Our last full day out at sea was stunning with natural beauty and wonder. We spent the morning on our final zodiac cruises in Fuglefjorden, a bay with three magnificent glaciers. It was a gorgeous, gorgeous morning with still water and fairly warm temperatures. The ice was intensely beautiful, vibrant with the myriad of hues of blue. Twice, we heard the rumble before we turned to see ice sheering off the face of a glacier, crashing into the water. There were jagged peaks on the tops of the glaciers, fog that made the scene surreal and charming, an ice and snow bridge that captivated us, the Arctic palette of grey, white and blue that is now etched in my soul, and seals, including a juvenile with its mother. This morning was pure joy.
That afternoon, we sailed west, towards the continental shelf in hopes of seeing whales. In open, choppy waters, we were alerted to movement in the water and we were stunned by a pod of about 30 white-beaked dolphins in addition to a pod of about 10 fin whales. Fin whales are fast, considered to be the greyhounds of the sea. The sea was rolling, the ship was moving, and we watched these glorious beasts before and around us on the bow. It was challenging to take photos with the movement, blowing snow, bitter wind, and with the gray, sleek bodies of dolphins and whales blending in with the gray waters. I finally stopped trying and embraced the moment. I observed the slope and curves of dolphins right under the bow, racing along with the ship. In the distance, I watched spray plume from whale blow holes, not simultaneously, but more at a primal rhythm - 1---2-3-4--5--6-7-8! As we were heading inside to warm up, one of the naturalists asked if I'd gotten good photos of the whales. No, I said. I gave it up and decided to just watch and enjoy. He smiled, gave me a thumbs up and an affirming nod. In the past few weeks, having gone through thousands of expedition photos, I found a few shots I took that are somewhat satisfying to me, likely only because I was there, in those moments. These shots may be imperfect, but they are mine and take me back to that frigid, roiling sea with glorious dolphins and whales before me.
I have no reason to go, except that I have never been, and knowledge is better than ignorance. What better reason could there be for traveling?” ~ Freya Stark, A Winter in Arabia
We were now bee-lining towards Longyearbyen as we'd disembark in the morning. For the first time on the ship, I felt queasy. I took an hour-long nap before getting dressed for the expedition recap and dinner.
The recap was celebratory and joyful.
Captain Leif Skog shared some of the unique aspects of this particular expedition. Having passed the 82 parallel north was a milestone for the ship. We were a little over 400 miles from the North Pole, about 30 hours away. We had been over deep, deep waters in the Arctic Ocean, over water that was over 6,000 feet deep. The Captain said of these milestones, "We couldn't resist." However, he tempered these firsts with a perspective of the conditions of the ice, that the current conditions were like those in a typical mid-August summer. 20 years ago, he said, this part of the Arctic was covered in up to 30 feet thick, mutli-year ice while now its covered in only 1-2 year old thin sea ice.
We laughed and ooohed and ahhhed our way through the guest slideshow before moving to dinner at which point, my stomach was about to revolt. Ironically, I missed the first group dinner in Oslo and the last group dinner on the National Geographic Explorer.
Sleep is so very satisfying when seasickness befalls one. I once heard someone say - the bad news about being seasick is that it won't kill you. I did some packing, crawled into my bunk, and passed out until a little after 2am when a beautiful beam of sunlight woke me up, made me smile, provoked me to sit up and take a picture, and with a smile on my face, I slept my last sleep in the Arctic wonderland, under the Midnight Sun.
Written and posted on 11/23/18.
We were up early, having arrived at Moffen Island, a protected nature preserve deemed by the Norwegian Polar Institute as, "probably the most important resting spot for the walrus in Svalbard." The population of walruses on Svalbard is at about 2,000, having recovered after near extinction due to hunting for ivory. There were an estimated 100 walruses on the island this morning, a strange and wondrous sight to see mounds of animals, those sunbathing solo, along with walruses swimming about along the island shore.
Sailing from one spot to another, in my opinion, is so much of the adventure. The changing landscapes and seascapes of Svalbard never ceased to occupy my attention.
On this day, we were met with gray skies, snow that fell in fluffy flakes, blue skies, and fog. And it was cold, the first day that I used hand warmers when being ashore for a landing where it was fun to zoom in and focus on some found items like beluga whale bones, shells, kelp, and sea urchins.
Dozens of walruses + gorgeous scenes + a landing....quite a day! But that was not even half of it....
Out on the Water, part 1 - Morning Zodiac Cruise
This zodiac cruise was multi-sensory, with up-close encounters with growlers and bergy bits.
