Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Paper: Killer whale ecotox

So a paper I coauthored has just come out:

Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Vol. 26, No. 8, pp. 1582–1590, 2007

I darted the whales (to get the samples) and did the stats, both of which were kinda fun.

Take home message from the paper is rather less happy: (from the paper's conclusion) "Killer whales hold the gloomy record of most-polluted European arctic mammal."

WWF, one of the project's funders, wrote Hans' second field season up - see here and here

Blubber tissue of one subadult and eight male adult killer whales was sampled in Northern Norway in order to assess the degree and type of contaminant exposure and transfer in the herring–killer whale link of the marine food web. A comprehensive selection of contaminants was targeted, with special attention to toxaphenes and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). In addition to assessing exposure and food chain transfer, selective accumulation and metabolism issues also were addressed. Average total polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and pesticide levels were similar, approximately 25 g/g lipid, and PBDEs were approximatelyy 0.5 g/g. This makes killer whales one of the most polluted arctic animals, with levels exceeding those in polar bears. Comparing the contamination of the killer whale’s diet with the diet of high-arctic species such as white whales reveals six to more than 20 times higher levels in the killer whale diet. The difference in contaminant pattern between killer whales and their prey and the metabolic index calculated suggested that these cetaceans have a relatively high capacity to metabolize contaminants. Polychlorinated biphenyls, chlordanes, and dichlorodiphenyldichloro-ethylene (DDE) accumulate to some degree in killer whales, although toxaphenes and PBDEs might be partly broken down.

If you want a reprint, shoot me an email & I'll send it on.

Photos by Ilse van Opzeeland

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Monday, July 30, 2007

A list of mistakes

Our little girl turned four the other day. I see Sofie, recovered from James' birth four weeks ago, and James, eating like the golden pig he is, thriving. Caitlin's first months – actually her first couple of years – went much worse. And Sofie took over two years to recover.

Not long after Caitlin was born, the high-risk pregnancy specialist at Tromsø hospital asked me for a list of the mistakes that I saw in Sofie's treatment. I wrote over 4,000 words back. Maybe he was hoping for a lever to institute some changes. Maybe he thought it might make me feel better.

If he was aiming for change - from our later experiences, and what we've heard from others, it didn't seem to do any good. Maybe posting it will give an idea of just how badly pre-eclampsia can be handled (managed seems an inappropriate verb here).

The photo is of Sofie and Caitlin. If anyone can offer a good explanation for the petechiae on Sofie's chest, I'd be interested to hear it. It must have been something done in the few hours she was in ICU when I wasn't allowed in. Best I've heard is that it's from a Valsalva, implying (as best I can work out) that she had an abnormal heartbeat at some point.

The letter follows below the fold..............................


Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to raise my concerns regarding the manner in which Sofie’s treatment was handled at the University hospital of Northern Norway (UNN).

[SNIP some introductory stuff]

Obviously, medicine is not my area, so I may make some egregious mistakes in the comments that I provide below. If so, I’ll apologise up front, and trust that you will points these out to me. I have no intention of being antagonistic in what I write, but I also want to be explicit, so again, I apologise up front if my Australian bluntness appears as rudeness. I have no desire to be rude. My main reason for writing this is to help reduce the likelihood that others will go through what Sofie and I have been through, or worse.

In the time since it became obvious that Sofie was pre-eclamptic (now over a month ago), and particularly since Sofie had her seizure, I’ve read up a bit on eclampsia / pre-eclampsia / HELLP, and the papers that I’ve read are listed at the end of this letter. Where necessary I refer to them in the text. I’d be very surprised if I hadn’t missed some of the important literature, and I’m sure you can point me towards important work that I’ve missed, if necessary.

[SNIP some more introductory stuff]

You may think it appropriate to pass this letter on to other members of medical staff in the obstetrics unit for their consideration. I am very happy to leave that decision with you, and if you think it necessary, please feel free to do so.

It seems to me that Sofie having an eclamptic seizure after being diagnosed with pre-eclampsia three weeks previously means that the onus is on the director and members of medical staff of the obstetrics unit to demonstrate how this was not a case of dangerous incompetence. I’ve divided my questions into a series of dot points, broken into what I see as conceptually distinct areas.

Monitoring prior to Caitlin’s birth (I think I have the time lines correct, but if I’ve made mistakes, my apologies, and I’m sure they will be corrected when checking through Sofie’s records).

Sofie first was referred to hospital after a high blood pressure reading on a Friday, her week 34 day 4 (34/4). She was admitted for observation 34/5, and at that time [Dr A] (the German doctor who saw her, who I presume is a senior resident? I think I’ve got his name right) discussed delivering Caitlin relatively quickly. Sofie was discharged from hospital on the Monday (35/0). She saw medical staff (whose names I forget) on the following Wednesday and Friday, and had blood tests done on both these days. She then saw [Dr B] on the following Monday (36/0). [Dr B] discontinued blood tests. At the time, I queried why the tests were discontinued. My recollection is that the general thrust of [Dr B]’s answer was that she was a highly experienced obstetrician, and in her judgement the tests were unnecessary, as blood tests only revealed when pre-eclampsia was advanced, and breakdown products were becoming obvious. Monitoring requires a comparable time series, and discontinuing blood tests seems to me to introduce a break in the time series that requires justification. Do you consider discontinuing blood tests at this point of a patient’s monitoring a suitably risk-averse approach when treating pre-eclampsia.

[Dr A] tested Sofie for hyperreflexia and clonus, but to the best that either Sofie or I can remember, he was the only person to do so prior to Sofie’s eclamptic seizure. Is our recollection correct? If so, why did other medical staff not carry out this basic, simple but potentially very informative test?

A minor comment: Sofie’s illness clearly showed a two-day cycle. One day she’d be quite ill, the next day she’d be a little better, the following day she’d be a little worse than the first day. Perhaps the best way to describe it is a sine wave with a two-day period, but with a generally downward trajectory. I don’t know if this is news, or useful, but perhaps it might be some help (I’ve seen nothing on this in the reviews I’ve read).

When blood tests were actually carried out, what blood tests were carried out? Were tests oriented towards assessing the possibility of HELLP syndrome carried out? I provide a series of dot points of tests for which I’d be curious to know the values. If it is unethical to provide me with these (I guess it is unethical without Sofie’s consent), we can discuss what to do about this when we meet. I’ve taken my list of tests from the Wiltin and Sibai review in Hospital Physician in February 1999. I’d done so for the following reasons [SNIP]. Sibai is clearly a player in studies of pre-eclampsia /HELLP; the timing of the paper (1999) means that it’s not so old as to be completely out of date, but not so new that people could not be aware of it; the journal is not obscure; what’s provided in the review is more or less a recipe for blood tests for HELLP diagnosis. So, what were the results over time for Sofie’s levels of :

Lactate dehydrogenase
Serum aspartate amino transferase
Lactate dehydrogenase [yes, a typo, I know]
Platelet count?

And did she have abnormal peripheral smears at any time?

At least twice, it has been suggested to me that Sofie’s pre-eclampsia was not “severe”. This is given in justification for the delay in inducing Sofie. How can this definition of not “severe” be rationalised as a reason to not proceed with induction earlier than it was? I’m not talking about the day before Sofie was induced; I’m talking about from 37/0 or appreciably earlier. If it is because Sofie’s blood pressure was not sufficiently high, then the implication is that “severe” pre-eclampsia occurs only when blood pressure cannot be kept under control with medication (which is not a definition that I’ve seen written anywhere, if it exists in the refereed literature I’d be interested to see it). I recollect seeing at least one systolic blood pressure reading of Sofie’s of over 170 anyway. So, even though on medication for hypertension, Sofie had a blood pressure that went over 170 systolic at least once, and over 110 diastolic more than once as I recall (if my recollection is incorrect, I’m happy to be corrected). She also had headaches, complained of visual disturbances to nursing staff at least once, and had some photophobia at least once that I can recall (although no-one ever asked us about that). Also, Caitlin demonstrated an abnormal (retarded) pattern of foetal growth in the latter stages of Sofie’s pregnancy. (As I’m sure you are aware, foetal size estimates that fall inside the 95% confidence intervals of a nonlinear regression of foetal growth are not necessarily the same as normal foetal growth). How is this not “severe” pre-eclampsia?

