Filming the Uncharted Waters of the Northwest Passage, Part 1

An Interview with Bob Elfstrom

Part of the National Science Foundation funded Northwest Passage Project, the team was joining scientists from the University of Rhode Island, students, historians, journalists and other passengers on an expedition through the Northwest Passage, the previously ice-bound route through the Arctic archipelago to the Pacific Ocean. Their mission was to witness and record the impacts of climate change on the waters, wildlife and indigenous people of the Arctic, stopping at Inuit communities along the way. Elfstrom and his team were onboard to film all aspects of the project, ultimately for a two-hour television documentary to raise public awareness. A day later and 45 miles north, the ship ran aground on an uncharted shoal, signaling in a one dramatic event the many complex challenges that face this rapidly changing region.

When the ship hit the ledge, Elfstrom says they were down below, reviewing emergency procedures. “There were two slams. Boom. Boom. We came to an abrupt stop. We knew. We absolutely knew what had happened. The bottom of the bow hit and rode up onto a ledge. We were cockeyed in the water.” It was morning and a sea was running. “We stayed on the ledge, rocking around all day, banging from side to side.”

Ship announcements played down the urgency of what was going on. “We were told to put on our warmest clothes—long johns, foul weather gear and life preservers—and were served lunch, sitting in the dining room, cockeyed, with the lights on, all our paraphernalia on.” Although unable get on the bridge to see the communications, “we could see the bilge pump shooting out water. They played it down, but we could see it was pumping for all it was worth.” The Russian crew were preparing a dozen rubber Zodiacs for evacuation, loading them with survival gear, rifles and shotguns, as polar bears had been seen on the islands. “We filmed everything,” Elfstrom says.

That night they went to their cabins to sleep. The seas calmed and the slamming stopped. During the night, a Royal Canadian Air Force airplane, a C-130 Hercules, circled in the low light, locating the stranded ship. Then a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter arrived, followed by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. Finally, the Russian sister ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, arrived to take the passengers back to Kugaaruk.

“We were fortunate,” Elfstrom says. The weather was mild, the sea free of ice, and ships were nearby. “What if we had hit the ledge and gone off into deep water? We could have sunk right away. It took the Canadian Air Force plane hours to get to us. What if we had gone farther into deeper, more difficult passages, farther away from any help, with 125 people on board? What if we had been a super tanker or container ship, our tanks of fuel or volatile materials compromised? It could have been catastrophic, an environmental disaster.”

Many of the existing charts in the high Canadian Arctic map an older, ice-covered land. The melting ice, which opens new avenues, exposes new dangers to ships carrying passengers, petroleum products and other cargo. With poor or nonexistent charts, few ports and icebreakers in the area and unpredictable ice conditions, any efforts at rescue, oil containment and cleanup in the case of spills become extremely difficult. As the traffic increases through the Northwest Passage, so do these risks.

“Many thousands of people live up there, many First Nation people. People who live on the edge of the ice,” Elfstrom says. “A whole culture, a way of life subsistent on the seals and polar bears, is threatened, with the ice melting to the degree it is.” If there is an oil spill, the ramifications would go on for generations.”

Nevertheless, the Canadian government is very enthusiastic about the commercial opportunities as are all big nations, Elfstrom says, given that travel through the passage dramatically reduces distances to markets and costs. New charts, accurate forecasting of ice conditions and forward-reading sonar technology on ships are needed at the least to ensure safer travel. In the end, “what is occurring up there is the responsibility of all nations,” and “time, research, communications and collaboration” are critical to meeting the challenges.

The Northwest Passage Project team will go back on ship next summer, possibly starting out in Greenland instead of Canada, moving through the passage and stopping at eight or more locations. From the perspective of a filmmaker, Elfstrom says it’s a “great, great story” to tell. “We are going to a great and beautiful place with fellow humans who love this part of the world. We are going to the source, the people—the poets, artists, as well as scientists—who know more, the people who will be immediately affected.”

The film they create, Elfstrom believes, must affect viewers in a powerful, visual way. “You can’t make a film based on arithmetic, all numbers, percentages, risk factors, temperatures. All the rest. It’s all published—its all out there.” The film has to be a human story to be compelling. “It has to make you curious enough, to inspire you enough to learn more, to find out more information on which to take a position. It should stimulate you to look beyond and into yourself.”

Elfstrom says he and his team are “privileged to be able to go to a place like this. It’s expensive and difficult to get to—none of us should be up there. We have to use the privilege wisely.” In the end, “the film must get through to people. People must enjoy the film and see the beauty of the people, the creatures, the terrain. They need to fall in love with that in order to see the loss. The loss that is going to come.”

For more information on the Northwest Passage Project, visit northwestpassageproject.org. Also see Ed Struzik’s “In the Melting Arctic, a Harrowing Account from a Stranded Ship,” at: e360.yale.edu/features/in-the-melting-arctic-harrowing-account-from-a-stranded-ship

Photo: David Anderson