This week held huge hope for the Arctic. We could have seen the start of a sanctuary protecting one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of our planet. But the OSPAR nations meeting in Tenerife, Spain have failed the Arctic. Three countries, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, refused to engage in negotiations. As a result, the icy waters remain exposed to threats such as destructive fishing and risky oil drilling. 

As a deckhand on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, these last few urgent weeks of campaigning brought me to the Arctic. I witnessed first hand, for the first time, what millions of us worldwide are campaigning so hard to project.

One week ago, the Arctic Sunrise was sailing from Longyearbyen, on the west coast of Svalbard, Norway, up to uncharted waters to the north. A crucial week leading up to the OSPAR meeting that could result in the protection of the first ten percent of this sanctuary, and the first internationally recognized protection for the North Pole. I’m below deck cutting giant letters spelling Save the Arctic out of particle board with a table saw, encased in noise-canceling headphones and goggles, trying to keep the edges straight and not cut off my fingers. The boson, a long-haired Kiwi named Grant, comes over to check up on the deck crew and tells us to go outside, because it’s really beautiful.

When I walk onto the deck, I gasp.

MY Arctic Sunrise in Svalbard © Rasmus Törnqvist / Greenpeace

A Virtual Reality video team joined the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise on a trip to Svalbard to document the rapidly changing Arctic.

We are surrounded absolutely by wilderness amid myriad pieces of ice, some as big as a truck, others the size of my fist. Ringing our horizon are snow-capped mountains, veins of snow weeping down their sides. The sea is glassy, reflecting a mirror image. In front of the bow, 500 kilometers away, is the towering, cracked wall of a surging glacier. All is still and silent, save for the tinkle and slap of water and ice. It’s like being in a frozen cathedral, voices intuitively hushed by the sheer power of this alien land.

I’ve spent years talking about the Arctic, knocking on doors and telling people why we need to protect this place from extractive industries like oil drilling, companies like Shell and Gazprom who take advantage of the melting sea ice brought on by a global climate crisis they helped create. I’ve watched documentaries, I’ve looked at countless photos, but nothing could prepare me for this moment, for actually being here. A year ago, to the day, I was in a kayak in the port of Seattle, Washington, paddling in a watery blockade in front of the Polar Pioneer, Shell’s giant oil rig that was headed for the Arctic. I never imagined I would actually be in the Arctic the following year.

It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Tears of awe fill my eyes.

I want to be outside all the time, drinking in the beauty of this place. Every piece of ice is different. There are dark brown ones caked in mud, translucent chunks, electric blues, perfectly white mounds. As they melt, the waterline tends to melt faster, giving the illusion the icebergs are levitating a few inches above the sea. A seal keeps poking its head up to watch our activities, and when I’m crewing the RHIB, one of our small boats, he pops up just a couple meters away, black eyes looking curiously in our direction, with an eerily human-like face like that of a wise old man. Fulmars and gulls circle the ship, and little auks, being really bad at flying, paddle around the increasingly slushy ocean. Every now and then we hear a noise like thunder, and a pillar of ice calves off and fall into the sea, sending up a white cloud and moving the fabric of the ocean in rolling waves as the great chunks of ice tipped to find balance in the sea.

We’re here just two never-ending days, confusing our internal rhythms with the twenty-four hours of daylight. The longer we stay, the more we’re reminded just how wild this place is. The glacier crumbles before our eyes with increasing frequency, filling the ocean with more and bigger ice, the water covered in slush between the bigger growlers and bergy bits (each size of floating ice has a name, I found out through listening in to our ice navigator giving lessons on the bridge). As we heave the anchor to leave, I’m lucky enough to catch a sort of Fourth of July fireworks show grand finale, as towering pillar after pillar cracks off and smashes into the sea.

© Nick Cobbing / Greenpeace

The winter of 2015/ 2016 represents a record low for the yearly maximum extent of sea ice across the whole Arctic region.

Before I came here, I understood on an intellectual level why we need to save the Arctic, but never before have I felt the power of a place like this so deeply. Being here, surrounded by this frozen wonderland, it’s unconscionable to think of an oil rig or a trawling ship plowing through these waters. I think of the delegates of OSPAR, deciding on the fate of ten percent of the Arctic sanctuary that we’ve been working for, and I wish that instead of meeting in sunny Tenerife, they could have met here, voices hushed as they take in one of our last wild places, and perhaps our friend the seal could witness them breathe in the cold air, all debate melting like ice back into the sea. If they had witnessed the beauty of the Arctic this week, maybe their decision would be have been different.

Raise your voice to protect the Arctic.

Paloma, from Los Angeles, California, USA, is a Volunteer Deckhand onboard the Arctic Sunrise.