Alex Ingle is a photographer and glaciologist specialising in marine research. On his Greenland expedition, he worked alongside the CALVE research team and wrote a log allowing us a glimpse into the wonderful world of scientific research.
Here we go. Leaving Scotland with a long two days of travel ahead. After a quick flight down to London Heathrow and a couple of hours to gather my thoughts, an announcement comes that our flight to Reykjavik is delayed. Looking at the weather it seems I’ll have a very narrow window of opportunity to get the drone airborne during the terrestrial expedition. Fingers crossed on that one, I’ll just have to take it as it comes. By the time we reach Iceland and wait an hour for the bus, we get to bed at 3.30am. Sunset turns almost immediately to sunrise. Up at 7 am to catch a connecting flight to Nuuk. Greenland.
With one night to turn around, we assemble at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (GNIR) in Nuuk at 7am, ready to head into the field. Unfortunately, one of the terrestrial team is struck down with gastroenteritis, so we delay for 24 hours and take stock the next morning. That gives us time to sort our kit, test flares and properly prepare ourselves for the adventure ahead. A group of field biologists heading home leaves some supplies for us, freeze-dried food, porridge and a box of Russian rifle ammo. A reminder of the slim but real possibility of encountering a bear.
After spending a night camped on the floor, everyone’s up early – packing bags and prepping kit before we take to the water. Loading up the boat, I’m told how deceptively cold the trip up the fjords is. We layer up: thermals, insulated layers, down jacket, gore-tex shells, the works… and start to bake in the shelter of the harbour. After the horror stories from the previous field season’s boat journey, we strike it lucky with the weather. Passing through a hair, flat calm water and blue skies with barely a cloud. It’s still freezing with wind-chill, and the occasional iceberg reminds us we are here.
Reaching our drop-off point in the fjord in just two and a half hours – we are surrounded by the boats of hunters who have disappeared into the wilderness and the overgrown ruins of Sandnæs– the largest Norse settlement of medieval Greenland. Now with the campfire lit and whisky poured we take everything in before the hike begins in the morning.
64° 14' 36.5892'' N, 50° 10' 35.3172
Bellies full of porridge, we manoeuvre our rucksacks onto our backs. Easier said than done. I realise that leaving a couple of extra lenses was a good idea. My pack is an unwieldy beast with tripod, tent, and camp mat lashed to the back and sides. After the initial ‘ooft, bloody hell’, a shift of balance and a swift tightening of the straps we’re good to go.
With 26kgs of camera gear and supplies on my back, plodding up, down and around mountains for the next two days proves just as tough as I imagine. Though with the incredible weather we are inspired to dig deep and push hard - hiking for a solid ten hours - and make it all the way to the end of the huge lake Tummrallip Tasersua. Without that weather window, it might have taken twice as long.
64° 18' 26.9028'' N, 49° 57' 48.0384'' W
After making camp, we rest our aching joints and have a chance to take it all in.Looking over the ruins of Norse settlements we realise what stern stuff these people must have been made of; modern equipment, great weather, and only a short stint in the wild and it’s hard going even for us. The Vikings were out here in the absolute unknown, through incredibly testing conditions. They settled, survived and thrived for generations. We turn in for the night and rest to push on the next morning.
After another long hike, the ice sheet edges into view for the first time and we finally lay our rucksacks down. Home for the coming days.After all the effort to reach this remote site, we have a 3-day window to achieve all our goals. We had good weather getting out here, but forecasts were now showing that our luck was running out. Thankfully, the microclimate we found ourselves in is protected by the ice sheet and ensured three days of spectacular weather. An entire week of low winds, clear skies and virtually no mosquitoes. A great antidote to bruises, blisters, and aching bones.
Although every now and then when your mind wanders bears creep into your thoughts. Especially when you’re alone. You get that slight tingle on your neck and a feeling that someone’s watching. A quick look over the shoulder and a glance across the hillsides usually fixes it. Although we had a rifle it was decided to leave it in the mess in Sandnæs. There’s only a very slim chance of meeting a bear in these parts and shedding weight was our concern. Only a handful of encounters in the past decade. Lots of reindeer, arctic hares, and the occasional eagle… but no bears.
With such good weather, the time flies by. The science team achieves their aims ahead of schedule and I manage to get all the shots I need. After a couple of exchanges with the marine team over the satellite phone, we hear there’s a very narrow window for extraction. Rough weather is on its way, making the boat journey dicey. After the trek down to the iceberg-filled fjord, we use the last drone battery to capture the glaciers in all their majesty. We’re back at camp by lunch. Ready to begin the journey back to Tummrallip Tasersua.