The UK eclampsia study reported by Douglas and Redman (1994) makes it obvious that there is not necessarily a linear (or predictably nonlinear) relationship between “severity” of pre-eclampsia and likelihood of an eclamptic seizure occurring in all cases. The study does not make clear that failing to deliver a patient (who is past 34 weeks) whose pre-eclampsia is clearly getting progressively worse is in some way not increasing the risk to both mother and foetus. I haven’t seen anything in the literature that I’ve read to suggest this, but if it exists, I’d be happy to view the paper(s). There is a logical difference between attempting to manage for an eclamptic seizure that comes with no warning (Broughton Pipkin’s (1995) thunderbolt) and allowing a case of pre-eclampsia to continue several weeks after initial diagnosis and when past 34 weeks of pregnancy. In the first (the thunderbolt), the likelihood function of mortality or morbidity over time is unpredictable (perhaps chaotic), in the second; the likelihood function is almost certainly exponential.

It has been argued to me twice now that what goes on with pre-eclampsia is a matter of risk management (although not necessarily put in exactly those terms). I accept this. However, I haven’t seen anywhere in the literature that suggests a suitably risk-averse approach is to stop monitoring via blood tests, nor to allow a patient to progress to the point where even to the untrained eye (and nose) can detect that she has become seriously ill (see 2b, below) before starting induction. To then stop induction for reasons that seem to relate more to what staff felt like doing than for the best interests of the patient also does not seem acceptably risk averse to me.

Just before Caitlin’s birth

I know that we have discussed that induction was stopped on Friday, but there’s an issue of process that I would like to raise. You are the high-risk pregnancy specialist for the unit, yet your decision (direction? order?) to induce was overridden. How was this decision to override reached, and who was responsible for the decision? It seems to me that the process by which your decision was overridden must be investigated. Whoever made the decision should have the point clarified that it is not only the decision, but the process by which the decision was reached, must be rectified in the future. That is, it seems to me that it’s not just that the induction was delayed, its how the induction was delayed that is important. I realise this is more of an issue for the director of the obstetrics unit at UNN, but as you’re the high-risk pregnancy expert, this may create more problems for you in the future also.

On the Friday morning that initial induction was started, I could tell that Sofie was clearly extremely ill. Her perfusion (clear in her eyelids) and her smell indicated to me that she was much more ill than she had been previously. If I, with no training other than first aid can pick this, how was it missed so badly by nursing or medical staff that induction was ceased on that day?

I left Sofie round 2100 (I think) on the Saturday evening when she was induced. Sofie tells me that she was left alone for much of the night (I arrived just before 0500 on the Sunday morning, after she called me). Over those roughly 8 hours, Sofie spent time in her room with only another patient, or in the corridor alone, and when she went to the toilet she locked the door, as no-one told her not to do so. She was not under constant surveillance by medical or nursing staff during this time. I believe that this is appallingly poor management of her over this period, given the risk of eclamptic seizure that she faced over that time. Had she been struck by an eclamptic seizure during the night, I suspect that a coroner’s inquest would agree with me. I believe that you must be made aware of this, as this seems to me to be a blunder that must never occur again.

In the few hours after Caitlin’s birth

I’ll preface these comments with a couple of quotes from Walker’s (2000) review: “Delivery is the ultimate cure for pre-eclampsia, but most maternal deaths occur post-partum”; and “Continued close monitoring is required after delivery”, both on page 1264. I believe that Sofie’s monitoring post-partum was demonstrably inadequate, for the following reasons:

In the time from when I arrived at around 0500 until Sofie had her seizure sometime around 1500-1600, [Dr B] visited Sofie on one occasion, to check the swelling of her right labia (labium?). Given the risks associated with inducing Sofie as late as she was, and the need for close monitoring stressed in the literature, why was no doctor present at birth and on a regular basis for the hours thereafter? If the answer is a lack of staff, this would imply that future cases of pre-eclampsia must be dealt with in a manner that is more risk-averse for the mother.

Sofie had no injuries from falling as a result of her seizure. This is due to me. When Sofie got out of bed, I always accompanied her, not because anyone told me to, but because it seemed sensible to me. When Sofie started shaking prior to going stiff as a board, I recognised that she was having an eclamptic seizure, supported her as she fell, and then laid her on the ground as she started convulsing. [Nurse C], the nurse who was then responsible for observing Sofie, responded magnificently to what was going on, organised a diazepam injection instantly, and instructed Sofie’s mother to hit the call button. [Nurse C] was (in my opinion) the best nurse who cared for Sofie during her time at UNN, and I am very glad that she was present when Sofie had the seizure. I am left with a rather unpleasant memory of Sofie having a seizure in my arms. For me, this is a very small price to pay for knowing that, thanks to me, Sofie did not suffer greater injury than from the seizure itself. The issue here is that reliance of a patient’s partner to perform initial first aid for a life-threatening illness is rather unusual hospital policy.

We have discussed in general why magnesium sulphate was not used, but I still question the wisdom of not considering magnesium sulphate prophylaxis post-partum, particularly when Sofie did not urinate for several hours after giving birth. If the answer is “it’s not done in Norway”, this implies that magnesium sulphate prophylaxis s not permissible in Norwegian hospitals under circumstances when a woman is at extreme risk of eclampsia. If I am correct and this was coupled with poor early monitoring, inadequate monitoring during birth, and not delivering a pre-eclamptic patient until 37/6, then this seems to me to be a rather odd approach to providing medical care. If the argument is that patients on magnesium sulphate prophylaxis require monitoring in an intensive care unit (ICU) - well, in this case, the ICU was almost empty that day, so why not send her there? If the manner in which Sofie was treated is indicative of how dangerously pre-eclamptic women are treated at UNN, then more women are going to end up in ICU on magnesium sulphate– why not get them there before, rather than after, an eclamptic seizure?

Sofie’s care in the ICU.
I have one issue regarding this, for your information, as you’re the high-risk pregnancy specialist and this may be useful background for you.

The nurse who was on duty over night did not seem particularly concerned when Sofie’s monitor alarm went off. I recall three occasions when the monitor alarm went of multiple times. My recollection may be slightly amiss (that Sunday wasn’t the easiest day I’d ever had, and my memory might be a bit off). What was happening was that the magnesium sulphate was affecting Sofie’s heartbeat in such a way that her pulse doubled on the monitor. After the second set of alarms (or perhaps the third), the night nurse summoned the intensivist, who reduced Sofie’s dose of magnesium sulphate. I had to request the night nurse to check Sofie at least once during a series of alarms. On at least one occasion, the night nurse’s solution to Sofie’s raised pulse rate was to wake her, apparently assuming that her pulse was racing from a bad dream. I certainly did not get the impression that he understood that magnesium sulphate affected the heart, and that this can, on rare occasions, lead to the death of a patient. Had I been aware of this possibility at the time, I would have insisted on the intensivist checking Sofie each time that there was a series monitor alarms. Is it acceptable that a patient’s partner should get the ICU night nurse to investigate why a monitor alarm is going off? If the night nurse really did not understand the need to keep an eye on a patient’s cardiac output when the patient is on magnesium sulphate, is that nurse really competent to be working in an ICU? Perhaps this makes the reasons for my comment to your students about t-wave abnormalities and magnesium sulphate a little clearer.

After Sofie’s time in ICU
These issues are less crucial (that is, they were probably not life threatening), but they should be raised.

As you are aware, Sofie had a labial haematoma from delivery. [Dr B] investigated the swelling just after delivery and, as I recall, said at the time that it was not a haematoma, but was oedema. A few hours after leaving ICU, Sofie had a lot of pain when attempting to urinate (to the point where she could not urinate, and so reduced her fluid intake to compensate), and could feel that her labia was swollen. This caused her considerable pain and mental distress. It was approximately 11 hours after leaving ICU before a doctor saw Sofie, after I had made multiple requests to the nursing staff for a doctor to check her condition. The nursing staff started putting ice packs on the haematoma a while after Sofie initially complained of her pain. I see several issues associated with this episode where it seems to me that things could have been done better.

As I recall, [Dr B] initially misdiagnosed the haematoma as oedema. This, of itself, is probably not a big deal (although it does little to reassure me regarding her competence). Clearly there were many deliveries that Sunday, and I am sure that [Dr B] was very busy. However, given that Sofie developed (or had) HELLP syndrome, her low platelets were bound to make the haematoma worse than it might otherwise have been. Therefore, it seems sloppy to me that no member of medical staff instructed that the oedema / haematoma be checked at some stage.

