Lindblad Expeditions / National Geographic
EXPLORATIONS – A Lindblad Expeditions Blog

Field Dispatches

Heart of the Arctic: A Dispatch from Ground Zero for Climate Change

by Ralph Lee Hopkins, Director of Expedition Photography, Lindblad Expeditions

Stepping ashore in eastern Greenland I realize immediately I’m way overdressed. My expectation this far north of the Arctic Circle was for an ice-cloaked landscape. Instead, it’s sunny and 65ºF (18ºC) today, quite amazing for an area that remains frozen for almost 9 months with an average temperature of 34ºF (1ºC) this time of year.

At over 70º north of the Equator, I’m standing at ground zero for climate change. Nowhere else on Earth is it warming as quickly as in Greenland, the world’s largest island. Scientists tell us there is melting over 100% of the Greenland Ice Cap this summer, a rare event in recorded history. If Greenland’s glaciers totally melt, worldwide sea level is expected to rise over 20 feet. This would flood most of Florida, New York’s Manhattan island, and other densely populated low-lying areas around the globe. A daunting thought on such a beautiful day.

This epic voyage aboard the expedition ship National Geographic Explorer follows in the wake of the Vikings, who over 1,000 years ago used islands as stepping stones across the North Sea. From the fjords of Norway, we marvel at the jagged peaks and painted houses in sleepy fishing villages in the Lofoten Islands, cruise below towering cliffs filled with northern gannets, encounter stone age ruins and ponies in the Shetlands, comical puffins in the Faroes, and waterfalls and more puffins in Iceland. But it was reaching the remote eastern shores of Greenland that was the primary goal for many of us, and to see the Greenland Ice Cap and the world’s longest fjords systems of Scoresby Sound and King Oscar Fjord.

If there’s one animal that brings back visions of the Ice Age, it’s the musk ox. Its contemporaries back in the Pleistocene included woolly mammoths, mastodons, and saber-tooth tigers, all of which became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Musk ox are funny looking animals, with long shaggy hair obscuring short legs, making them appear as dark boulders at a distance. Up close they have large horns, which the males use during the rutting season. The last remaining indigenous populations of musk ox are here in Northeast Greenland National Park.

But for the geologists on board, the real stars are the rocks displayed along the walls of Greenland’s massive fjords. Columnar basalt related to the Devil’s Causeway in Ireland, red rocks the same age as rocks in Sedona and Grand Canyon, Arizona; plus fanciful exposures of folded sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. The twists and turns in the rocks look like a giant marble fudge cake stirred by the global forces of plate tectonics during the mountain-building event, when Europe and North America collided over 400 million years ago. Another daunting thought.

We switch focus from Viking history as we cross the Fram Strait to Svalbard, one of the iciest stretches of ocean anywhere.  The Fram was the ship Fridtjof Nansen’s used in his quest for the North Pole in 1893-96, and Svalbard is the Norwegian word for “cold coast.” Our crossing is made even more challenging by thick fog over the past couple of days. Fog is the enemy in the pack ice—navigation is treacherous and spotting wildlife nearly impossible. It wasn’t until the 1600s that Dutch whalers discovered a bounty of whales in Svalbard. They were then followed by sealers, walrus hunters, and trappers. Both polar bears and walrus are now protected in Svalbard, unlike Greenland where subsistence hunting is still permitted.

As our reward for braving the elements, the weather clears in Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago that stretches to almost 80º north of the Equator, or just over 600 miles from the North Pole. We make a landing after dinner to observe walrus at close range, and on the last afternoon of the voyage we cruise the tidewater glaciers in Hornsund, a spectacular fjord known as a hotspot for the isbørn, or ice bear.

Sharp eyes on the bridge locate a swimming polar bear that hauls itself onto a blue iceberg, while another one swims along the glacier face hunting seals—jackpot!

Seeing a polar bear in the wild brings our voyage full circle. The rapid melting and thinning of the Arctic pack ice is changing the polar bear’s habitat, their dinner table is literally being obliterated by climate change. It’s anyone’s guess what the ultimate impact will be. Some scientists speculate that the polar bear may disappear by the end of this century. One last daunting thought that I hope never becomes reality.

Africa’s Most-Effective Carnivores: A Rare Afternoon with Cape Hunting Dogs

On July 16th I had the privilege of spending a couple hours with cape hunting dogs on the Mala Mala reserve in South Africa. Their den site had been found that morning, and it was a remarkable sighting. I’d seen them before during my six years living in East Africa, but never this close, this calm, this playful. Under the watchful eye of an adult the cubs played relentlessly, probably developing skills that would, in adulthood, make them the most effective carnivores of Africa.

Once they start a hunt in a pack, they rarely fail. According to wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, when I asked: “It is correct that they are hugely efficient. Eighty-four percent was recorded by filmmaker Hugo van Lawick’s as the average success rate once they had identified prey.” By comparison, lions are about 30% efficient.

Patience, stamina, and extraordinary collaboration are their hallmarks.

Sven-Olof Lindblad

Special Delivery from the High Arctic

Last week National Geographic Explorer stopped near Phipps Island in the Sjuøyane group, where we often disembark to explore during our Land of the Ice Bears expedition. At a rescue hut behind the beach, our guests discovered a crate with a note offering a $100 reward upon delivery to Svalbard’s capital Longyearbyen.  A little investigation revealed it was left behind by the ARAT 2012 Expedition, two men who recently traveled 55 days overland from the North Pole. They rested at the hut two days before continuing on. The crate was delivered yesterday. (No word on whether our staff accepted the $100 reward.) See more in the Daily Expedition Report; or see the High Arctic for yourself on Land of the Ice Bears.

Hugged by a Sea Lion in Baja California

Today’s blog post comes to us from Jill Cruse, the VP of Guest Experience for Olivia Travel.

I was hugged by a Sea Lion! While snorkeling in Baja California on the National Geographic Seabird in April of 2012, I felt a warm body pressed against my back. I turned around thinking it was my snorkel buddy, but it wasn’t! The sea lion wrapped herself around my torso in a “U” shape, completely embracing me with her face looking at me for 10 seconds. I stayed with it until my human-ness kicked in and got worried she would nip at me. She swam away, (no nips) but I was left with an experience I will never forget. This behavior is not common, I have been told. Tears were my release as I could not explain in words what that was about. This being felt safe and vulnerable with a human.

By Jill Cruse, Chicago, IL

First-Ever Live Dive in Alaska

Two days ago in Alaska our undersea specialist Justin Hofman suited up for a dive. Instead of taking his conventional video camera and mask, he used our new full-face mask, complete with a comm link back the ship, and a new tethered camera capable of streaming live video directly to the monitors in our lounge. Our guests gathered in the ship’s bow and for the first time, they saw the undersea live while our specialist narrated just what they were looking at.

Future expeditions in Alaska, Baja California, and Costa Rica & Panama will see more and more of this technology.

Follow our Cape-to-Cape Expedition in Real Time

National Geographic’s Digital Nomad Andrew Evans is sailing with us across the Atlantic Ocean right now. The National Geographic Explorer landed at South Georgia just this afternoon on our voyage from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope; next stop—Tristan da Cunha. You can see what’s happening aboard the ship and on the islands we’re exploring by following Andrew on Twitter: @WheresAndrew.

Want even more detail? Check out the Daily Expedition Reports.

Carl Safina Aboard National Geographic Explorer

Photo by Carl Safina

Ecologist Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute is traveling aboard National Geographic Explorer on our expedition from Argentina to South Georgia and The Falklands. While underway he’s filing posts about his journey to his blog. The first post from the 24-day expedition was posted this afternoon: Cruising Argentina, Falkands, and South Georgia Island with Lindblad Expeditions.

Expedition Development Report from Namibia, Africa

By Ralph Hammelbacher
VP of Expedition Development

I’ve been in Namibia, making preparations for our visit in March 2012 aboard National Geographic Explorer, and exploring the towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund and their environs has been an exceptional experience. It’s been quite a few years since my last time here, and these places have only become more interesting.

The deserts that flank the Namibian coast offer a variety of exceptional experiences that I’ll try to write about separately, but in this post I want to talk about visiting Mondesa Township, which houses most of Swakopmund’s people. During the colonial era, when Namibia (then called South West Africa) was ruled by South Africa, blacks were not allowed to live in the center of Swakopmund. Instead, the colonial authorities established Mondesa, with separate areas for the different tribes. They built different types of houses, some pretty decent and others not so.

Now that Namibia is independent, anyone is free to live anywhere, of course, but what has happened in Mondesa is that people have become established in their communities and taken pride in their neighborhoods and homes, improving them over the years. So many African townships are afflicted with crime, but Mondesa, while far from perfect, is quite safe (and feels safe). It houses about 32,000 of Swakopmund’s 48,000 people.

