Seeking Svalbard

Latest update June 22, 2019 Started on May 9, 2019

I am a 2019 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow traveling to Svalbard on the National Geographic Explorer. During this expedition, I will be observing ways that humans have impacted this wild environment, from ocean plastics to global warming.

May 9, 2019
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In The Field

June 6, 2019

Later in the afternoon, I experienced how scientists work out on the open ocean. Paolo Marra-Biggs and Maya Santangelo are the Undersea Specialists on board. With a few missions in mind, we loaded a zodiac full of gear and went out into the glacial pool filled with growlers, bergy bits, and icebergs.

Since ocean plastics is one of the hottest science topics as of late, I wanted to gather some data on whether there is a presence of micro plastics this far north. One way data is collected is through a plankton tow. You drop it in the water and pull water through the contraption. We ran the tow for a mile staying at the same speed. Not the easiest of tasks when you need to drive around ice bobbing in the water. Upon the completion of our mile, we pulled up the tow to find we had caught quite a few pieces of ice! The sample was dumped into a glass jar. Immediately you could see tiny red spheres through the water. Maya and Paolo believe that they are red algae. We will look to confirm that after we use a microscope to analyze the sample.

In addition to the plankton tow, Maya and Paolo were working to place a ROV (remote operated vehicle) underwater to get some footage. Due to technical difficulties, we were unable to get any footage.

Finally we did a clarity test to see how far underwater we could see. We used a line that had a black and white pattern on a disc that can easily be seen. As we lowered it in the water, we watched it until we ran out of line! We were unable to get the exact clarity of the water, but visibility was still easy to see at 20 meters!

I am very interested in getting the water sample under the microscope, but it may be a few days before we can get to that. As the sample sat on my desk, you could see the density column with the different layers of Arctic sea water form in the stillness of the bottle. A few plankton could also be seen darting around the jar.

I can’t wait to show my students all the data that can be collected throughout the world.

The night ended with a polar bear (#2) wandering over the sea ice, hunting for his next meal. We watched him for quite some time before he disappeared into the waters.

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June 6, 2019

No alarm needed today as we started our course towards ice. An ice floe hit the bow of the shipping making a great crashing noise in our cabin. I peered out the porthole to find small ice floes floating slowly along the ocean currents.

At the bridge you could see the ice floes in the distance. Donning my binoculars, I went back to searching for a polar bear or other marine life that may be living among the ice. Right now, my “office” view is unforgettable. The ice is beautiful, pure white untouched snow above the water being illuminated by the sun, and below a majestic shade of blue can be seen.

We lurch forward towards the ice, I return to my binoculars, searching. You’d think finding a polar bear wouldn’t be too difficult given the numbers, but looking for a white fluff ball on white ice that bobs along the ocean current has its challenges. Many eyes search and scan the ice looking for the slightest movement, I am hoping that I can be that one!

While the crew and guest eyes’ tired, we took a break to learn from Mike Libecki, a National Geographic Explorer, give a lecture on the boat. He has a passion for climbing peaks that have never been explored. He has developed quite a brand for himself with some unforgettable tagline: “Never Ration Passion” and “Life is Sweet, Life is Now”. He found his passion and with the blessing of his grandmother, he has continued to explore making 100s of excursions in his lifetime.

His passion is undeniable, and it no wonder that his teenage daughter has the same drive. This world is so amazing, which is why I am here in Svalbard. I am here to educate our youth about our world and why it is so precious.

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Love the posts and pictures, Mindy. Please keep them coming. What an incredible experience!

June 5, 2019

Another first was for me was a ride in a zodiac to explore the land, Vårsolbukt, on the northern part of Bellsund.

77º 44.894 N 14º 28.124 E

As we step on to land, you are welcomed by the thousands of birds that reside along the rocky cliff edge. It is nesting area for thousands of sea birds that usually make their home on the ocean. Among the bird species are Barnacle geese that make their home in this area during the spring.

We begin our 5 miles hike on land and I quickly spot a puff ball of white fur on the ground. Its reindeer hair, likely shed from their winter coat. We would end up observing many of these pieces of hair, usually no larger then 3-4 inches. What I didn’t expect was the amount of reindeer limbs that were scattered about. They are not a product of polar bear hunting, but instead they just weren’t strong enough to survive the harsh winter and Arctic foxes used them as an easy food source during the winter when they act as scavengers.

We also came across a tiny Arctic Fox who unfortunately did not survive the winter as well. Our naturalist informed us that foxes were likely in the area due to the nesting birds, as eggs are a fine meal option for these tiny creatures when they are predators during the summer months.

