Franz Josef Land Expedition: …And Then There Was This Other Iceberg

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.

Text and Photos by Andy Mann

‘We’re being attacked by a swimming polar bear?’ was my first and fleeting thought amidst the frenzied shouting flurries scurrying across the -1 degree C water’s surface ; we already knew a couple of bears were further up on shore from the morning’s survey of Houen Island, our current anchor point.

Our divers had just reached the surface just moments before, from scraping microbial samples from yet another, carefully-scrutinized iceberg. They’d come up much earlier than usual due to a frozen-open valve driving an unbreathable amount of air into Forest’s regulator, forcing the team to the surface—a situation that ironically diverted a surefire disaster.

We’d left the Polaris in two zodiacs that morning with the dive teams working about 10 meters down on the iceberg.  I was shooting in the water when most of the divers popped up around me, with Forest in the middle. Almost immediately afterward, we heard rapid shouting from dive team leader Enric from the nearest zodiac, “OUT!! Everybody out! GO, GO, GO!”

No hesitation, we all kicked as hard as we could toward the boats. Something was happening only meters behind us, but I didn’t turn around to look.  The frantic pointing and shouting at the water behind us was all I needed to know; a polar bear had surprised us and was probably making an attack… so I thought, adrenalin pumping, kicking as hard as I could.

It felt like I levitated into the boat, landing flat out on the deck, and turned in time to see the 100+ ton iceberg flipping over completely, mass churning the waters we were all well inside moments before.

With everyone safely in zodiacs we shared a moment of shock, relief, even laughter.  Miraculously, Forest’s microbes made it back in too, and onto the Polaris for analysis.


NEXT: Read All Franz Josef Land 2013 Blog Posts


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


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.
  • Ana Cobian

    Thanks for sharing such amazing experiences and pictures.

    I loved the last phrase. “..Miraculously, Forest’s microbes made it back..” It captures the essence of passion for science.

    Everything for science!

  • April Leyla

    What makes it flip? Waves? Currents? Any way to predict when it will happen?

    Wonder if it can be simulated in a lab?

  • Belinda


  • Jonathan Orr

    Why would an ice burg flip?

  • Ralph Spooner

    Goes to show you what can happen when you are focused on the task at hand. You can miss that giant snowball coming down the mountain right at you. I would also like to thank the folks that are doing this kind of research. How can we be stewards of what we have on this earth if we do not know what we have and the impact we are having, good or bad.

  • Lou Judson

    Gee, glad you all made it back, but way too bad nobody got a video of the flipping berg! It must have been a sight!

    Can anyone shed light on why it flipped over? Had somebody chipped off just enough ice to unbalance it or do they do this routinely?


  • Susan Rheeder

    Wow! That was a close encounter for sure! Pity there’s no pics of the falling mountain.

  • Arlene Wallace

    I appreciate all the work you guys do and truly enjoy the experiences and pictures you share–story telling at its BEST to be sure. It is somewhat an adventure for me just to be able to read and see your great photos and know that someone cares so much about this panet.

  • Kande Trefil

    Thrilling vignette!

  • Justin Wilson

    Yes but what happened to the polar bear?

  • Barbara

    Glad you’re all safe, but shouldn’t you have known the dangers beforehand?

  • Danny Lum

    The expedition always amazed me

  • JT

    I am surprised your team wasn’t aware of this fairly common occurrence. We’ve watched it several times from one of the sightseeing boats out of Valdez, Alaska, which approach the calving glaciers in the Columbia bay Southwest of Valdez. The boat captains are very aware of it and alert passengers to be on the lookout for it, as they sail thru the icebergs from the glacier.

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