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Adventures In The Arctic

Ever since 15th Century explorers returned from the distant north, with wild and woolly tales of unicorns and citadels of ice, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, the North Pole and the Arctic region, have long been a semi-mystical destination, and places–to-go-before-I-die bucket list items, for those with true-blue gypsetter hearts inside them. It’s still a fantasy land come to life. The vast tundra, magnificent displays of the Aurora Borealis, monstrous glaciers that calve humongous icebergs into the sea, a coastline of glacial ice, black sands and ancient rock, biting winds, ice-walls, ice caps, ice floes, waterfalls and violent volcanoes – these are some of the attractions of Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and the Arctic. Of course there is also the exotic wildlife – like Polar Bears, musk oxen, Arctic reindeer, seals, walrus, whales and Inuit Eskimos. 

I’ve just returned from two back to back sailing expeditions to Greenland, and the Ice Shelf in the Arctic, near the North Pole, which is the second last frontier for me. Although I’ve been to Greenland and Iceland several times, I’m always in awe each time I go. And I’ve been through quite a few journeys since I decided to retire at the tender age of 53, to go and see the world instead. I’m 70 going on 71 now, and the last 17 years have been the best part of my life. I’d encourage you to retire early too. To go see the world before your knees or your back give way, your bones ache, your heart flutters for the wrong reasons, and heavens forbid, your kidneys pack up and you have to be tethered to a dialysis machine. Please realize that the purpose of work is to earn money to spend. If you don’t spend the money you have, it simply aint’ your money at all. And I’m talking about spending your money on YOU. Not just on the responsibilities of being a father and a husband.

A few weeks ago, in August and September, I chartered two sailing ships to share Greenland and the Arctic, with a few budding Gypsetters, bored with the usual tourist destinations of London, Paris, New York, Monaco and Hong Kong. It’s an out of this world experience. I just had to share with my friends, why I keep returning to the Arctic. And to say they were impressed after the trip, would probably be an understatement, because most of them have already confirmed to joining my next two audacious adventures, Patagonia from 20th to 29th April 2017, and sailing in Antarctica, from 9th to 20th January, 2018.

I’d like to share with you, some of the pictures I shot while sailing in the Donna Wood in Greenland’s Scoresby Sound, and also pictures from the High Arctic near the North Pole, which I shot while sailing in the barquentine tall-ship, the Antigua. You know, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, if you ain’t been up there, with them polar bears!

The Arctic is simply awesome. In the Arctic, the assault on your 5 senses will be nothing short of mesmerizing. No matter which way you turn, there will always be something special – a calving glacier, a ginormous iceberg, a magical sunset, a haunting moonrise, a polar bear devouring a bearded seal, a breeching whale, a Musk Ox grazing on the tundra, an arctic fox scampering around, an arctic reindeer, orcas hunting seals, zillions of arctic birdlife, and icy seascapes – sensational surprises that will often make you feel how small and insignificant we are, in the overall scheme of things. And yet we are the biggest threat to this pristine beauty.

We observed a polar bear, with just his nose and his eyes visible above the icy waters surface, stealthily closing in towards this poor, unsuspecting seal. When it got close, it disappeared underwater, and some minutes later, we saw it pounce on this hapless seal, killing it, and proceeding to tear it apart, devouring it, and turning the ice floe a gory red with seal blood.

The Antigua, the ship that I chartered for my North Pole adventure. These ships normally carry at least 2 inflatable Zodiac boats with outboard motors to ferry people ashore for hiking excursions, as well as to get close to wildlife colonies for better viewing and photoshoot opportunities.

This is the reality of life. Some species must die so that another species could live. Animals kill only for food and never kill more than they need. Only the two legged, upright standing homo sapiens, with a smiling face concealing deadly incisors and an evil heart, will kill in anger, for pleasure, for greed, for sport, and for nothing. Did you know there are less than 25,000 Polar Bears left on earth? Their numbers are ominously declining, because polar bear births and survival of cubs are not sufficient to replace polar bear deaths.

Scientists predict that Polar Bears will become extinct within two decades. One reason is because the ice pack around the North Pole, which Polar Bears need for hunting their food, is steadily shrinking as a result of global warming caused by Man. That is only part of the reason. The more startling fact is that, polar bears are being shot and decimated in trophy hunting, especially in the Canadian sector of the Arctic, at the horrendous rate of 700 polar bears shot and killed for sport every year, or more than two polar bears shot every 12 hours! Horrors!! What is the rest of the world doing to stop this little known carnage? Nothing!!

At least the Russians have banned Polar Bear hunting in their sector of the Arctic since 1957. Norway has recently followed suit. Only in Canada, Alaska and Greenland are Polar bears still allowed to be shot and killed for sport and for their skins. It is a thriving and lucrative business by heartless people catering to bloodthirsty hunter tourists. In Greenland, the Inuit Eskimos shoot Polar Bears because they claim it is their traditional right to hunt these magnificent creations of God. Yeah. Right. Brings to mind the horrific annual murder of hundreds of whales by the Japanese, ostensibly for scientific research, but everybody knows it is done to satisfy their craving for whale sashimi!

A typical icescape you’ll commonly see in the Arctic. This photo was shot at 78°12’42” N 13°49’51” E in Wood-fjorden in the North West National Park of Svalbard. Notice the layers and a stacking of elements within this two dimensional picture, that attempts to lull you into having a near reality experience. A master with camera and words can often add an additional dimension to the visual experience of a good photograph. But if you really want to FEEL the essence of the Arctic, you’ll need to actually be there in person, so that you can have a multi-sensory experience. To gaze in real time upon a vista such as this, with the bitingly cold wind upon your face, the faint taste of Arctic salt in the air upon your lips, the scent of kelp and moss in your nose, the calls of Arctic terns in your ears, and the beautiful feel and sound of crunching ice and snow under your soles as you follow the footprints of a polar bear in the snow – now tell me, what could be more special than that? 

