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2010 Svalbard Expedition
In September 2010 Matt Clark of United Visual Artists travelled with the arts and climate science foundation Cape Farewell to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Sailing aboard 100-year-old schooner The Noorderlicht, Matt’s trip brought him into contact with scientists, poets, musicians and polar bears. He saw vast tundra, monochromatic rainbows and huge chunks of ice falling from calving glaciers.
The National Maritime Museum caught up with installation artist Matt Clark to find out about his experience.
The Cape Farewell crew flew in from Russia, Germany, Canada and the UK to meet in Longyearbyen, the frontier capital of Svalbard. Matt recalls his first impressions of Longyearbyen: ‘It was a long journey to Longyearbyen and the flights were delayed so we arrived in at 3.00 am. The first morning we awoke to quite bleak surroundings, with a low level fog hanging over the town adding to a sense of claustrophobia.’
Aboard the Noordelicht
The next day, 10 September, was the long-anticipated day of embarking aboard the Noordelicht, and Matt was placed in a room with DJ Spooky towards the front of the boat.
‘When we took our bags on board the boat everyone was very excited. The ship itself was much more comfortable than I expected but the cabins were much smaller than I imagined. The room I shared was around 8ft by 5ft wide which included bunks and all of our baggage – it was small.’
Trygghamna Bay, Isfjorden
After sailing out of Longyearbyen they overnighted at Ny Londagfjord before sailing next day to Trygghamna Bay on the northern side of the mouth of Isfjorden. Here the Noordelicht weighed anchor and the crew explored the shore.
On visiting the bay Matt was most struck by the atmospherics taking place as fog quickly descended, obscuring the nearby Noordelicht from sight. Up In the sky Matt spotted an unusual rainbow: ‘I noticed a natural phenomenon that I have never seen before, a monochromatic rainbow. This far north, water droplets in the air freeze so the light reflects rather than refracts, unlike a regular rainbow. As the fog cleared, fragments of the landscape reappeared in the most unexpected ways. Mountain tops jumped out of the sky hovering impossibly, taking us all by surprise.’
Ny Alesund International Research Station
The team continued on their journey, sailing out of Isfjorden up the strait between Prins Karls Forland and Spitsbergen. The strait offered them a view of the dramatic mountainous landscapes of the archipelago carved over centuries by the movements of the many glaciers.
Matt recalls visiting Oyane Glacier en route ‘It was very beautiful. We spent the whole day there exploring the blue ice and crevasses of the glacier.’
At Ny Alesund the crew disembarked to visit the international research station. The Atmospheric monitoring station there has found that since 1988 the levels of carbon dioxide have increased by more than 8%, with methane (20 times more potent than CO2) still on the rise – the worry being that it is coming from the melting permafrost.
It wasn’t long after leaving Ny Alesund on 13 September that the crew were treated to a rare sighting of two blue whales. The mother and calf were moving down the fjord side by side, coming to the surface to breathe with the distinctive blow of air out of their blowholes causing a whooshing noise and a fine spray. These endangered animals are the largest creatures ever to have lived on Earth.
Matt like the rest of the crew grabbed his camera and the whales had their five minutes of fame.
Polar bear prints
After departing Ny Alesund they made a stop at Magdalene Bay to visit the Gullybryn Glacier. On landing at the beach they spotted their first sign of a polar bear – large prints in the sand. Matt recalls ‘there was evidence of polar bears all over the place, the footprints in the sand – oh, and polar bear poo.’
Matt learned how dangerous polar bears can be prior to the trip. ‘Polar bears are huge, the biggest land-based carnivore and the only one known to actively hunt man. Before I left we joked about me getting eaten by a polar bear. But I think it was watching the “Grizzly Man” documentary that made me nervous.’
The crew were taken to a wooden cross marking the spot where a Swedish explorer had been killed by a polar bear. He had been camping with two friends and was attacked by a polar bear which jumped on him from behind a rock. Since that incident it has been a legal requirement for all visitors to Svalbard to be accompanied by someone with a rifle.
Stuck in the ice
It was plain sailing on the first few days of the voyage, but as they headed closer to the arctic ice edge to the north of the archipelago they found themselves in a tricky situation.
‘It was in Kinnevika Bay that we got stuck. I woke up to the sounds of ice bumping and grinding into the hull in the early hours of the morning as the captain tried to use the night exit to leave the bay. They couldn’t get out so we tried again later on at around 3pm. As we tried to sail through the ice I sat on the bow and watched the water below filling with ice. Eventually we had to radio for a rescue helicopter to be despatched from Longyearbyen, as we were stuck in ice and floating towards some rocks.’
The crew were instructed to don warm clothes and go up on deck await the arrival of the rescue helicopter to airlift them to safety. But they weren’t alone. Watching from the ice near to the boat sniffing the air was an interested polar bear. After a while this bear was joined by two others.
‘It was a little unnerving. We joked that if we became surrounded by 50 hungry polar bears we could get the food supplies and lock ourselves in the toilet. Fortunately it didn’t come to that and we managed to sail free just 10 minutes before the helicopter came into view.’
This would mark the start of a frustrating few days for the crew trying unsuccessfully to pass down the strait ‘Hinlopenstretet’ to reach the colder eastern side of the archipelago. After several days of being defeated by the ice they decided to stop trying and instead use the remaining time to visit places on West Spitsbergen.
First stop was Mossel Bay where the crew dined with a husband and wife team of German scientists. Matt recalls some advice he was given: ‘I was told if you encounter a polar bear at close range and don’t have a gun, whatever you do don’t run away and don’t shout at it. Instead stare it in the eye, then pick up two stones and click them together. This mimics the noise that older polar bears make clicking their teeth together to show authority over younger bears.’
Matt talked at length to the scientists onboard and found out more about what Simon Boxall and Debora Igesias Rodrigues from Southampton Oceanographic Centre were up to.
‘Debora is looking at marine micro-organisms that make chalk shells and in so doing use carbon from the ocean. These creatures form the biggest carbon filter on earth but with ocean acidification increasing due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere there is a worry that this system is becoming overloaded.'
'We stopped at points so Debora could take samples of pteropods from the Arctic Ocean to see the effects that differing acid levels have on them. Losing this system would have effects worldwide and could potentially increase global warming effects.’
Matt recalls Simon Boxall took the crew out into deeper water. ‘We headed right out to sea and it was a very choppy couple of days in the open ocean. Some people got really seasick but we had to go so Simon could take measurements of the West Spitsbergen current, an extension of the Gulf stream which brings warm water all the way up past Northern Europe and into the Arctic. It’s a really important system that pumps warm water up past the UK and gives us our mild climate.’
Reflecting on the trip, Matt refers to his time onboard the Noordelicht fondly: ‘I developed a love of sailing I never had before’. He was amazed by the surreal, dreamlike quality of the arctic vistas which slowly drew him in and over time he found that the constraints of modern life fell away.
‘The camaraderie amongst the crew was great and any fears I had about being with so many people I didn’t know were largely unfounded. But with that said I did notice that I found the last few days more difficult. Sharing a room and every waking moment in a group over 3 weeks is fun but also challenging.’
On the voyage Matt filmed and photographed things that captured his imagination, and he has subsequently used the impressions he formed to inform the design of High Arctic, an immersive digital exhibition experience for the National Maritime Museum.