Chris Packham risks his life to witness the birth of an iceberg

The TV naturalist heads to the Arctic to explore the effects of worldwide consumerism on the environment and its wildlife population

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Two slabs split from a base near the glacier’s water line and gradually tilt backwards, slipping slowly into the sea. They sink, spin and the scene seems to settle and calm. But then, so very, very slowly, the immense hull of an enormous body of shiny smooth ice rises as if from nowhere, its hulk draining thousands of tonnes of slush as it slips unstoppably from an enormous cavity in the face of the glacier.

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The monster buckles and shears but is in no great rush to be freed, despite being frozen there for a thousand years while the world has written, warred and worshipped, nature has waited patiently for its time to fall.

At this moment the Operation Iceberg team stands fumbling for cameras, struggling for words, hypnotised by the brutal and menacing majesty of the spectacle we’ve hoped to witness – the birth of a big iceberg.

The aftermath is strange, a kind of crushed exuberance falls over our sunny camp perched above Greenland’s infamous Store Glacier. It’s what we had wanted to see and record but, in truth, it’s too big; it has been shocking rather than just spectacular. We wander like traumatised victims caught in the wreckage of a massive car crash.

I’d been within 150 metres of the ice cliff’s sheer white face. I knew it was dangerous, that we were gambling as we plied our science throughout the polar night, skirting its creaking flanks to scan it with sonar so we could see for the first time its submerged secrets. But now our fragility had been exposed. If this ‘berg had been born while our little craft was bobbing by, we’d have been destroyed. No doubt. Just dead.

Getting under the skin of a glacier is bloody dangerous and, despite all the technology, it’s still a more than risky business. Why bother then? Well, ours is a small world and to understand its processes fully, in order to live in this world successfully, we need to know why there are now more icebergs than ever before, what effect their melting will have on the sea level rising around us and how the climate is driving this. You see, northern Greenland may seem a far-off place, but what’s happening there now will impact directly upon what happens here next.

If the sheer wonder of the melting glacier and that of the iceberg we subsequently hitched a lift with was so enriching and intense, then why was I nagged by a sense of having arrived here too late? Try as I might, I couldn’t find perfection in this place, because there were all the signs that it had been ravaged and was now slowly unfreezing.

The hostility of the environment is obvious, but the tenacity of life and its determination to shape a niche for itself are equally so. There were moths, spiders, beetles and the birds that ate them; there were seabirds and seals, too, but not as many as I’d imagined and we saw just a handful of whales.

In fact the closest I got to a whale was at a buffet in one of the hotels in the western Greenland town of Ilulissat where a bevy of dishes included seal in many culinary styles, whale pickled, diced or smoked and a whole minke whale flipper from which you were welcome to cut your own raw slices. There was also a plate of polar bear meat.

It’s easy to be instantly repulsed and angered by such fare, but it’s important to consider the cultural and environmental differences between our world and that of the native peoples, before beginning to rage. Meat here has always come from the sea and harvesting seals and whales is what fed these peoples for hundreds of years.

And, let’s be clear: it was not these folk who decimated the world’s whale populations. Among others, the British had a long and unhealthy interest in industrial-scale whaling. There’s a ferocious, and very laudable pride, in preserving traditions of all kinds in both Greenland and Arctic Canada, but in the 21st century is it tolerable, given the precarious state of some of our wildlife, and is it properly regulated so that its impacts are minimised and sustainable?

Greenland has legislation to regulate the hunting of larger whales. Only minke and fin whales can be taken by licensed hunters and the quota equates to around 150 and ten of each respectively per year. The International Whaling Commission estimates the minke population at 10,800 and fin whale at 3,200 in the surrounding seas, and it’s thought that both are slowly increasing, so maybe the system is working. However, only Japan and Norway kill more whales than Greenland.

The beautiful beluga and extraordinary narwhal are not so well protected and both species populations are suspected to be in critical decline. Hunting is meant to be regulated but monitoring is virtually nonexistent and numbers killed are rising annually.

Both species are also under severe stress due to changes in climate and their future on earth looks pretty bleak. We didn’t see either. I never have. Probably never will.

There are thought to be 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left and around 700 are known to be shot every year. The west Greenland population is shared with eastern Canada as the bears migrate seasonally and this population is in danger of serious decline through hunting. Local people say the bears are becoming more common as they’re seen more frequently on land, but scientists suspect that this is because the bears are increasingly forced ashore by melting ice and changes in their migration patterns.

In Ilulissat, souvenir shops sell polar bear skins, skulls and claws and unbelievably it’s legal to import them into the UK. Given that some conservationists warn that the population is set to diminish by two-thirds by 2050, I don’t think we should be tempted to spend.

For me, there are two basic problems. First, there are a lot more people living in the Arctic now, so the pressure on the wildlife is significantly greater, and secondly the harvesting methods are rarely traditional. Fast, high-powered speedboats have replaced seal skin canoes, and state-of-the-art rifles are used instead of harpoons – killing is far easier. For both of these reasons the number of animals being killed is rising.

I understand the desire to conserve tradition, but what’s traditional about exporting narwhal tusks to the Far East and polar bear trinkets to Europe? Nothing. It’s about money not culture and thus ultimately perhaps it’s more about the consumers than the hunters. Either way, it seems that these are not the best days to be a polar bear.


MY ARCTIC DIARY

Baking hot and freezing cold

Three weeks camping beside a glacier, two on a ship alongside an iceberg. Television meets science among swarms of mosquitoes in freezing fog and 24 hours of daylight. Chuck in some helicopters, polar bears, sea sickness and a huge range of human personalities. Serve to BBC2 in two, one-hour portions. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Perhaps surprisingly, given the above recipe, it really was. But there’s never that much good without a sprinkling of bad…

I hate camping

Though I can be camp, I don’t enjoy enforced discomfort. Living as a Neolithic tramp isn’t my idea of a good time. You can’t be successfully OCD in a tent. I tried. I swept and tidied daily but my squalid stinking sack still looked like a jumble sale bombsite. And waking to the stench of my own sweaty decay in a state of near paralysis, to be assassinated by millions of mosquitoes, isn’t my idea of breakfast in heaven, either. I couldn’t wait to burn that tent. 

My foxy pal

Allegedly, someone threw a rock at my good friend, the arctic fox. He made squirming out of my canvas cell a real joy. I was feeding this nimble urchin scraps but some seemed to have transported their vulpine prejudices to the Arctic and began to villainise him, accusing him of stealing food and chewing cables. At one stage chocolate was rationed. Mutiny was so close. Luckily, I had a secret supply in my tent – and I gave half to the fox. 

Not warming to Coldplay

Back on the boat I awoke to hear Coldplay. I nearly abandoned ship.


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Operation Iceberg is on Tuesday and Thursday at 9:00pm on BBC2