The ground was covered in a green, sloshy vegetation. Moss and lichen blankets much of the ground, even under the snow that was slowly melting away. Soon these would flower, leaving the area with vibrant colors: whites, purples, and reds. I wish I had more time to observe the ground. I was fascinated by the small bumps along the ground that were mainly spongey and oozed water if you stepped on them.

Also on the ground lie antlers, evidence of Svalbard reindeer in the area. The males annually shed their antlers in the late fall, while females keep their antlers through winter and springtime. Sure enough we came across a handful or reindeer grazing on the vegetation that was exposed from melted snow. The acted much like other deer, mainly eating and slowly moving along, but would look at the approaching humans with careful watch and move further away if they felt uncomfortable.

As we headed back towards the landing beach, one guest spotted a trio of Arctic Fox on the mountainside. It appeared to be one adult with two younger foxes. They scampered up and down a small area of rocks and land and disappeared several times under a large boulder that was one the mountain, likely their den and place of safety. We watched them for 10-15 minutes through our binoculars, many of us could’ve stayed all day! They were not wearing a winter white coat any longer, which many people tend to first think of, but instead a coat of browns and blacks to match the spring landscape. Arctic fox use their adaptation of camouflage very well to survive this harsh habitat.

More evidence of life littered the land. Exoskeletons of a sea urchins lay inland, begging for the question, “How did it get here?”. A wonderful phenomenon for students to explore. Also amazing was the whale bones that were in the area. Our naturalist hypothesized they were likely hundreds of years old and may have been the result of hunting centuries earlier.

Snow and ice began to fall and the bird colonies took flight either in protest of the weather or due to some larger birds claiming the cliffside as their own. Even as the wind picked up, many of us continued on our hike. Our first observation of spring had arrived, small purple flowers began to bloom. All the flowers are very small and low to the ground, the adaptation they need to survive in this Arctic Desert. We also listened to the one and only songbird in Svalbard, the snow bunting, as we made our way back towards shore.

A radio call gave us a tip on an extremely rare sighting, a goose that was in the ocean water off the coast, one that is not usually seen this fart north. We grabbed our binoculars to see this rare sight in Svalbard. It bobbed quietly on the ocean current, paying no mind to the approaching zodiac that was taking a closer look.

One last radio call had asked us to return to the landing site to start our zodiac ride back to the ship. I enjoyed being one of the first on the land today and one of the last ones off. There’s already too little time upon the shore, so I will take as much opportunity that I can get.

On our return, we went back to our daily job; scouting for the next wildlife spotting.

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June 5, 2019

Our early morning breakfast call was quickly canceled when the first ice bear was spotted! I quickly dashed up to the bridge to where we were, as it was a monumental moment for myself; my first polar bear in the wild.

77º 46.835N 15º 55.154 E Location: Van Mijenfjorden

Guest and crew quickly populated the bow and the bridge, straining to find the fuzzy little dot through their binoculars. He was lumbering on the fast ice, which is a sheet of ice that is still attached to the shore. As he continued to pace on the ice, hunting for his next meal, he ended up in the water for a swim.

He returned to shore after a few minutes of water play and began to pace the shoreline looking for a place to get down to return to the ice. He found a spot to go down, but quickly decided to go back to the coast. And then repeated this behavior of going between the fast ice and the shoreline. One he made his commitment to the shore, he flipped on his backside and rolled around much like a dog scratching his back. After a satisfying scratch, he continued his journey towards a larger piece of fast ice and the Explorer retreated.

A naturalist piped in that the bear was likely male as not black collar was easily seen around the bear’s next. Apparently due to the size and shape of the males’ necks, the tracking collars slip off easily.

Now we head back to the patience of our binoculars, scouting for the next bear. I wait in anticipation to see what observations I will make with our next bear.

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I work on the NG Explorer! I hope you had a great trip!

June 4, 2019

We set sail and begin our journey. Although we are all excited and ready to set our eyes to nature, a safety drill is a must for our time at sea, but it doesn’t last long.

To make sure we have enough energy for the night, we head to dinner at 8pm. By 9pm, I am ready to make my day to the bridge with my binoculars. You would never know it was 9pm, the sun still illuminates the sky as if it was late afternoon.

On the bridge, there are quite a few guests, officers, and naturalists looking in every direction through spotting scopes and binoculars. Small chit chat and people discuss that possible spec they see in the distance.

Some ice floes are floating along and the National Geographic Explorer heads straight into them as if the were nearly pillows in the way. You hear the impact, a small jolt, but the ship doesn’t slow and the guest don’t even make note. I look on the floes for bears, and half hope I don’t see one. The ice floes are small and far from one another. A bear caught up on one of these would have to abandon it shortly as it will likely melt as summer approaches. Luckily, no bears here….back towards the shoreline.

