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Witnessing Change and Searching for Wilderness: Circumnavigating the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Circle

In August 2008, I was fortunate enough to join an expedition ship on a circumnavigation of the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Circle, going as far north as 81⁰N. I was on a personal mission to experience and celebrate this Arctic wilderness. Life on a grand scale in this far away place of rock and ice. The exhilaration we felt on our first landing demonstrated the majesty of this remote wilderness with teeth, tusks and claws. Big sky country that commands your attention, keeps you cold, and teaches you many lessons. This was indeed a place of “ultimate consequences” where if anything serious happened to us we were on our own. Just the weather could kill you in a matter of minutes. Read here about personal discoveries in the Arctic wilderness and the growing realization that this is a place in decline with receding, ever thinner pack ice, eroding glaciers, widespread pollution, declining wildlife numbers, continued hunting, and expanding mining operations and oil/gas exploration. If we do not fundamentally change the way in which we value wilderness areas and prioritize the protection of the ecosystems that support them, we are going to lose this vast Arctic wilderness and others around the world to the ravages of climate change, development and exploitation in the next 10-15 years…


Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
A vision of the arctic ocean as we fly into Longyearbyen. Clouds arranged over the ocean. The majesty of the Arctic is hard to describe. You need to go there. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
View over a glacier in northern Norway inside the Arctic Circle. Stunning how the angle of the light creates rainbows. Wild country... (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
The Noordelicht sail boat operates in Svalbard and is a unique way in which to appreciate this mighty landscape... (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Stunning rainbow over a glacier. The peace that you feel in the grandeur of the Arctic renders you speechless. One of the harshest, most beautiful places on earth. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Close encounters like this one with a polar bear are common. You do, however, get the sense that man is in control and these animals are in decline. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Settlement outside Longyearbyen on Svalbard. All the bedroom windows have tin foil over the glass to block out nighttime sunlight. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
The view through the portal in our cabin as the expedition ship moved deeper into the pack ice in search of polar bears and whales. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)


Vital statistics and methane gas!

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, sea ice levels in November 2011 were 13% below the average from 1979 to 2000 (see graph below). This was, however, 66,000 square miles above the average for November 2006 – the lowest extent recorded for that month in the satellite data record. Not only are the ice sheets declining as we move towards ice-free summers in the Arctic Circle by 2050, unprecedented plumes of methane gas bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean on massive scale. Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Russian scientist, Dr Semiletov, released their findings for the first time last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. His group estimates that there are hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost. The absence of sea-ice in summer coupled with rising temperatures across the region may suddenly release this reservoir of methane into the atmosphere leading to rapid and severe climate change. Even without methane gas the Arctic is changing rapidly and remnant populations of Arctic wildlife are struggling to adjust to changing patterns. This is a wilderness that is having to re-invent itself much too fast to support biodiversity…


National Snow and Ice Data Center
Declining sea-ice in the Arctic Circle may trigger the release of massive reserves of methane gas. (National Snow and Ice Data Center)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Beautiful sun flash over the Arctic Ocean near Rijpfjorden. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa))
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Compacted blue ice becomes exposed as glaciers erode away. These places are larger than life. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)


“Sense of place” in the wilderness

The “sense of place” in the wilderness instantly commands your respect and captivates all of your senses. Suddenly you feel alive, you know exactly your place in this natural place, and every fibre of your being is ready for life as you walk unarmed through this wilderness. Every animal that you encounter is a life-changing experience that makes you feel humbled in this pure, untouched place. You are stressing about all the dangers surrounding you, the polar bear that may be over the rise sleeping, or the freezing cold water below the ice that could kill you in minutes, while the puffin, fox, little auk, polar bear, humpback whale, and walrus are the masterful creatures that live their entire lives, at least seasonally, in this amazing, dangerous wonderland where we sometimes feel out of control and they simple live free and at peace.