Further to this, it was Sofie who had to point out that she had this problem. This is despite her recent move from ICU, and a guarantee that she would receive close monitoring, and had a predictable problem (see (i) above). Is this taking monitoring seriously enough?

Controlling Sofie’s blood pressure was clearly a major issue after she emerged from ICU. The (predictable) pain that she suffered from the haematoma is likely to have affected her blood pressure, isn’t it?

The same argument (as for iii) can be made for her mental distress arising from the haematoma.

It was something in the order of 7 hours from when Sofie first called a nurse to express her considerable pain until she saw a doctor. To me, this does not seem to fit the description of “close monitoring”. If the labour ward lacked the medical staff to deal with Sofie’s case, why wasn’t she left in ICU? They had the bed space there. I realise that this is not your responsibility, but if you’re the one dealing with high-risk pregnancies, then this issue will arise for you again.

Monitoring of Sofie’s blood pressure after her discharge from ICU was carried out extremely poorly. Again, this is really an issue for the director of your unit (I think), but you’re the person who deals with high-risk cases, when this matters the most. The incident not long before Sofie was discharged, when her blood pressure was recorded as 176/116 is the outstanding example of a systemic problem in the unit. Sofie’s blood pressure (if the measurement was to be believed) rose back up to where it was a trigger for watching for “severe” pre-eclampsia. As it is possible (albeit unlikely) that Sofie could have had a seizure more than a week after giving birth, it appears that this reading was treated in an extremely cavalier fashion.

Is it acceptable that, after the measure was made, Sofie made what was functionally a clinical self-diagnosis and decided that the measure must be wrong?

Is it acceptable that I had to point out that the reading needed doing again using a mercury sphygmomanometer?

Was it acceptable that the duty doctor did not think to query the manner in which the blood pressure was measured, rather than have Sofie and I do his or her job?

What was the duty doctor doing that was so important that he or she had to issue instructions by telephone, rather than personally visit Sofie? It should be possible to extract this information from the records for that evening. (This is not a rhetorical question).

Following from (b) above, there are important issues here regarding monitoring in general for the unit (again, back to the point about you being the high-risk specialist). I know a lot about monitoring, albeit in the context of time series of estimates of animal abundance. Without going into detail (which I can do if you want), an unreliable data point is worse than no data point at all when monitoring. I’m sure you’re aware of this, but the importance of this seems to need to be stressed to medical and nursing staff in the unit.

There are some generalities that I think need to be raised as well. Yet again, these may be issues for the unit director, but as you’re the high-risk pregnancy specialist these may be bigger problems for you than for anyone else in the unit.

[Dr A's] decision to induce Sofie as early as possible after 35/0 (which seems to have been his decision?) was rescinded. Given what followed, revoking this decision looks like a bad judgement call on someone’s part. It seems to me to be worth checking the process by which this decision was revoked. It may be possible to determine if there are ways in which this decision-making process can be improved. This may be really important.

I was struck by the way in which many of the nursing staff seems to be looking for resolution of listed symptoms rather than of an illness itself. For example, some nurses would take a series of blood pressure measurements until they got one that they were happy enough with, and go with that measurement. When Sofie could not urinate post-partum, she was encouraged to force herself to urinate, as urination, supposedly, would indicate that her risk of eclamptic seizure was reduced. Although it was not put as explicitly as that, Sofie was encouraged to make an effort to urinate, as if by urinating slightly, the risk of eclampsia would vanish. To me, this indicates a mindset that concentrates on listed symptoms, rather than that real indicators that risk associated the physiological process of concern were diminishing. I suspect that this problem is pretty common in hospitals around the world. My other guess is that you’re only too familiar with what I’m talking about, but if someone like me, with no medical training, can see it, then perhaps its worth someone like me pointing it out.

There’s a final big picture issue regarding multiple doctors seeing a patient (that again, of which I guess you’re only too aware): who is responsible for the problems that I’ve described? This assumes that I have a reasonable case regarding at least some of the questions / comments above. Some issues seem systemic and so a matter for the director of the unit, some seem issues that individual medical staff need to consider. Obviously, I don’t have any answers on this (other than that I presume there are legal precedents in Norway that provide direction)- I just think I should raise this issue.

In your opinion, in how many of the dot points above do I need to be correct before my unhappiness with the manner in which Sofie was treated can be described as reasonable? It would seem to me that for some of them (e.g. 1d,e; 2c; 3b; 4a), the answer is one only, but then perhaps I’m biased.

Finally, I’d like to thank you for the manner in which you treated Sofie.


Yours sincerely

References I’ve read through (for your information)

Broughton Pipkin, F. 1995. The hypertensive disorders of pregnancy. British Medical Journal 311: 609-613.

Dekker, G. and Sibai, B. 2001. Primary, secondary and tertiary prevention of pre-eclampsia. The Lancet 357:209-215.

Douglas, K.A. and Redman, C.W.G. 1994. Eclampsia in the United Kingdom. British Medical Journal 309: 1395-1400.

Higgins, J.R. and de Swiet, M. 2001. Blood-pressure easurement and classificationin pregnancy. The Lancet 357: 131-135.

Magee, L.A., Ornstein, M.P. and von Dadelszen. 1999. Management of hypertension in pregnancy. British Medical Journal 318: 1332-1336.

O’Hara Padden, M. 1999. HELLP Syndrome: recognition and perinatal management. American Family Physician. .September 1999, downloaded from: http://www.aafp.org/afp/990901ap/829.html.

Witlin, A.G. and Sibai, B. 1999. Diagnosis and management of women with Hemolysis, Elevated Liver Enzymes, and Low Platelet Count (HELLP) Syndrome. Hospital Physician February 1999; 40-49.

Walker, J.J. 2000. Pre-eclampsia. British Medical Journal 356: 1260-1265.

Waterstone, M., Bewley, S. and Wolfe, C. 2001. Incidence and predictors of severe obstetric morbidity: case-control study. British Medical Journal 322: 1089-1094.

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Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjord. May 2000. Part VIII

[Read the first part of this post here]
We were spending more time stuck in town. The landfast ice was clearing, but bits of the Arctic pack were finding their way into the fjord. Chunks of pack ice, having had a couple of years to accumulate, are bigger than the months-old pieces of landfast ice. Small bergs, and worse, giant rafts of bergy bits, were appearing. Visually, this could be brilliant. One small berg grounded itself by the harbour wall. For the few days it sat, we'd buzz by close as possible. Light reflected off the berg, veins of turquoise-ripple ice.

But even worn-out leftovers of pack ice demand respect. On what proved to be our last visit to our scarred seal, we rounded Blomstrandhalvøya to find a field of bergy bits between us and Ny Ålesund. About half way back, our progress was blocked. The wind was picking up. And we could see more ice moving into the fjord. We motored up to near the edge of the ice field, Sofie started picking our way though, standing in the bow, looking through binoculars. By now, I'd some experience bashing mini-berg with the Buster. The trick lay in knowing how hard I could hit a berg, and how far up onto it I could drive the boat, without risking tipping over to the point where Sofie might fall out. Although nowhere near Christian's league, I gave some chunks the Christian treatment to get through to the next stretch of open water. We came to a couple of cul-de-sacs, surrounded by biggish pans of ice, needing bashing a little more than we'd like. Open water to Ny Ålesund finally appeared.

It was a long trip back.

May was nearly over, and Sofie still needed a few more recordings from males she knew. Our scarred male by Blomstrand was always accessible, but some other recording stations were becoming problematic. Broken pack ice was now entering the fjord daily, making anticlockwise transits in the currents. We'd spend long minutes shoving through ice to get near our recording stations. At one station, as close as we could get the fast ice edge was still a hundred yards or so from where we really needed to be. It felt like ages passed, navigating in through broken chunks of old pack, with a fair bit of shoving needed. After almost a month on the water, I was getting braver.

So we sat, Sofie went through her ritual of extracting the recorder from her fleece beneath her floater suit, hydrophone insertion, recorder on, notebook annotations. With no chance to do behavioural observations, so I grabbed the thermos, started pouring coffee. There was no wind, so we were making the most of one of our last possible days out. Broken chunks of pack were heading our way, adding to what we'd just pushed through. It seemed we had some time, but in the seconds I poured coffee, we were completely surrounded. No open water around our little boat (with tiddler engine!) at all. We looked at each other. We looked at the ice.

