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Franz Josef Land Expedition: First Look at Post-Expedition Discoveries

SEP. 9 2013, WASHINGTON DC — Scientists and expedition co-leaders, Dr. Enric Sala and Dr. Maria Gavrilo, published a summary of August 2013 National Geographic and Russian Arctic National Park expedition to comprehensively survey the land and waters of Franz Josef Land, sponsored by Blancpain, Davidoff Cool Water, Patagonia and Mares. Interview conducted by Lucie...

SEP. 9 2013, WASHINGTON DC — Scientists and expedition co-leaders, Dr. Enric Sala and Dr. Maria Gavrilo, published a summary of August 2013 National Geographic and Russian Arctic National Park expedition to comprehensively survey the land and waters of Franz Josef Land, sponsored by Blancpain, Davidoff Cool Water, Patagonia and Mares. Interview conducted by Lucie McNeil, Expedition Team Member.

(Read All Franz Josef Land 2013 Blog Posts)

> The expedition wrapped up on Sunday, September 1, 2013, when the Polaris arrived back to Murmansk Port after five weeks traveling around Franz Josef Land – can you remind us who was in the team, their disciplines, how you put it all together, and what was the overall aim of the research? 

ENRIC SALA: Our major goal was to assess the current conservation state and long-term environmental changes in the high-Arctic ecosystem of Franz Josef Land. For the last ten months, I’ve been putting together an international team of top experts with Maria Gavrilo, Deputy Director for Science of the Russian Arctic National Park, to work on everything from viruses to walruses—the smallest to the largest.  From National Geographic, I brought our Pristine Seas ( core research team: Dr. Enric Ballesteros (algae), Dr. Alan Friedlander (fishes), Dr. Forest Rohwer (microbes), and Dr. Mike Fay (land ecosystems). Steven Quistad is a graduate student who joined the expedition and made Forest’s life much easier! And Kristin Rechberger, who was in charge of the historical reconstruction project, comparing summer photographs taken by early explorers between 1880-1930—with what we saw on our summer survey, in 2013.

In addition to the science team, we had National Geographic Magazine writer and photographers, the Pristine Seas documentary film team, and our diving safety officer. And finally, Paul Rose, the seasoned British polar explorer, joined us for his first Pristine Seas expedition, and was essential in pulling together a monumental juggernaut of logistics.

MARIA GAVRILO: From Russia, we had projects covering plankton, marine invertebrates, seabirds, marine mammals, and geography.  Dr. Sergey Grebelny led an underwater team (Oleg Savinkin, Vladislav Potin, Alexander Chichaev) to repeat 1970s and 1990s scuba dive transects of the seafloor communities at the same previous sites. Studies of plankton (small plants and invertebrates living in the water column) were led by Dr. Darya Martynova, who also measured oceanographic parameters.  For seabirds and marine mammals I invited old colleagues of mine, leading experts in marine ornithology—Dr. Yuri Krasnov and Dr. Igor Chupin.  We also invited two French ornithologists, Dr. David Grémillet and Jérôme Fort with a special project to study Little Auks, a ‘sentinel’ species helpful in detecting environmental changes in the Arctic. Dr. Fedor Romanenko led a project on geomorphology and glaciology assisted by a graduate student Ekaterina Garankina.

It was certainly not easy, but extremely worthwhile, to bring all these people together and send them to such a remote area for 40 days!

Franz Josef Land Expedition route map. Created by Enric Sala and Maria Gavrilo.
Franz Josef Land Expedition route map. (Image by Enric Sala and Maria Gavrilo)

> What was the route and how did you decide where to visit and in what order?  What were the challenges?

ES: When you plan an expedition you have an initial idea of where you would like to go, but as soon as you get there, nature and weather decide for you. We wanted to revisit some well-studied sites, but also explore new ones. Franz Josef Land is very, very remote, and most scientific surveys have been conducted in only a small number of locations. Therefore, most of the archipelago was there for us to explore, especially underwater, where diving has truly been limited to a handful of sites.  And before departing, we had no idea of how many icebergs we would encounter, so we could not really plan the whole itinerary in advance. But that’s exploration: you adapt as you go to try to maximize your time in the field.

