Friday, July 13, 2007

The pack ice edge, east of Greenland. March, April 2002

Our world is ice, sprinkled with seals. The pilot finds a pan big enough, lands. We jump out, walk a few metres, turn away, crouch, hold our gear. Rotors whip ice flurries into us, the helicopter disappears. Lance, our icebreaker home, is over the horizon. No sign of humanity.
What planet is this?

The ice – thin, pancakey stuff, no height to it – lifts, eases down, driven by the swells from a storm somewhere way south, north of Iceland. We stand still, the ice moves in gentle sinewaves – enough motion to upset Sofie, prone to seasickness. Beneath us, there's a metre or so of ice, then over a mile of sea. The eastern coast of Greenland lies somewhere way to the west.

All around, scattered among the ice, cream-white harp seal pups, fluffy toys come alive. Dark bodies of mothers lolling, nursing. Other mums bob in the water, watching us. We sort out our gear, hoist packs, move off. The helicopter allows a team of five. Garry, Callan and I tag pups, Sofie and Ilse record the bleats pups call to their mothers. It’s not too cold, maybe –10C, we get around in flotation suits and Sorrel boots, warm enough. Thin woolly gloves cover fingers, our coldest bits. Backpacks carry what we need for a few hours out: spare socks, chocolate, spraycans, binoculars, tags, towels, radio, batteries. I carry more tags on a ring on my belt. Sofie and Ilse stay a couple of hundred metres from us, recording pups undisturbed by our tagging.

Harp seal pups redefine cute. They suck their flippers, roll, gaze around, scratch, greet mum with cry and a kiss on the nose, watch us with those huge, liquid-black eyes. We approach. Some pups take off over the ice, dragging themselves for the water. We laugh, slip, run across the little pans to get them. Some escape, pup-paddle to another floe, bleat for mum, sad and wet. Others scrunch up into a still, short, chubby, hard version of themselves, unmoving, making themselves into easily grabbed fluffy toys. Some fight back when caught, gumming our ankles furiously, bleating battle cries. Their teeth are, at most, tiny white nubbins, no risk to our floater suits. We allow them their bravery.

We clip small tags into their hind flippers, and they wail. They poo all over our hands – light brown, the squidginess of milk drinkers. My spraycan out, quick graffiti onto their back, across ice for more. Our decorative seal pups tell us who we’ve tagged, where we’ve been in the icescape, always moving. After a few hours, a radio call tells of the arriving helicopter, we head back to Lance.

[read the next part of this post here]

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