Elysium Artists for the Arctic Story

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ON 28 AUG 2015, OUR TEAM OF 65 FROM 19 NATIONS convened at the Oslo Radisson Blue hotel, the staging point for a 19 day expedition to the high Arctic. After collecting our expedition package, some of us departed on the early morning and some on the late evening flight to Longyearbyen, 78° 13' 6.92"N 15° 38' 55.50"E.

At 16:00 hour on 29 August, with the precision and suave of a military operation, we boarded the Akademik Schuleykin, a 71.61-metre long, ice-strengthened research ship outfitted with six 12-men inflatables. At 17:00 hour, Capt. Alexander Evgenov commandeered the vessel sailed out of Longyearbyen Fjord guided by a small pod of Belugas, their smooth white bodies reflecting the hues of the Arctic sky. On board, the first officer conducted a short and sharp safety briefing, and an essential lifeboat drill.  The Elysium expedition had officially begun.

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Over the next 19 days, we successfully procured 12 terabytes of quality images and 4k of high definition aerial, land and underwater footage. We executed eight launches of the Video Plankton Recorder (VPR) and collected samples from Svalbard to Greenland. We journeyed 2,688 nautical miles from Longyearbyen to the pack ice at 81.5°N, then crossed the Fram Passage to Greenland and finally traversed the Denmark Sea to end in Iceland.

 

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This project was conceptualised in a bar one late night in November 2013, after the annual awards dinner of the Academy of Underwater Arts and Science in Orlando. The Elysium Artists project was born after Michael AW had a few drinks with Her Deepness, Sylvia Earle. In 2013, the expanse of sea ice in the Arctic was the lowest ever recorded. The polar north is in big trouble; temperature in the region is rising two times faster than any other place on Earth. Our bottomless appetite for dirty energy with its relentless release of climate-altering greenhouse gases, is consuming the Arctic ecosystem, and threatening the health of our entire planet.  Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will most likely be gone within the next 35 years, and more species will follow in their footsteps, as will our way of life, as sea levels rise and inundate coastlines all around the globe.

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For these reasons, Ocean Geographic Society initiated the Elysium Artists for the Arctic project. The Artists for the Arctic expedition is one of the most exciting, innovative, and inspirational journeys embarked upon in the last hundred years. The images captured and insights gathered during this expedition aim to change the way people all over the world see and understand the Arctic, an enlightenment that will hopefully catalyse a much-needed paradigm shift away from indifference and into action to protect our natural world. Our mission was to educate and promote conservation efforts of our frozen North through both art and science.

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The expedition team comprised of 65 of the world’s most well-known and respected photographers, videographers, explorers, artists, and scientists, including luminaries such as Dr. Sylvia Earle as our chief scientist, globally recognized photographers David Doubilet, Ernie Brooks, and Michael Aw, famed ocean artist Wyland, polar naturalist and photographer Magnus Elander, award winning composer Eric Bettens, and a stellar cinematography team. Elysium Artists for the Arctic utilized the expertise of these incredible team members to create a multi-faceted interpretation of the Arctic in order to inspire greater appreciation, understanding, and love for this critically important region of our planet, while drawing attention to the impacts of climate change. This icy ecosystem is regarded as one of the most enchanting wilderness areas on our planet, yet volatile and under severe threat from the warming of the world’s climate. Elysium Artists promises the most awe-inspiring and stunning visual representation ever seen of the Arctic. The sights, sounds, and science captured by our Elysium Artists will inspire ways to preserve and protect life at the top of the world through art, education, and outreach.

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From space, the Arctic may look like a frozen desert, but the truth is, it is full of life. Unique and beautiful creatures such as polar bears, arctic foxes, snowy owls, walruses, harp seals, and blue whales call this icy ecosystem home. And all of this diverse life is dependent on the same thing: sea ice. Imagine sea ice as an upside down coral reef -- a floating, cold-water oasis that protects and supports all the life that exists at the top of the world. Over a thousand species of ice algae form the foundation of the Arctic food web, and many types of fish, birds, and marine mammals also depend on this sea ice to survive. We depend on it too. Arctic sea ice is our planet’s air-conditioning system and has been regulating our climate for millions of years.

Going North to the Pole

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30th August: We encountered our first glacier, the 14th of July Glacier, and we were awed by the sheer scale and grandeur of this wall of calving ancient ice, pushed into the sea ever faster by a warming world. The unmistakable cracking sound created when pieces of the glacier detached and fell into the sea was so loud, it reverberated through our bodies as we snapped photos and captured videos on the Zodiacs. As if this sight were not enough on its own, the icy water was alive with the sleek, white bodies of a pod of beluga whales swimming through the shallow water, escorting the Zodiac teams on their first major excursion on the water. This was also the first time most of us had the pleasure of seeing icebergs in all their glowing blue wonder. It was a sight that can only be described as otherworldly. They seemed to produce light from within themselves, akin to a muted blue bulb illuminating an impossibly abstract white lampshade. It was a truly captivating afternoon.

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1st September: The underwater team experienced an incredibly beautiful dive site located along the abyssal wall beneath a bird nesting cliff at Alkefjellet. This proved to be the most colourful dive site of the expedition, 1°C water and a sheer rock wall covered in anemones, crabs, starfish, kelp, and fascinating macro life, all in bright hues of pink and orange. Any fireworks display would pale in comparison to the explosion of life nurtured in this seemingly inhospitable location, fed with an abundance of nutrients from the birds above.

5th September: We were treated to a most incredible encounter with a polar bear, a bold, young male we fondly nicknamed “Freckles” because of all the endearing little spots along his snout. He meandered up to our ship just as the low rays of the twilight sun peaked out between the horizon and the cloud layer, illuminating his fur with a yellow glow while making the water and ice around him come alive. He stayed next to the ship for almost 40 minutes, as photographers serenaded him with a deafening symphony of non-stop shutter clicks.  

6th September: Our three primary Elysium artists finally found a location worthy of their talents to create their Arctic art. While our divers explored a wall around Fugleoya, our artists Halla, Toby and Wyland, spent a few hours atop a small rock island directly in front of an actively calving glacier, recreating the scene in their respective mediums and perspectives. The resulting pieces are absolutely breath-taking and truly reflect the essence of this unique polar region. The little island the artists were situated on was covered in a lovely variety of plants. The moss in particular stood out because it covered the rocks so thickly that it resembled a lush, green carpet that contrasted starkly with the white of the ice and black of the rock island. Just like a sponge, it would compress under pressure, and with each step, our feet would sink down at least six inches into this living ground. The rocks of the island were also encrusted with lichens, mushrooms, and non-vascular plants that transformed a non-living surface into a landscape of thriving botanical biodiversity.

This was also a day of memorable marine mammals: harbour seals and walruses to be specific. Divers and snorkellers spent time in the water at Virgohamna with friendly seals that seemed as if they could never quite get close enough to the humans and their oversized camera gear. The seals were curious and boisterous, and posed for everyone’s cameras; we certainly enjoyed the charm of the seals and they seemed to also be amused by our clumsiness. A couple of the Zodiac teams captured beautiful images of a young walrus relaxing on an ice floe with its mother, while others spent time photographing a herd of boisterous walruses on Smeerenburg, a well-known gathering spot for these huge, tusked shellfish eaters. Being close enough to smell their fishy breath added an extra dimension to the sighting that was hard to ignore.

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