In the snow-covered Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, a group of explorers take a raft out into the surrounding icy waters. But as the team drift across the calm seas, they realize that something incredible is lurking just beneath the surface. And soon the explorers spot the skeletal remains of a great sea beast stretching out, it seems, endlessly below them.
Located in the far north of our planet, the Arctic is a place where wintry conditions reign all year round. Much of the region is in fact covered in snow and ice – like some fairytale land – even during the summer. And winter, on the other hand, can sometimes see entire months go by without so much as a ray of sun touching its territories.
This is quite some territory too. Spread across roughly 5.5 million square miles, the Arctic actually covers the northernmost reaches of Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Russia as well as the Arctic Ocean and neighboring seas. And within its frozen landscape, temperatures can hit as low as -90 °F. In fact, even during the middle of summer the mercury hovers at between 14 and 50 °F.
In such a harsh environment, then, life can prove to be a difficult challenge. The indigenous communities who call this part of the world home have therefore had to adopt unique practices and traditions in order to survive. And the flora that thrives here, meanwhile, has grown used to the frozen environment.
Animal life can be found here too, of course, and those creatures that continue to survive include polar bears, moose, wolverines and hares. Meanwhile, in the chilly waters, walruses, seals and whales, among other species, navigate the frigid seas in their searches for food. Yet the difficulty of life in the Arctic is more than matched by the majesty of its environment, which relatively few humans are lucky enough to experience.
In fact, across the great swathe of the Arctic, just four million people live in cities – such as Murmansk and Norilsk in Russia – or smaller indigenous communities. The world’s most northerly permanent settlement, though, is in the archipelago of Svalbard, which is itself located in between the North Pole and Norway.
Discovered in 1596 by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, Svalbard consists of a trio of principal islands and a variety of lesser outcrops scattered across the Arctic Ocean. Initially, the archipelago was used as a hub for walrus hunting and the whaling industry. Then in the 1630s the first winter residents began to stay on the islands.
A profitable industry slowly established itself on the main island of Spitsbergen, too, with whaling stations and accommodation for some 200 workers. Then, in the 1600s, the Russians arrived. And, no doubt drawing on their proficiency in hunting animals such as foxes and polar bears, these people were able to spend even longer living on the archipelago.
In the early-19th century, though, the end of the Anglo-Russian War saw Russian operations peter out in Svalbard, and the whaling industry subsequently fell into decline. It wasn’t long before another human enterprise materialized to take whaling’s place, however. After the middle of the century, you see, the islands began to be an important hub for scientific expeditions and research.
After all, Svalbard’s remote location offers a unique opportunity for scientists to observe Earth’s surface at close to its most extreme. And over the years, studies based in the region have furthered our understanding of multiple subjects. Some of these areas include geology, ocean currents, glaciers, climate and Arctic flora and fauna.
By the late-19th century, ambitious explorers had also started to arrive in Svalbard, keen to use the islands as a launchpad in their efforts to reach the North Pole. Mining came to the region too. And soon, both the Norwegians and the British had set up operations across the archipelago.
At the time, however, it was still unclear who actually owned Svalbard – and the outbreak of World War I put any discussions of sovereignty on hold. Eventually, though, the islands were assigned to Norway – albeit a number of other countries retained the right to fish and mine in the region. Then, in 1925, the first official governor took up his post.
But the archipelago was thrown into chaos with the outbreak of World War II. After Allied forces landed in Svalbard in August 1941, for instance, both Norway and the Soviet Union agreed to evacuate their settlements on the islands. And a couple of years later, the Germans seized control of Spitsbergen, where a group of soldiers remained until September 1945.
When the war was over, though, miners once again returned to Svalbard. And yet after a few decades the industry faltered, and tourism and research became the main enterprises of the archipelago. Today, then, over 2,600 people live on the islands, with the majority residing in the town of Longyearbyen in the west of Spitsbergen.
In the former mining settlement of Ny-Ålesund, meanwhile, around 30 people live year-round in what is the northernmost working settlement on Earth. Now a community dedicated to research, Ny-Ålesund hosts scientists from ten countries. And these experts each use the unique environment of Svalbard to gain valuable insights into the world around us.
Of course, though, it isn’t just researchers who are drawn to the remote wildness of Svalbard. The area attracts explorers and tourists, too – but thanks to the islands’ far-flung location, only the most intrepid individuals tend to make it to these shores. In fact, of the maximum of a million tourists who visit the Arctic each year, fewer than 70,000 manage to get to Svalbard.
Yet for those visitors who do make it, some of the world’s most stunning landscapes await. From the picturesque wooden chalets of Longyearbyen to the numerous snow-covered glaciers, the attractions of Svalbard are indeed impressive. And above it all, the northern lights sometimes add another level of splendor when they flicker mysteriously into view.
With such incredible environments, then, it’s hardly surprising that Svalbard draws its fair share of photographers – keen to capture images of what stands as among our planet’s last wildernesses. And so it was on July 9, 2010. For this was when one Flickr user found themselves on a trip to remember through the icy seas that surround the remote islands.
Apparently, though, it wasn’t the first time that the photographer – known on Flickr as buen vieja, which means “good trip” in Spanish – had embarked on an epic journey. Their account in fact shows that they took an expedition through North America’s Inside Passage in September 2009. And it seems that buen vieja went on to cruise across Antarctica later that year too.
In other albums, meanwhile, the Flickr user shows off photographs taken in far-flung destinations such as Patagonia alongside the more typical images of family and friends. However, it was buen vieja’s adventure to Svalbard that would see them take the snap of a lifetime. And it’s a picture that would go on to gain notoriety across the globe.
