Those who freeze lose – the cold life in the icy sea | Polarjournal
No time to freeze: Fragile ctenophores, or comb jellies, floating under the ice and catching small creatures such as crabs and fish larvae with their sticky tentacles.

On the east coast of Greenland, a thick layer of ice forms on the sea every winter. Shipping comes to a standstill, and snowmobiles and dog sleds become the preferred means of transportation. Under the cold blanket, life in the ocean goes on. A place where people can only stay for a short time before they get a little chilly.

My fingers are cold. My lips feel numb. My feet are frozen. What is actually still warm on me? Hopefully my brain, which already draws attention to its hypothermic state with a slight headache, but can still process the impressions of my surroundings fairly well. I’m staggered by the ice cubes. And the largest of them caused my excitement, 25 meters high and weighing about 15,000 tons. Last fall, the cube must have stranded here, having got stuck on the ocean floor, and never coming free. When winter followed, an ever-thickening layer of ice formed around it, trapping it in place.

The largest part of the ice collossus extends over 20 meters to the seafloor.

The colossus in front of me consists of water in its hardest, most fascinating and most powerful form: Ice. However, scientific descriptions of the density of ice, the anomaly of water or the crystal structure of frozen liquids cannot describe the effect of the enormous mass in front of my diving mask. If an iceberg had charisma, it would attract the undivided attention of everyone present at every party, concert and state reception, despite its cool character and bizarre body shape. Right now, I’m alone with it. All the more impressive. The entire surface consists of depressions of varying sizes, reminiscent of the structure on a golf ball. A shimmering blue line crosses the ice like a straight cut. Long ago, this must have been a crevasse filled with meltwater that contained hardly any air bubbles and now appears so clear and transparent when frozen. The entire iceberg is bathed in a dim twilight that seeps through the thick ice sheet reflecting off numerous fragments. Twenty meters above me, a glistening beam of light cuts through the clear water and illuminates a tiny patch of seabed. The sun shines into this icy otherworld only through our entry hole, which we cut out of the thick sea ice in hours of work with drills and saws.

The morning sun illuminates Tasiilaq and the ice-covered fjord.

As a temporary resting place, the iceberg has chosen the fjord in front of the village of Tasiilaq. In English this word means “like a lake” : it describes the extensive bay that forms a protected natural harbor. About 2000 residents live here, making the settlement the largest ‘town’ on the east coast of Greenland, giving an indication of the population density of the largest island on our planet. In winter, Tasiilaq can only be reached by helicopter while all boats are either on land under a thick blanket of snow or in the harbor, frozen in place like the icebergs off the coast. The people of this region are affected by the hard life in this environment, the isolated situation in combination with alcohol is a terrible problem and often leads to child abuse and rape. From the outside, it is easy to condemn the living conditions, but no solution of the problems is on the horizon. The transition from a hunting culture to a settled lifestyle under the influence of Western cultures with supermarkets, the internet, fast food and alcohol has been too abrupt. Nevertheless, some inhabitants of Tasiilaq manage to preserve and pass on their traditional values through the art of carving tupilaks, through dances and songs and their activities as seal, polar bear or whale hunters.

Even in the deepest winter, life under the ice sheet does not come to a standstill. Various types of algae grow on the slopes next to the iceberg, providing shelter and food for smaller fish, crabs, and snails, with some of which being completely covered by small feeding animals. Comb jellies float in the open water, traveling along with tiny rows of moving platelets and glowing iridescently in the beam of my lamp in the finest shades of color. Directly in front of my camera, one of the almost transparent slime balls extends its red tentacles. They are covered with gluey cells which prey stick to. When I accidentally touch it with my flash, the jellyfish decides to retreat and the forty centimeter long sticky threads are pulled back inside the body at lightning speed. Below the algae leaf canopy, large nudibranchs creep across the seafloor, plucking here and there at the delicious algae salad as if there were nothing more pleasant than a culinary crawl in icy water. As my finger on the shutter slowly goes numb from the cold, I notice a splash of color on the algae leaf. Upon closer inspection, the tiny red and yellow hat turns out to be a miniature jellyfish. After a brief moment, it suddenly rises from its resting place, pulses rhythmically with its body, and elegantly makes its escape. You may well deserve a break, after all.

As I surface along the blue, frozen wall and with my dive mask just a hand from the smooth ice, I am amazed to discover the living community in this high-rise building, that is only occupied seasonally. Red amphipods have settled there and live in small dimples and holes in the iceberg. They presumably feed on falling particles and fine sediment that collects in cracks and crevices in the ice. The difficult-to-access areas in the polar regions mean that little is known about the behavior of some species. Scientists, to whom I sent the photos after my return, suggest that these amphipods regularly shuttle between burrows in the ice and algae on the sea floor. Back to the icy penthouse after a walk in the woods. After all, you got to spoil yourself as an amphipod.

A Greenland shark passes by without any hurry. Not only does it swim slowly, but it also takes its time when it comes to growing: only about one centimeter per year. This means that the larger animals are several hundred years old and thus the oldest vertebrates of all.

The blanket of frozen seawater still has a tight grip on the iceberg and only allows it to expose a few meters of its flank every few hours at low tide. Only in spring, when the sea ice breaks up and the wind drives the floes out of the fjord onto the open sea, the blue ice cube will also set off, change its shape and break up into smaller pieces. In the end, every piece of ice will have turned back into liquid water. Only photos and the memory of cold fingers will remain of the crystalline mountain.

Text and photos: Uli Kunz

This guest article is an excerpt from Uli Kunz’ latest book «Leidenschaft Ozean – Expeditionen in die Tiefe» (in German only, «Passion Ocean – Expeditions into the Deep»).

Numerous chapters about his diving expeditions and his passionate commitment to the threatened habitats in the ocean also promise an exciting reading experience.

The book can be ordered on the Knesebeck Verlag website:

Uli Kunz, born in 1975, grew up in Kehl am Rhein in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. As a teenager he got his first diving license and discovered his passion for the sea. In 1997 he moved to Kiel to study oceanography. That’ s where he bought his first underwater camera – a second-hand analog Nikonos. He still guards it like a treasure today, even though all his photography has been digital for a long time. Together with four friends, he founded the research diving group Submaris and participates in scientific expeditions around the world. He works for Greenpeace, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar Research, among others, examining rocky reefs and marine algae in the North and Baltic Sea, maintaining measuring equipment and diving robots, exploring extensive cave systems and taking photographs under the Arctic ice.

With his live shows he is on tour in German-speaking countries inspiring his audience with fascinating photos and films of the underwater world. With his camera he observes the threatening changes in the ocean and in his projects documents the overfishing of the seas, the destructive impact of climate change on our ecosystems and the increasing pollution of the waters. For the German TV station ZDF, he is on camera as a presenter of the well-known series Terra X, descends to the bottom of a glacier on Spitsbergen, dives in water-filled caves in the Bahamas, photographs the singing humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean and lets the viewers participate very closely in one aspect: his fascination for the water.
(Photo: Bjørnar Sævik)

Link to Uli Kunz’ website:

Follow Uli Kunz on Instagram: @uli_kunz

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