“Um – hon”, I said, “How much do you want this recording?”.

Sofie looked around again, bit her lower lip, “Not that much. This is really coming in. Shit.”.

“Yeah”. I sighed. “Okay, let's go”.

She coiled the hydrophone cable into its case, pulled the hydrophone from the water. “Okay, it's up” she said. We'd developed a habit of waiting until the hydrophone was clear of the water before starting the engine – we didn't want to risk cutting the hydrophone cable with the propeller. “I'll sort stuff out as we go”.

While she'd been retrieving the hydrophone, I'd been standing, looking for the best way out. I turned, grabbed the pullcord. “You clear?” I asked.

“Yep.”. Another little ritual – anyone who's ever been hit by the fist of someone pull-starting an outboard in a small boat will understand this one.

“You right?” A final ritual, I'd always check that Sofie was settled before knocking the outboard into gear. Starting to move a boat when someone's not ready is the easiest way to send them overboard.

“Yep. I've got your coffee”.

I clicked the outboard into gear, idled off towards a promising looking opening in the ice. Sofie handed me a coffee, wiped the hydrophone dry, put away her notebook, tucked the recorder back inside her floater suit. Then she grabbed the section of rope we'd tied to the bow for a handhold, stood, started pointing our way out between slurps of her coffee. We bumped our way through.

The open water to Ny Ålesund looked good when we found it.

That was one of our last trips on the little Buster. On land, ice was melting. Browns were replacing the whites of winter. Arctic terns started arriving, heralding warmer weather.

Apparently, summer in Ny Ålesund means more scientists. Cruise ships disgorge tourist hordes. See the Scientists At Work in the Arctic, Researching our Impact on the Environment! How much carbon does each tourist burn, coming to see what they're helping destroy? And the Arctic terns, who start arriving at the end of May, are obnoxious, pecking everyone on the head. What a mix.

Luckily for me, it's also when bearded seals stop calling, so Sofie's fieldwork was over.

On our way back to Australia, we stayed a couple of days in Tromsø, at the Polar Institute's flat for visiting scientists. It was the end of May, and the snow around town was more than head high. I had an interview for a position – seal population biologist - that had come up at the Norwegian Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture Research.

The next year, Christian shot a few of the male bearded seals in Kongsfjord, part of the Polar Institute's research program.

In May 2006, there was no landfast ice in Kongsfjord.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjord. May 2000. Part VII. Bear in Town

[Read the first part of this post here.]
In our wandering around town, we met Wolf, one of Ny Ålesund's four dogs. Their little cluster of kennels, just outside town, was surrounded by a wire fence about 10 feet high. The dogs were kept on chains as well, as Ny Ålesund's migratory bird population wouldn't have taken kindly to visits to their nests during the breeding season. Of the four dogs, one called Wolf was the most sociable, seen on walks around town with his human. Wolf wasn't a particularly big dog, mostly white – kind of a scruffy Samoyed look about to him. He seemed to delight in his role as the only animal in town who was available for petting.

The dogs' kennels were in a ragged lean-to at the enclosure's edge. Once samples had been taken from the dead seals, Bjørn dragged their carcasses to the dogs' enclosure, stacked them on the back of the lean-to, outside the wire. He didn't want to see the dead animals go to waste, and so dropped them off for dog food.

The carcasses lay, a small, sad, frozen brown lump, about four feet above the ground, open for all to see. I heard a few mutterings by other scientists, expressing their disapproval – most were disgusted with the shooting-for-science. And the meat left in the open was seen as an invitation to bears – and Bjørn was blamed for that, too, even though he'd just left it there for the dogs' owners to sort out.

Sure enough. One sunny lunchtime, Sofie and I strolled back to the canteen, from a recording session at the harbour wall. Meals at Ny Ålesund are provided by the Kings Bay company. The canteen was a large glasshouse with a view over the fjord to the Three Crowns, mountain peaks to the east. The spectacular building was new – part of an ongoing programme to refurbish the facilities at Ny Ålesund. Norway is keen to demonstrate its ownership of the Svalbard archipelago, and with oil money pouring in (only Luxembourg has a higher per capita gross domestic product), the government can afford to splurge on beautiful new buildings. Our meals mostly involved drinking in the view while talking science with whoever else was eating at the time.

This lunch was different. A call of “bear” saw most diners leave their meals and mob the windows. A young male polar bear ambled along the shoreline, heading east. His path took him a little way above the high tide mark, well seaward of most buildings. Everyone stopped eating for ten minutes or so until he'd moved out of sight.

It still strikes me as bizarre that my first view of a polar bear was from a canteen.

After eating, Sofie and I dropped into the Polar Institute building to check email before heading back down to the harbour wall. A message on the blackboard read – WARNING. POLAR BEAR IN TOWN. PLEASE TAKE YOUR PRECAUTIONS. Unlike most animals, polar bears will attack people without provocation. The bears that end up wandering around settlements are usually juveniles, particularly males, trying to find their way in the world. Older, more sensible adults, know that avoiding people in a smart idea if you're a big, toothy carnivore. All the youngsters see is the opportunity for a free feed – they've yet to learn that there's no such thing.

Sofie picked up the rifle, stashed some bullets in the pocket of her scooter suit. I grabbed our flare pistol and a few flares, and we wandered down to the harbour wall. This time, we paid much more attention to our surroundings as we strolled the couple of hundred yards between the last building in town and the harbour. We'd be stuck without shelter if the bear emerged.

Besides, “strolled” doesn't really do justice to the way I negotiated the numerous patches of ice on the walk – especially the stretch after the last building. Tottered, wobbled, slid, would be more accurate. Given the old joke abut not having to run faster than a bear, just faster than your companion, Sofie was pretty safe with me around.

Anyway, we didn't see the bear. We did see the bear's footprints crossing ours on the road, just off the harbour wall. He must have missed us by a few minutes when we'd walked up to lunch.

The bear had discovered the cache of seal popsicles by the dogs' enclosure and was helping himself to them. He must have thought he'd stumbled into polar bear nirvana, so he decided to hang around. But his decision to settle in around Ny Ålesund's outskirts presented a few problems.

Wandering around town with a rifle, it soon became clear why folks with long experience working in Svalbard brought their own hand guns. Christian had an immaculate .44 magnum made entirely of stainless steel - something any sensible mammal would run away from on sight. Another Norwegian scientist walked around with a semi-automatic pistol in a shoulder holster under his scooter suit. Their easy familiarity with firearms contrasted with that of some other scientists, most famously the young British woman who the previous year had accidentally discharged a rifle inside a hut (luckily upwards, through a roof). I was a little uneasy that there might be folks in town with similar abilities, though having a loaded firearm inside Ny Ålesund's town limits is forbidden.

Another difference was also clear. Many scientists around Ny Ålesund were unhappy that Bjørn had shot the seals at all, and the pile of seal carcasses acted as a constant reminder. The Norwegians who staffed the base were far more blasé. Norway's one of the only nations where scientists are allowed to (and arguably, encouraged to) kill marine mammals for scientific purposes. Bjørn's work – although as he was just KitnChristian's research assistant, so it was really their work – was viewed with disgust by many.

[This photo is of chunks of bearded seals, taken by Sofie the previous year.]
I felt uncomfortable, as I didn't approve of the killing, but didn't want to speak ill of Bjørn. It was worse for Sofie, who'd been with Bjørn when he was shooting the seals but who didn't like it either. This was her second field season with the Norwegian Polar Institute at Ny Ålesund, and she was part of KitnChristian's team, and so was seen as one of the Norwegians by most folks. But as a couple, Sofie and I were an entity just separate enough from the Norwegians that some could – and did - let us know just what they thought.

After a couple of days, the whole bear-in-town issue came to a head.

Around three o'clock one morning, we awoke to dogs barking, then howling, people yelling. Eventually, along with everyone else, we dragged ourselves up, pulled on scooter suits, grabbed the rifle and some bullets, the flare pistol and some flares, and wandered out to see what was happening. Twenty-four hour daylight meant not feeling like it was the wee hours of the morning, and walking in sunlight that could have been any time of day.

