Four plastic nights on Bear Island

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Grey and barren. Bear Island wasn’t there. And then it was. Like it had jumped out of the Barents Sea. The Gate to the Arctic Expedition had arrived – and we wanted to make a difference.

(Text and photo: Jon Amtrup)

Bear Island is almost heart shaped and lies at 74 degrees North in the western part of the Barents Sea. The island is part of the Svalbard archipelago. You can definitely say that Willem Barentsz has put his mark on the polar area. The Dutch cartographer and polar explorer got the whole sea named after him. When he, and Jacob van Heemskerck, approached the little island June 10th 1596 a polar bear swam past them. They were discoverers, seized the moment and named the jagged rock Bear Island.

No polar bear swam past us as we sailed towards the southern tip of Bear Island. The chance of seeing a polar bear in summertime is very rare these days. Climate change has made sure of it. The occasional polar bear might venture as far south in the dark winter months when the ice stretches all the way from Svalbard. The hope of fresh seal meat draws them.  A lone polar bear was spotted by the employees on the meteorological station in March 2020. But these observations are becoming fewer and fewer.

But you can never know. So all visitors must have a gun, and know how to use it, at all times when on shore.

The plan

Text and photo: Jon Amtrup

The date of departure was set months in advance. Not a very wise thing to do. Because in the high latitudes the weather is the King, Queen and God. All in the same non present person. But fortune favoured us in the summer months, so when we all were gathered on the dock in Tromsø the weather forecast looked like something we and SY Njord, our 45 feet aluminium expedition sailing boat, could handle. We stocked up food, water and diesel and pushed off the dock. We only had to wait a few hours in Vanvåg, one of the last ports of mainland Norway before the Barents Sea. We had 240 nautical miles ahead of us.

The course was north and the wind was favorable from the south west. Pushing along under a cloudy sky. As soon as mainland Norway disappeared from the horizon behind us, a huge flock of dolphins joined us and the fulmars did low flybys with millimeter precision. Life on board was easy. We did solo watches: Two hours behind the wheel. Eight hours off. We should be arriving at Bear Island very well rested. More on that later.  Now to the mission.

Plastic in the Arctic

The arctic is under pressure. Plastic is found everywhere in the Svalbard area. We found plastic on the beach in Russehamna seconds after we set foot on it. The same story can be told from most beaches around Svalbard. But it’s not only on the beaches. Plastic has been found in the deep waters between Greenland and Svalbard, and in the water and on the seabed in the Barents Sea.

According to the Norwegian Polar Institute, it is estimated to be around 194 pieces of litter per km2. The combined weight is reckoned to be 79,000 tonnes, mostly plastic.

I know these are numbers that are very hard to fathom. They are just big numbers. But in an ideal world the number should be 0. All figures above this are unacceptable. Overconsumption and a massive use of single use plastic are some of the problems. Since 70 % of Earth is Ocean, you can be pretty sure that most plastic that doesn’t end up in a functional waste management facility, will eventually float and sink in the mighty blue.

The “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that has been dominating for years when it comes to dumping plastic, and other harmful and toxic materials, in the ocean can not go on. It only sends the problem to the next generation: Your kids, and their kids and so on.  

Plastic does not magically disappear by itself. It fragments into microplastics and ends up in the ecosystem. Microplastics are pieces less than 5 mm in length. Microplastics are often used in products such as toothpaste, skin products, makeup and other cosmetics. Synthetic fabrics release huge quantities of microplastic fibres when washed, and these particles are often not captured by sewage treatment plants. They end up in the oceans.

Plastic, of all sorts, is harmful for marine life and environment, and degrades coastal areas and ecosystems in general. As sailors and ocean activists we want to make a difference, and the non-profit Gate to the Arctic has seen the day of light.

Gate to the Arctic is focused on making a difference in the Arctic. This year’s expedition: Clean the beaches of Bear Island for marine litter, explore and take samples for scientific use. This year´s expedition is a pilot for the 2022 edition where Gate to the Arctic will take 14-20 young explorers to the same island. The goal is to make them Arctic ambassadors who can inspire and teach their own generation to protect the fragile Arctic. Storytelling, e-learning and science will be key elements to reach a global audience. Gate to the Arctic will cooperate with scientists, organizations, people and companies who want to support the creation of young arctic ambassadors.