Then it happened so fast, one lone minke whale quickly passes the ship-almost no time to really point out the marine mammal. I see the dorsal fine break the surface a few times, clumsily snap a photo from my iPhone and the whale disappeared as quickly as it arrived. An officer also announces that on an ice floe, a seal appears to be sleeping. It just looked like a brown log on ice, not enough to make an ID. And we continue onward.

A few minutes pass and along the snowy coastline, a dozen little dots are scattered about. A naturalist says that those are reindeer, Svalbard reindeer. Apparently they don’t warrant enough interest to pull closer, our mission to find a polar bear seems much more pressing. So the 12 sets of eyes continue scanning the seas.

My already tired eyes retreats to my cabin to grab my camera. I didn’t want to miss another whale going by.

I head up to the lounge and campout by a window. The boat has obviously slowed and is headed slowly toward the shore. My eyes are searching, it feels like I am hunting for a four-leaf clover like I did as a child. You must wait. Be patient. Keep looking. Keep looking. Keep looking. There! I see a small 4 legged creature scamper against the white snow. It looks like a small husky, with gray body, long tail, and its narrow snout. It’s an arctic fox. We watch it for awhile before it disappears behind some rocks. No picture for me, this little guy was too quick and tiny to see. I enjoyed the moment.

With the time now approaching 11pm, I head back to the bridge to discuss the findings. It is quiet now, just a handful of people still hanging about. We are moving along. A few false alarms of possible spouts in the distance, only the white caps of the sea playing tricks on out hopeful and tired eyes.

11:30 I head to bed with the sun still keeping the area bright and cheery.

Sightings: Minke Whale Seal (unknown kind) Arctic Fox Bird

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June 4, 2019
AM Longyearbyen

I have officially arrived in Svalbard! The excitement has been building the past few days as I’ve talked to guests and Lindblad Naturalists over their ‘bucket list’ wants for this expedition. Polar bears, narwhals and belugas top the list, and while they all are part of the Arctic habitat, they will be a challenge to locate. I plan to wear my binoculars like the newest must-have fashion accessory. And, secretly, I am hoping to be the first to discover an animal! I have always loved puzzles and challenges, so this is right up my alley.

Data, data, data. That is my plan for this expedition. Track the number of plants and animals found and where they were spotted (using coordinates). I also plan to track my photo numbers, so I can return to the visuals after my being in the field. I brought along a measuring tape to provide scale, and two thermometers to take surface and water temperature. And the most important tool, my blank journal. Really, that is the only tool I need. It’s all very exciting. I feel like an official scientist, even though I know that just through observation, I am one. And so are my students, their families, and anyone who is willing to take a closer look at this world.

We board the ship; waiting for the moment we push away from the dock towards the open sea.

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Expedition Background

The countdown has begun! Less than 30 days before I leave for Svalbard.

So, how did I get here? You could say this specific journey started in September last year, but really it started when I was a kid. My parents have always instilled my love for travel and nature. We gladly packed a Ford Econoline van every summer and set off for weeks with very few shower breaks and many camp set ups and tear downs. Traveling the continental US was always an adventure, from seeing meteor showers on the beaches of the East Coast to the rocky terrain of volcanoes in Idaho.

But, this particular adventure started when I became a National Geographic Certified Educator. It opened my teaching up to many new opportunities and ideas on how to bring this world a little closer to my students. Looking at fossils from a local level to a global level was just my first lesson using the National Geographic Framework and it has inspired me to keep using it!

In December I applied for the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, a professional development program like no other! I was so excited about the possibility of being able to take water samples to analyze microplastics, observe ice sheets up close, and be able to let me students experience this opportunity alongside me.

A phone call in February made all my dreams a soon to be reality. I jetted off to Washington DC for a week of pre-expedition workshops and a brain full of ideas! Luckily, I have the support and resources from all the former and current Grosvenor Teacher Fellows!

So now I am in the final countdown.

I hope to take water samples to analyze: looking for microplastics. How much plastic is in the Arctic Ocean? How far did it travel? What can my students do to help?

When most people picture the Arctic, they think of polar bears, whales, seals, and ice. But what about vegetation? What plants flourish in this harsh environment? Are blooming flowers among the ice? I cannot wait to see.

And what about the ice? I want to listen the story it wants to tell. What is it trying to tell us? And, are we listening?

Will you listen? Follow along to learn all these answers and more!

Congratulations on a once in a lifetime event, and bringing more awareness to our pressing ecological issues to your students and beyond.
Miss you already! Safe travels.

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