The Polar Bears of Greenland’s Forbidden Coast.
Two days before I’m due to land in Iceland, a brief email from the skipper simply reads:
“There’s a storm brewing in the Denmark Strait, the forecast from Sunday to Tuesday is crap, so to get ahead of it, we’re leaving 24 hours early.”
Panic! Change flights. Cancel meetings. Pack bags. Kiss wife.
30 hours later I land in the pretty little town of Ísafjör∂ur in north west Iceland and go straight to the quayside where the crew are assembled and ready to go – six from Iceland, three from the Faroe Islands, a German, a Finn, a New Zealander and now an Irishman – we slip lines and make for the Denmark Strait.
Our boat ‘Arktika’ is a magnificent Dutch built, 25-meter, steel-hulled ketch – with a traditional gaff rig – all block and pulley, no winches other than the capstan – a solid seafaring yacht and perfect for this kind of expedition in to treacherous waters.
Our plan is to film and photograph Polar Bears. We set sail from Ísafjör∂ur on a 400km voyage northwest across the Arctic Circle, to a stretch of the east Greenland coast between Kangerdlugssuaq and Nansen Fjords.
Ten of the highest peaks in the entire Arctic can be found along this challenging piece of coastline, mountains so high that they can be seen from mid-way across the Denmark Strait. Between the peaks, huge glaciers expel vast quantities of ice in to the sea, creating mammoth icebergs of awesome proportions – this is Greenland’s Forbidden Coast!
To survive here you need to be entirely self sufficient – very few adventurers in the annals of Arctic exploration have ever challenged this stretch of coast. And no wonder, in this hostile environment rescue is days away – and of course, it’s the domain of the apex predator and one of the most fearsome beasts on the planet.
Just as the jagged peaks of Greenland begin to break the horizon, I find myself in the wheelhouse alone with captain Siggi – it’s clear he’s in his happy place – at the wheel of his magnificent vessel ‘Arktika’, heading west towards Greenland on his first expedition of the very short, six-week season.
I ask him about his fascination with East Greenland and why, after more than twenty years of visiting the place, does it still excite him so much to go back there. There’s a long pause before he answers with a rueful grin “I often ask myself that”.
We talk it over for a while and it begins to dawn on me that, in a kind of way, he’s a trader – but unlike the Dutch East India Company of old, he’s not trading in spices, silks and precious stones – instead he uses his two boats ‘Aurora’ and ‘Arktika’ to trade in something far more valuable – knowledge.
He wants his guests to experience and appreciate the fragile beauty, drama and culture of this incredible place, to understand that we are not masters of the earth we live on, merely caretakers.
On each expedition he will map, chart and record some new anchorage, rock or sand bar. Compare flora, fauna, climate and ice conditions to previous expeditions and gradually build a vast encyclopaedic knowledge of this mostly unknown, uncharted but incredibly vulnerable territory.
This knowledge is just one very small piece of the humongous environmental jigsaw that scientists and environmentalists are desperate to complete and understand before it’s too late.
As we near the Greenland shore, the skies are leaden and the icebergs become more frequent. But our early departure has paid off as 200km behind us, 50 knot squalls roar down the Denmark Strait.
At Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord the wind drops and the sea calms – the vast high-pressure system created by the gargantuan Greenlandic ice cap, controls the weather in these massive fjords. It’s quite possible to experience clear blue skies and mirror calm conditions inside the fjord, while twenty kilometres out to sea it’s blowing old boots!
Our first anchorage is Suhali Bay – so named by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston after his infamous solo round the world boat, when he sailed it here to climb with Sir Chris Bonington in 1991.
After two full days at sea, it’s good to stretch the legs so we lower the Zodiac in to the water and go ashore to explore an abandoned hunters’ camp. Up until maybe 20 years ago, this would have been a regular summer base for Narwhal hunters from the south. But declining numbers of Narwhal and strict new regulations on the number that can be hunted, make the 800km round trip north from Tassilaaq no longer worthwhile.
Fact check: The total land area of Greenland is 2,166,086 km2 and has a population of just 56,000 people, of which only 7% live along its rugged east coast in a handful of settlements – it is roughly 25 times the size of the island of Ireland (83,421 km2). The population density in Ireland is approximately 78 people per km2, in Greenland that figure is one person per 38km2 – making it the least densely populated territory in the world outside Antarctica.
We remain in our anchorage for the next day. Some of the group set out in kayaks to explore Uttental Sund and see if the ice has broken up enough for them to access Watkins Fjord at this time of year – a tough 20km paddle. The rest of us climb a nearby peak on Kraemer Island and spend most of the day on top enjoying the incredible view across Kangerdlugssauq Fjord, listening to the distant thunder of bergs and glaciers calving. The weather is spectacular – with clear blue skies and glassy sea, the temperature soars to an incredible 16˚C – Siggi has never before experienced such warm temperatures in Greenland. The mosquitos are loving it, but there is no evidence of Polar Bears.