The commotion was at the dog's enclosure. Three or four people were attempting to scare the bear away. By the time we wandered out, they'd started firing flares at the ground in front of the bear. Little gouts of coloured flame popped off, the bear ambled away. We returned to bed.

The flare pistols were the weapons of first choice to frighten polar bears away. As with all of the larger mammals on Svalbard, centuries of hunting almost wiped them out. An international agreement to conserve polar bears in 1973 saw hunts banned in Norwegian territory. Bear numbers are increasing now, although exactly how many there are is still unknown (the Polar Institute has a current project to address this). Bears are a risk on Svalbard – a young woman was killed by one near Longyearbyen in 2002. But shooting a bear in self-defence is the option of last resort, which is why we'd been issued with a flare pistol as well as a rifle.

I'd been intrigued to see just how well a few flares would frighten a bear. They certainly worked. He never returned.

Wolf had been the only dog mauled during the incident. There was a huge bend in the enclosure's wire where the bear had climbed in. Quite how Wolf, not a particularly large dog, had managed to fight off a polar bear while still chained up, remains a mystery. He had some nasty cuts, but was remarkably chipper, all things considered. He wallowed in being the town hero while his wounds healed. Sled dogs are tough.

Bjørn was seriously in the doghouse. His pile of seal carcasses were now a reminder of what had kept the bear around. To many, he was responsible for what happened, including risking the bear's life and everyone's favourite dog. Many – probably most - scientists in Ny Ålesund work on environmental monitoring projects. Intelligent people who study environmental issues do so because they care about the world. Most tend not to be fans of killing animals in the name of science, especially in an area that's supposedly protected. Bjørn was decidedly unpopular.

Bjørn had other problems too – he'd been struggling to keep working with the pain of his back injury. Just after the bear incident, his back became too much and he had to head back to Tromsø for medical care. The miasma of ill-will seemed to fly away with him.

[Read the final part of this post here.]

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjord. May 2000. Part VI

[Read the first part of this post here.]

Running marine research from tiny boats in remote places usually doesn't go smoothly, so it's always wise to have a Plan B. Preferably something that involves working from shore.

Do male bearded seals call 24 hours a day? Are there times of day when they call more than others? To answer questions on temporal patterning, Sofie set up a program of recording 15 minutes every hour over either 12 or 24 hours every third day. As we couldn't go out on the boat to do this – too many days missed due to bad weather – she recorded from the harbour wall. A little hut there meant we could keep warm while recording. A five minute walk from the Polar Hotel to the harbour wall, press record, and we were doing science. We'd take it in turns to sneak out for the recordings in the small hours of the morning, leaving the other warm and (in my case) snoring.
To localize individual seals from their calls, Sofie used a simple but elegant little system. She'd set three hydrophones from the harbour wall. At the start of each recording period, she'd carefully place the hydrophones in a predetermined position, then run their cables back to the hut. All three hydrophones connected to a multitrack cassette tape recorder.

The theory behind localization is pretty simple. A seal calls underwater, the sound travels through the water to the hydrophones. The nearest hydrophone detects the call first, the most distant hears it last. Knowing the speed of sound through water, it's then a matter of triangulation to work out where the seal was when it called. Friends from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had written computer programs to do the triangulation automatically, making Sofie's life a lot easier than it could have been.

The precision of this system depends on a few factors – how far away the seal is and the distance between the hydrophones probably being the most important. Still, for male seals calling underwater, even a rough idea of where they are is better than nothing. The hydrophones were spaced about 40 yards apart, and it's about two and a half miles from the harbour wall to the nearest point on Blomstrandhalvøya. So we needed to know just how rough Sofie's rough triangulation was.

To resolve this, we calibrated the array. One calm day near the end of May, I popped out in the Buster by myself, while Sofie recorded from the hut. Sofie had calculated a grid of 30 positions and input them to our handheld GPS. I puttered around in the Buster, going to each position, then implementing our highly technical calibration system – banging on the side of the boat with a hammer. There was only time for a couple of quick bangs at each position, given the current in the fjord. We coordinated this highly technical process by radio. Using these bangs, and cross checking our little GPS with equipment available at the research station, Sofie worked out that the array was precise to under five yards at best (very close to the harbour wall), and out by roughly 200 yards at two miles. Good enough to track seals in Kongsfjord.

As it turns out, some males hold small territories within which they display, but others roam the length of Kongsfjord, calling. Maybe they're looking for an in to their own patch? And from our work from the Buster, observing males we could identify, Sofie could identify individual males by their calls. She eventually showed that some individual males had called in the same parts of Kongsfjord over two years. They probably held the same residences over several years, but we'll never know that now.

Read the next part of this post here.

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Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjord. May 2000. Part V

[Read the first part of this post here.]

So we had to be more careful with weather and ice conditions, meaning we spent more time in Ny Ålesund. It's an extreme place, as the 24 hour daylight in early May demonstrated. Geography is constantly reinforced by reference to the World's Northernmost things there. The World's Northernmost Post Office. The World's Northernmost Pub. The World's Northernmost Webcam. The World's Northernmost Historical Train, a relic of coal mining. In the World's Northernmost Gym, the World's Northernmost Climbing Wall. Ultima Thule as tourist kitsch.

But the truly weird thing about Ny Ålesund is how it feels like just another Norwegian village. Maybe a little friendlier, sprightlier, but in many ways, life there is disconcertingly normal. There's a shop where you can buy alcohol and souvenirs. A sauna, where Sofie and Kit would disappear for what seemed like hours on end. Norwegian-hotel-standard meals three times daily at the canteen. Remarkably fresh salads.
Doing fieldwork in 24 hour daylight meant that the main way we kept track of time was in order to make mealtimes.

Most scientists stayed in barracks. As we were a couple, Sofie and I got a room in the North Pole Hotel, established from a converted barracks just prior to World War II (Arctic tourism isn't new). A constant in Scandinavian life is that everyone takes off their footwear on entering a building. Trudging around in heavy, snowy boots, the rationale for this immediately obvious.

When we first entered our room at the hotel, Sofie stepped into the bathroom.

“Ooh, you've got to come in here. Try this, try this”, she said.

She squirmed out of the way to let me through (it was not a large bathroom).

“Yeah, what?”

“Your feet – feel?”

I wiggled my feet, looked down, looked back at her.

“Heated floor”, Sofie said.

“Ahh”. Realization dawned.

I'd been told of this most civilized of Scandinavian luxuries, bathrooms with underfloor heating. Maybe we were closer to the North Pole than we were ever likely to be again, but we certainly weren't roughing it.

Civilization at Ny Ålesund revealed itself in other ways, too.

There was occasional socializing with other scientists. Sofie and I had one evening's dinner party at the joint French-German research station - the beautiful little Blue House - with the only other scientists out on the water, a German team diving from their Zodiac inflatables. Dinner included the home videos - their underwater footage included a bearded seal mugging their camera, investigating them, to a background soundtrack of trills. Another evening was at KitnChristian's cabin, experiencing Kit's ability to whip up culinary masterpieces from nothing, marvelling at Christan's ability to absorb vast quantities of alcohol with no apparent effect.

We also had to stay around town every third day, working on Sofie's second project.

[Read the next part of this post here.]

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjord. May 2000. Part IV.

[Read the first part of this post here.]

Sofie and I got the smallest Buster, 14 feet long with a 25 horsepower outboard. Most mornings, we'd check the weather, and if things looked promising, we'd load it with acoustic gear, day pack, check the anchor, radio, flare pistol and rifle, head out into the fjord.

Sofie was studying the way that male bearded seals behaved during the mating season, and in particular, the sounds they used. Females don't call underwater during the mating season, but males do. Are the calls to attract females, defend territories, or a mix of both? Could individual seals be identified by something unique about their calls? Did individual males hold territories through the breeding season? Was there something about their diving and calling behaviour to suggest that one seal was more likely to be successful at mating than another?

Biologists, especially animal behaviourists, seem obsessed with sex. Sofie's specialty was using acoustics to understand the calls and movements of male seals that mate underwater. Although several seal species do this, this aspect of seals' lives has remained a mystery until recently. Improvements in the technology needed to study them – particularly being able to process their calls on a desktop computer - is revolutionizing our understanding of these “aquatic mating” seals. Sofie's PhD work on harbour seals in Scotland was one of the pioneering studies in the area, and she'd won a postdoctoral fellowship to work with Kit in Svalbard.