I learnt about my sense of place in wilderness during my years living and doing PhD fieldwork in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Unimpeded from the its source in the Angolan highlands to end of the delta itself, this is one of Africa’s last-remaining wilderness areas where the wildlife are still in charge and you can feel it! We have been searching for similar places around Africa and the world ever since…


While living in the United States in 2006, we hiked between the High Sierra camps in Yosemite National Park (California) and rafted the Middle Fork of the Salmon River (Idaho) in pursuit of the sense of place in wilderness. We found “rock and ice” in far away locations that supported remnant wildlife populations. These often breath-taking landscapes were being managed and protected by us for us. As a result it always felt like someone was watching over us and the wildlife at all times. Yes, we can effectively manage landscapes to be beautiful and scenic, but we have no idea how to manage them for balanced biodiversity over a long period of time. Nature takes thousands of years to engineer perfect balance and being in the presence of this untouched perfection creates a spiritual connection to eternity. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Gifford Pinchot, Charles Dudley Warner, Isabella Lucy Bird, Thomas Bewick and Edward Abbey found profound enlightenment in the wilderness, learning from the natural rhythm of nature and their own interactions with wildlife. Wild animals that are proud owners of their own destiny are powerful beings to be around and learn from. An animal, however, that knows you are in control of its destiny gives up and lives until it dies. To save our planet, we need to celebrate real life and that begins in the wilderness with the animals and plants that live there… Let them be free in the wilderness.


By mid-August 2008, I was very excited to board the Akademik Shokalskiy in Longyearbyen and continue my search for that sense of place in the Arctic wilderness. Day-to-day life in the Arctic Circle once made resident peoples, like the Inuit, live completely in-tune with the wild. Simply surviving in this vibrant, untouched place of seasonal abundance under the ever-burning sun and impenetrable darkness and hunger during winter necessitates balance and respect for this wilderness of ultimate consequences. I wanted to identify with the sense of place that they must have felt in this unforgiving and dangerous place by interacting with the animals that became their totems like the reindeer, polar bear and walrus. Every wilderness has its people… and untold stories.


As an African, this expedition was a life-changing experience that included sea-kayaking under the midnight sun, witnessing climate change in action with every glacial carving, watching polar bears hunting on the pack ice, and visiting massive kittiwake, guillemot and little auk breeding colonies. At first glance, the Arctic landscape appeared desolate and lifeless, a frozen wasteland – the most inhospitable place on earth. Perhaps this initial perception was a reaction to not be able to process the information being provided by my senses. The freezing cold headwind on the ship, endless daylight, expansive fjords, imposing snow-capped mountains, glaciers flowing from almighty ice caps, and stark contrasts of red and black lichen-covered rock faces behind rocky, green Arctic tundra, all leave the observer dazed and somewhat shocked on their first day. Perhaps this was the Russian vodka I had the night before? Either way, this was true wilderness… How could it not be?


Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Brünnich's guillemots gathering on floating ice in front of the cliffs they juts jumped off with their offspring. Abundant life at 2am in the morning. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
The Arctic Circle is true big sky country. A place that makes you feel like you can touch the sky and see eternity. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Brünnich's Guillemots living in this frigid place of abundance. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions
An awesome view of a fjord in the Arctic. Most of these bays were covered in glaciers when the last ice maps were completed. (Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions)
Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions
The Arctic region is an icy wonderland that once visited remains with you forever. A point of reference and easiest place to see the ravages of climate change. (Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions)


“Belly Botany” – Amazing Arctic Tundra

Arctic tundra.  Ahhh…Arctic tundra…my new mantra…Arctic…tundra.  Arctic tundra will keep you on your knees for at least three hours the first time you experience it, on your knees photographing and identifying flowering plants, mushrooms, lichens and mosses – “belly botany”. From a distance of 30m, the tundra is grey, rocky and uniform, but on your knees you are overcome by bright colours and intricate architecture on a scale that necessitates a magnifying glass or reversed pair of binoculars. Sunny slopes, good drainage and mature soils produce a lush carpet of flowering plants including a variety of saxifrages, Arctic bluebell, shinleaf and poppies (including the endemic Svalbard poppy). Arctic tundra is the most recently evolved biome on earth, comprising a patchwork mosaic of tough, perennial herbs and one tree, the Arctic willow, all under a few inches in height. Every now and then, you see some independent movement, you look again and you see it, a fly, again, it’s an Arctic bunting, then later, a lemming.  All you’ll ever see is a flash and then they’re gone, hence no photographs this time round.  It seems these creatures have their lives in fast forward trying to cram a year of life into six months of 24-hour daylight.  Whether 6am, 3.30pm or 2.45am, you’ll find insect, bird and beast doing exactly the same thing, moving quickly, and if you’re a bird, making a noise.  Added to this underlying energy, is the underlying threat of the omnipresent polar bear, the undisputed Lord of these lands.  All in all, it can’t be beat, if you like that kind of thing.  Well, I do, and I could spend the rest of my days learning about this fascinating ecosystem.


Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Polar bear walking in the Arctic tundra. This bear has been radio-tagged as part of on-going research. Being on the mainland at this tome of year means that this polar bear will not get onto the pack ice this year. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Arctic tundra with Svalbard reindeer scattered on the hillside. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Tufted saxifrage in the Arctic Tundra. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions
Beautiful flowers appear during summer and compete for the attentions of pollinators. (Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Svalbard poppy in the Arctic Tundra. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Moss Campion in the Arctic Tundra. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Stunning flowering plants abound in the Arctic tundra. Far too many to name in a short visit. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions
The summer in the Arctic tundra brings flowers and pollinators. A stunning spectacle. (Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
There are about 165 species of flowering plants in Svalbard. Relatively high for a group of islands so far north. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)


Life at its harshest – Delicate Arctic deserts

Next, we looked in the Arctic desert to see what we could see… These are terminally dry, cracked, crumbling places, representing one of the harshest environment on earth in which to exist. From a distance Arctic desert appears as a completely uniform, smooth series of hills backing away to the mountains. No signs of ice or water, no green, absolute silence, nothing. Silence, ahhh, silence, the silence of the desert was soul-opening, leaving you exposed and almost emotional. Unexpectedly, the Arctic desert was the hardest to walk on, as the fields of glacial till, crumbling slate hillsides and coarse sandy beaches were covered in lichens, covered to the extent that the landscape was practically held together them, red, black and white, some areas so thick it looked like artificial turf. Every step had to be carefully considered. These lichens take over one hundred years to grow to the size of a dinner plate. What a peaceful place, a place that will make you believe in your connection to this planet.


Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Rock broken up by the rhythmic freezing and thawing at the water's edge. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Moss and lichens abound in the extremely fragile Arctic desert. You really can't walk anywhere without destroying history. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Fragile sedimentary rocks crushed by the receding ice and the passage of time. No artist could create a mosaic quite like this one. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
The complex patchwork mosaic of lichens and mosses in the Arctic desert is mesmerizing. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)


Life on an epic scale – Summer paradise for Arctic birdlife

Out on the open ocean, we were trailed by Northern fulmars that zoomed past the bridge, using the wind shadow and slip stream behind the ship to accelerate past, Tour de France-style. They weren’t feeding, although I am sure one eye was glued to the water, but mainly, their flying seemed to be for the fun of it. They were our permanent companion. As we entered a fjord, the fulmars would peel off back out to deep ocean, as this new spectacle came into view. In well-sheltered fjords, reasonably close to deep water, but far enough from the glacier to have clear blue water, we would find kittiwake, Brunnich’s guillemot, and Little auk colonies. Kittiwake colonies are numbered in tens of thousands, guillemots in hundreds of thousands, and little auks, who are, in some circles, reputed to be the most abundant bird on earth, in their millions. In amongst and between these chaotic, ranting colonies of hundreds of thousands of birds were breeding pairs of Glaucous gulls and black guillemots. On new perfectly flat and uninhabited islands exposed by the receding glaciers, we would find pairs of Arctic terns and sanderlings tending their eggs. Witnessing hundreds of thousands of birds perched on every available ledge, on top of each other, awake 99% of the time, strangely, seems very normal in this grand place. These birds come for one reason, the unrivalled bounty of the Arctic Ocean during summer. The sea literally goes emerald green in the early summer, as green algae proliferate in the 24-hour sunlight. From space the entire ocean literally goes green. Then as the zooplankton devour the algae, the ocean gradually turns bluer and bluer as the summer progresses. The result is a teeming soup, a myriad of copipods, polychaete, amphipod, euphausiids and pteropods, that support these millions of breeding seabirds, the surviving pods of Minke and Beluga whales, and the fish (mostly Arctic cod, white fish and salmonoids) that feed the seven seal species that feed the polar bears that, as a favor, feed the ivory gulls. To complete the circle of life, the Arctic bird colonies, ducklings, and Arctic lemmings feed the Arctic foxes. A frozen wilderness frenetic with life through summer in preparation for the harshest winter on earth, life on the edge.  Or is that?  The brink.


Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Arctic skua standing guard near a nest site. These stunning birds will react instantly to human beings as a potential predator and try and lure you away from the nest. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Northern fulmars were a constant presence next to the ship. Sometimes you felt like you could reach out at touch them. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Common eider flying past the zodiac at top speed. These ducks are abundant and number in the millions. "Eider down" is still a sought after stuffing for pillows and duvets. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Long-tailed duck resting on a small island. Stunning coloration. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Kittiwake flying past the expedition ship. Perfect design for the Arctic. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Like us they are African migrants... Ringed plover on a beach in the Arctic. There is an abundance of life to feed on at the water's edge. Migratory species that goes to Africa during the Arctic winter. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions
Little auks at a breeding colony. These inquisitive little birds are a joy to interact with. Large numbers of Little auks have been killed in several oil-spill incidents. Climate changes is another the reason for the decreasing populations. (Phil Wickens/Quark Expeditions)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Little auks take flight from a communal breeding site in the rocks. Thousands upon thousands of little auks wherever you look... Organized chaos. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Flocks of little auks circle above the expedition ship. Little Auks are considered to be one of the most populous birds on earth with flocks in excess of 4 million auks not uncommon. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Atlantic puffins form part of the national diet in Iceland, where the species does not have legal protection. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Atlantic puffin foraging for the krill and small fish that abound in the summer months. The population of these birds was greatly reduced in the nineteenth century, when they were hunted for meat and eggs. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Rock ptarmigan meat is a popular part of festive meals in Icelandic cuisine. Hunting has been allowed again since 2005, but is restricted to November and only for personal consumption. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Kittiwake colony in a narrow ravine with steep cliffs. More than 250,000 kittiwakes were part of the frenzy. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Thousands of kittiwake arranged along the cliffs. All frantic with the bustle of the breeding season. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Brünnich's guillemots arranged on the cliffs in pairs. The fathers and offspring are preparing to jump off the cliff into the ocean below. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Brünnich's guillemots that have made it onto the ice after jumping off the cliff. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Brünnich's guillemot in the peaceful waters below the cliffs. Fathers find their offspring and start foraging. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Black guillemot launches off a mossy shelf. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Black guillemot enjoying the tranquil waters below the cliffs on this good weather day. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Glaucous gull with chick near the base of the cliffs. Glaucous gulls behave more like eagles preying on unfortunate guillemot chicks. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Ivory gulls are probably the most beautiful scavengers in the world. They live almost exclusively off meat from polar bear kills. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)


Climate change and pollution threaten the Arctic

Although still cleaner than the both the North Sea and the Baltic, traces of contaminant have been found everywhere in the Arctic environment, in the air, in the soil, in the sediments, in the snow and ice, in the salt and fresh water, in fish, birds, mammals, and humans. Persistent organic pollutants, including chemical contaminants from organo-chloride insecticides and industrial chemicals (e.g. oil refineries, mines, etc.), have probably led to the weakening of the immune systems of polar bears, glaucous gulls, Arctic charr and harp seals. In addition, Polychlorinated Biphenyl levels in polar bears around Svalbard are 2-6 times higher than polar bears from Alaska and Canada. Pollution levels cannot be diluted anymore in this vast environment. These animals have a right to a clean environment. At present, we have heavily-exploited wildlife populations with varying degrees of protection that are struggling to recover population numbers due to a failing ecosystem that cannot adjust to changes brought about by man. The dawn of the Anthropocene will be heralded by the collapse of our polar ecosystems, thus handing over the regulation of the global climate to human beings.