So next morning we move on, our goal is to get further north to Nansen Fjord where the skipper has seen Polar Bears on previous visits, but that’s a long way to the north – tonight we will anchor at Mikis Fjord, some 50km away. Back out to the mouth of Kangerdlugssauq the remnants of the storm has created a huge swell and choppy seas, making sailing conditions uncomfortable.
Every so often amongst the monstrous bergs, we spot one of vivid, electric blue – quite stunning against the grey-black sky. Most icebergs appear white as they are made from compacted snow, full of tiny air bubbles. Blue ice is essentially melt water that has been re-frozen and had all the air squeezed out of it over thousands of years under massive pressure beneath the weight of the glacier. The science behind blue icebergs is quite fascinating, if you’d like to learn more about how they are created, just click HERE.
We push on along the rugged coast to the entrance to Mikkis Fjord. All the way in, dark grey/black granite walls rise vertically out of the sea and disappear in to the mist 150 meters above – giving the bizarre impression of a street lined with tall buildings. This L-shaped fjord is only a couple of kilometres long compared to Kangerdlugssauq which stretches inland for over 150km – it’s a good secure anchorage for the night well protected from the wind and rolling sea.
That evening we sit on deck chatting for hours as the sun slowly dips behind the adjacent peaks. At this time of year it doesn’t really get dark – the sun sets at around 11.30pm and rises again just a few short hours later – there’s just a constant dusk through the night.
From here to Nansen Fjord is a full day’s sail – we weigh anchor in the morning and meander through the bergs back out to the open ocean of the Denmark Strait, the sea has calmed but it’s foggy – even the dramatic cliffs have disappeared – the radar shows the presence of numerous large icebergs, every so often they loom out of the fog like silent ghost ships. This is a bunk day, time to catch up on some sleep.
Arktika’ is extremely well suited to this type of expedition, below decks are two 4-berth cabins and two 2-berth cabins. Two heads (toilets) and one shower room. In the centre of the boat is the fully fitted galley and living/eating area where all 13 members of the crew can sit and eat at the same time. And the food is good, in fact the food is great – anything from simple pasta or chilli dishes while we’re at sea, to a full leg of roast Icelandic lamb, Arctic Char, Cod etc. – Lauri and Veigar keep us very well fed. One of the crew Robbie, a hunter from Ísafjör∂ur, has brought several local delicacies – smoked goose breast as well as Puffin, Razorbill and Guillemot breasts marinaded in spices and served as a starter with a few chunks of cantaloupe melon and bilberries, delicious – none of your freeze-dried expedition stuff here!
I often get asked about the sort of people that go on these kinds of expeditions – how do you get on with them? What if you don’t get on with them? How do you deal with it?
Truth is, adventurers tend to get along together just fine – in general they are happy in their own skin – happy sharing a confined space with relative strangers – happy sitting in silence together, perhaps reading/writing, perhaps not – happy that personal hygiene is not as important as it is at home and that it could be several days between showers depending on the sea conditions and the limited availability of fresh water – (even though ‘Arktika’ has its own fresh water maker, it’s still a gets used sparingly).
The scenery in Nansen Fjord is simply spectacular, the mirror-calm sea is dotted with a million icebergs of every shape and size, the last remnants of the fog is creating an ever changing light show as the evening sun hangs low in the sky above the jagged peaks. Everyone is on deck just looking in silence.
I spot a seal on an iceberg, this is a good sign – where there are seals on bergs, there are bears licking their lips!
Looking through binoculars from our anchorage, I spot bear tracks on the shore just above the high water line – there’s a real air of excitement now that the bears are close. In the morning we’ll go and investigate.
We wake up to thick fog, it could be several hours before the low Arctic sun burns it off – so after breakfast four of us take the Zodiac ashore to investigate the bear tracks.
This is risky as bears could be anywhere and are apex predators, but we need to see how fresh the tracks are. The rule is very simple; every group that goes ashore carries a firearm and stays together.
Visibility is less than 100 meters as we motor ashore in the Zodiac, to our right the beach disappears in to the fog, we cut the engine and pull the Zodiac up out of the water. The only sound is the roar of water from a cascading river that cuts the beach in two.
We rock-hop across the raging white water, trying to keep the boots dry and continue along the beach. Suddenly, we come across enormous bear tracks in the snow – these are not the ones we saw from the boat last night, these are fresh and heading the same direction as we are.
Assuming the bear is in front of us, we turn back, but by now the Zodiac has disappeared in the fog. Just then, a loud warning hooter from ‘Arktika’ cuts the air which means someone has spotted something – we can only assume it’s a bear!