Her work was just another small piece of pure science – improving our understanding of the other animals with whom we share this planet, and providing some more insight into the evolution of animal behaviour. Most of my work has been applied ecology – using the scientific method to understand how we humans affect the lives of animals. On this project, rather than running the show, overseeing grad students, balancing the budgets, I was just along to help out. The lack of responsibility (other than keeping the boat upright) meant the trip felt like a holiday.

And bearded seals are one animal that could use more pure science. Too big for most scientists to contemplate just grabbing, and with a preference for smallish ice floes, they're unusually hard to catch, even for Arctic seals. KitnChristian's studies of the movements and diving behaviour of pups were among the first anywhere. Trying to tranquillize or sedate bearded seals is very risky. As they're on small pieces of ice, they're likely to slip into the water before the drugs take effect, and once drugged, they'd drown. So they need a direct approach. And most scientists couldn't contemplate doing what Christian and Bjørn would – leaping across ice floes to tackle 70 pounds of wriggling, slippery pup, or scooping a pup up with an oversized butterfly net, straight out of the water (most of us just aren't that strong). After a couple of weeks' catching, it caught up with Bjørn, who hurt his back with one pup. Only Christian seemed indestructible – he'd even grab the occasional mother when he got the chance, all four hundred uncooperative pounds of her.

So bearded seals remain among the least understood mammals of the Arctic. Aquatic mating means that watching males and females isn't much of an option. Hence Sofie's reliance on sound.

We'd motor out, find seals, record their sounds, observe their behaviour. We wore immersion suits, large, hooded coveralls of orange rubber. They're not the most comfortable items of clothing, nor the easiest things to get on and off. Their huge front zippers had to be lubricated regularly. I could get a reasonable amount of clothing on underneath – thermal underwear, at least one fleece sweater, fleece pants – there was no way to get enough socks on for me to be comfortable about my feet. The immersion suits had boots attached, which made sense were I to fall in the water. But the boots were of thinnish rubber, and constricted at the ankle, so I could only wear one pair of socks with them.

And it was cold. For most of our month in Ny Ålesund, the temperatures were around -10 Celsius. I'd started driving small boats as a teenager, and as I had more experience with small boats than Sofie, I drove. So I couldn't turn my face away from the wind. In the bow, facing backwards, she could huddle against the breeze and stay a little warmer. Despite a balaclava, fleece neck warmer, two hats and ski goggles, the exposed bits of my face were pretty chilly by the time we'd stop at one of our recording stations. Kongsfjord is deep, so there's no worries with hitting rocks, but bergy bits of ice, particularly when there was a bit of chop on the water, were a worry.

Once, I ran over one – the Buster lifted, tipped hard onto its left side. Busters are unusual boats, as they're really deeply veed (which is why they're so good for shoving ice around), but then have substantial reserve buoyancy in the very top of their sides. So they'll tip over much further than normal boats, but not topple right over. This is okay once you get used to it, but I suspect there are better ways of finding these things out than accidentally running into a boat-sized chunk of ice in choppy sea in the middle of an Arctic fjord. So we had a long, long – aaaaaahhhh faaaaaaaaaaaarrrkkkkck – moment (lasting somewhat longer than it takes to say). Disconcerting really, watching salt water much too close and at way too weird an angle, on a little boat sliding sideways and up, then down, on a mostly-submerged chunk of ice floe. Finally the Buster righted as we slid off.

Sofie hung on tight, gave me one of those looks, said, “Uhh - want to watch where we're going?”. Running into a baby-berg - it's one of those thing you only do once.

But for the first few times out, it wasn't my cold face that worried me. As we were sitting still, lest we disturb our seal, my toes gradually lost all feeling. Constant wriggling them inside my boots didn't help much. Our first time out, after I hadn't been able to feel my toes for about an hour, I thought it worth mentioning to Sofie. After all, she had a season's more Arctic experience. She told me not to worry (her toes got cold faster than mine did, I learned later). Despite her assurances, I kept imagining our return, my toes as small ice-white crunkles, about to erupt into those awesome purple blisters. Dag's frostbite had made an impression.

I still have all my toes. Sofie was right, I got used to not feeling them.

One bit of real fun with the Buster was driving through grey ice. The seawater was so close to freezing, and the air so cold, that on some days ice would start to freeze around us. The sheltered conditions that made Blomstrand such a great place to work also made it the most likely place for this to happen. So while out recording on our scarred male, I'd also have to keep an eye on the water. Thin ice forming is a glorious, flat mid-grey. I guess it's only an inch or so thick, and it's drive-throughable in a Buster. After a couple of tentative negotiations in our 14ft icebreaker, this even became good fun. The trick was recognizing when ice was freezing quicker, heavier and deeper, and so not so easy to pass through. That wasn't quite so entertaining, particularly when it was on the way back towards Ny Ålesund. For reasons best known to the ice, the landward side (away from Blomstrandhalvøya) seemed to freeze slower. So we'd putter back, looking for open water, scrunching though grey ice, black-grey cliff looming to our right. Once level with Blomstrandhalvøya and into open water, looking back towards the glacier at our track refreezing was just delicious.

There was one decided disadvantage to this near-freezing seawater. I had to get used to sticking my hand into it, in order to extract and replace the Buster's bung. Seawater would enter the boat – mostly spray as we scuttered into chop. Every now and then, I'd have to take out the bung, a little rubber plug out of the very-back-very-bottom, then gun the engine. Speedboats go fast by planing – zipping over the water with only the outboard engine's leg and the V of the base of the hull in the water. To start planing, they must rise from displacement mode (when most of the boat's hull is still in the water). In doing so, the bow of the boat lifts. Holding a boat in this position makes it easy to drain it of excess water. This is normally pretty simple. In the waters off Kongsfjord, it involved bare hands and seawater on the cusp of turning to ice (the water that is, not my hands – although it didn't always seem that way). There's also the minor point that when the bow's sticking high up in the air, it's hard to see any partially submerged bergy bits skulking about, waiting to make trouble. The first time I tried, it took me three or four goes just to get the bung back in place. By the end, I couldn't feel my fingertips. Rather quickly, I got much more adept at bung-insertion, so even this became just another part of a day out.

But I never got used to our outboard engines playing up.

There's not all that much to do for the 20 or so people who stay in Ny Ålesund over the winter. Outboard servicing was supposed to be on the to-do list for one of the overwintering Polar Institute staff. Somehow it didn't happen. I began having trouble starting our outboard, then it sputtered when out on the water. KitnChristian had similar trials. Sofie and I were mostly out by ourselves. We'd always leave a record of where we'd gone and when we were due back in the logbook at the Polar Institute, and we had a radio. But the idea of breaking down out in the fjord wasn't particularly appealing.

My misspent times with elderly European motorcycles meant I wasn't totally incompetent around internal combustion engines, and a bit of futzing with the carburettors kept us going for a while. But things got worse. KitnChristian's engine needed replacement. Then ours did. There was a limited supply of outboards in Ny Ålesund, and we were running out. KitnChristian needed the more powerful engines – their Buster was marginally bigger, they had more need of speed when netting pups. Eventually Sofie and I were left with the smallest engine available, all 15 straining horsepower of it, incapable of convincing our Buster to plane. Our little trips to visit our scarred seal in Blomstrand, and his less distinctive confrères elsewhere in the fjord took a lot longer.

[Read the next part of this post here.]

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjord. May 2000. Part III.

[Read the first part of this post here.]

The Polar Institute owned a few small Busters, deeply veed, heavily built open aluminium skiffs. Christian had been working in Ny Ålesund, off and on, for over 20 years, and had a well-deserved reputation for being tough on equipment. Then again, he gets things done that no-one else would even dream of trying. Christian's not all that tall for a Norwegian, around six foot, but gives the appearance of being carved out of something very solid. A rough carving – squarish head to square shoulders, deep chest, blocky legs. His fame for gear destruction meant that we got the most-bashed of the few boats available.

Ny Ålesund has a concrete quay, visited occasionally by the Svalbard governor's icebreaker with supplies, and by the ever-increasing traffic of cruise liners come summer. Each year, as the ice clears the fjord, a pontoon gets put inside the L of the harbour wall, creating a tiny shelter for the Busters and other researchers' boats. The pontoon had just been set up when we arrived, so Christian and Dag started getting the boats ready. The boats and engines were dragged from the shed where they'd been stored for winter.

