February 2018 WI talk

Monday 5th March 2018

In dismal February weather, a surprising number of guests flocked to Lerryn Memorial Hall after our WI meeting to hear Charlotte Caffrey share her enthusiasm for the planet’s polar regions.

It was Charlotte’s background in marine science that led to her directorship of Aqua Firma, a company that, as its name implies, looks at areas where the interplay between land and water creates an environment that supports both wildlife and human activity, especially in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Aqua Firma operates out of Charlestown, where she works in an office from which the sea and the tall ships in the harbour can be seen.

What she also does, however, is act as a guide, and it was in this capacity that she so delighted her audience.

One thing she established very firmly at the beginning is that the Arctic is more ‘civilised’ than the Antarctic. There is a land mass beneath the tundra which supports towns and villages. It is also relatively close at hand. From the north of Scotland it’s not so far – in a boat whose hull is reinforced to cope with passages through ice – to Spitzbergen, with its mountains sliced into by deep fjords, each ending in a glacier. The West Spitsbergen gulf stream brings up warmer, more salty water from the Atlantic and this keeps much of the Arctic archipelago viable for shipping at least some times in the year.

The other thing that makes the place viable – at least for Charlotte – is the total absence of mobile phone connection. She is often entertained at her guests’ initial shock at having to re-learn older ways of ‘connecting’.

The capital of this beautiful place is Longyearbyen. Here, Charlotte said, it is possible to walk ashore – but never unarmed. She seldom takes photographs in such places, though her passengers do, because she herself must be constantly alert for polar bears. It is illegal to kill a polar bear except in self defence, so she must be able to demonstrate, if the situation arises, that other tactics were used first. She carries flares and a pistol to scare them off and, if they continue to pose a threat to life, a rifle ready loaded with five bullets, all to be used. With flares, rifle and pistol at the ready, it’s hard to manage a camera as well.

The problem is that polar bears are short of food. The ice now covers a rapidly-diminishing area of land in the summer, with a glacial retreat of 2km in the last 60 years. The algae that form plankton grow beneath the ice only when it remains in place through all seasons. Without plankton, there is nothing for fish to live on. Without fish, the seals die and without seals, so do the bears.

Bears have learned to see humans as a potential food source, so often come close to the ships. There was a wonderful indoor shot of a hopeful bear poking its head into the galley. It looked cute – from inside. The long black claws by which it was holding itself in position looked a lot less cute.

Charlotte’s delight in the wildlife was infectious and she rejoiced in the robust RIBs that enable people to get close to the walrus, whales and sharks.  Her definition of a ‘good day’ was one that had included nesting guillemots, arctic fox cubs, reindeer and blue whales. However, there was nothing sentimental about her talk. The endearing penguin chick in the video had barely time to evoke an “Aaah” response before a passing leopard seal took its head off. They kill people too, apparently.

It was a harsh environment Charlotte depicted, but fascinating and very beautiful. She left many of us wondering how fast we could save up to go.

Ann Henderson

Lerryn WI

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