The Arctic is not so far north that it is beyond the reach of global sea and air pollution, as well as the dramatic effects of climate change. In fact, due to global warming temperatures increase a staggering 12 times faster at the North Pole than at the equator. Many of the fjords we navigated were uncharted due the fact that they were below 50–100m of ice ten years ago. Cartographers cannot chart the fjords quick enough to keep up with all the receding glaciers. Some of the glaciers had retreated all the way back to their ice caps. Once these are melted away, it takes over a thousand years to re-establish an ice cap, which functions as the beating heart of a glacier. We walked on glaciers on several occasions and had opportunity to listen to these massive ice flows groaning and cracking under the pressure of rising temperatures. On walks we would lay on the glaciers for several minutes at a time to listen to the murmurings below. In these moments of realization we become acutely aware of the role we have played in the catastrophic changes we are witnessing today. It was almost as if the glaciers were telling us a sad tale of a extraordinary species that turned on the earth, resulting in the situation we are in today. Tornadoes, typhoons, hurricanes and monsoons all set new records for frequency and intensity last year and the year before. Lake Chad dried up, sparking the unrest in that region of Africa we see today. We urgently need to make the decision now to protect our last-remaining wilderness area through the turbulent times ahead. We need conservation action and a significant shift to a sustainable future that supports ecological balance. Right now our global barometer is spiking and we need to sit up and take notice.


Steve Hilary
Russian crew member of the Akademik Shokalskiy using ice charts to map our route manually through the fjords and bays around the Svalbard Archipelago. Most of the maps were redundant due to glaciers disappearing from most of the large fjords. (Steve Hilary)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Glacial carving while on the zodiac. Climate change happening right in front of us. Will this glacier be gone one day? (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild bird Trust
Polar bear footprints disappear off into the distance. These bears are struggling to keep up with the melting ice in summer and many end up stranded off the pack ice where the fat-rich seal pups are. (Steve Boyes/Wild bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Every year more ice melts and less is laid down. If the ice disappears in summer, this will completely change the politics of the region. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
This polar bear is stuck in the Arctic tundra of Svalbard and wll have to survive on whale carcasses, birds eggs, and possibly seals. With retreating pack ice more and more polar bears find themselves stranded. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Polar bear swimming below the carving glacier. When the ice disappears, this entire ecosystem will collapse. There have already been several reports of drowned polar bears that could not get to the ice pack up north. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Michael Mills/Birding Africa
Reflection of a polar bear in the icy Arctic waters. They are classified as a vulnerable species now, with 8 of the 19 subpopulations in decline. These enigmatic creatures are still vilified as killers and hunted a a result. What does the future hold for this apex predator? (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)


Plundering the natural resources and leaving nothing

For hundreds of years, the Arctic Ocean has been plundered for its natural resources.  The region is rich in oil, gas, gold and coal resources, but for hundreds of years before the discovery of these hidden resources, the abundant wildlife was the focus and blubber was the business. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of whales, walrus, and seal were rendered into fat, polar bears killed for sport, and Arctic foxes for their luxuriant winter coats. To feed this rush on blubber and fur, whaling boats would stock up on thousands of eggs, Arctic puffins, geese and much else. Just to put the killing into context, the quota for a whaling boat 120 years ago was 50 blue whales or equivalent for the season. Even today, there are trapper’s huts at every walrus haul out, bird colony or secluded bay. Next to two of these huts that we visited were massive piles of walrus and beluga whale bones. Now, at last the whaling, seal clubbing, puffin harvesting, polar bear hunting and Arctic fox trapping are under control, and the Arctic wildlife are trying to recover… There is no doubt that they need our help to do this.


