I have to say, when I first learned that I would be travelling to the Arctic in June, sunscreen was not one of the first things I added to my packing list. You are in the north; you imagine cold, ice, polar bears, and parkas...Sunburns are not the first thing that come to mind. However, I was grateful for the advice of the good folks at National Geographic and Lindblad because this morning I woke up to our first sunny, incredibly bright day.
I began the day by hanging out on the bow with Ellen, messing around with my camera and enjoying the sun. Michael S. Nolan, one of the photographers, joined us and answered questions about the seals we could see from a great distance out on the ice. We are now in the midst of pack ice and Sam, our on-board piano maestro from New York, just came by and told me that we are only 10' from the North Pole. We spent a large part of the morning observing a bearded seal from the bow of the ship. It was awesome, and I was able to stand by Michael, who helped me adjust the light meter on my camera. He got after me when I started wiping off my lens with my gloves, but I think we are still friends. We left the seal behind and listened to a talk from Carls-Erik, one of the naturalists, about the environmental history of Svalbard and I am now sitting up in the observation deck, getting overheated (never thought I would say that on this trip either) in the incredibly bright sun; thank goodness I packed and put on sunscreen.
I am amazed by the beauty around me, the stark emptiness of the place that is paradoxically teeming with life that is so complex and bent on survival. The isolated lives of some of polar bears and seals is strange to think about from a human perspective: much of our survival depends on community, a poignant contrast to the lives of these incredibly adapted animals that spend a large part of their lives alone on the ice.
While I try to process all that I am learning, I am also equally overwhelmed by the fact that I am able to be in this beautiful, yet deadly environment. When I hear more about the trappers and whalers that first came here in the 17th century I am amazed at their bravery and resourcefulness. They explored this place and had the skills necessary to survive, something that is getting lost in a technology saturated society that is knowledgeable about virtual worlds and realities, but ignorant of the living world around it.
In the 21st century I fear that we have become entitled cowards who want to control the natural world, yet are outraged and surprised when it overcomes us. At the same time, our planet is changed and destroyed, sometimes permanently, by human impact.
What have we lost, and can we ever get it back?