In 2010, you see, the photographer reportedly set off on an epic journey from Iceland to Svalbard, more than 1,000 miles to the northeast. And along the way, they apparently snapped plenty of photos that really capture the beauty of the Arctic. The images on the feed in fact feature scenes such as lounging walruses displaying their tusks and sea ice breaking before a ship’s prow.
When the Flickr user made it to Svalbard, however, they apparently stumbled across something truly incredible. A photograph on the account actually shows an inflatable boat negotiating the archipelago’s icy waters – and a huge skeleton resting on rocks just beneath the surface. Unsurprisingly, this photo of mysterious remains caused an online sensation after it was uploaded and shared.
After all, in the image, an almost impossibly large vertebra can be seen dwarfing the boat and people inside it. But what could it be? Is it the skeleton of some great sea monster that had breathed its last beneath the bitterly cold Arctic Ocean? Or is something altogether more prosaic at play?
Alas, it’s likely to be the latter. According to the caption on Flickr, you see, the photograph doesn’t actually show any monstrous remains – but rather those of a whale. The author in fact claims that the carcass had been providing a source of food to local polar bears for as long as a year. But despite the logical explanation, the bones still represent a stunning sight.
“The next BBC documentary you see with polar bears will without question have footage from this spot,” wrote buen viejas on their Flickr page. There does not, however, seem to be any evidence that this prediction came true. And yet the remarkable photograph has nonetheless been shared and reshared across the internet ever since its first publication.
But, aside from the eerie contents on view, there could be another reason for the photograph’s popularity. How so? Well, because apparently it’s incredibly unusual for intact specimens such as this one to be discovered. In fact, the National Oceanography Center claims that the ocean floor has yielded only six whale skeletons since records began.
According to experts, the reason for this is simple. After a whale dies, you see, its carcass sinks through the ocean and settles on the seabed. There, it then provides a valuable source of food for scavengers, which can feast on the flesh. Then, when the scavengers are finished, tiny organisms such as bacteria move in and break down the remains even further.
Once in a blue moon, however, a deceased whale’s remains manage to survive this process. And this creates the incredible spectacle that buen vieja apparently stumbled upon in Svalbard. The remains are actually believed to have belonged to a fin whale – a species of marine mammal that can grow to up to 85 feet in length.
In fact, fin whales are among the biggest creatures on planet Earth – second in size only to their more famous cousins, blue whales. Yet although these enormous animals can each weigh up to 125 tons, their streamlined bodies have led some naturalists to dub them the “greyhound[s] of the sea.” Amazingly, you see, the mammals can attain speeds of up to 29 mph.
What’s more, this ability to travel at high speeds actually appears to have contributed to fin whales surviving the whaling industry during the 19th century. The creatures, you see, could comfortably outrun pursuing ships. And even if the whalers succeeded in killing one of the animals, they frequently found the carcass disappearing into the depths.
Yet although fin whales were, it seems, relatively safe at first, technological developments in the late-19th century put them firmly on the target list. Yes, armed with modified harpoons and steam ships, whalers began to hunt the creatures down. And it wasn’t long before the demand for oil and blubber took its toll on the population.
Between 1904 and 1979, in fact, almost 750,000 fin whales disappeared from the Southern Hemisphere as a direct result of commercial whaling. And in 1997 it was believed that just 38,000 remained. So even though the industry is no longer as big a threat to these creatures, they remain endangered, with the current population thought to number around 100,000.
Fin whales can today actually be found across the world, in the Arctic, Indian and North Atlantic Oceans. The animals also inhabit the North Pacific and the Mediterranean. And while fin whales are still scarce in the former hunting grounds of the Southern Hemisphere, they can often be spotted by lucky tourists on whale-watching trips in the northern parts of our planet.
Various organizations are doing their best to protect the rare creatures too. Classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, fin whales are also considered depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This means that special steps are being taken in order to protect these animals and their habitats.
So, these days organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work to protect the world’s remaining fin whales. As well as studying the endangered animals, the groups also develop legislation designed to minimize the risks posed by commercial shipping. However, that may not be enough to save these unique creatures.
After all, countries such as Iceland continue to engage in commercial whaling. In 2018, in fact, the Icelandic firm Hvalur announced the quota of fin whales that it intended to catch and kill: 191 over the hunting season. And even though the species is still categorized as endangered, this figure is up from the 155 fin whales that the company had caught three years earlier.
So, with fin whales at risk around the world, it seems even more unlikely that an intact skeleton had come to rest beneath the waters of Svalbard in 2010. Yet, by all appearances, that’s exactly what had happened. And while there is no evidence to suggest that scientists at any point arrived to investigate the carcass, it remains an unusual and enchanting find.
Interestingly, on this note, in August 2013 the photograph resurfaced on reddit in a post entitled “What the hell was this thing?” And before long, the thread had been upvoted thousands of times. Yet even though the most popular comments pointed out that the remains had belonged to a type of whale, there were others who speculated a little more wildly.
Jokingly, one poster even suggested that the image might show the remains of a megalodon – an enormous extinct shark – from millions of years ago. Elsewhere, others floated the idea that the spine could have belonged to a deceased relative of the Loch Ness Monster. So inevitably, some expressed disappointment when the dead creature’s true identity was revealed.
As far as anyone knows, though, the eerie skeleton that was apparently discovered by buen vieja is still lurking beneath the Arctic Ocean off the Svalbard coast. And while the remains didn’t turn out to belong to a creature from myth or the mysterious past, the skeleton is nevertheless arguably testament to one of Earth’s most beautiful animals. It’s also a poignant reminder of just how fragile the existence of this great mammal truly is.