Against the wind

One hundred years after explorers first summited the world's northernmost volcano, Mount Beerenberg, on a speck of land in the North Atlantic Ocean, a set of adventurers and scientists follow in their footsteps.

Words by Hugh Francis Anderson
Photographs by Hugh Pettit


Jan Mayen Expedition Journal
Day 11, 30th August 2021, Jan Mayen

“I write this now at the captain’s desk. It’s 5am. Andreas sleeps on the sofa in the saloon dressed in foul weather gear, ready to leap into action should Barba lose her anchor in the violent-storm-force 57-knot gusts. Red light warms the saloon as the boat tremors, as if shaken by the hand of Thor. The first light of day hints on the horizon. A vast half-moon illuminates the Arctic sky. Stars, the like I have never seen before, glimmer above our vessel as dark clouds spread either side. I peer out of the portside window and see the snow-capped summit of Mount Beerenberg glisten above the cliffs of Nordbukta. Clouds whirl atop the peak in the raging gale.

“Dark, foaming, white-capped waves soar across the bay. The light of dawn now delicately paints the vista of Jan Mayen and its domineering volcano Beerenberg. Later today, we sail south to Båtvika. In 24 hours, we will begin our ascent of Beerenberg. Nervous anticipation fills me. The time is nearing. The story about to unfold.”

In early 2020, in the Members’ Room of the Royal Geographical Society, I came across the March 1922 issue of The Geographical Journal. I flicked through the worn pages with intrigue until I came to a report titled Jan Mayen Island by JM Wordie. I had recently returned from the Arctic with captain Andreas B Heide aboard the research yacht Barba, where he first told me about this remote outpost, an island he had sailed to in 2012. I read the report with fervour and discovered that the first British expedition to Jan Mayen took place in August 1921. Led by Sir James Mann Wordie, who achieved renown as the geologist and chief of scientific staff aboard Endurance during Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition, 1914-1917, the expedition’s goal was twofold: to undertake the first geological study of the island and claim the first ascent of the unconquered peak of Mount Beerenberg. I called Heide. With the centenary in just 18 months, an anniversary expedition was born.

Look on a map and you’ll likely miss the remote island of Jan Mayen. With a landmass of just 377 km2, it lies on the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean, between the Greenland and Norwegian Seas. A volcanic growth sprouted from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as recently as 500,000 years ago, it sits alone in more than 2 million km2 of open ocean. A short isthmus separates the low-lying south from the dominating north, where the world’s northernmost volcano, Mount Beerenberg, rises over 2km out of the ocean. Beerenberg itself is comprised of 20 glaciers and topped by a 1km crater-rim. Today, it is a Norwegian military outpost with meteorological and satellite navigation stations. The island’s north is a protected nature reserve with significant restrictions in place to maintain its fragile ecosystems. It is thus seldom visited.

As an inhospitable, unrelenting place, Jan Mayen’s history is nonetheless varied and deeply intertwined with the ocean and its inhabitants. At the dawn of European Arctic whaling in the early 17th century, the battle between the British and the Dutch for territorial hunting grounds raged. While some believe Henry Hudson discovered Jan Mayen in 1607, the first verifiable account was in 1614 by Englishman John Clarke. At the same time, three Dutch whaling ships arrived, one of them captained by Jan Jacobsz May, after whom the island is named. “The market for whale products was large in Europe and once the Dutch discovered Jan Mayen with the numbers of whales nearby, it was natural for Dutch whaling companies to occupy the bays there with their train oil (bowhead blubber) boilers,” says Dr Susan Barr, former cultural heritage advisor for Jan Mayen 1979-2016. “The whaling started very successfully, but occurrences around the island diminished and the Dutch whaling there petered out around 1642.” Indeed, whaling logbooks of the time indicate the presence of thousands of bowhead whales. Due to the abundance of phyto-and-zooplankton caused by nutrient-rich meltwater from the Greenland Ice Sheet, alongside upwelling, the number of bowhead whales in the Arctic is thought to have once numbered 46,000. “The bowheads are slow swimming whales that could be caught with rowing boats,” says Professor Louwrens Haquebord, former Director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen and of the Willem Barentsz Polar Institute. “After being killed, the animals floated in the water because of the thick blubber layer and the decomposition gasses and could be relatively easily transported to the ships or to land.” According to Haquebord and the whalers’ logbooks, approximately 1,000 bowheads, alongside a number of northern bottlenose whales, sperm whales, fin (or sei) whales, narwals and belugas were hunted around Jan Mayen. In just 22 years, the bowhead stocks were so depleted that Jan Mayen became unprofitable for the Dutch, and by 1850 bowheads in the Arctic had been hunted to near extinction. While the subpopulation around Greenland remains endangered, according to the IUCN, the global population has rebounded to an estimated 10,000 individuals.

Heide uses Barba as a research and storytelling platform, with a message of conservation that utilises whales as ambassadors of the ocean. In 2019, I joined him as part of his Arctic Whale expedition to study the effects of microplastics on Atlantic whale species in the coastal waters of Iceland, which I wrote about in Issue 08. This year, 2021, marked the next evolution of the platform with the Arctic Sense expedition, a collaborative four-month, 3,000 nautical-mile scientific and communications voyage to the polar Atlantic with a rotating team of scientists and storytellers. “Marine research has a great importance for the general life support function of the ocean, and for using the ocean in a sustainable way to feed an ever-growing population,” says Heide. “Marine research in the Arctic is of special importance as the ecosystem is undergoing rapid change with retreating ice as a result of global warming. The retreating ice also brings with it an increased opportunity for commercial exploitation of the region, making it even more important to document what we are at risk to lose.” In partnership with the research group Whale Wise, and with the support of the University of Stavanger and the University of Iceland, a comprehensive and innovative research plan was established to gather as much information on Arctic and sub-Arctic cetaceans as possible. “Our aim was to monitor Arctic ecosystems, focusing on whales, in an unobtrusive way. In other words, we wanted to provide an Arctic Sense,” says Whale Wise cofounder Tom Grove. “Due to its innate hostility, Arctic ecosystems remain poorly characterised. Across large parts of the Arctic Sense route, the occurrence, distribution, and diversity of cetaceans is virtually unknown.” Jan Mayen would form an integral part of the wider project. 

And so, photographer & filmmaker Hugo Pettit and I met Heide in Longyearbyen after his successful circumnavigation of Svalbard. Our 5-person crew was completed by sailors Jaap van Rijckevorsel and Annik Saxegaard Falch, and we set off on the 1,200 nautical mile journey from Svalbard, across the Greenland and Norwegian seas to Jan Mayen, and onwards to Shetland. I felt the onset of autumn in the air, but the winds were gentle and the water calm as we sailed out of Isfjorden and into the Norwegian Sea.

Photographs by Hugh Pettit

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This feature appears in ISSUE 22: The wild isles of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 22
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