In 2019, we joined the research vessel Barba as part of its Arctic Whale expedition to study the effects of microplastics on Atlantic whale species in the coastal waters of Iceland. Today, Barba sets sail for the polar Atlantic once again as part of the Arctic Sense expedition. This collaborative four-month scientific and communications expedition will see a rotating team of scientists and storytellers undertake a 3,000 nautical mile investigative voyage into the Arctic to research, document and share valuable information and untold stories about marine life, with a focus on keystone Arctic and sub-Arctic whale species.
“The impacts of climate change are unfolding far more rapidly and intensely in the Arctic than anywhere else. Soaring temperatures, rapidly melting ice, acidification and rising sea levels, combined with pervasive levels of marine plastic pollution, are all threatening Arctic ecosystems,” says Barba’s Expedition Director and Captain Andreas B. Heide. “With the clock ticking, documenting and researching the threats faced by marine life in this highly inaccessible region is more important than ever to inform and inspire effective safeguards for this fragile environment.”
In partnership with the research group Whale Wise, and with the support of the University of Stavanger and the University of Iceland, a comprehensive and innovative research plan has been established in order to gather as much information as possible. Whale Wise cofounder Tom Grove says, “Using novel and exciting methods including drone-based aerial imagery and custom-built acoustic arrays to monitor the impact of human activity on whale populations, we’ll be asking: which species inhabit the region and why? How are humans influencing population health? Are these populations resilient to future disturbance? We will explore the polar Atlantic ecosystem, learning what we can from historic activities, assess its current health and predict the impact of a developing Arctic.”
Arctic Sense is divided into four key chapters. Departing from Stavanger, Norway, the team will sail northward along the Norwegian coastline to Svalbard. During this transmitting stage, the team will fine tune equipment and research methods, which includes a custom-built towed hydrophone array to document sperm whales in the waters off Andøya. Following this, Barba will spend 6 weeks in Svalbard undertaking fieldwork pertaining to marine plastic pollution, the documentation of cetaceans, and wider research and documentation of polar bears and walruses. In Svalbard, the team will be joined by our Contributing Editor Hugh Francis Anderson and will sail via the small island of Jan Mayen, once a prolific Dutch whaling station. Here, Hugh will lead the onshore work and the recreation of Sir James Mann Wordie’s 1921 expedition to summit the world’s northernmost active volcano, Mount Beerenberg, on the centenary of its first ascent. The mission aims to share valuable historical and cultural stories, alongside asking questions surrounding the impact of climate change on the island’s glaciers and marine ecosystems. “In recreating and sharing a previously untold tale of polar exploration, we hope to discover what impact climate change has had on this minute arctic island over the past century,” says Hugh. “With a rich whaling history, where the wild whale populations were hunted to near extinction, we hope to discover whether numbers are rebounding and what species remain in the waters off Jan Mayen Island.” The expedition will culminate in a southward sail to the Faroe and Shetland Islands, before sailing up the Thames into London. Barba will then return back to Stavanger, Norway.