Sampling in the Arctic: plan for the unexpected

PolarBearSpitsbergenby Eveline Pinseel

It was the summer of 2014, and I found myself waist-deep in a shallow Arctic lake in Spitsbergen, juggling with some falcon tubes to collect diatoms, a group of microscopically small unicellular algae. I have a keen interest in the diversity and evolution of these tiny creatures, and collecting them in the field is usually step one in an exciting journey to unravel the mysteries of their species richness. To give you an idea: the number of diatom species is estimated to lay between 30,000 and 200,000, making them the most diverse group of algae on Earth! Nevertheless, sampling diatoms does not always goes as expected. While I was opening and closing falcon tubes, filling them with sediment and water from the lake, I suddenly started to feel cold tickling at my right foot. I was wearing a wetsuit that covered me from head to toe, so, in theory, walking into a lake should not have been a problem. Until it was. Apparently, a little hole had opened up at the bottom, and the lake was slowly filling my suit. I quickly finished my sample collection and headed towards the shore, waving to my field partners. My hiking shoes were still at the beach, a few hundreds meters away, and hidden from view by a steep downward slope. I had to find a volunteer to escort me back to find my dry shoes, as one does not simply walk alone in Spitsbergen. Indeed, as soon as we appeared on top of the slope and had a clear view of our zodiac, next to which my boots were standing, my eye caught sight of a nearby zodiac with a handful of people who were frantically waving at us. You must understand that the Arctic is a remote place, so seeing fellow human beings is a surprise in itself. Surprises never come alone, so simultaneously with recording the zodiac, my brain registered the presence of what appeared to be a big white rock. However, no such rock had been present when we landed on the beach. Furthermore, rocks are not supposed to move, nor watch you with two little black eyes. Polar Bear alert! Next to our boat, still wet from its latest swim, sat a huge Polar Bear which was now, undoubtedly, contemplating its reaction to the interesting appearance of two little humans, so close-by. My colleague and I immediately retraced our steps towards the lake to warn everyone who was still sampling, followed not far behind by the bear, which had decided to take a closer look. Luckily, seeing that we were six instead of two, the bear decided we were too many, and we managed to reach our zodiac safely and sail away, still being watched by the most majestic animal I have ever seen. What an encounter that was!

photo credit: @evelinepinseel