The Arctic wildlife are less capable of recovery due to increasing levels of persistent organic pollutants, rising temperatures and continued development in sensitive ecosystems. Polar bears, for example, are protected, but are now finding it harder to find and catch seals on the thin ice, resulting in females being unable to recover sufficient condition to breed and males wondering hungry into human settlements. Our solution is this problem to either kill them or scare the life out of them by helicopter lifting them back to where they worked so hard to leave. Human beings are consistently selfish and cannot see past the problem of having a polar bear in town. No matter that the bear is starving and soon there will be none left. Have we simply given up? If we protect our wilderness areas and endangered species, will they bounce back? Have we gone too far? Regardless, of the answers, the time is now, we need to change and make decisions towards a new future. Otherwise, one day we will wake up alone, in control of every aspect of our world with no truly free, wild places, few fellow Earth citizens to share the warmth of the sun.


Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Bearded seal on the ice pack. These seals are the primary food source for polar bears and for the Inuit of the Arctic coast. They too are struggling to find suitable food resources and reports of dead seals are increasing. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Polar bear standing up to have a better look at the expedition ship as it breaks through the ice. The global population is estimated to be 20,000 to 25,000, and is declining. Polar bears like this one will probably get the blubber needed for weight gain before hibernation. Others stuck on the mainland will not... (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Arctic foxes reproduce very quickly and often die young. Population levels are thus not seriously impacted by trapping. They are, however, quickly eradicated from many areas where humans are settled. Their fate in the Arctic is directly linked to the success of the birdlife in adjusting to changes brought about by global warming. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Polar bears are constantly on the look out for seal pups. Reduction in sea-ice cover also forces bears to swim longer distances, which further depletes their energy stores and occasionally leads to drowning. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Trapper's hut where the occupants have exclusive right to harvest local wildlife according to their cultural rights as Norwegians. Middens of walrus, beluga whale, fox, polar bear and reindeer bones can always be found near these huts that are scattered throughout the archipelago. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Walrus bones near a trapper's hut. Over the last 200 years the walrus was heavily-exploited for blubber and ivory. Arctic populations are still depressed and fragmented. These giants need or help to bounce back. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Bearded seal visiting us on the kayaks on a wonderfully calm morning. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
About 200 walrus huddling on the beach before going off to feed on abundant beds of clams. Their numbers are very low due to excessive harvesting. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Walrus swimming back to the group on the beach after feeding in the bay. They rely on this ice while giving birth and aggregating in the reproductive period. If the ice were to disappear walrus would have a reduced amount of resting habitat near optimal feeding grounds. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Mounted Arctic fox with full winter coast on display in Longyearbyen. These luxuriant pelts have been sought after around the world for hundreds of years. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
Humpback and Minke whales were all we saw on the expedition. It is estimated that during the 20th century at least 200,000 humpback whales were harvested, thus reducing the global population by over 90%. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Mike Mills/Birding Africa
The Atlantic walrus was almost eradicated by commercial harvesting and now has a remnant population of less than 20,000. (Michael Mills/Birding Africa)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Brünnich's guillemots take flight after being startled by the zodiac. Hopefully one day we will be able to allow ecological balance to return to this Arctic wonderland. What is left today is a remnant, not the grand wilderness it once was in the time of Nansen and Amundsen. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)


Our responsibility as Earth citizens

It our responsibility as a global community of Earth’s citizens to reach out to those who do not have the opportunities we have for reflection on the changes happening around us, on the imminent threat to species survival in our forests, at our poles, in our oceans, and across landscapes. Credit crunch or not, we need to tighten our belts, live with less and give more. I am not necessarily talking about donating money, I am talking about investing your mind power and energy in a new future. We do not need to riot or burn things. We need to act for the good of each other and break the cycle of mistrust that fuels the current destruction of our planet. Think about other people, think about climate change, live a mindful life that recognizes the impact of your decisions and actions.


Dr Steve Boyes

National Geographic Grantee





  1. M
    February 5, 2012, 12:04 pm

    Engrossing article.

    Thank you

  2. Brandon Harvey
    January 4, 2012, 11:02 pm

    Nice article Steve! I remember that trip well. I like the bear shot with the zodiac . . . recognize the hat!

