In tonight’s episode of Tough Boats, Hackney comedian Ian Wright sets off from the coast of northern Norway on a trawler fishing for cod. After arriving at Spitsbergen – the world’s northernmost inhabited island – he continues his voyage on a specially ice-strengthened vessel in search of polar bears.
He tells us why Greenland is his favourite Arctic destination, and why fish and chips are ruined for him forever.
Had you been to the Arctic Circle before?
Yes, the Arctic Circle is my environment. I love it more than any other place on Earth. I’ve been doing this job for 23 years and when people ask “Where haven’t you been that you really want to go to?”, I reply “Siberia”.
How did you cope with the midnight sun?
I thought 24-hour daylight would be a bit weird but actually I really got into it. You just have to have thick curtains and tape eye patches to your eyes. The hardest thing was getting used to the boat going up and down. There were times when I was rolling around like a bottle in my little cabin, being knocked from side to side.
Do you have sea legs?
I do but you’re talking the Barents Sea and all bets are off when you’re up there. At times the boat was mental and the crew were like: “What do you mean? This is the calmest sea we’ve ever seen”. The scary thing is all the equipment going up and down and trying not to get in the way of that. You’ve just got to keep your eye on everything.
It looks like hard work…
It is. Everybody works eight hours on, eight hours off. It was a dry ship as well. No alcohol allowed. I was happy about that because the last thing you want is all that equipment around people a bit worse for wear. I enjoyed it, although probably because I knew I was only on there for five days. I would never want to be a trawlerman.
Did you eat much fish or were you sick of it?
I’ve never tasted cod until I tasted it on that boat. I asked the trawlermen what their favourite fish was and they all said cod, and I was like: “Cod is rubbish. Cod doesn’t taste of anything. It’s that white rubbery nonsense.”
And then we had freshly caught cod that night and the taste was just extraordinary – absolutely delicious – and I could understand why they loved it so much. It really is a completely different taste when it’s straight out of the sea. A lot of our cod is frozen twice before it arrives on our plates. They freeze it and send it to China where it’s defrosted and filleted, then frozen again and sent to the UK. It’s ridiculous.
What did you think of Spitsbergen?
It’s like a frontier town: a strange community of weird people who have washed up there. But it’s the springboard to explore the High Arctic. I went out on an icebreaker called the Stockholm for eight days, which was half-tourism, half-conservation. You’re just in a little cabin but it felt like luxury compared to a dry, working ship,
I was in my cabin one night and I thought: What the hell is that sound? It sounds like a plane taking off. And then I realised it was the noise of the hull cutting through the ice. So there I was on deck at four o’clock in the morning, bright daylight, in the middle of the ice, looking for polar bears: how crazy it that?
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What was it like spying a polar bear through your binoculars for the first time?
They’re so large and legendary and there’s one in the distance eating a seal. Even though you’re a mile away and on a safe boat, you’re thinking: My god, that is a powerful animal. And then we were lucky enough to see others up close – it’s quite a moment in your life.
We also went out on zodiacs and there were walruses bobbing up only a couple of metres from our little boat, about five of them just checking us out: “What’s going on here then?” They look like old geezers because they’ve got those moustaches. We felt very privileged.
Where’s your favourite place in the Arctic?
Greenland is just heaven on earth. 55,000 people live there and it’s half the size of Europe – Norway to the Sahara. When I was in the capital, someone said: “See that tower block? 2% of the population live in that tower block.” It really is a fantasy world. Everywhere you look is just absolutely stunning: beautiful snow, mountains, the calmness of it, the sound of the icebergs, it’s absolutely off the scale. It’s got a romance, a harshness and a beauty to it all wrapped up together. I advise everybody to get up into the Arctic at least once.
Any tips for first-timers?
As they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing. That’s 100% true. You’ve got to have your layers on, your silly woolly hat and waterproof bottoms – there’s nothing worse than a wet backside.
Tough Boats: The Arctic is on 26 February on Travel Channel
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