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PHOTOS: Quest for the Arctic humpback

The eastern coast of Nordauslandet Island, Svalbard, Norway taken during the author/photographer's sightseeing trip.
Kt Miller photo courtesy of Polar Bears International
Humpback dorsal fins off the eastern coast of Nordauslandet, Svalbard.
Kt Miller photo courtesy of Polar Bears International
The foot of a Svalbard, Norway iceberg.
Kt Miller photo courtesy of Polar Bears International
Observers get a treat when two humpback whales surface just arms-length away from their Zodiac.
Kt Miller photo courtesy of Polar Bears International
A Humpback whale feeding off the coast of Svalbard.
Kt Miller photo courtesy of Polar Bears International
Gigantic humpback fluke breaches before disappearing into the still arctic water.
Kt Miller photo courtesy of Polar Bears International
Iceberg off the coast of Nordauslandet, Svalbard, Norway.
Kt Miller photo courtesy of Polar Bears International
Kt Miller for Polar Bears International

The sea breeze and dense air tickled my senses as I stood on the bow of the Ocean Nova. I always notice how thick the ocean air feels in comparison to the high mountain desert I usually call home. The ship steadily motored on, a rhythm that was beginning to feel comfortable and normal.

I noticed a small black shape surface in the sea a hundred yards to the starboard side of the ship. I went inside, “Did anyone else see that? I think I saw a seal or something?” Most of them continued sipping their coffee and tea. Although nearly everyone could speak some English, they needed to be focused in order to understand me. I only got their attention if I pointed and made an exclamation.

Five minutes passed. I was standing with Frank, owner of Polar Kreuzfahrten, discussing the melting sea ice and the glacier recession in that particular area. We were headed south, southwest along the eastern coast of Nordauslandet, second in size to Spitzbergen in the islands of the Svalbard archipelago. Nordauslandet is home to Austfonna, the world’s third-largest ice cap with a 200km glacier front calving into the Barents Sea. Most years this part of the Arctic Ocean is impassable due to ice.

In the same starboard location a whale fluke surfaced for a moment. Frank saw it this time and quickly ran down to speak with the captain. The commotion began again, people frantically assembling tripods and squinting through viewfinders.

A few minutes later it was announced that Zodiacs were being lowered and we were to change into warm clothes and head for the gangway immediately.

By the time we were on the water the wind had died down and stillness nestled in. The dark sea swayed slowly in wide smooth ripples. A white hue illuminated the water from the glacier front. Silence.

Nearly an arms-length away the fins of two humpback whales surfaced. Spray exploded from their blowholes as they feasted on small sea life meters from our rubber crafts.

More silence. Then an explosion of energy, surprising even the most prepared, as one of two whales burst into the air closing its jaw and filtering plankton out of the icy depths. This continued for over an hour as we sat wide-eyed and mystified. Fourteen to fifteen meter humpback whales weighing over 250 tons were breaching among us. Few others experiences will make one feel so small. A notion of concern lingered in the stillness as guests and guides questioned our Zodiacs ability to handle the force, should one of these gigantic creatures venture too close.  

Found in both the Arctic and Antarctic, two isolated populations of humpback whales thrive, yet they have never had interaction with each other. In the northern waters the whales are characterized by white flippers and black bellies, in south it is the opposite. 

The time came when we had to move on, despite the continuous activity of these immense creatures. With one last glance at a gigantic fluke disappearing into the depths we drifted through icebergs toward the glacier front.

The best colors appear in the late evening and linger until dawn. The glacier front was now shimmering in stillness. We travelled gracefully along its edge, each crease a different shade of blue.

Once again we boarded the Ocean Nova, but the beauty kept us from sleep until dawn. Fulmars illuminated by the never-ending sunset abandoned their usual soaring and swooping to rest and float in the calm water. Pieces of ice, large and small, drifted freely and small islands faintly appeared on the southern horizon.

This story was reposted by Alaska Dispatch with permission from Polar Bears International. For more visit Polar Bears International at www.polarbearsinternational.org. Note from Polar Bears International: Our thanks to Polar Kreuzfahrten for hosting photographer Kt Miller and Henry Harrison as they gather still photographs and HD footage for PBI's film library. Photos copyright Kt Miller/Polar Bears International.