You should read the book written by my Danish friend, Arctic wildlife expert and Polar Bear activist, Morton Jorgensen titled, “Polar Bears on the Edge – Heading for Extinction while Management Fails”. Morten was with us as an expert guide and educator, during my sailing expedition to the North Pole. And so was Arctic scientist and conservationist, Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov, Deputy Director and Senior Research Scientist at Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve, in the Arctic sector of the Russian Far East. I invited both these Arctic experts to educate us on the issues haunting the Arctic today. Both these Polar Bear scientists acted as expert guides for participants in my Svalbard Arctic Gypsetting adventure. By day we sailed, and trekked on land to enjoy magnificent views and to search for Arctic wildlife on ice floes and the little islets in the Arctic Ocean between the North Pole, and the Svalbard Archipelago. In between our treks ashore, Morten and Nikita gave us educational and scientific talks about Arctic Wildlife, focusing particularly on the plight of the Polar Bears, while I personally also gave one on one help for those interested in taking their photography up a notch.

My Arctic Sailing Expedition was a Gypsetting adventure with a difference. As a result of that experience, all of us became acutely aware of the impact of global warming, and the plight of Polar Bears and Arctic wildlife. Global warming is causing the Ice Shelf to shrink irreparably, destroying the Arctic habitat of the magnificent Polar Bear. And plastics pollution, fishing nets, nylon ropes, packaging materials, all non-biodegradable, and thrash, originating from thousands of miles away, are washing up on pristine coastlines in the Arctic, and finding their way into the stomachs of fish and wildlife in the Arctic, choking them and killing them.

A view from the mast deck of the Donna Wood looking back towards the Captain’s bridge. The Donna Wood was just perfect for exploring Scoresby Sound, the largest fjord system in Greenland, and in the world. The ship is compact, and being an ex-lighthouse ship, it has a very strong hull which has been further reinforced with brass plates on the outside. It is small, strong and nimble enough that we could sail her safely in between ginormous icebergs, get close to gigantic glacier faces, anchor in little coves, and use her zodiac boats to take us ashore daily to hike, explore and shoot Greenland’s amazing seascapes, icescapes and tundra landscapes. 

A view from the mast deck of the Donna Wood looking back towards the Captain’s bridge. The Donna Wood was just perfect for exploring Scoresby Sound, the largest fjord system in Greenland, and in the world. The ship is compact, and being an ex-lighthouse ship, it has a very strong hull which has been further reinforced with brass plates on the outside. It is small, strong and nimble enough that we could sail her safely in between ginormous icebergs, get close to gigantic glacier faces, anchor in little coves, and use her zodiac boats to take us ashore daily to hike, explore and shoot Greenland’s amazing seascapes, icescapes and tundra landscapes.

Much of the tundra that we carefully trod on, have probably never been trod on by any human being before. Moss, lichen and creeper trees and creeper bushes grow agonizingly slowly in the harsh Arctic, adding maybe a millimetre a year to their lengths. So when hiking in Greenland and Svalbard, you should always watch your step, and as far as possible, try to step only on barren earth or rocks to minimize your impact on the pristine environment. Greenland, and indeed the whole of the Arctic is amazing, and they have a way of clutching your soul, not letting go, and compelling you to return.

Yours truly filling his water bottle with iceberg melt water. Most icebergs calving off huge glaciers, have been dated by Arctic scientists to be thousands of years old. Travellers to the Arctic often say that drinking the melt water of an iceberg is like drinking a love potion that will make you always want to return to the Arctic. Although I’ve been sailing in the Arctic every autumn since the autumn of 2014, I can’t seem to have quite enough of her. My folly was probably the filling my drinking water bottle with 10,000 years old melt water running off a giant iceberg in the Arctic, and drinking it. I suppose that’s why I keep returning. The Arctic is that beguiling. Even if you don’t drink Arctic iceberg melt water. 

The Donna Wood, the sailing ship which I chartered to explore Greenland’s Scoresby Sound. The Donna Wood was originally a 100 year-old wooden hulled lighthouse ship that has been converted into a delightful passenger sailing vessel with 7 comfortable cabins for 12 passengers. The waters of Scoresby Sound are crystal clear, very calm, and glassy smooth, which makes sailing in Scorseby Sound immensely pleasurable. And as you glide in the calm waters, ginormous icebergs and mesmerizing vistas on both sides of the ship will continuously enthral you.

Having been to the Arctic for the past few years, for the near future, I am going to focus on the South Pole, Antarctica and Patagonia. I have already finalized arrangements for my planned Antarctica Expedition from 9th to 20th Jan 2018. Fifteen twin sharing cabins with ensuite facilities are available if you’d like to join my shared cost Antarctic Gypsetting Adventure. The intent is to fly from Punte Arenas in Chile to board the ship at King’s Island in Antarctica. We will then cruise in Antarctica with daily landings to view the intense wildlife colonies there. From Antarctica we will sail to the Falkland Islands and spend one and a half days to explore the Falklands. Then we’ll leave the ship and fly back to Punte Arenas from Port Stanley in the Falklands, for our flight home. By flying to Antarctica, and flying back from the Falklands, we will avoid 4 days of sailing in the dreaded Drakes Passage, giving us extra days in Antarctica and a day and a half in the Falklands. Please email me at yusuf.hash[email protected] if you’d like to join me in Antarctica.

I hope I’ve sparked your interest to visit some of the distant places less travelled in our Little Blue Planet. The world is amazingly beautiful. You should go out there and see it for yourself. 

Photos: Yusuf Hashim

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