Paola Catapano on Nanuq!

Nanuq encounters the true King of the Arctic

16 Aug 2018 – Text by Paola Catapano.

There seems to be no halt to our crazily-tight sequence of exceptional events. Ever since we crossed the 80th parallel, in both directions, it has been non-stop!

Last night (if we can speak of night where there is none, and when we’ve lost complete track of weekdays and dates) we set out on another one of our quests: the search for a missing buoy named RINGO – a buoy deployed right on the geographical North Pole in April 2016 by Frederic Vivier, a French physical oceanographer of CNRS Paris, to measure variations in the North Pole icecap thickness. We met Frederic last April in Longyearbyen and when he learned we would sail this summer in the area where his buoy got lost, he could not miss the opportunity to ask Nanuq’s help.

“RINGO is very important for us,” he said. “It took important data continuously till the summer of 2016 when it was the victim of a bad encounter with a polar bear, who damaged its surface sensors and its satellite antenna. Then a miracle happened in Santa’s country! In February 2017, it started to emit a signal once again from the North East regions before ending up on Storeoya. It would be extraordinary if you found it!”

Frederic particularly concerned about the memory card inside RINGO. It is full of months of precious data on the area at the border of the ice. He gave us the exact coordinates of its last position – 80.111397°N and 27.86186°E – a photo of the bouy, with its precise size and weight – 248 x 16 cm and 31 kg – and the indication that, by now, most of the coloured coating would likely have peeled off and the tube containing the memory card must be black.

Is that a bear...?
Yes it is!

With these clues, in the middle of the bright polar night at 2 am, four of us slowly approached the shores of Storeoya with a rifle, two signal pistols, flares, a drone, a camera, and walkie talkies. When we were 200 m from the island Mathilde warned: “I think I see a polar bear on the beach, but am not sure it is alive.” Peter immediately radioed Nanuq and said, in a slightly louder tone than usual, that we were going to “fire a flare to check”. If what looked like an immobile heap of white fur moved, we would know it was a live bear… And it was!

As the flare was fired off, the king of the Arctic woke up and stood on its rear paws looking curiously at us. We took some distance moving the tender away from the beach and decided to explore the island by drone rather than landing on it. The polar bear seemed to be disturbed by the noise of our flying object and calmly walked away from it – but not without leaving stunning footage of its polar beauty.

Beside the presence of the bear on the small island, the search for RINGO was made hard by the abundance of tree trunk pieces stranded all over, of similar size and shape as the probe. I am sure the expert eye of Frederic Vivier and team will be able to tell if their precious instrument was among them by looking at our drone footage.

Once again, a polar bear encounter is in the way of RINGO! However, for us, it was worth looking. We felt rewarded to have finally met a live, healthy, beautiful bear. And consider that, once again, in Spitzberg you set off looking for one thing and end up finding something else, beyond your expectations.

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