Arctic Sense: connecting scientists and storytellers

#Accolade2XP50LRFPRO #ArcticSenseExpedition #NatureConservation #PolarBears
Andreas B. Heide
Written by:

Algė Ramanauskienė

Photography:

Tord Karlsen; Barba.no; Arctic Whale project

Video:

Choco Agency

I must admit to having a “fan girl” moment during this interview. But can you blame me? My companion, Norwegian captain Andreas B. Heide is showing me his “Barba” boat peacefully floating in the harbour right next to his apartment window, as if it were a car parked in the driveway. It’s the same boat that has just returned from a four-month “Artic Sense” expedition. The captain and marine biologist has been diving with orcas, observing polar bears and walruses in their natural habitat, and dreaming of diving with blue whales one day… I’d rather be preparing myself for the next “Barba” expedition than watching the captain resting on his cosy couch in Stavanger through my laptop monitor, yet I believe there is no wrong way to experience his stories about the beauty of the North, the fragility of Arctic nature, and his adventures onboard and offshore. It’s a story of human curiosity, the desire to investigate the unknown and see what’s beyond the visible and understandable.

Interview

- Andreas, what does it feel like to finally step foot on land after four months at sea?

It’s a great relief to be on land again and have a feeling of accomplishment. It was a long ambitious expedition, a total of four months and five days at sea, sailing 5,000 nautical miles or 9,000 kilometres. It was a long and challenging summer and a lot of hard work on the boat. I was the only person on board for the duration of the expedition. Additionally, I had the responsibility of being captain of the “Barba”. So, I just love having time to rest on the couch now!

Though actually, there is not that much rest time. My days are filled with lots of meetings and calls as the communication of our expedition starts. We want to publish a children’s book, an album and a documentary about the “Arctic Sense” expedition. So, it’s back to the office, so to speak! A journey like this takes a lot of planning. In fact, this part takes much longer than the trip itself…

Maybe I find the ocean to be far more unpredictable than life on land.
Andreas B. Heide

Do you believe there is a certain bond that connects so-called water people to the ocean? How do you feel when you are away from water for a long period?

I think, if you’re born and raised next to the ocean and have been on boats since childhood, like myself, you start missing the water as soon as you move away from it. The ocean becomes your soulmate. That’s why being on water brings me so much excitement. Maybe I find the ocean far more unpredictable than life on land. It is more alive, it can change in an instant, it can be calm or stormy – it brings a lot of different sceneries and experiences.

Have you always been an adventurous soul?

You probably need to ask my mother about that, but I’m sure she would confirm that I have always been very curious about what’s out there. Curiosity triggers the adventure. I seek to know more about whales, see polar bears, to be out there telling nature’s story.

Buying a boat is already quite an adventure! Did you have a clear purpose when you decided to go for it? 

Not at all. I bought the “Barba” because I loved the concept of having a boat and being completely independent and autonomous. Just like in the early Covid days when I was able to go sailing and feel free. To me, the sense of freedom is quite something! Over time I became more and more experienced at sailing the Northern waters and started using those skills to tell a story which was inspired by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and David Attenborough, my two superheroes. By the way, one of Cousteau’s cinematographers was on my boat with me. While Sir David Attenborough has narrated a documentary which I am part of. I haven’t met him in person yet, but it was truly amazing to hear his voice telling my story.

What is it about nature that fascinates you so much?

I find everyday life very predictable. Living in a society that is quite safe, you don’t have to put much effort into daily survival. You have to work for living, of course, which is stressful, but it’s nothing compared to the excitement of fighting a storm or meeting a whale, or simply feeling part of nature. Unpredictability, excitement, and freedom – that’s what fascinates me. Our souls need this connection to nature, it’s something that has been proven even by scientific studies. But it’s equally important to learn to take care of nature. The irony of life – the ones I know who take care of nature the most, are my friends who hunt. Being a conservationist myself, I can tell they have the deepest respect for nature.

Andreas B. Heide:

It is truly amazing to be in the water surrounded by animals weighing 6 tonnes or more and to observe their mysterious lives.
Interview

- The irony of life – the ones I know who take care of nature the most, are my friends who hunt. Being a conservationist myself, I can tell that they have the deepest respect for nature.

