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Photojournalist Adrian van der Lee visits the ‘Forbidden Coast’ of east Greenland in search of polar bears — the largest carnivore on land and the eighth deadliest creature on the planet.
Two days before departure, the skipper’s email simply reads: “There’s a storm brewing in the Denmark Strait – the forecast from Sunday to Tuesday is kind of shit, so we need to leave 24 hours early to get ahead of it.”
Panic! Change flights. Cancel meetings. Pack bag. Kiss wife.
Thirty hours later, I land in Ísafjör∂ur, northwest Iceland and within half an hour, we set sail.
Our boat is called Arktika. She’s a magnificent 25m Dutch-built, steel-hulled ketch with a traditional gaff rig. A solid seafaring yacht, she’s perfect for expeditions into treacherous Arctic waters, and for our mission to film and photograph polar bears.
We depart 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 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 into the sea, creating mammoth icebergs of awesome proportions. This is the ‘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: the polar bear.
As we near the Greenland shore, the skies are leaden and the icebergs become more frequent. But our early departure has paid off. The forecasted storm we were so desperate to get ahead of has now arrived and 200km astern, bitter 40km winds 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 20km out to sea it’s blowing old boots!
After two full days at sea, we’re keen to stretch our legs so we lower the Zodiac inflatable boat into the water and go ashore to explore an abandoned hunters’ camp. Up until about 20 years ago, this would have been a regular summer base for narwhal hunters from Tassilaaq in the south. But declining numbers of narwhal and strict new regulations on hunting them make the 800km round trip north no longer worthwhile.
The weather is spectacular. With clear blue skies and glassy sea, the temperature soars to an incredible 16˚C. Siggi the skipper has been visiting this area for 20 years and has never experienced such warm weather. The mosquitos love it but there is no evidence of polar bears.
So we move on towards Nansen Fjord, 120km to the north. Back out in the Denmark Strait, the remnants of the storm have created a huge swell and choppy seas, making conditions uncomfortable.
Cold Calling: The Trials and Tribulations of Arctic Exploration in Greenland
Every so often amongst the monstrous icebergs, we spot one of vivid, electric blue. They are quite stunning against the grey-black sky. Most icebergs appear white as they are made from compacted snow and full of tiny air bubbles. Blue ice is essentially melted 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.
Arktika is extremely well suited to this type of expedition. It has two four-berth cabins and two two-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 12 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 and more when we’re at anchor. I’m often 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?
Between the peaks, huge glaciers expel vast quantities of ice into the sea, creating mammoth icebergs of awesome proportions. This is the ‘Forbidden Coast’!
The 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 still gets used sparingly.
The scenery in Nansen Fjord is simply spectacular. The calm sea is dotted with a million icebergs and the last remnants of fog create an everchanging 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, we see bear tracks on the shore, just above the high water line. There’s a real air of excitement now that these magnificent beasts 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 check out the bear tracks. This is risky as bears could be anywhere 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 100m as we motor ashore. To our right, the beach disappears into 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.
This juvenile bear is very curious about our bright red boat. To him, it probably looks like meat but doesn’t smell like it. He puts two huge paws up on the air tank and bounces. He looks like he’s performing CPR!
We rock-hop across the raging whitewater, trying to keep our 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 our inflatable boat, 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.
Suddenly, an ear-splitting gunshot rings out. From Arktika, the skipper has fired a warning shot between the bear and us. I don’t know if it’s the sound of the gunshot or the bullet pinging off the rocks that spooks him, but he immediately runs about 20m uphill – and stops. Another shot sends the bear further up the slope. After the third or fourth round, there is enough space between us and the bear to sprint for the boat. This time, the boots get a proper soaking as we take the direct route across the river!
Arctic Ice-Capades: Ski Touring in the Finnish Arctic
Only when we get there do we realise that, in his juvenile curiosity, the bear has chewed through the front air tank and punctured it. But there is just enough buoyancy in the remaining air tanks to get the four of us off the beach and back to safety. It’s midafternoon before my pulse returns to normal!
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.
Later, we look for more bears – but this time from the safety of Arktika. Two of the crew go up the rigging and spot while another stands on the bow with binoculars. I’m on the roof of the wheelhouse with the big 600mm lens and a drone is primed and ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Now it’s a waiting game as we meander through the ice floes.
Then there’s a shout from the bow. “Bear in the water, dead ahead!”
Skipper Siggi throttles back so we don’t get too close. In seconds, the drone is airborne and tracking him down. I locate the bear through the big lens and… oh my God he’s huge! This is fantastic.
He turns his head towards us, giving a slight snort of annoyance. The drone is getting fantastic footage as I snap away. At least on this occasion, I have time to fully appreciate what a magnificent beast he is.
Not wanting to stress the bear, we track him for no more than five 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 in warning. 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 has no doubt been in many scrapes over the years. It’s amazing to see these magnificent beasts in their natural habitat.
That night we anchor in another small, sheltered bay. In the morning we’ll go ashore again and see what more we can find.
Before the Zodiac even 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 inflatable. We will follow on board Arktika and they will alert us by VHF if they spot anything.
We track him for a short while. Every so often he looks up and snorts at the drone like it’s an irritating mosquito.
A short time later the radio crackles. They’ve spotted a huge bear, 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 an 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 breathtaking beauty. Mission accomplished!
A gentle afternoon breeze blows as 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.
Words & Photos: Adrian van der Lee, www.adrianvanderlee.com, www.instragram.com/avdlphoto
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