Immediately my heart-rate jumps and we race back along the beach. As the Zodiac looms out of the fog, we are faced with a sight none of us wanted to see: a fully-grown Polar Bear standing beside it sniffing curiously! We stop in our tracks – this is one clever bear, cutting off our only escape route! By now my heart rate is through the roof – this could get very ugly, very quickly!
This juvenile bear is very curious about our bright red Zodiac – to him, it looks like meat but doesn’t smell like meat. He puts two huge paws up on the air tank and bounces, for all the world like he’s performing CPR!
Suddenly, an ear-splitting gunshot rings out – from ‘Arktika’, the skipper fires a warning shot between the bear and us. I don’t know if it’s the sound of the gun shot or the bullet pinging off the rocks that spooks him, but he immediately runs uphill about twenty meters – and stops. Another shot and the bear moves further up the slope, after the third or fourth shot there is enough space between us and the bear to sprint for the Zodiac (this time the boots get a proper soaking as we take the direct route across the river)!
Only when we get there do we realise that in his juvenile curiosity, the bear had chewed through the front air tank and punctured it, but there’s just enough buoyancy in the remaining two air tanks to get the four of us off the beach and back to safety! It’s mid-afternoon before my pulse returns to normal!
Lauri and Veigar set about repairing the damaged Zodiac, a couple of patches and it’s good as new.
It is important to point out that it is never our intention to engage with or harm these beautiful animals in any way. Our goal is to film and photograph them, then retreat leaving no trace. But doing so creates real risk and it is inevitable that, sooner or later, our paths will to cross. Warning shots were fired purely to stop the bear from destroying the inflatable, he was unlikely to attack a group of four people together – that’s not how they hunt. We certainly startled him, but I’d like to think that perhaps he might be less inclined to engage in future – after all, the next humans he encounters may not be firing warning shots!
Safely back on ‘Arktika’, the fog is beginning to burn off. The full splendour of Nansen Fjord is once again on show – the jaw-dropping Greenlandic wilderness seems endless. In between the rugged peaks, cracked, scarred glaciers curve and sweep majestically to the sea, creating yet more monstrous icebergs – as they have done for millennia. It’s truly humbling to witness.
Today we will find more bears and get the photos and footage we want (but this time from the safety of ‘Arktika’)! Two of the crew are up the rigging spotting, another is on the bow with binoculars. I’m on the roof of the wheelhouse with the big 600mm lens and Brendon from NZ has the drone primed and ready to launch at a moments notice. Now it’s a waiting game as we meander through the ice floes.
A shout from the bow, “ Bear in the water, dead ahead!”.
Skipper Siggi throttles back so we don’t get too close, in seconds Brendon has the drone airborne and is tracking him down. I locate the bear through the big lens and… oh my God he’s huge! This is fantastic!
Polar bears are very strong swimmers and will regularly travel 30km or more in a day, but are capable of much greater distances. As he swims, he turns his head towards us giving a slight snort of irritation. These animals are at the very top of the food chain so have no fear. Brendon is getting fantastic footage with the drone as I snap away. This time I can fully appreciate what a truly magnificent beast he is knowing I won’t be on his menu today!
Not wanting to stress the bear, we track him for no more than 5 minutes. At one point he stops by a small iceberg and tries to haul himself out of the water, but the berg is too unstable to support him. In frustration he turns towards us, flashing his huge fangs with a growl – the fang on the left side of his lower jaw is broken and only about half the size of the other, his muzzle is heavily scarred – he’s a fighter and clearly been in many scrapes over the years! How amazing it is to see these magnificent beasts in their natural habitat – a true privilege. As he swims away we decide that’s enough excitement for one day.
Positioning ourselves a kilometre from the wall of the enormous Nansen Glacier, we turn off the engine and drift in complete silence. There isn’t a breath of wind and the water is mirror calm beneath a cloudless sky – the only sound is the occasional distant thunder of cracking ice – bliss.
That night we anchor in another small, sheltered bay and in the morning go ashore again and see what we can find.
But even before the Zodiac reaches the sand, we can see massive paw prints on the beach – everyone is on edge. The risk is too high – so for safety, we return to the boat and send a team up along the shore to spot bears from the Zodiac – they will alert us by VHF if they spot anything – we follow on board ‘Arktika’.
A short time later the radio crackles – they’ve spotted a huge bear and this is the biggest we’ve seen by far. His fur has the slightly golden tinge of an older bear and he’s in great condition – fat and healthy. We track him for a short while – every so often he looks up and snorts at the drone like it’s some kind of irritating mosquito. A few more minutes and that’s enough, the drone returns safely on board and we start to pack up.
It’s time to ready ‘Arktika’ for the long 400km sail home – we came to film and photograph Polar Bears and found an untouched land of breath-taking beauty – mission accomplished!
A gentle afternoon breeze has filled in and we leave Nansen Fjord in the same way the very first explorers would have, picking our way through the icebergs in silence under full sail.
With thanks to: