"Wake up, Willow!" shouts a voice.
I pull off my eye mask and open my eyes. The sun shines bright above me. I look at my watch. Three o’clock in the morning? I sit bolt upright, lifting my head from the make do pillow. Reindeer hair sticks to my cheek. Simon the sound recordist mutters as he rigidly stares out ahead of us. Beth the researcher alongside us is, like me, struggling with sleep deprivation and the daylight. I am still trying to focus my eyes in the dazzling night of the Arctic summer. Suddenly I see the figures along the ice edge. Five men, spread out along the horizon, all poised, waiting…watching for their target.
We aren’t hunters, but we know the rules. We mustn’t do anything, we mustn’t move, cannot move from our dogsled bed. I spot our tripod and camera, no cameraman anywhere nearby. I am filled with a dreadful nauseous realisation – this could be the moment that we have spent over a year working towards. Months of careful negotiations and awkward logistics all for us to sleep through our only possible chance of filming a narwhal hunt. We can only sit and watch in confused disbelief… At that moment, the silhouette of a whale crests the ice edge. I wonder how on earth I am going to explain this to the team back in Cardiff…
Surreal scenes like this are surely what you are supposed to wake from rather than wake up to. It’s late spring in northern Greenland; there is no reference to time as the sun never sets, so the days blend into each other. In the full glare of the midnight sun this is a place where anything seems possible and where dreaming and being seem to meet.
The landscape itself is constantly changing as the sea ice melts and the winds reshape it continually. One morning it is a distant horizon and the next it reappears broken against the floe edge like shattered glass. Weeks of watching ice charts are no preparation for what life on the ice demands. We are four hours from the town of Qaanaaq and a world away from the scientific maps of metereology. The brothers we are filming read the ice because they have learnt that their lives depend on it.
Our camp in the distance beside the melting ice edge
Our camp of six sleds is set on a floating platform of ice, around five metres thick. We must always be ready to move in case the ice cracks and we find ourselves adrift in the freezing Arctic Ocean. All the hunters have a warning tale to tell. We live between the anxiety of the hunt and the ice watch and the monotony of no day and night and the constant of rehydrated food rations. We put sun cream on at two in the morning and wear sunglasses in our sleeping bags. We laugh with the hunters, with each other, to ourselves. We develop our own ways of dealing with the daylight and the long hours of nervous despair waiting for invisible whales to return.
A surreal, ever-changing landscape
What happened next after that first daylit night on the ice edge, only the film can tell. Finally coming back to the predictable shades of the British summer was itself like awakening from a distant dream.
This originally appeared on BBC Earth and was reprinted here with permission.