Since childhood, I have always been intrigued by whales, first due to their size. A lot of nature lovers connect emotionally with whales because they are so big, intelligent, and mysterious. This gigantic animal spends most of its time underwater and trying to understand what they’re up to drives me to put on a wetsuit and jump into freezing ocean waters and to document their life. It’s an interesting game where you not only have to understand the biology of the animal and know where to look for the whales, but you have to master the sailboat as a scientific platform too.

How long does it take before scary becomes marvellous when you’re underwater with such a large and intelligent animal like a whale?

The first time jumping out of the boat itself was quite scary. The single thought of being a small and helpless creature in the water with the apex predator of the sea seemed scary enough… But once you get past the fear and calm down, amazing experiences overwhelm you.

Orcas are very calm underwater. They come out of nowhere, glide gracefully around you and then disappear again. Then sometimes an interaction happens – a whale comes up to you, especially the young ones, they swim around you in circles, play with you. Other times you get a chance to observe whales feeding. You can watch them for hours – to them you’re just a bystander. It is truly amazing to be in the water surrounded by animals weighing 6 tonnes or more and to observe their mysterious lives. Knowing that a sperm whale can dive to depths of 3000 metres and stay down for 2 hours seems insane. Plus, the fact that orcas have their own language which results in different sounds not that dissimilar from the human alphabet. But if you take an orca from Norway and bring it to the US, it won’t be able to communicate with the local species due to the different dialects. That shows how far their level of intelligence reaches. I haven’t had the opportunity to go underwater with blue whales yet, but one day I will!

You just came back from your second expedition with “Barba”. What was the purpose of “Arctic Sense”?

“Arctic Sense” was a science and communication project aimed at highlighting the challenges the Arctic is facing. These include retreating glaciers due to global warming, water pollution and minimising the ever-expanding human footprint in the exploitation of nature. To us, it was first about raising awareness of the Arctic, helping scientists collect data and contribute positive storytelling in times when positivity is needed more than ever. One of those stories is about the blue whale which was globally hunted close to extinction and almost lost forever. Now these animals are making a small recovery. As proof – we managed to see ten blue whales in a single day near Svalbard. This would be 1 percent of the North Atlantic population. It is a great example of how things can change. Same goes for the walrus, which was almost gone from Svalbard too and is now making a comeback. Almost all countries are facing similar challenges, so it is important to highlight every small victory.

Did you manage to reach the goals of the expedition?

We definitely reached the technical goals – sailing to the far North, then to London and back to Stavanger. It remains to be seen if the communication part will be such a success. That is the next step, and it takes a lot of time and effort. I hope to get funding for an educational program which includes publishing a children’s book. We do have a lot in the pipeline and being perfectionists, we are constantly aiming for more.

Everything from the stories you tell to the way you choose people to document the expeditions, spreads this genuine love of the North, the cold and nature. Do you find the cold more beautiful than the heat?

What I like about the cold, is the challenges that arise, the remoteness it brings with it. If a whale came near the shores of, let’s say, France, you would end up with company from the coast guard, the police and lots of onlookers. In the North, you can spend an entire day with the whales without any disturbances. Not to mention the beauty surrounding you – the ice sheets covered in white and the Northern lights dancing in the sky…

Pulsar thermal binoculars Accolade 2 XP50 LRF Pro help us see through the night. They give you an amazing sixth sense. We were especially keen to use them to look for polar bears on ice.

– Andreas B. Heide
Thermal Imaging Binocular

Accolade 2 XP50 LRF Pro

Interview

- The beautiful cold brings lots of challenges as well…

When it’s very cold, everything gets trickier – especially when you’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean. You have to put on more clothes, sometimes the ropes freeze up and you need to use hot water to melt the ice. If it’s snowing, not only does the boat get covered in snow, but also your face, and you still need to keep sailing… Also, there is much more danger if you fall in water that’s 3 degrees. So yes, remoteness and cold have far greater consequences if a mistake is made. The cold is less forgiving.

The modern world has two different poles: pure and fragile nature on one side and modern technologies on the other. Do you think those two worlds can live together? Also, what kind of instruments was your boat equipped with? 

I don’t see a problem with the coexistence of science and technologies with nature. We need it all to solve the problems we face. The question is how these scientific innovations are used. For example, a chainsaw is a brilliant instrument if you only used in a sustainable way, like by a farmer to cut firewood to keep warm through winter. It’s a different story when the same instrument is used to destroy rainforests.

Our boat “Barba” is packed with a lot of high-tech gear which gives us more freedom to interact with nature and a better understanding of our surroundings. For instance, we use satellite phones to download weather forecasts. It allows us to move into areas at the right time, to climb up to the pack ice when there is no wind. We can sail across the ocean taking minimal risk. A radar allows us to navigate safely in foggy weather conditions and in the dark. We use a depth sonar, gyro-stabilised binoculars and navigation software which keeps us safe from underwater rocks and other obstacles. We use hydrophones to listen to whale sounds. And “Pulsar” Accolade 2 XP50 LRF Pro thermal binoculars help us see through the night. They give you an amazing sixth sense. We were especially keen to use them to look for polar bears on the ice. Without them it would be quite hard to spot a white bear on a white pack of ice.

When I’m diving, I take an underwater scooter with me which is like an underwater torpedo. My colleagues, professional photographers, use RED underwater cameras for high quality documentation of the whales.

How do you choose the crew members? Is it by intuition or is it a pragmatic decision? 

Typically, it’s people who know about “Barba” expeditions and know that I’m good at finding orcas and interacting with them, who are eager to be part of this exciting journey. Sometimes I ask people to come to Stavanger for a week or so and we go on a little sailing trip. It’s like a test to see what the person is made of and if they are a good match for the project. I must admit I’ve made some mistakes in the past choosing the crew. I don’t like to be on board with someone who doesn’t respect nature, the team and who is generally too self-centred. Being on a boat means tremendous team effort where cooking a meal is just as important as sailing the boat. I’d say, keep your ambitions with you, but be mindful of other crew members and help them out.

I always want people to come back because I invest a lot of time in them and the longer you work together, the better the results you deliver. Moreover, these people already know the boat and what to expect during the expedition, there is less uncertainty.

It is said that we go for adventures either hoping to discover something that has not been discovered yet or to discover something within ourselves. What is it you are looking for? 

I believe, most things have already been discovered in the classical adventure sense – humanity has already reached all the corners of the Earth. For me going on an expedition is more about being able to tell a story. That is a more interesting challenge because there is no limit to how good or impactful a story or footage can be. We already know blue whales are out there. It’s no discovery. To capture their life, to interact with them and then tell their story is much more appealing to me than anything else. I’ve already mentioned how thrilled I am to get into the water with blue whales one day.

I also go for these adventures for my own curiosity. I’m just driven to see and to understand more. It’s very addictive. There is still a lot left to understand about myself. I think that is a mystery I will struggle with forever. At least I realize how important it is to do something that really makes you happy. And to have a purpose. When you are doing something not just for yourself but also for others, it brings far way more meaning to your life.

To sum up the things you’ve said, what can we as humans do to minimise the damage that is already done? Having observed the fragility of nature very close up, could you say there is a positive story to tell? 

The positive story is that the problems could be solved in a short period of months or even weeks if only every one of us took individual responsibility for the environment we live in. We must start with ourselves by recognizing that we are not only part of the problem but also part of the solution. We don’t need to put in any extreme effort.

Simply reduce consumption, be conscious of what we buy, choose only high-quality products, recycle, and redistribute the things you don’t need anymore – remember that something that has no value to you, could be of great value to someone else. And sometimes simply refusing things you don’t really need is the best solution. And use your vote at elections to help green initiatives. If we all did that, the world would be a much better place.

 

Do you have a story to share? Drop us a message: journal@pulsar-vision.com.

Andreas B. Heide:

We must start with ourselves by recognising that we are part of the problem but also part of the solution.

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