  • We will use sailing yachts equipped for the high latitudes as platforms, as this is more cost-efficient, environmentally friendly, flexible and brings the explorers on board closer to nature itself, says Hans Martin Halvorsen, co-founder of Gate to the Arctic and high latitude sailor.

Staying aboard sailboats will contribute to the mindset of low consumption as one has to save water, food and fuel and have to bring waste back to the mainland.

The commitment was strong enough to sail SY Njord 1000 nautical miles from Oslo in the South to Tromsø in the North, where the crew would embark. Then Bear Island a 500 nautical miles tour-retour, and then back along the Norwegian coast. 2500 nautical miles and then some.

The team

Catharina Frostad is a tech savvy ocean activist and co-founder of the successful startup Clean Seas Solution, and Gate to the Arctic. She never gets seasick and can drum up a sea shanty at any time.

Shannon Nagy, our singing marine biologist from Australia. He brought the science and special marine knowledge on board. Always smiling – even when dinner came in retour on the ocean passages.

Syver Flem, happy photographer, videomaker and storyteller. The man to send on deck in bad weather – even when seasick.

Hans Martin Halvorsen, co-founder of Gate to the Arctic and experienced high latitude sailor. Hans-Martin has sailed to Greenland, Svalbard and has special knowledge of Bear island as he was skippering a party of scientists last year and spent one month on the island.

Jon Amtrup, co-founder of Gate to the Arctic, ocean activist, author and skipper of SY Njord.

Tying up and a party

The midnight sun welcomed us as we backed SY Njord into our designated harbor for the stay. Russehamna on the south east side is protected from all directions except from the winds coming from east and south east.

We were hoping that Njord, a god from Norse mythology, from whom the boat is named after, would watch over us. Njord was the god of the sea and winds. But jokes aside; we deployed the anchor with 50 metres of kedge as we backed into the preset stern lines; we had sent a party of two with the dinghy into the anchorage. Then we rigged two lines to shore from the shore, and then 150 meters of line from a big driftwood buried in the rocks on shore to the stern. Over 400 metres of rope, kedge, bolts and slings were to hold us. And it did.

The sun was still shining and we cracked open a bottle when we finally were tied in. It is a good polar tradition to celebrate when anchored. The polar explorers, hunters and gatherers have never needed much excuse to throw a party in the high north. Our surroundings were unreal. Jagged rocks, open ocean in front of us and a flock of  black-legged kittiwakes had finally silently accepted us joining them in Russehamna. The Misery mountain (536 MSL) watched over us, the little red hut on shore looked inviting, but we stayed put. Almost like we didn’t dare to step ashore. Would we find massive amounts of plastic? A polar bear lurking?

The party lasted until early morning. In a world where the sun never sets, the watch has no function. We had breakfast at 13.00 (I think), and ate dinner around the campfire at midnight.

The first clean up

An expedition to the high latitudes is sure to give you a new perspective on life. You have limited resources. Water and diesel can not be refilled. Electricity is produced by diesel, sun and wind. So you have to be moderate with the energy use as well. The food you bring can possibly be supplemented with fish. And all your waste has to be brought back.

You soon find out that your resources are limited. You can’t just pop down to the store to buy butter.

But you also find that you don’t need much to be comfortable. Warm and dry clothes. Nurturing food and good company.

You also discover how much waste you produce. Most things are wrapped in single use plastic. Back on the mainland it, hopefully, all goes in the bin. Up in the high latitudes you have to stowe it and bring it back.

The feeling of remoteness soon hit us. The beauty of what at first glance seemed like a grey landscape soon vanished. Small colorful flowers seemingly grew out of rock, moss with endless variations of green and the grey rock wasn’t grey at all. It had all variations from golden, to brown, to green.