MG: The idea was to visit some historical sites to repeat studies and to obtain data for temporal comparison. So, the number of historical sites was a core network and we put a route between them with “new” sites we added on the way. We tried to visit first the most remote and hard-to-access sites, i.e. Rudolf Island which is in the very north of archipelago.  Starting points were pre-decided since we had also a logistic task to deliver people to their working places on the three islands in South West Franz Josef Land (FJL).


> What was life like on the boat for 39 days? What was a typical day?  

ES: Our days were very long, especially because of the midnight sun, which is exciting and energizing, but also dangerous because it gives you the impression that you can keep going—until you cannot keep your eyes open because of fatigue. I got up at 7am, went to the bridge to check the anchoring conditions and the state of the sea, met with Paul Rose over a cup of tea at 7:30am to plan the daily activities, had breakfast at 8am, left for a dive at 10am , back for lunch at 12pm, with another dive or land work at 15:00, and back to the ship for dinner at 19:00. Of course, every day plans change, and we missed meals often to encounter walruses and polar bears. After dinner, I rinsed my underwater camera gear, downloaded and edited photos, met with the entire team to plan the next day and listen to a science/photo presentation. I then met with Maria and Paul to coordinate tomorrow’s logistics, wrote my expedition diary (or a blog), and went on deck to enjoy a square of dark chocolate and the magic light of the Arctic midnight sun. By then it was past midnight! And so it went, for 5 weeks.

MG: Sometimes it’s as simple as reinforcing the plan that was agreed the previous day. It sounds so simple, but we always need to double-check where we are and what are the real weather conditions outside.  We asked for and learned new creative ideas of team members, then try to work out how and if we can adopt and execute these ideas in the environments and expedition capacities that day.  We have to prepare updated daily landings and a comprehensive diving business plan—arctic diving needs a lot of prep!   We have to get three diving boats out, three landing shuttles, absorb changes due to weather or changing science needs, find equipment forgotten on board or ashore. Long days, long nights. And always, plenty of light!


> It was a huge team effort, with so many different disciplines and logistics? Can you describe how you managed to get the teams working together?  What were the highlights and challenges for you both? 

ES: To me the most challenging thing was to make sure everyone could carry out their work as planned. We had six inflatable boats with more than six independent teams working at the same time, three in the sea and at least three on land. Divers are more independent, but land parties needed armed guards to be able to scare curious polar bears. So we are talking about coordinating activities for 40 people. Often there are conflicts of interest, and a group cannot go diving because somebody else needs their boat—now to film a polar bear that just showed up and is posing like a movie star. One of my roles as expedition leader is to make sure that we achieve the overall goals, and to see everything with full perspective. In other words, I was a bit like a plumber, making sure that all pipes were connected.

MG: As Enric says, harmonizing the work of scientific and media groups.  Everyone involved were skilled experts in their field, from different cultures.  Polar environment requires specific approaches and focus—our working slogan was `Dynamic planning!’—adapting and changing tack nimbly is not always an easy and doable task!  Some cooperative ideas emerged during the fieldwork, and this was great and we obtained unique datasets. I do believe we gained great and diverse exchange experience, both in terms of researches and expedition life and communication.


> When will we hear about the full science results and be able to see the media from the expedition?   Who will the report be given to?

MG: It is different for different projects, some results are relatively easy to interpret and don’t need sophisticated lab analysis; some do and need greater resources.  We obtained a huge collection of invertebrates on this trip and this collection requires many experts to work on them. So, we would be happy to get first step analysis by the end of this year.

ES: We will submit a scientific report to the Russian Arctic National Park and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment before the end of the year. By then we will have sufficiently processed data to be able to provide solid conclusions about the research.


> Maria, you’ve been to the islands before – what was ‘new’ to you?  Enric, this was your first visit; how did it meet any expectations you had?

MG: Every visit to FJL brings something new. The most striking changes for me is the summer disappearance of sea ice. I came here for the first time 21 years ago, and in mid-summer some of the straights were still locked with unbroken fast ice. Drifting ice was encountered over most of the archipelago, but this season we did not see a chunk of sea ice! Icebergs were a rare beauty in 1990s, now they make a primary navigation hazard in many places.