Did you know that a piece of floating ice is not an iceberg unless it is over 14 feet above the water line? A growler is a piece of ice less than 3 feet high while fragments of ice smaller than 3' x 6.5' is brash ice. Bergy bits (don't you love that term?) are 3 feet - 13 feet high. Go here for the NOAA for more info about icebergs!
I am a tactile person. Signs in museums or national parks that say DO NOT TOUCH do not only provoke me to really want to touch, they represent a barrier to how I like to experience the world around me. Being able to touch bergy bits was incredibly fun and satisfying. Licking one, well, that was just bonus (first, my tongue did not stick to the ice; second, the first lick tasted salty and the second lick tasted fresh; third, I highly recommend licking a bergy bit when you get the chance.)
We zoomed around the bay, weaving through brash ice, weaving through growlers and bergy bits that were over 10,000 years old with three glaciers including Monacobreen, around us.
This hour on the water was so very beautiful.
Exhilarated and red-cheeked, I loved this experience. It was cold and fresh and, well, it was wonderful.
We returned to the ship, sloshing our boots in bleach at the decontamination station before re-entering the mudroom. Chilled but happy, I pealed off my gloves and took off my life jacket and waterproof pants. I pulled off my boots and returned to my sneakers. Out of my parka, I stored my boots and pants in my assigned locker then headed for a quick stop in our cabin before heading up to lunch.
Out on the Water, Part 2 - Afternoon Kayaking
This afternoon we were anchored in Liefdefjorden, where the waters were calm - perfect conditions for kayaking.
I'd been looking forward to this for months and it was such a lovely, lovely experience with more quiet than I had remembered throughout the entire expedition. The water looks dark from above and when looking across, but being a foot away from the surface, I could see how clear the water was. I could see strands of kelp reaching towards the surface. With the help and fortitude of the two divers on ship, we were able to see the world below the surface, when they would share the surprisingly, provocatively colorful underwater world. From my vantage point, on a yellow kayak, I was mindful of the color palette of the Arctic under the Midnight Sun- white, brown, black, grey, blue, green, and gold.
Here's a little video about my experiences on the water.
Out on the Water, Part 3 - The Polar Plunge
I had months to prepare for this. It wasn't that I was afraid....I just wasn't especially fond of thinking about jumping off of a perfectly dry, non-sinking ship into frigid water.
With the still waters, it was about a 20 minute turn around from kayaking to plunging. I rushed to our cabin to get dressed - I had planned this outfit - yoga pants and my Nat Geo Educator t-shirt. I walked down to the mudroom in flip flops where it was a party with music and shivering people who hadn't even gotten into the water yet and nervous laughter, building excitement and infusing energy to will myself out of my flip flops, setting my glasses on the counter before I passed through the mudroom door, down the cold metal stairs, and to the doorway between the ship and everything beyond the ship. I surveyed the scene - the doctor was out there. Good. Lots of strong, healthy men who looked like they were paid to jump in after us if we didn't resurface in a timely fashion. I watched as the brave souls before me launched themselves out into the water - they stepped into the floor of the zodiac and then onto the edge of the zodiac and then they jumped.
I remember standing there on the edge of the zodiac and someone pointing out where the photographer was.
"Jump over there!"
Shaking my head.....no no no no no no no...nope...no way......and then I thought of my student Jorge and all of my students and of my daughter who would be so delighted that I did it. Esta loca, Ms.
So, I jumped.
I remember the shock of the cold forced me to inhale and I recall the taste of the briny water. I remember opening my eyes and looking up towards the surface - I remember the foamy white and hues of blue and green.
I swam over to the platform where those same strong, healthy men were paid to pull people like me out of the water like a beached seal. I was grateful.
Shi-shi-shivering back into the ship, up those metal stairs, back into the mudroom where people clapped and cheered each other. I was offered a shot - Patrik called it a "defibrillator" - but I happily accepted a dry towel and a cup of hot chocolate.
A warm shower, dry clothes - I warmed up much faster than I thought I would. I felt like a million bucks! My skin was red and tingly. I was coughing up sea water for about half an hour. I was satisfied and thrilled, joyful and feeling a kinship and connection to the other 23 guests, 5 crew, and 3 staff who jumped into the 29 degree water that afternoon.
It was one of the best days.
Photos by Lindblad Expeditions
Written and posted on 11/22/18
For each photo set below, I recommend clicking on the first photo for a pop out window with larger photos and then click the arrow on the right to scroll through the series.