    Cheers Brandon

  3. Biswadeep
    Kolkata, India
    January 4, 2012, 3:29 am

    These pictures are breathtakingly beautiful and changed the way I think about nature. I love nature but now I feel to do something to protect it. Nature loves us and we need to love it too. Keep up the good work gentlemen !

  4. Peter Bennett
    Arizona, USA
    January 3, 2012, 5:32 pm

    Wonderful, touching article. Try getting the name of the ship right, “Noorderlicht” A ship with this task deserves to have it’s name spelled correctly.

    Laferrere, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
    January 3, 2012, 12:20 pm

    Is very good photos, beatiful.

  6. Sher Baz Khan
    January 3, 2012, 11:28 am

    Absolutely beautiful collection.

  7. tatiana
    January 3, 2012, 8:04 am

    ME fascina el articulo y sobre todo las fotografias.. el mundo es hermoso…. gracias

  8. T Aller
    Girdwood, Alaska
    January 3, 2012, 7:14 am

    Thank you for sharing this journey. It is amazing how wrapped up in life’s routines and silly details we become. Our world is so precious, and there are much greater things than ourselves. I appreciate how this article reminded me of my footprint on this planet.

    January 3, 2012, 6:15 am


  10. Oni Basquinas
    January 3, 2012, 5:14 am

    The Arctic Region is really an amazing place to visit and yet it is sad to know that even though the Arctic is very far, other people can still find ways to destroy the silent eco-system of the Arctic Region. Hope we can also find ways to help preserve its beauty.

    Great photos and wonderful article!

  11. M R Hayder
    Riyadh.Saudi Arabia
    January 3, 2012, 1:47 am

    I love my world.Must we care our world.Pls help every one.

  12. Christine van Veggelen
    From Cape Town, working in Abu Dhabi
    January 3, 2012, 12:32 am

    Thank you so very much for this insightful collection and views. You certainly have done your research. Bringing it to the world like this makes one think all over again about where this earth is heading. And it is mostly our own fault…

  13. Joan Windsor
    Sydney, Australia
    January 2, 2012, 11:06 pm

    Thank You Steve for Bringing Back Some Truly Wonderful Memories of the Arctic !I Love your Pictures of the Puffins ! In Desperation i Took a Photo of the One on the Wall in the Bar on the Vavilov !! did get a Couple, but not that good ! Wonderful Photos Love them !!

  14. jamie
    January 2, 2012, 10:05 pm

    so sad to see the declining arctic ecosystem. i have no idea. what can we do to help??

  15. jamie
    January 2, 2012, 10:04 pm

    so sad to see the declining arctic ecosystem. i have no idea what can we do to help??

  16. Tina Nylund
    Miami, Florida
    January 2, 2012, 9:56 pm

    What an excellent adventure. I wish I could have been your assistant. 🙂 The photos are breathtaking. Looking forward to more.

  17. Peter Sharland
    Johannesburg, South Africa
    January 1, 2012, 3:25 am

    Thanks for a wonderful post, Steve. My own feeling is that population growth lies at the heart of all environmental problems. Your plea to us all is so valid. Let’s invest in education.

  18. Tony Blignaut
    Plettenberg Bay South Africa
    December 30, 2011, 10:01 am

    Mind blowing visuals, and very well presented factual content. I can only hope the right people read it and start addressing the problem of global warming. I have sent this fine article to several influential people who are in denial regarding the reality of global warming, and a few that are weighting their decisions on financial ramifications of doing the right thing.
    If the two degree higher mean average is reached, everything I have done throughout my life and at all my sanctuaries will be for naught, as we will then never be able to realise our long term conservation goals if there is no planet to unfold the plans out on.

    Well done Steve, and well done National Geographic.

  19. Graham Cooke
    South Africa
    December 30, 2011, 4:39 am

    Beautiful world thanks for the insight Steve

  20. Teresa Wagner
    California, US
    December 29, 2011, 11:15 pm

    Thank you and God Bless you for all your work. The plea in your last paragraph is so poignant and necessary. Am trying to do my own small part.

  21. Sascha Klemm
    South Africa
    December 29, 2011, 8:06 am

    Great article and fantastic photos, Steve.