On land, polar bears reign, and colonies of kittiwakes, little auks, and other seabirds claim the scree slopes and cliffs. Offshore, bowhead whales feed in the frigid waters and Atlantic walruses haul out on diminishing sea ice. A key species for this unique ecosystem? The tiny, temperature-sensitive copepod, a crustacean that’s food for seabirds and also for the fish that in turn feed marine mammals. It’s a delicate balance—and one that depends on the presence of ice.
In the summer of 2013, Pristine Seas, partnering with the Russian Arctic National Park and the Russian Geographical Society, led an international team of scientists and filmmakers to the archipelago’s location 1,500 kilometers above the Arctic Circle.
Their goal: to assess the ecosystem’s current state compared to historical scientific baselines, including the landscape shown in photographs obtained by explorers in the late 19th century.
With this mission in mind, the team conducted land and underwater surveys, sent drop cams to the deep ocean, collected specimens, tagged seabirds, and re-created historical studies to obtain data for temporal comparison.
What they found was a near-pristine terrestrial and underwater environment that’s nevertheless showing the effects of warming temperatures. “I expected to see some pack ice, to be able to dive under the ice and see the little shrimp and the Arctic cod that seals eat, and hopefully polar bears jumping from ice floe to ice floe,” Sala says. “But everywhere there was open water. The sea ice is disappearing very fast.” This makes the species found on and around the islands particularly vulnerable—and even more in need of protection.
In addition to conducting scientific research, the team brought back photos and video and released a documentary film showcasing Franz Joseph Land’s unique environment. And the surveys—encompassing everything from “walrus to virus,” according to Sala—rewarded the scientists with plenty of surprises, including the first deep-sea footage of the rare Greenland shark in Franz Josef Land.
In August 2016, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced the expansion of the Russian Arctic National Park by 74,000 square kilometers, to include the Franz Josef Land archipelago. The expansion created not only the largest protected area in Russia but also the largest marine reserve in the Arctic, at a total of 88,000 square kilometers.
Species such as polar bears, Atlantic walruses, bowhead whales, and ivory gulls will be protected under the expansion. The area will also be protected from oil, gas, and seabed mineral exploration, but regulated ecotourism is expected.
The explorers amass some amazing stats. An engineer reacts … exuberantly … to surprising footage of a rare Greenland shark. A polar bear charges the team, takes a remote-camera selfie, and chews on a tripod. Divers barely escape a rolling, hundred-ton iceberg. A lucky discovery is for the birds. The life aquatic gets real—and literary. The expedition co-leaders get reflective. And expedition leader Paul Rose sums it all up without taking a breath.