Franz Josef Land Expedition: The Mission Ahead

As we approach the first island, Enric opens a group session on proposed field research goals and processes. Photo by Andy Mann.
As we approach the first island, Enric opens a group session on proposed field research goals and processes. (Photo by Andy Mann)

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala is setting off to explore Franz Josef Land, one of the most remote archipelagos in the world, only 900 km from the North Pole. Home to polar bears, whales, seals and more, the team will investigate how global warming may be affecting this crucial ecosystem in ways we still do not fully comprehend.  Follow his adventures throughout the month.

Interview by Lucie McNeil, Exploration Team Member

We’ve been listening to the first exchanges of scientific methodologies between the two teams today in the ship’s ‘seminar’ lounge. I grabbed Maria Gavrilo (Deputy Director for Science of the Russian Arctic National Park) and Enric after these sessions to get a sense of their hopes around the intense collaborative work in the weeks ahead.


>I’m interested in, as leaders, how do you put such a comprehensive team of different disciplines together – and what are the obvious and not so obvious challenges?

MARIA: It’s not always so easy as people can be great scientists in a specific field but sometimes it’s hard far them traditionally to share in common goals. It’s an academic habit, but it’s changing. This can be one of the challenges.

ENRIC: To me, it’s making sure that everybody understands that they are contributing to something larger and that their specific job is key to painting the comprehensive picture of the ecosystem of Franz Josef Land.

Maria and Enric show us the likely first route through we will take into Franz Josef Land. Photo by Lucie McNeil.
Maria and Enric show us the likely first route through we will take into Franz Josef Land. (Photo by Lucie McNeil)


>How did you select the people we have here? Tell us a little about a few of their particular strengths.

ENRIC: Easy. I took our core scientists from Pristine Seas, as we have worked together around the world; we can cover microbes, fish, algae, invertebrates and land ecosystems – and even though none is an expert in arctic organisms, they can see big picture and think as ecologists. And very important, it’s fun to work with them, to spend five weeks on a boat with them. So that was easy.

MARIA:  It’s the same – if you have to be with somebody on a boat for 5 weeks, you better find somebody fun. Also, for me it was very much easy; they are the only people who really know these subjects. Sergey Grebelny, for example, for the study of the bottom animals (Benthic), it was the Zoological Institute who did this work before, and of course they have the methodology, the approach and the collections so it had to be them, and I knew their laboratory for many years, and they are friends too. For other projects, I try to invite people with polar exploration experience, because it’s a very remote area, it’s hard to work, it’s very dangerous and there is a great issue of safety and understanding how to work together is crucial. And yes, 40 days on a vessel, you need to see faces you want to see again afterwards. People have really worked very, very hard to just get themselves on this trip.


>What are the challenges you want to address, particularly, before we start the first field tests?

ENRIC : For us – we have people who are more tropical and temperate, so a challenge is to get used to diving in very cold water. The second challenge is to coordinate all the different interests and implementing the daily research schedules. Maria and I are like plumbers – we have to make sure all the pipes are connected!

MARIA: Well, we have the polar experience already, and also we know NG have other types of great experience and we have to make sure all the people with great experience can get together and deliver. My feeling is after the first few site dives we will be doing this very well – although we don’t want to miss anything, even on the first few visits…


>Give me a specific story or example of previous field collaboration you’ve been involved in and thought especially successful.

ENRIC: Working with this team, for me. I’ve never worked with such a tight team – so super professional, we have total cohesion and they always know what to do; we can get in the water and just start working without having to give too many directions. But that’s in a tropical place…

MARIA: I worked on a micro-expedition that was a small scale prototype of this one, where we had a small yacht working in the Arctic and a small team; it worked very smoothly and we had excellent experts in each field and we were completely on our own and self-sufficient. I was the only woman but it was easy for me as I didn’t have to compete with all the dominating males – because I was the boss!


>What would make you happiest – for a fruitful collaboration between teams?

ENRIC: That we come back and we haven’t strangled each other – no! (giggles) That we come back even happier and more satisfied than we are right now with both the work and the collaboration. We obviously have expectations for the weeks ahead, being in an amazing place – and if we return more excited and still great colleagues, that would be the dream.

MARIA: Yes; once we finish this one, that we want to all work together on the next one.


NEXT: Read All Franz Josef Land 2013 Blog Posts


The Pristine Seas: Franz Josef Land expedition is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water. 


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Meet the Author
Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.