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Franz Josef Land Expedition: Surviving the Life Aquatic

Award-winning author and Contributing Writer for National Geographic Magazine David Quammen is accompanying NG Explorer Enric Sala and team on a mission to evaluate how pristine is the ocean-land ecosystem of Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic.  By David Quammen Five weeks is a long time to spend on a boat, even if it happens to be a vessel...

Award-winning author and Contributing Writer for National Geographic Magazine David Quammen is accompanying NG Explorer Enric Sala and team on a mission to evaluate how pristine is the ocean-land ecosystem of Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic. 

By David Quammen

Five weeks is a long time to spend on a boat, even if it happens to be a vessel as comfortable as the Polaris, amid company as fascinating, various, congenial, and purposeful as the members of the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land. 

David Quammen (Photo by Lucie McNeil)
David Quammen (Photo by Lucie McNeil)

Don’t remind me, please, that Charles Darwin was out for four years, nine months, and five days with the Beagle voyage, and that he slept on a hammock in a shared cabin so tiny he had to pull out a bureau drawer each night to make room for his feet.

Don’t tell me about the intrepid survivors of the whaling ship Essex, or the Bounty mutineers making their way to Pitcairn, or that guy who soloed around the world in the Gypsy Moth. 

Don’t tell me about Shackleton and the Endurance because, inspirational as it may be, that’s a South Pole story, half a world away from us up here in the far North.

Just trust me: Thirty-five days gets to be a longish time, bobbing around on the Arctic Ocean, especially after the wireless Internet goes down, the freshwater rationing begins, and the vodka runs out.

So we have devised some ways of coping. We drink a lot of coffee and tea.  We share an endless supply of stories from previous adventures.

We edit photographs, by the hour, on our computers and phones.  We pose head-breaking riddles to the group, like that one about walking south a mile, east a mile, then north a mile and ending up exactly where you started. (It works from the North Pole, yes, but where else?)

We take picnic lunches ashore, in the form of salami and cheese and brown bread, of which there seems to be no shortage, and eat them cheerily amid the rocks and the ice during pauses from the day’s walking and work.

When unable to go ashore, in desperation for exercise, we resort to the “Fittnes Center,” a cabin thus labeled on the lowest deck, containing one treadmill machine and a set of barbells.

We have a meeting each morning to discuss what expedition work we’re going to do that day and another each evening to recap what we’ve done.

A Floating Chautauqua

After the evening confab, we take turns giving programs: Forest Rohwer on viruses, Alan Friedlander on fishes, Sergey Grebelny on benthic invertebrates, Andy Mann playing guitar, Maria Gavrilo on the history of meteorological research in Franz Josef Land, Cory Richards showing a selection of his stunning photos and making everyone laugh with his goofy self-deprecating humor.

We are a floating Chautauqua.

On the nights without live programs, we watch movies and cable shows, sometimes together, more often on laptops in the privacy of our cabins.

(Personal disclosure: I’m carrying Season One of “Justified” and also early episodes of “The Sopranos,” which I’d never seen.)

But the movie-watching together, in the ship’s lounge, is more festive. One night we screen “The Life Aquatic, with Steve Zissou” and feel that its evocation of idiotic shipboard camaraderie speaks very specially to us.

In place of the orange hats and blue shirts of Team Zissou, we have blue hats and orange jackets, part of complete kits of Arctic clothing supplied to us generously by Patagonia.

Our Multitasking Leader

In lieu of Steve Zissou we have Enric Sala, a dapper Spaniard with a pony tail and a deep commitment to marine conservation, as our expedition leader.

Enric is a visionary young marine ecologist, founder of Pristine Seas and an Explorer in Residence of the National Geographic Society.

On this voyage he plays many important leadership roles, such as setting the overall agenda, inspiring zeal and calm, deciding (in consultation with the captain and with Maria Gavrilo, scientific co-leader) on the route of the ship, drawing pictures of our position on the whiteboard, breaking the news as we run short of water, and remonstrating when the American and Spanish expedition members drink up an undue portion of the evening beer, leaving an insufficiency for the Russians.

Enric bears little resemblance to Bill Murray, but by stretching our imaginations while watching “The Life Aquatic,” we can begin to see him in that role.

Enric Sala stands at the prow of “Polaris” as the ship (with the same pronunciation for the Cyrillic letters painted on its side), floats in the Arctic waters around Franz Josef Land. (Photo by Andy Mann)


Readers All

And of course, being serious people, we read. Reading helps down time fly by.

Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle, had Volume 2 of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a revolutionary new work (published in 1832) that catalyzed his early thinking about evolution.

We enjoy the postmodern luxury of carrying many more options than Mr. Darwin did, thanks to our various electronic devices, and though we don’t put our reading time to such profoundly good use as he, still the flipping of electronic pages eases our journey.

On my own Kindle, for instance, I’ve been reading Cullen Murphy’s excellent book on the Inquisition, God’s Jury, and Tom Hornbein’s classic account of his Everest climb in 1963, The West Ridge, and H. L. Mencken’s lively selection of his own work, A Mencken Chrestomathy, as well as David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman.

As backup on the Kindle I have Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all six volumes, as well as War and Peace and Emma for rereading, in case our ship becomes trapped in the Arctic pack ice and we’re forced to ride it out through the winter, as Fridtjof Nansen did.  But I’m hoping that won’t become necessary.

Beyond our own personal libraries, electronic or otherwise, there’s a ship’s library downstairs, assembled for this voyage, mainly by Enric, with a rich selection of practical and historical works: The Norwegian North Pole Expedition 1893-1896: Scientific Results, in six volumes, edited by Nansen; New Lands within the Arctic, an account by Julius Payer, coleader of the Austro-Hungarian expedition of 1872-1874 that discovered Franz Josef Land and named it for the Hapsburg emperor; A Thousand Days in the Arctic, by Frederick G. Jackson, another of the earlier Arctic pioneers; Polar Microbiology, a tome supplied for our diversion by Forest Rohwer; A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife, by Richard Sale; and quite a few other guidebooks, monographs, and expeditionary sagas in both English and Russian.

I’ve had a dip into the Payer book myself and found some interesting bits about how this place appeared in 1874.

It was even colder and icier then—although, notwithstanding the presumptive impacts of climate change, which we see in the form of retreating glaciers, and which we discuss and ponder continually, it’s pretty cold and icy now too.

A Working Voyage, Truly

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that our only use of energy and wit on this journey is finding ways to kill time. On the contrary, most of our hours and days are industriously spent.

The 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition is taking the measure of Franz Josef Land—at this moment in time, for purposes of comparison against the past and the future—in ways and to a degree such as it has never before been measured.

Cory Richards and I, for our part, will give our sense of this heroic effort to readers of National Geographic. Others are working to perform a parallel function with video and sound.

As for the leftover hours, once our shore hikes and our dives are completed, or if especially bad weather prevents us from diving, or hungry polar bears on the prowl make it inadvisable to go ashore, or as the days and the weeks seem lengthened inordinately by the fact that the sun never sets—we have our ways of coping, as I said.

When all else fails, we write blog posts.


Read All Pristine Seas: Franz Josef Land Blog Posts

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


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at