The bear and walrus encounter
I have honestly been thinking about how to share this story for the past six months. I mean, how do you adequately tell the story of a polar bear + walrus encounter? I think photos tell this story the best. And maybe that's where a bit of my angst arises. You see, the day before, after our on-land excursion, my camera fell, lens down, in the ship's mudroom. I sat in our cabin for awhile after that, sitting with my broken camera in disbelief. I cried a bit, wandered around the Global Gallery with delusional thoughts of miraculously finding a comparable camera to mine for like, um, 100 bucks. I ran into a travel mate and told him my sad news. It helped to share my news with a fellow photography-lover. I knew he'd understand my pain. Then, I went to find the photo guy on board and he outfitted me with a Canon PowerShot SX60 HS, not a bad camera at all, but the 200-400mm lens I'd rented for my Fujifim camera was now rendered irrelevant and the comfort of my own beloved camera had been crushed on that cold, metal floor.
So, while witnessing this incredible, indelible polar bear + walrus encounter, I was using a foreign point and shoot (albeit, with a pretty kick-ass zoom.) This was a hard pill to swallow, and I honestly was reluctant to look closely at these photos because of how vulnerable, awkward, and disappointed I felt without my camera. Over the next couple of days on ship, as I reconciled with my broken camera, broken 360 camera, broken luggage tag, broken necklace, temporarily fritzy- iPhone, broken pencil bag zipper, and, alas, an easily-fixed but broken harness tie on the binoculars I'd borrowed, I had no choice but to put it into proper perspective, get over it, and just move on.
OK - back to the polar bear + walrus story.
We were alerted to a polar bear and promptly raced to bundle up and assume a spot on deck. Standing on the bow, the bear was at ten o'clock. At two o'clock were two walruses. Over the course of 30-40 minutes, we watched the bear meander and traverse ice flows in the direction of the walrus, getting closer and closer and closer. Naturalists on deck were astounded, having never seen anything like this with their own eyes.
It was riveting. What was about to happen?!?
The walruses seemed pretty non-pulsed even while our human hearts were racing, until finally the bear’s proximity provoked one walrus to lift its head for a more direct look. As the bear gained ground, the walruses sat up, exposing their imposing, impressive tusks.
The bear pounced!
Postures were drawn, and I wonder about the noises the walruses might have made to warn the bear that his was a losing battle. The bear circled the walruses and must have assessed its own folly in this endeavor before it began to amble away.
The bear never had a chance. Talking through this extraordinary encounter later, the naturalists plotted out why the bear's retreat was not only smart, it was possibly the key to not being critically injured. First, it was estimated that those walruses weighed up to 2,000 pounds each, hundreds of pounds more than this adolescent bear. Second, had the bear tried to bite into a walrus, it would not have been able to sink its teeth far into the tough, thick skin. And then there are the tusks. Long, sharp, lethal tusks that could seriously hurt or even kill a polar bear.
We watched the walruses watch the bear retreat before they resumed their prone posture, and, in my narrative of this encounter, they held their bellies and laughed at this silly bear.
Other bear antics
We watched the bear for a long while after he had been schooled by the walruses. He did not walk toward us; at best, he walked parallel to our position, but, over time, he edged further and further away until was was blending into the landscape. We watched him walk and leap over ice floes. We giggled as he threw himself onto his back and rolled in the snow, offering a definitive view for the naturalists to definitely announce that this bear was, indeed, male.
I'd gone through much of these photos in these past months, but the gift of this Thanksgiving-week deep dive back into my Arctic experiences was the time I took to go through each and every photograph. Some were obviously slated for the trash; many were similar iterations of other iterations; many were familiar as I'd plucked them from the masses early on as they stood out because of their beauty or because of the intense emotional response it would illicit from my heart. But, oh, there were so many surprises. So many photographs I'd overlooked. I had not realized I captured this beautiful, bold, ego-bruised but still busy bear leaping and landing on floating ice. I did not know that I caught him rolling in the snow twice, including a picture of his bear butt in the air! And I had missed the marvelous progression of the bear walking to the edge of the ice, sitting down, sprawling onto the ice, and then slipping into the water for a swim. Reliving the experience through these images while sitting in my pajamas on Thanksgiving morning has been enchanting and, quite frankly, miraculous, to truly comprehend just part of the beauty, fortitude, fragility, and resilience of life on our planet.
I may never recover from this Wonder-Induced ADD.
The series of photos that makes me giggle every time
The other series of photos that makes me giggle every time
We were up a few hours later to see a ringed seal lounging on the ice before it slid back into the sea.
We made another landing after breakfast on the northern coast of Vindbukta, Nordaustlandet Island. It was a cold, windy, and bright day despite the grew skies. In fact, I got a bit sunburned. Again, the stark wild of the Arctic was before us. On shore, we encountered two reindeer and birds, fox tracks, bones and scat. There was an abundance of Siberian driftwood on the beach, and we even happened upon lichen, its vibrant green so reaffirming of life in this harsh environment.
We also encountered plastic, the artificial human remnants assaulting and obscene in this otherwise pristine wilderness.
The day I left home on this expedition, National Geographic launched its Planet or Plastic? campaign. Read more and take the pledge to reduce their use of single-use plastic here - https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environme…/plasticpledge/
Written on July 9 and posted on 11/19/18.
On May 20 we crossed 80° North and that evening during the day's recap, the plan for the next day was to travel north north north, possibly to 81°. We buzzed with excitement at the novelty, the wonder of it all, the Facebook post we'd ultimately write. And then the sobering truth was illuminated - the sea ice concentration in the Arctic is low. NASA reported, "Every year, the sea ice cover blanketing the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas thickens and expands during the fall and winter, reaching its maximum yearly extent sometime between late February and early April. The ice then thins and shrinks during the spring and summer until it reaches its annual minimum extent in September. Arctic sea ice has been declining both during the growing and melting seasons in recent decades."
The ice that should be there - it's not there.
24 hours later, we'd crossed 82°. An announcement was made while we were finishing up dinner, and we politely if not urgently finished dessert, rushed to don coats and hats, and headed to the bow of the ship to mark the occasion. I celebrated the moment with and for my students - past, present, and future - who are the reason why I was standing there in the Arctic Ocean overwhelmed with wonder and experiencing what I called, "wonder-induced ADD."
Over these days, the ship's captain and naturalists reflected on the visceral, stunning, and seemingly irreversible vanishing of ice they have witnessed over the past 20 years. Their stories are personal and poignant.
I've come to know that celebration is often married to mourning, and in their stories I heard the nuance of this complicated and conjoined set of emotions.
So while I am astounded and grateful and pretty-damned giddy that we crossed this arbitrary yet potent invisible line, I know - we know - that we should not be on a ship in the third week of May in that part of the Arctic.
Read more about the low sea ice in the Arctic this year at
Written and posted on 11/21/18.
Reflecting on this day, I realized that it was void of wildlife sightings. The starkness of the Arctic was on full display in the most visceral way. We were heading north, making a landing on Phippsøya Island on the Sjuoyane archipelago, the northern most set of islands in Svalbard. It lightly snowed for much of the day as we headed out towards open sea. At 3:02pm, while sitting in a lecture on Svalbard with naturalist Carl Erik, we crossed the 81 parallel north.
It was cold on deck, but the ice had a green hue and the quality and quantity of ice was changing. I headed inside for a special dinner in the Chart Room with Susan Goldberg, Editor In Chief of National Geographic Magazine, her husband Geoff, my teacher travel mate, and other guests. It was a true honor and absolute delight to meet such extraordinary people. It was an intimate dinner with conversation that made my heart beat with hope, positivity, and possibility about humanity. I especially loved hearing the story of when Susan and Geoff met up with Paul Salopek on his epic Out of Eden walk.
Geoff and I had our iPhones out, watching the altimeter as we sailed towards 82 degrees. Around 9:40pm - as we were finishing dessert - an announcement was made that we were at 82 degrees and almost to our northernmost point on this expedition. We headed to get jackets and pictures and met on deck where I took out my SVA flag for a photo to mark this pretty extraordinary occasion. That day, my students - past, present, and future - we were with me in the Arctic. If it weren't for them, I would not have this teacher-life, having had a pretty extraordinary 20-year career (so far.)
I stayed up and out on the deck - with intermittent reprieve on the bridge or the library to warm up - being fully awake, present, and grateful. I finally headed down to our cabin after 2am, tired by not too sleepy, my head and heart so full of wonder.
This is what I saw looking out our port hole a little after 2am, technically on 5.22.18.
We were heading north. Early in the morning, while I was still sleeping (but not too long after the sunbeam woke me up), we passed 80 degrees north latitude. The 80th parallel north passes through only four countries - Norway (Svalbard), Russia, Canada and Greenland. It passes through the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans in addition to the Barents, Kara, and Laptev Seas. It is surreal to be so far north, in a place where not too many people get to visit.