It’s decided that we’ll hike out early, departing later that afternoon. The return journey is easier after a successful five days and being field fit. We pass herds of reindeer, more Norse ruins, and camp in a tiny space amongst the willow on the banks of Tummrallip Tasersua for the night. The final day. The final push to Sandnæs where we’ll be extracted by boat. Some of us are faring better than others. Walking poles are shared out and we make it back to the mess tent. Boots off, we collapse in a heap and tend to our wounds.
The sound of an outboard motor creeps up the fjord waking us. Packed and ready to head back to civilization. We meet the marine team on the shore and bid farewells to two of the terrestrial team who’ll be staying in the field for another week. The sun’s shining. We’re already overheating in our thermal gear, but we’ll need it for the journey on the boat.
Dropping anchor at lunch, two divers plunge into the deceptively cold waters and disappear for half an hour. When they resurface, we have lunch in a sheltered bay, I could get used to this. Spirits are high after an epic week and a great morning on the water. We laugh and take it all in. Leaving the bay and after 30 minutes the calm seas get rougher, but it’s all still good fun. We laugh it off and enjoy the ride. Then they get rougher still and the laughing subsides. Our speed has to be dropped as the impact of the boat on the water begins to get...uncomfortable.
It gets even rougher as the wind picks up. We quickly become much colder and wetter. Battered by freezing cold waves, our little open boat makes painstaking progress over the swell. We take on the water quicker than one person can bail it out. Within a few hours I am ankle deep in seawater. Soaked to the bone, hypothermic and paranoid about the damage that’s being done to my sodden equipment.Shivering uncontrollably, and unable to think logically, I spend hours staring at the water by my feet – looking up occasionally to see our progress (or lack of it) as two people frantically bail. What began as a fun ends up being the grimmest five hours I’ve ever spent on the water. But like all good adventures we laughed it off over dinner and it will end up being another interesting story to tell the folks back home.
With yesterday’s experience a distant memory, today marks the start of my time with the marine team – and a steep change of pace from the previous week’s physical exertions. These guys are diving in very cold water, day in day out. So cold they have strict limits on the amount of diving they can do. Too much and their core temperatures won’t have time to recover. Based in Nuuk, each day centers around single trips onto the water as the team collects algae and sponge samples. Today is a much needed day to recover and recharge.
Today sees the first proper shoot with the marine team. The forecast is decent but after my experience a couple of days ago I’m well prepared. As it does most days a thick haar envelops Nuuk. I cross my fingers in the hope it’ll burn off so I can get the drone in the sky. The moisture in the fog is the biggest issue for the drone. I'd near enough given up hope for aerial shots, but right on cue we pass through a wall of fog into bright blue skies Calm, clear, very little wind. Perfect. The team land me on a small island, and I prepare the drone. Compared to the terrestrial expedition, where battery power was finite, here I can recharge every day – so today I have four drone batteries at my disposal, giving me plenty of leeway to have a bit of fun. I get my first opportunity to see the marine guys in action from a glorious spot on the shore.
After nailing the aerials yesterday, the rest of my time is spent shooting a mix of stills and video. Each shoot is constrained to a narrow time frame of an hour or two each day. Two days fly by. Loading up the boat, daily dives out in the fjord, then back to Nuuk and the labs at the institute. Time evaporates.
Today we head back to Sandnaes for the final time to collect the last members of the terrestrial team. We're up early to catch the tide. With the memories of last week’s extraction still fresh, we’re hoping for an uneventful day.
Thankfully, we get what we wished for. Glassy water, beautiful conditions and a chance to drive the boat for the first time. We reach Sandnæs in record time. Greeted by the team on the shore, we load up the gear and head back towards Nuuk, stopping off on dry land for lunch on the way. Back in Nuuk - Ejgil, a Danish biologist who’d been disappearing into the wild every week to study spiders, had hooked us up with a piece of reindeer from a local hunter. Tonight was an opportunity for a celebration and, after weeks of field rations and desiccated supplies, barbequed reindeer was on the menu. Egil had the meat marinating overnight, and tended to it on the barbeque while the science team caught up with each other.
With the majority of our work now done, a final couple of days involve just one last trip out on the water and a final afternoon exploring Nuuk. We begin winding down and packing up, reflecting on a pretty epic trip and preparing for the journey home via Iceland over the next few days. The sheer physical effort involved for a project such as CALVE is incredible. Undertaking field research takes grit, determination and commitment – bringing with it stories, experiences and adventures which is what I strive to capture through my photography. As usually they are all too easily lost by the time the science reaches the public.
With last summer’s Greenland expedition now a distant memory I’m focussing on future assignments which will include my first trip to Antarctica, research cruises around the Arctic, dive training and the most exciting and challenging of them all, the birth of our second child. Here’s to all adventures, past and future.
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