A polar bear hunting in the little auk colony was reported almost for the first time from Rubini Rock in early 1990s, and this was published as a separate note in research journal;  now it’s a common foraging pattern of the greatest terrestrial predator on earth. Instead of ice seals like a ringed or bearded seal, local to the area, we observed great numbers of harp seals using these high-Arctic waters as a summer feeding ground only.

But there’s good news too – there are seemingly more bowhead whales in FJL, the bowheads belonging to endangered Spitsbergen population. FJL previously served as refuge for survival of these magnificent ocean giants after they had been overfished in 17-19th centuries. New whale species have also come to FJL waters recently—fin whales—earlier recorded in more southern and western waters, and this can be a striking indicator of changing pelagic ecosystem of the NE Barents Sea.  We also observe new bird species almost every season, and some of them also can be a sign of changing environments.

ES: For me, I expected to see some pack ice, to be able to dive under the ice and see the little shrimp and the Arctic cod that seals eat, and hopefully polar bears jumping from ice floe to ice floe. But everywhere there was open water. The sea ice is disappearing very fast. Everything else exceeded my expectations; I could not have dreamt of diving in such healthy kelp forests, swim near massive walruses, and be so close to curious polar bears. The seabird colonies were giant and breathtaking, and the landscape truly magnificent, painted by the magic, soft Arctic light.


> Finally, why should we care about places that are so far away? Why do you both do this work?

MG: Remoteness on earth does not guaranteed safety to an ecosystem because of the global scale of human exploitation of the natural resources and the strong interrelationships between all components of the global ecosystem.  This is even more true for the Arctic, with current climate warming and retreating sea ice opening up new access to the fragile world of high-Arctic fringes. These remote places are the last frontiers of the endemic Arctic wildlife adapted to survive in harsh Arctic climate surrounded by pack ice and glaciers.  They have no other place to retreat following the  changing environment, beyond is the North Pole, surrounded by low-productive deep Arctic Ocean.

Our duty is to protect such vulnerable places against stresses associated with human impacts; Arctic wildlife is already stressed by current rapid climate changes. Sharing the beauty of the nature and wildlife of remote Arctic islands and seascapes provide an opportunity to turn people thinking more about their home place which is planet Earth. Studying ecosystems adapting to critical environments allows better understanding of biological evolution and adaptation mechanisms, and evolution of the Earth as a whole.

I work in the Arctic because I innately feel it’s my home – and because I hate heat and mosquitoes! I somewhat hide from aggressive civilization among friendly ice and glaciers.

ES: Remote, pristine places are the only example left of what Earth was like before humans started destroying biodiversity and entire landscapes. These places are so remote that most people will never see them, except in documentaries. But they should be protected and left intact, because these places make our planet richer. They help us understand what we have lost, but most important, they also show us what the future could be like, if we so wish.

To me, personally, exploring these places and helping to preserve them gives me hope. We live in a world of bad news and environmental disasters; being able to see what Earth could be like is the only thing that keeps me going.


> Where can I get more information about the Pristine Seas expeditions and the work of Russian Arctic National Park?  

Check out National Geographic’s Pristine Seas at

Russian Arctic National Park updates are posted on

Franz Josef Land by the Numbers

Distance travelled within the FJL archipelago – ca. 3,500 km

Anchor sites – 33.

Landing localities – 35 on 24 islands.

Zodiacs (small boats) shuttled to land and diving localities – over 370

Diving statistics –229 person dives, total underwater time – 111 hrs 13 min, max duration – 56 min. Diving sites – 22

Benthic stations achieved – 90, including 35 grabs and 53 diving.

Oceanographic and plankton station conducted – 22, max depth – 554 m.

Dropcams (deep water camera) – 24 dives, average depth – 165 m, max – 392 m

Highest elevation climbed – 558 m

New species observed for archipelago – 2 species of birds, 11 of macro-algae, 15 of benthic invertebrates, and the Greenland shark (the rest are to be determined after examination of collections)

Birds ringed – 223

New ivory gull colony found.

Polar bears observed – 42

Walruses counted on the land haul outs – over 3,000

Whales observed – 45

Historical photographs retaken – 180


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

Enric Sala
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.