Besides the birds and the polar bear, we encountered four walruses and we actually spotted another bear that was just too far away and was walking away from us. The wildlife was spectacular but there was more to it - our day was dazzling with ice as we continued to head north. I spent many hours in the cold that afternoon and into the night outside on deck, with intermittent reprieve on the bridge or chart room to warm up and bundle back up for more quiet. More wonder.
It was so much to take in and I've decided to not whittle down the selection of photos I share too much. If you dare to scroll down, you'll see 35+ photos of ice. Lots of ice. Gorgeous Arctic ice.
May 20 - 6 months ago - after an exhilarating morning at the bird cliff, the plan was to go ashore for some exploration on land. A polar bear thwarted those plans.
We could not have been more thrilled.
Watching this magnificent animal - The King of the Arctic - was one of the highlights of my life much less as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. I remember distinct moments of delight and wonder with snow lightly falling. I remember juggling my camera with the rented 400mm lens (the bear not too close) and the pair of binoculars that a charming, generous couple from Arkansas let me use for the entire expedition.
One of the true wonders of this experience was that we had time. Time to take hundreds of photographs (literally, gulp), but, more importantly, time to watch and to be in the moment. The binoculars were a game-changer. I got to revel in the details of the bear's fur and furry paws. When it was swimming, I watched its nose bop up and down over. And when it was ready to get out of the water, as it began to lift its body back onto the snowy bluff, I wavered. Do I switch to my camera to capture this? Will I miss the moment if I do?
I stayed in the moment, without photographic evidence. Without regret because I remember the bottom of its sizeable paws with its black pads and how the water didn't drip off the paws, it flowed off in a steady stream from its waterproof fur. The bear stepped up and out of the water, one paw at a time, effortlessly and with grace. I expected it to shake - much like our dog would after a bath or after being caught in the rain - but it didn't. It just kept walking and we kept watching until it was time to go scout a new location for a landing.
I've since used these photos and these stories with my students in our reading intervention class. We've spent the last couple of months exploring the Arctic. I'm so grateful to these 6th graders for my daily excursion back to this place and back to this bear.
Written and posted on May 19, 2018
The sun does not set in the Arctic from April 20 - August 22.
Think about that. 24-hour light! (And, let's not think about the 4 months of complete darkness over the winter months.)
Every night when I went to bed, I took a picture out the port hole in our cabin. I'd also take a screen shot of my iPhone as a time stamp.
I had taken this video a minute before.
We slept with the port hole door open. While it wasn't particularly conducive for solid sleep, I appreciated the novelty of the Midnight Sun. (When I was in Finland and we were at 22 hours of light in May, I would go for a walk at 11pm and then I would don an eye mask because I was racing to finish my Fulbright capstone project and I needed sleep!)
On this expedition, I was getting 5-7 hours of sleep each night, but since it was just a week out at sea, I didn't mind so much.
On this night, I was asleep before midnight only to be woken up a few hours later by this....
As a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, I traveled to Svalbard in May 2018! Thanks to Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic for supporting teachers and encouraging us to be explorers.
Some of the text shared here was written in my journal or through social media posts while I was on expedition.
But much of the writing shared here was written in the months following my return home.
I had this idea that I would embark on my journey and, in real time, reflect and write and create blog posts and videos and online albums and photo books and postcards. I had fantasies of sitting in the ship's library with my pen and notebook, collecting and composing what I'd seen and experienced and manifesting deep, profound thoughts.
Yeah. That didn't happen.
My experience was so intense, so surreal, that I had difficulty finding adequate words to describe it all. Silly, inconsequential, and unsatisfying words were all I had - great, amazing, unbelievable, incredible. At the end of each day I would try. After dinner, somewhere between 10pm and midnight, I'd make my way up to the library to write. But I would get distracted. The large, glorious, gorgeous windows were too inviting and each moment was unique. The clouds were shifting, the water was moving, the ship was in motion, the ice upon the water was drifting. Each and every moment was unique.
My eyes were up and wide open. I was outside on the deck feeling the cold air and the lightly falling snow on my face. Or I was sitting on the bridge, snuggled in warmth, with a pair of binoculars looking looking looking. Oh, I tried to shift my thinking to writing something more than a bulleted list, but I just couldn't pull it off.
To put it simply, I couldn't focus.
I coined my condition Wonder-Induced ADD.
It is a beautiful affliction to have.
This blog is dedicated to my aunt, Tina Chavez, who is always my biggest fan and supporter. When I told her about my expedition to the Arctic, she asked, "So, when do you go on the Polar Bear Express?"
She also told me to run fast from the polar bears, but naming this blog "Run, Jen, Run!" isn't as charming as calling it "The Polar Bear Express."