting in the water when most of the divers popped up around me, with Forest in the middle. Almost immediately afterward, we heard rapid shouting from dive team leader Enric from the nearest zodiac, “OUT!! Everybody out! GO, GO, GO!”
No hesitation, we all kicked as hard as we could toward the boats. Something was happening only meters behind us, but I didn’t turn around to look. The frantic pointing and shouting at the water behind us was all I needed to know; a polar bear had surprised us and was probably making an attack..so I thought, adrenalin pumping, kicking as hard as I could.
It felt like I levitated into the boat, landing flat out on the deck, and turned in time to see the 100+ ton iceberg flipping over completely, mass churning the waters we were all well inside moments before.
With everyone safely in zodiacs we shared a moment of shock, relief, even laughter. Miraculously, Forest’s microbes made it back in too, and onto the Polaris for analysis.
The Pristine Seas: Franz Josef Land expedition is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.