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Explorer’s Surprise Greenland Shark Discovery

By Alan Turchik

Suddenly something crossed my screen that was different. I saw the camera shake. My eyes widened, as I sat up in my chair, hair standing up on the back of my neck in anticipation. I had been sitting there for hours watching the screen. Then it came into frame. A shark. A ghostly white shark. It was a Greenland shark, an incredible find for where we were in the Arctic.

It was August 2013. I was on an expedition with Pristine Seas, and we were exploring Franz Josef Land—an icy archipelago far to the north of Russia, nearly a thousand miles from our port of departure in Murmansk. This area is a stepping stone, a last bit of land, used by explorers around the turn of last century in their quest to journey to one of the last unexplored regions on Earth: the frigid North Pole.

Photo courtesy of Lucie McNeil
The seas, land, and sky were all grey. The depths below didn’t promise much more of a view at first. (Photo courtesy of Lucie McNeil)

It was a difficult mission and we faced extreme conditions. The water was freezing, and the divers on our team had the real danger of frostbite and hypothermia. There were so many moving parts, so many things we had to document in the little time that we had. Early explorers in the region had collected mountains of data, creating a unique opportunity to observe the changes that had occurred in Franz Josef Land over the last hundred years.

The Pristine Seas team was diverse in order to document all the facets of Franz Josef Land. National Geographic had partnered with the Russian Geographical Society for this expedition, and our team included Russian and French ornithologists, Russian geomorphologists, American biologists and ecologists, along with several Russian and American media specialists.

My job was to explore the cold depths of the Arctic Ocean surrounding Franz Josef Land using deep-ocean dropcams. Each of these is basically a camera in a thick glass sphere, coupled with lights and sophisticated electronics, that we drop to the bottom of the ocean and use to record the life that exists there. The deep-ocean dropcams are autonomous—once dropped over the side of the boat, they sink unguided to the ocean floor, and a few hours later they resurface. When you return to recover them, maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to see something amazing.

Exploring the underwater environment surrounding the 191 islands of Russia's Franz Josef Land, Enric Sala and team dove more than 111 hours cataloging the species that call these nearly untouched waters home. (Photo by Dave McAloney)
Exploring the underwater environment surrounding the 191 islands of Russia’s Franz Josef Land, Enric Sala and team dove more than 111 hours cataloging the species that call these nearly untouched waters home. (Photo by Dave McAloney)

I had dropped the cameras a few times with little result. On a previous expedition to the Pitcairn Islands, I had seen all kinds of life: sharks, squid, and many species of fish. The Arctic seemed barren in comparison. A few tiny fish and brittle stars were the only things that showed up on my monitor as I watched hours and hours of footage.

The process became mechanical. Drop the camera over the side of the boat, wait for it to return and then watch hours of barren footage. Sometimes real science isn’t about glamour; this footage was important. It was a record of the deep ocean in the Arctic—a vulnerable, changing environment.

The Greenland shark discovery in Franz Josef Land was an incredible find for our team but we’re not done yet. Pristine Seas has an ambitious set of goals for 2015 and I look forward to new discoveries and contributions to the scientific community.

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