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The Ice of Monacobreen

The afternoon of 14th July we were here in Monachobreen.

Monacobreen is up on the northern west side of Svalbard. It is an immense glacier that reaches down into Liefdefjorden on the island of Spitsbergen.

Once known as Glacier de MonacoIt it was named in honour of the first Prince Albert of Monaco, a pioneering polar explorer in the early 20th century.

Getting ready

Wrapped in our multiple layers of thermals we trotted down to the 'wet room' where we donned our outer gear - fisherman trousers from ankle to shoulders, giant wellies, thick coats and lifejackets.

It is a vision to behold - seeing us donning all the kit with legs and arms flying everywhere and puffy red faces as we struggled with reaching our feet to get the wellies done up, adjusting life jackets, sorting out our waterproof backpacks - all an exhausting task that leaves you feeling like a puffy puffed-out michelin man!

I had been down to our local garden centre before the trip to bag a pair of knee pads, and these were invaluable for kneeling at the bottom of the zodiacs and trying to get the lowest angles possible! They bulked out my already huge knees and completed my absurd yet strangely fitting "arctic look".

All non-negotiablely necessary for leaving our boat in such remote and inhospitable climbs though.

Once all ready and 'signed off' by the crew we climbed down the steep gangway and into the zodiacs in small groups.

Our ship. You can see the gangway and one of the zodiacs on the right.

The zodiac ride

Being out on the water at sea level is a lovely feeling and I enjoyed the arctic breeze (appreciating the effort of donning all that clobber) and we doodled about along the glacier and amongst incredible icebergs looking for wildlife.

Set within the stunning light of the Midnight Sun it became obvious that icebergs are a photographers dream. We weaved around the aged ice, sometimes the sun in-front lighting up sophisticated patterns or even better, from behind - shining through - revealing inner patters and complex markings designed solely by mother nature.

I just couldn't help but photograph the ice in all it's various forms as we bobbed around, though not getting too close - I noted that each iceberg has it's own mind in bossing around the sea that sways around it creating currents and tides all of its own and how it orders the water to get sucked under it with force!

One of the other zodiacs exploring the glacier.


It is hard to imagine anything living in such a harsh environment, but out of the blue we saw surprises - like this bearded seal just lying there sublimely on a piece of ice. You can imagine how excited I was to see it with its glorious whiskers and nostrils and the paws. THE PAWS! And what beautiful fur. And a deep rusty red head, not because it was born that way but because it spends the day rummaging the rich sea bed for food.

Rules dictate the distance you can go towards any wildlife sighting and our guides kept a close eye that we didn't drift in, also looking out for any signs of distress. Thankfully this fine specimen remained relaxed in our presence!

Bearded seal. Unsure if male or female!

We would hear the odd bang as bits of the glacier calved off or collapsed inwards - it was such a loud sound that at first I thought it was gunshot! We'd all jump out of our skins and then we'd see ice powder puff out somewhere through the glacier wall - and the birds who are wise to this waiting at the edge for the resulting kerfuffles and confused fish!

Kittiwakes fishing at the edge of the glacier

I learnt that there are many words to describe ice:

Brash ice - this is a collection of small ice chunks that have fallen off a 'glacier growler'

Glacier growler - I love this name - is a small piece of low lying floating ice that a glacier has 'calved' (or given birth to) as it melts. They are 1 to 5 metres in size (above sea level, who knows what lies beneath?)

Bergy bit - this is an aptly named medium sized bit of flatter ice between 5 and 15 metres.

Iceberg - this is the official word for floating ice from a glacier, and anything bigger than a Bergy Bit. As our Ocean Notes kindly pointed out, it is also a type of lettuce!


The glaciers themselves are an accumulation of layers of snow that has been frozen together over time - many, many years. We saw them everywhere, each one unique and each one beautiful.

The beauty of glacial ice

When glacial ice first freezes, it is first just fallen snow. Snow is filled with air bubbles and as that gets buried and squashed under new ice on top of it, the ice below compacting, reducing the air bubbles. Hydrogen in the atmosphere bonds the shifts of ice together.

Over many years the lack of air bubbles and the hydrogen together mean that light can penetrate more deeply into the ice. Because of this the human eye the ice absorbs all red and yellow light, reflecting the stunning blue light we recognise. (I think anyway! Please correct me if I'm wrong)

Glacial ice also moves through rock and soil as it carves its way down the slopes towards the sea, so have a lot of other ingredients that add to their beauty.

This ice in Svalbard is between three and four thousand years old.

Photographing ice

Since arriving home it's fascinating to see that through all the thousands of photographs I took of ice - some stick out and work much more as images in their own right than others.

In this image I love the way the wind has carved translucent, polished scallops into the side of the ice. I love the incredible turquoise light illuminated through it and the cocktail of silt and sand from the surrounding mountains causing the most beautiful and intricate designs within. All this makes it one of my favourites from that afternoon.

I took this photo at 14.12pm, 14th July 2018. It is straight from the camera, only slightly cropped in to complete a satisfying composition. You can see it at full size on my Svalbard gallery page.

All in all it was one of those magical afternoons that I will remember forever. During our blistering ride over waves back to our boat I absent-mindedly wondered if the day could it get any better?

Well ...

... as it happens, another of our zodiacs zipped along beside us with a pot of hot chocolate. Not just any old hot chocolate, but hot chocolate with BAILEY's stirred in... Whoop whoop and cheers!!

It went down a treat and was the perfect end to one of my favourite afternoons ever.


Happy Birthday

And if you've read this to the end, please wish a very Happy Birthday to Gary Day-Ellison who is by now (with the help of Secret Operations) the proud owner of a print of my favourite Monacobreen ice image.

Here's to a Happy Birthday and a big THANK YOU for all your encouragement over the years - I hope you enjoy it!


You can see more photography on my growing Svalbard gallery page.

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