Sofie and I were getting acoustic equipment ready for use on the water, so didn't see what happened next. We heard that there was a problem with the boats, so popped down to help. We could see Dag in a boat without an engine, drifting into the fjord. Once past the mouth of Kongsfjord, there's not much until Greenland, hundreds of sea miles to the west. Christian and Bjørn were starting the outboard engine on the second boat. In minutes, Christian had thrown a rope to Dag and towed the him back to the pontoon. Dag stepped out, apparently none the worse for a couple of hours' drifting by himself. In a mixup, he'd entered the boat before it was secured to the pontoon, and off he'd floated.

But Dag had gone on his little drift without gloves. Kit immediately checked his hands for frostbite and started first aid. He was in trouble. The next day, Dag's fingertips were huge blisters, (everything about Dag was huge – he's about 6ft 6). Kit oversaw his first aid, phoned doctors in Norway for advice as it became clear that his frostbite was serious. The blisters gradually turned a deep, bright purple, swelled up like sausages. He caught the next plane out
and was in Tromsø hospital in a couple of days. Dag had been along to assist, so we made do with one less set of hands.

I learned a little more respect for the cold.

Landfast ice forms as the sea surface freezes over, and remains frozen to land (hence the name). The ice that had melted, making our little harbour usable, was the winter's landfast ice. But ice conditions change, so the next morning, we came down to see ice clogging much of the little harbour, almost around our boats. The shoreline current in Kongsfjord ran anticlockwise, with an unfortunate tendency to bring bergs from the mouth of the fjord along the southern coast to Ny Ålesund. This time, small bergy bits blocked the inside of the harbour. I assumed we weren't going anywhere on the water that day.

Instead, I was shown why these little boats were called Busters, and why their hulls had so many small (and not so small) dints in them. Christian jumped in one, Bjørn in another. They started pushing bergs around, bergs bigger than the boats. They'd ram some, break them in two, then shove. Working as a team, they had a path cleared in minutes. So we headed out, a chance for me to learn my way around the fjord.

Sofie wasn't with us - she was recording sounds from the harbour wall in a separate project. Instead we had two German scientists who were there at Christian's invitation. They were in the Buster with Bjørn, I was with KitnChristian. Christian motored towards the head of the fjord. Every so often, we'd stop, Kit and he would take up binoculars, scan the ice ahead for seals, move on. We puttered from fairly open water to bumping our way through almost-solid ice. Eventually the landfast ice at that head of the fjord became too much of a barrier, we motored anticlockwise towards Blomstrandhalvøya.

And we saw seals, three species in quick succession. Bearded seals, our primary interest: big grey, relaxed animals lolling on small floes, well out from the landfast ice. Long, long white whiskers (hence “bearded”) and rounded heads create an – accurately - dopey impression. Their pups, born at over 70 pounds, chunky from birth, grey heads of a Labrador crossed with a jelly bean, circles of cream around their eyes creating their look of permanent bemusement. A ringed seal, on the landfast ice – adults smaller than the bearded seal pups, silver-grey, slight, hiding. There was a female harp seal hauled out on a floe in more open water, tan and white, unusual but not rare in Kongsfjord.

And as we motored back, a young male walrus snoozed on a floe by himself in the sun. Compared with the other seals, he was huge. He was also much rarer. Blubber and ivory, popular with people, are not so great for the animals born with them. More than three centuries of hunting left walrus almost completely exterminated in Svalbard. They've been protected since the early 1950s, but there are still no good estimates of their population size. Best guess is a couple of thousand. Our male, blissfully ignorant of his rarity, lay out, his impersonation of a fat retiree in the tropics interrupted only to sit up and glare at us when we approached for some photos.

It's the only time I've ever seen four new species of marine mammal in one day.

[Read the next part of this post here.]

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjord. May 2000. Part II.

[Read the first part of this post here]

We were working from Ny Ålesund, the northernmost village on earth. Set on a little flat land by the fjord, it's a multicoloured scatter of old miners' cottages mixed with more modern buildings. Some huts date back to the original coal mine, opened during World War I. One's been kept as a little museum to life back then. Looks rough. Transport to markets was always an issue: from Ny Ålesund, it's about twice as far to Oslo as it is to the North Pole. Despite the prop of government subsidies, a series of fatal accidents in the 1950s and early 1960s saw the collapse of the King's Bay Coal Company's mining venture in 1963. Soon after, the village was reborn for research, initially just Norwegian, then gradually other nations established research programs. Ny Ålesund remains a company town, and King's Bay AS, as it's now known, owns and provides almost everything on site.

There were never any indigenous Svalbardians. Although Norwegians, Icelanders and Pomors (the people of northwestern Russia) claim stories of might-be Svalbard, the archipelago remained unmapped until visited by a Frisian, Willem Barents, just before the end of the 16th Century. Barents found Spitzbergen, the largest of Svalbard's islands. His late Renaissance mix of vessel and mapping technology guaranteed him a place in history, but not his life. He died before returning to the Netherlands. These days, travel to Ny Ålesund is quite a bit easier.

A little under two hours' 737 flight from Tromsø,and I was at Longyearbyen's small airport. Boasting a bit under 2000 people, Longyear is the largest of Svalbard's six settlements. I'd travelled with Kit, Christian and Dag, scientists with the Norwegian Polar Institute. We had an afternoon to take in the town – for me, the most important option being shopping for cold weather gear. Dinner in a log-cabin restaurant was followed by an overnight stay at the Polar Institute's barracks by the airport.

Come morning, we trundled our gear out to a high-winged, long-nosed Dornier. Just a half hour hop with a little over a dozen other scientists, and we'd be at Ny Ålesund. It's a short but spectacular flight. The little Dornier's not pressurized, so stays low, close enough to take in the landscape clearly. I'd thought, when flying in to Tromsø a couple of days earlier, that northern Norway was a landscape of ice, mountains and white. But northern Norway includes trees – a few small birches, but trees just the same. Compared with Spitzbergen's mountains, northern Norway is rainforest.

Longyear's few signs of humanity disappear within seconds of takeoff. We humans are ubiquitous - there aren't many places on land with no sign whatsoever of our presence. But this flight is an exception: no buildings or roads or power lines or huts. The flight crosses Isfjord, a short view of open water. Then land again, mountains, snow, glaciers. No trees. Ranks and ranks and ranks of jutting white peaks. Glaciers fill valleys.

Welcome to the Arctic.

Too soon, the open water of Kongsfjord, and a colored sprinkle of wooden buildings. Ny Ålesund.

Well, not all too soon - Sofie was waiting to meet me. Back then – early May, 2000 – we were just months off marriage. She'd already done a few weeks' fieldwork, so we hadn't seen each other for a while. Sofie's classical Flemish: round, cute face; button nose; large eyes; strong, rather than slender physique. Not much more than her smile was showing when I saw her. The rest of her was indistinguishable, covered in multiple layers of Polarfleece and GoreTex. Arctic fashion is mostly unflattering.

She'd been working with Bjørn, a research assistant for KitnChristian. Kit and Christian are a couple, two highly successful scientists. They're near enough to inseparable, and to Sofie and I their names merged into one. Kit was Sofie's mentor for her postdoctoral fellowship in Norway, a Canadian who combined intellect with a look that mixed tall and formidable – sort of Shieldmaiden With PhD. She treated Sofie like a kid sister.

High Arctic work is impossible alone, so Sofie and Bjørn had been working together, alternating days, Sofie recording bearded seal calls, then Bjørn shooting a few ringed seals for a Polar Institute project. So they vacillated between two extremes of research: benign (listening, taping seal calls) to ferociously invasive (shooting seals). Bjørn looked the archetypal Norwegian - tall, blond, solid, outdoorsy – and, fitting his archetype, he was a good shot. At least the seals died quickly.

Bjørn's project was finished by the time I arrived.

April had seen most of inner Kongsfjord frozen, so Sofie had been snowmobiling out to make her recordings. But by now, the sea ice was breaking up on the fjord, and we could start using boats.

[Read the next part of this post here.]

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007


So what do two posts on giving birth have to do with a blog on marine environmental management - apart from the chance to drop in a couple of cute kiddy photos?

