The Arctic Expedition With Rakesh Rao

At the northernmost point of the rotating, pale blue dot upon which we all exist, lies a desert of white. A place of purity, this frozen wonder is a timeless land, where hours blend into months and months blend into years, where rarely sighted creatures roam free, under a kaleidoscope of brilliant lights that dance in the sky above. Journey with us, as we follow filmmaker Rakesh Rao into the frozen wilderness of the Arctic region.

Born and raised by the sandy shores of Goa, young Rakesh Rao always had an affinity for photography, and for capturing the world through the lens of his starter-camera. Soon enough, however, he realized there were things that could not be captured with any ordinary lens, things that captivated his mind and made him question what he knew, things beyond the realm of his understanding and reach; the celestial wonder of outer space. This intrigue and yearning for the worlds beyond our own drove a young Rakesh to pursue a career in physics, complemented by technological and environmental research initiatives.

A Scientific Curiosity

During his early days as a college student, Rakesh would spend his free time trekking in the Western Ghats, even making a few trips to the Himalayas between grueling lessons. Taking pictures as a hobby, Rakesh was only introduced to the art of filmmaking much later on, when the technology of DSLR cameras had caught up with the world-standards, allowing for better quality video output.

Having completed his post-graduation, Rakesh came to the decision to combine his passion and educational qualifications to develop a film. This marriage was the foundation of EnSciTech Productions, a vehicle for the aspiring filmmaker to document everything that fell under the gamut of environmental, scientific and technological research.

Having recently hung up his own graduation hat, Rakesh was very attentive to the lifestyle of a student, and moreover, recognized the appalling lack of scientific content available in the market for one such as himself to explore. The country as a whole, in his opinion, was involved in quality scientific research the likes of which were unheard of in other developing regions, and yet, the popularity of Western research projects was unparalleled in comparison to locally-based, homegrown papers amongst students of the field. The reason for this, he decided, was a lack of communication amongst scientific authorities.

With a sense of responsibility towards the scientific community, Rakesh set out in an attempt to bridge this gap between laymen and field-professionals, using photography and films as tools for communication. He started out small, developing short films and screening them at schools and colleges around the country. In this manner, the aspiring filmmaker and a man of science became a torch-bearer for knowledge amongst the youth, spreading word of important scientific innovation as far as his voice could travel. It would not be long before someone took notice.

The Adventure Begins

Securing a role as a team member for the 30th, 31st and 32nd Indian Scientific Expeditions to Antarctica, Rakesh was afforded the rare opportunity to document the construction of the third Indian research station, Bharati, in Larsemann Hills, Antarctica. This momentous, three-year-long expedition to the icy continent would be the launch-pad for many others, each furthering him in his search for knowledge.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the frozen wilderness amongst fellow people of science, Rakesh returned with a fresh perspective on scientific data collection and understanding the impact of the changing climate. Armed with this knowledge, Rakesh decided that his prerogative as a documenter and the filmmaker was not just to showcase the research, but also the bravery of the researchers, who go beyond their physical constraints and face some of the harshest weather conditions on expeditions such as these.

Over the following three to four months, Rakesh braved both tide and ice, participating in the Southern Ocean expedition, where he spent two months sailing with scientists in one of the harshest oceans on the planet, and travelling to the Himalayas, for a long month spent in the Spiti valley, where he documented and monitored the impact of climate change on the six glaciers in the region.

Having already weathered both the Antarctic and the Himalayas, Rakesh set his sights upon the Arctic region. This drive to document and visit each of the three cryospheric poles of our planet was one that Rakesh intended to see through to the end. The annual call for scientific proposals on behalf of the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research was a golden opportunity for the ambitious young man, and so, after successfully defending his proposal before the national committee, Rakesh was on his way to the Northern hemisphere.

The Arctic Expedition

The permanent Indian research station at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard is one of the furthest settlements in the world. Once an active coal mining town, the area is now home to a research station abuzz with scientists from all across the globe, who use the space as a hub within which to conduct research related to climate change. The most recent addition to this community of scientific individuals, Rakesh’s goal was now to photo-document the activities and goings-on of this frigid wonderland.

Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is not a continent. The Arctic Circle is a parallel of latitude on the Earth at approximately 66.5 degrees north from the equator, extending to 90 degrees north of the equator, and is divided amongst eight countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States of America, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland. For someone looking to experience the Arctic, each of these countries has a unique perspective to offer.

In Rakesh’s case, the journey began with a trip to the remote town of Ny-Ålesund. This entails catching a flight from Oslo or Tromso to Longyearbyen in Svalbard, and then onwards from Longyearbean, aboard a tiny, 14-seater plane to Ny-Ålesund. Being reserved exclusively as a scientific research town, Ny-Ålesund is a difficult place within which to find accommodation- with most of the structures being research stations belonging to a variety of different countries. However, the little ice-town is home to a single hotel, where one may find lodging, provided they had booked well in advance.

In Rakesh’s opinion, the best way for tourists to explore the Arctic regions is to sail on a cruise ship, which has a fixed route and halts at such towns for a few hours at a time, allowing passengers to look around and return in time for the ship’s departure. Other cruise ships also travel in between the countries that fall under the range of the Arctic circle, allowing for a much richer experience- but at a steeper price. For those adventure-types out there, Longyearbean provides package deals on several camping and exploration facilities.

Watch how Rakesh prepared for his expedition into the white unknown here!

The Arctic region is pretty well-connected with other parts of the world ‘round the year. So, in case of emergencies, one can always fly back. The Arctic is extreme, but manageable- if one is prepared well. Apart from polar-specific clothing and sleeping bags, which are essentials due to the extreme weather conditions, one needs to be prepared for encounters with the majestic Polar bear. If one plans to walk in any unprotected areas outside the settlement zone, they must always carry a Rifle and a flare gun. This is necessary in evading any potential direct encounters with polar bears, and in some cases, are also useful in protecting oneself. One would need to undergo a day-long course to qualify for a certificate to carry rifles.”

Catch a glimpse of a rare polar bear sighting, caught on the lens by Rakesh!

A New Perspective

When asked about the ideal timeframe for a trip to the Northern ice caps, Rakesh insists that there is no such thing as a “best time” to visit the Arctic, because every month in the North offers something new to see. The summers are more active, for when the snow begins to melt, the Arctic Tundra teems with a variety of stunning flora and rarely-sighted fauna. When the cold rolls around again, the wintertime offers one of the best light-shows on this planet; the colourful display of the Auroras.

The Arctic offers a very different perspective of this planet. Even in the harshest conditions, life exists, and that’s very interesting to behold. This cold desert has its own charm. Every landscape- especially so with the glaciers- provides one with an experience of being on another planet. The geology, flora and fauna are very unique to this place, and are unlike other locations that are lauded for their uniqueness

All this beauty and intrigue, however, pave the way to many disheartening epiphanies. On his travels into the untamed frontiers of our planet, Rakesh could not deny the sad truth lurking just beneath the surface.

There are empirical evidences of a changing climate all across the planet. The worst affected regions- the ones that are facing the brunt of global warming- are the Arctic regions. The Arctic sea ice cover has declined over 30% in the recent years and the glaciers are retreating even faster. Some regions are also noticing a rapid thawing of permafrost. All of this is due to man, and man-made phenomena. The tourism industry has grown rapidly in recent times, and the Arctic regions are now experiencing more influx of tourists than ever before. My plea is this- that anyone who visits the Arctic endeavors to understand the impact of their presence, and that they change their lifestyles in some small way to combat the side-effects of their existence on our planet’s health. I implore people to raise their voices in the fight for climate change. This is our planet, we must do right by her, as she has done by us.”

Catch a glimpse of Rakesh’s adventures into the Arctic here!

All the images used in this article are courtesy of Rakesh Rao.

©️ 2020. Gut and Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.

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