The Jewel of the Arctic


11 August 2013

We had seen almost nothing. The Russian archipelago of Franz Josef had hidden her beauty under a veil of fog when we first met.

The base of Nagurskaya on the island of Alexandra – headquarters of the nature reserve –  gave us an official idea of the value of this gem. But we had to befriend the park rangers in order to have the doors to this stunning world open for us. As if by magic, the sun came out and the jewel of the Arctic shone before us, with breathtaking glaciers, majestic polar bears and sublime skies

It all started with a diabolical device – half 4-wheel-drive, half Zodiac. One of the park rangers from the Nagurskaya base proposed to continue the tour of Alexandra Island by sea. The land tour had not satisfied our thirst for discovery, so we quickly climb into the semi-rigid wheeled vehicle. After following a bumpy dirt road, the vehicle drives into the sea. We go around one iceberg, then another.  Then our eyes focus on a bright point on the horizon. A ray of sunlight pierces the thick clouds and generously floods a glacier-covered cliff. Unable to communicate, we point at this distant target. We hardly have time to put away our cameras and don our gloves and hats – the Russian pilot launches the vehicle at full speed on the waves. The velocity mixed with the cold nearly make us regret our whim, we are feeling so numb. But gradually the bright spot takes form, and a gigantic, steep ice cliff looms in front of us, gleaming in the sun, about 100 meters high. We feel ridiculously small at the foot of this monumental work of nature. How many years did it take to create this ice giant ? Glaciers arise from the accumulation of snow crystals. Then, following contact with sea water, sunlight and the mechanical stresses of ice masses, cracks form, releasing huge blocks of ice into the water: icebergs. The show is grandiose, of almost indescribable beauty.
This was only the beginning of a memorable adventure. In the early morning, Tara leaves Alexandra Land to flirt with the neighboring islands. As often in the Arctic, the sun has a hard time coming out. Sailing along the glaciers, we see a polar bear walking on a summit. The very large animal is only a tiny yellowish speck in the middle of this white immensity. (The bear appears to have a yellowish tint  because microscopic algae trapped inside tiny bubbles cling to its fur.)

At midday the sun finally appears, making the pieces of ice floating on the sea look like diamonds. Tara continues her route, playing hide-and-seek among the icebergs. Ephemeral sculptures with varied forms. Cubist or baroque styles – the genres and eras intersect in this maritime exhibition. As if jealous of these marvels of ice, the sky and the land try to compete. The sky shows off lenticular clouds, white ovals dotting the blue background. The land exhibits basalt columns, repetitive vertical crystals formed by the cooling of volcanic lava. But behind the rocks, a bear appears. Peaceful, the master of the Arctic approaches the shore. Polar bears usually live on the ice pack (increasingly farther north because of global warming), but it is not uncommon to find them on land in this region, because the Franz Josef Islands are among their breeding and wintering grounds.  After a long moment standing with his legs in the water, the bear throws himself into the sea, probably in search of a more promising hunting ground.    We too resume our journey, in search of a new territory to explore, as enchanting as this one.

Anna Garcia Deniaud
Les animaux des pôles, by Fabrice Genevois
Les pôles en question, by Remy Marion