Most of my blogging will be of the life that Sofie and I had during our four years in Norway. Including her eclampsia. Turns out that of all the situations we'd encountered – on ice floes tagging seal pups; in a small boat darting killer whales – the most dangerous was in the labour ward of the local hospital.

Like everyone, scientists are products of their society, as our time in Norway demonstrated. The mindset of hospital staff that allowed Sofie's condition to collapse into disaster - their lack of professionalism – was something distinctly different from anything Sofie or I had ever encountered. That same mindset was prevalent in many of the biologists with whom I worked. Its legacy is ecological devastation of the European Arctic.

But ecological collapse in the ocean isn't immediate and obvious like eclampsia, so their conduct goes unchallenged. My recognition of impending disaster, my decision to act were borne of an understanding of the risks Sofie faced. Unless we understand what's at risk from the mess we're making in the ocean, we'll never act.

Maybe we won't anyway.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

And when professionals get it wrong..........

Labour ward, The University Hospital of Northern Norway, Tromsø. July 2003.

Sofie rises, once again, takes the few steps from her bed to the bathroom. The midwives keep telling her she needs to pee. She still hasn't. She's clean, washed, washed out, wearing a light gray, long sleeved t-shirt of mine. Pale.

I can't get too close to her. My smell still makes her want to puke, but it's been over six hours since Caitlin was born.

Annette changed the sheets a while ago. Caitlin sleeps in the cot, stainless and plastic, at the end of the bed. Marie Jeanne in a corner, reading, a new grandmother. Annette sorts equipment, preparing for the next birth.

Sofie's steps are small, slow.

I look away, check Caitlin.

I turn to Sofie. She stands in front of the toilet, starts shaking. Last time she shook a little, then sat down. I thought it tiredness. Now her legs keep shaking, she doesn't move.


No response.


It's maybe four steps to her. Somehow I'm there already. I call again. Nothing. Shakes spread to her arms. She doesn't hear me. This is it.

I grab her, turn her, hold her from behind. My arms under her shoulders, hold her tight.

[blog advisory note here - occasional rude words in the next section]

As I do, she goes rigid. Wooden. Inanimate.

I'm dragging her out of the bathroom, towards the door. Enclosed space - got to get out before the next phase.

Somehow I dodge the sink. Her arms and shoulders are through the door when I feel it coming. Thrashing – can I hold her? Can't risk it. Can't drop her. I do, she's dead.

I lie her down. Weird, wood-person lowering. Gently, gently. Hold her head. Don't let it hit the floor. My hand's under the back of her head, I slide it out along the floor. She's down. The top of her body's in the delivery room, legs still in the bathroom.

Annette bolts over. “HIT THE RED BUTTON. BY THE BED”, she screams at Marie Jeanne. Marie Jeanne, eyes wide, runs, looks, presses. The alarm screams.

Sofie's arms and legs are everywhere, flailing. Annette grabs a syringe - Valium - slams it into her arm.

I'm standing over Sofie's hips, looking down. Her eyes are rolled back in her head, the whites showing. Only they're light green. Her head tips over to the left and froth, the same light green, bubbles out. Her hands, feet whack the floor, again, again. Again.

Anger. Erupting, enveloping.

Still standing over her, I start to scream, “How the fuck could you let this happen”, but I only get as far as you, and stop, look down at Sofie.

You don't have the luxury of losing control. These fuckwits might yet kill her. Force it down. Control.


The Valium kicks in, her thrashing easing. People arrive.

They're taking too long. Recovery position. That goop in her mouth – she's gonna choke. Or bite through her tongue. No-one's doing anything. Too long. Time to act.

I hear steps, look back at the door. Someone - the head midwife ? arrives. Short, fat, with the hairstyle favoured by Norwegian matrons - not much on the sides, bouffant on top - she stands at the doorway to the room, mouth opening and closing, opening and closing. Doing nothing. Annette defers to her. Nothing happens. Nothing.

Sofie lies there.

Seconds. Eternity.

Go. Act.

I shout at them, “Get her onto the bed. Grab her arms, I'll get her legs. ”.

They move, obedient. We settle her on the bed. She's stopped thrashing.
More staff arrive. A team from intensive care unit move in. Purposeful.

I step back.

Someone asks about head injuries.

“No the husband got her.”, Annette answers.

Marie Jeanne pipes up, “What's going on?”.

“What I've been fucking worried about for the past month!”, I yell at her.

Ellen, finally on the scene, yells back, “Well, so have we!”.

I glare at her, contain myself. Breathe.

Doctors do things. A drip is attached. Busyness.

Sofie is wheeled off, to the intensive care unit. I can't go, must wait until she's been stabilized. A young doctor walks up to me.

“We've given her something to prevent any more seizures........”, she starts.
I interrupt. “Magnesium sulphate.”.


She goes to say something else, looks into my eyes. Decides better, walks off.

Everyone leaves. Sofie has gone, the gaggle of ICU specialists pushing her bed to somewhere I can't go. Ellen, the doctor, walks over, shaken.

“Its terrible. The worst should be over now. But if things get worse...........”, she shakes her head, “Well, we don't want to think about that.”.

I just glare at her. I can't speak. Stay quiet. Don't do anything that might stop you being with Sofie. Soon as possible.

Ellen can't hold my gaze, turns away, walks out. Annette touches my arm, points to the door. She pushes Caitlin's cot, takes us out, along a corridor, into another room.

Caitlin sleeps.

The new room is bigger. Annette turns, grabs me, wraps her arms around me, saying ,“That was a good thing you did.”.

We both cry. I stop, find a jug, drink water. Metabolism. Adrenaline rush. You're going to need water. Drink.

After a while, Caitlin wakes, cries. She's fed a few times already, looks to nuzzle Sofie's breast. But Sofie is gone. I pick her up, she cries.

I walk around the room, holding her, singing.

Somehow Caitlin is fed.

All I recall is walking circuits of the room with Caitlin in my arms. Singing. Thirst. Circuits.

Waiting for news of Sofie.

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HELLP. Or when pregnancy goes wrong, but professionals get it right.

The double l is not a typo – HELLP's a condition that's part of the suite of problems called pre-eclampsia. It's one of the less pleasant ones. Here's the short version of what happened......

Our boy was born a couple of weeks ago, four weeks early. Sofie had high blood pressure brought on by her pregnancy, but without many of the other markers for pre-eclampsia – protein in her urine, for instance. Not fire-hose blood pressure like last time, but still, not good.

So. One day we're in the local hospital, Sofie's getting blood tests, all come back okay, except for her one marker, trending up. Verdict – if nothing gets worse, baby out in about ten days. Next morning, Sof's puking and feeling lousy – first time in months that she's had a chunder. Ring the doctors', pop in a little after 0900. Time to start delivery.

So by 1300, they've started induction and she's on a magnesium sulphate drip. By 1800, not much happening in the way of contractions, but she's got some small tremors in her extremities. Shakes start spreading. She throws up. Doctor's called back in, cranks up the MgSO4. A few minutes' respite from shakes, then they reappear.

By 1930 or so (I guess, I wasn't checking my watch closely at this point) – Sofie's twitching all over. Several impressive, down-to-bile pukes. Bernadette, the midwife caring for her, looks worried.

Sofie has one very small seizure. Her back muscles tense, her body jolts a little, not much. Because I'm behind her, I notice.

“Seizure”, I say.

Sofie looks around with that – where was I – expression that comes of blacking out for a second or so.

Bernadette says, “You sure?”, but as she does, Sofie's leg spasms. Bernadette hits the call button.

Head midwife arrives. Bernadette speaks with her, quickly. Doctor arrives. Glances exchanged, short discussion, nods.

“We're going to do a caesarean now”, he says.

Two hours later, a small boy, purple, smeared in white goop, cried in my arms.

And by 2230, Sofie's sitting up in bed, saying, “Wow. I feel fine.”.


It could have gone very differently. Sofie's blood tests weren't really showing much. Her blood pressure was up, but not horrifically high. There was no protein in her urine.

Then, suddenly, bang. Things went downhill, really fast.

But medical and nursing staff understood what was happening, knew the danger. They listened to us, too. And they responded, really fast.

So now - apart from recovering from major abdominal surgery and not getting a hell of a lot of sleep - Sofie's fine. Because she was cared for by professionals who knew what they were doing.

Doesn't always go like that.

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