A remarkable South African-born woman named Michelle Lewis, who is married to a well-known Namibian athlete, has lived in Mondesa for many years now, and has involved members of the community in showing it to visitors. It’s a tremendous way to gain genuine insight into how people live in an African town, one that we’ll be offering to guests on our voyage.

Guests will be able to walk the streets of Mondesa, stopping to talk with the residents, and to go into the homes of a number of people who make a difference there. One of them is Oma Lina, a lady in her 80s, who is a respected elder and who, without pay, adjudicates disputes in the community. Another is Augusta, who sells traditional herbal medicines.

And then there is Naftaline, a remarkable lady who, feeling driven to help, has taken orphaned children — now numbering 14, ranging in age from 6 to 21 — into her home. She is a true difference-maker in her community. Her efforts have highlighted the need for a proper orphanage, and with help from other concerned people, Naftaline is raising funds to build a proper orphanage in Swakopmund. I was deeply moved, as I know our travelers will be too.

I know that those of our guests who choose to visit this exceptional place will have an experience that they’ll recall for a long time.

Flip Nickin’s “Among Giants” in San Diego

Sometimes the timing just works out. After disembarking National Geographic Sea Bird in Seattle, I headed south to San Diego to catch the opening of National Geographic Photographer Flip Nickin’s “Among Giants” exhibit at the Ordover Gallery at the San Diego Museum of Natural History. The exhibit is part of a nationwide book tour for the release of his new book  “Among Giants.”

In part sponsored by the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic alliance, Flip’s keynote presentation blew away the hundreds in attendance with life-size images of whales and dolphins projected on the multi-story IMAX screen.

A reception followed, where I was honored to have 6 prints hanging alongside Flip’s legendary work, which filled the hall.

Fellow National Geographic Photographer Paul Nicklen (no relation) also had prints hanging in the exhibit, along with prints by gallery owner Abe Ordover shot on board the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic fleet of ships. Whale sculptures by Randy Puckett put the exhibit over the top.

The exhibit will run through December 31, 2011 in the Ordover Gallery, in the fourth floor atrium of San Diego Museum of Natural History.

So if the timing works out, be sure and catch this exhibit in San Diego before the end of the year. Safe travels.

Dispatch from the Field by Ralph Lee Hopkins
Director of Expedition Photography
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic

Soaring Over Peru’s Nazca Lines

As I stepped out onto the tarmac, my stomach twisted violently. Ahead of me the little airplane glinted in the sunlight, and the pilot stood beckoning me towards the cockpit – I’d be riding up front, with him. As I climbed in, my knees knocked into the electronic dashboard, and a paper bag hung ominously within grabbing distance. It was time to fly.

I was in Nazca, Peru, in a four passenger plane about to lift off to view the mysterious Nazca Lines. Created by the Nazca people, who thrived in southern Peru and northern Chile from 200 B.C. through 600 A.D., the Nazca Lines are a series of geoglyphs etched into the sand in one of the driest deserts on earth.

As we flew over the arid landscape, the plane banked sharply from side to side to give us the best views of the shapes scratched into the earth below. Covering an area of more than 200 square miles, the geoglyphs range in size from 80 feet to over 200 feet and represent an array of designs – a trapezoid, spider, monkey, hummingbird, tree, human hands and what looks uncannily like a modern-day astronaut. Due to their vast size, the shapes are only fully recognizable from the sky.

From a vantage point that the Nazca people were never able to use, it’s amazing to see the enormity of the project they undertook. Seeing their designs, still so vivid 2,000 years after they were created, brought the people of Nazca to life for me. I could see them, struggling in the blinding desert sun to create beautiful visions of birds and humanity that will last as long as the earth will let them.

The survival of these designs over time is a testament to the harshness of the atmosphere – no other culture has managed to thrive here and destroy what was once created so artfully – but it’s also a testament to the creativity and values of the lost Nazca people. It is easy to feel their sense of worship for their landscape, even from the sky.

Theories about the origins of the Nazca Lines run the gamut -astrological calendars, irrigation ditches, ceremonial prayer pathways and the infamous landing strips for alien spacecraft are some of the most popular.  Their true nature has always remained a mystery, but scientists are coming closer to understanding their purpose. As National Geographic reports, the answers can be found on the ground, rather than from the sky.

By April Darcy