We're in the crystal-clear waters of Svalbard, less than a thousand kilometers from the North Pole, or 80° 07.3'N. 15° 51.7'E, to give our precise location. Soon, our team of scientists, tourists and environmentalists will meet the white carpet of drifting sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean. It is here at the ice edge where the ocean teems with wildlife, thanks to the combined conditions of uninterrupted sunshine and nutrient-rich waters.
The entire Arctic food chain is on display. Micro algae are blooming in the water, providing sustenance for schools of fish larvae and crayfish. Seals, walruses, polar bears and whales feed on the plentiful sea life. But by far the most impressive sight to greet our crew under the flat, midnight sun of the Arctic was a remarkable appearance by Earth's largest mammals.
At one point, two adult blue whales, measuring around 30 metres in length, along with one of their young, started feeding on crayfish around our boat. As the captain switched off the engines, we were able to observe the animals at remarkably close range. And the whales certainly weren't shy. Opening their gigantic mouths, they turned almost upside down in front of us, displaying their side flippers and tails before rotating back again and closing their mouths to swallow the krill, not forgetting to leave a small portion for the hundreds of kittiwakes and fulmars circling nearby.
The study tour to Svalbard was the first of two expeditions organised by UNEP's Polar Centre GRID-Arendal. Another group of tourists and researchers will set sail for Antarctica on 4 November. The tours are part of GRID-Arendal's 'Linking Tourism and Conservation' (LT & C) project, which aims to show how sustainable tourism can help protect vulnerable habitats - particularly those rich in biodiversity.