As we walked over to Kvalrossbukta we could hardly believe how fortunate we were to experience this.

  • This is just breathtaking, and we get to experience it. This shows how important it is to say yes when chances like this comes our way. No, gets you nowhere, says Catharina Frostad.

Say yes to the easy life

Day two arrived with a gale from the west. Our mooring lines held and we went fishing. 20 seconds after the hooks went in the water we had five cods on. Dinner for two days was secured. The fishing grounds around Bear Island are rich – but we didn’t think the dinner assignments would be that quick.

Later on we dissected one of the two seagulls we found dead on the beach. The plan was to dissect both, but the polar fox took the other. He probably has it buried somewhere so that he has food for the coming winter.

The marine biologist sharpened the knife and went to it.

  • We didn’t find any plastic in his stomach or in his esophagus. That’s a good thing. We did collect a meat sample which we will get analyzed, says Nagy.

While he was occupied with the bird, Catharina Frostad took one of many water samples which also will be analyzed for microplastics by our science partner Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

The science

We scanned every bit of plastic we found so we could determine what kind of plastic we had found, categorized it, and tried to find its origin if there was any text on it. All the results were sent by satellite back to Eskelund Consulting Service who punched all the data into our partner Tableau´s, a SalesForce company, software.

  • All our findings are public through Tableau, and every scientist can use it in their research. If we are to save the ocean we have to work together, says Catharina Frostad sitting on a rocky beach south on Bear Island documenting every single piece of waste we find.

Day three we hiked for four hours to get to the other side of the island. Beaches facing south and southwest always collect more waste here in the North. The prevailing winds ensure it. And sure enough: We found way more than we could handle.

Car tyres, fishing nets, buoys, cans and bottles in numbers. Just to mention some of it. We even found a sofa washed ashore. Mind you: We were 240 nautical miles from the nearest mainland.

The last clean and more to come

Day four and it was time to sail back. We could of course have stayed for weeks and months  – and I think everyone wanted to stay in a world not attached to anything but nature. No phones, no internet, no mile long coffee menu to choose from. The only thing you had to do up here is to remember your gun, and watch the weather.

We rigged down all the lines and motored out of Russehamna. But we had one more beach to clean. We didn’t have to do it, but all wanted to prolong our stay. Anchoring up in Sørhamna I stayed aboard to make dinner and watch the boat. The four others headed into shore in the dinghy. What looked like a clean beach from afar wasn’t. It seldom is. In the sand the crew found thousands of broken pieces of fishing buoys.

  • We had no chance of picking it all up. It was layer on layer with colorful plastic pieces. We have to come back with a bigger crew and more time, and we will, says Shannon Nagy well back on board.

It was time to hoist sails. We did it in silence as we sailed past the high cliffs teaming with birdlife. Soon we had the dolphins on our bow again. Two days and nights later we were back in Tromsø. 

We didn’t step off the boat for hours. We all wanted to savour the moment and pretend we still were on our own in the wild ocean. In a boat.


Pictures – in shared Dropbox folder: https://www.dropbox.com/home/Brian%20Black%20Memorial%20Award%20-%20Jon%20Amtrup

Bird: Shannon Nagy dissects the dead seagull on the beach while Syver Flem is documenting.

Approach: Catharina Frostads enjoying the approach to Bear Island

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The team: When in the Arctic: Hans Martin Halvorsen (from left), Catharina Frostad, Jon Amtrup, Shannon Nagy and Syver Flem.

Dinghy ride: Hans Martin Halvorsen, Catharina Frostad, Shannon Nagy and Syver Flem on their way back to SY Njord on the last beach clean 2021.

Water samples: Catharina Frostad and Shannon Nagy taking water samples for Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Plastic: Most of the marine debris we collected were left to be picked up by Sysselmesteren on Svalbard on one of their regular visits to Bear Island. Some of it we took on board SY Njord and brought it back with us.

The map: Bear Island has a manned met-station in the North. Everything else is wilderness.

Documenting: Catharina Frostad, Hans Martin Halvorsen and Shannon Nagy documenting and sorting the plastic.

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