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Blue Dragon Cave
CREDIT: Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Treasures Hidden in Ice

Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Dark and quiet, just a delicate trickle of water somewhere nearby and tons of tons of ice above and around me. A ray of light comes from the entrance to the cave and my eyes start to adjust to the darkness. My companions are in another tunnel of this remote glacial cave called Blue Dragon and I submerge in the peace. The outside world stops existing for a moment; now I seem to be surrounded by some Icelandic fairy tale beings, trolls and frozen creatures blinking their weird eyes to me.   What do they want to tell me? 

I set my camera on the tripod and get close to one of them, hoping it does not mind to be photographed. It is their kingdom here and I am just an intruder, but I do not feel like an intruder. I feel their friendly welcome, even some warmth of their icy home.  I wish they could talk and tell me their story. After all, they are much older than me, at least several hundred years. What did they experience over the time? Can we understand each other?

I push the shutter button and wait for 30 seconds; this is how long it takes to get a picture with a low ISO. Still, the camera screen shows a rather dark image, but I can see that the shine of the eye is there. How privileged I am to be in their home and photograph. I try to respect the place, not to tread too much on the icy ground, not to break it. My camera makes too much noise but the trolls do not complain. How kind they are…

I had twenty minutes or so on my own in this particular tunnel of Blue Dragon. The experience of this peaceful place will stay with me for ever and the images I brought home will be reminding me of what I saw.  Will this cave be there next year?  Perhaps, but certainly not in the same form. The glacier will thin and retreat, the tunnels will retreat with it, get further in, some will disappear with the melting ice.

Blue Dragon is located at the eastside edge of Skeiðarárjökull, an outlet of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Europe. Over the last three winters, I have also visited several caves of Breiðamerkurjökull, another outlet of Vatnajökull. Glacial caves vary greatly; some are wide-open to light and some are more enclosed. Some have a wide entrance with a narrow tunnel going far into the glacier. The flickering light and the structure and colour of ice make the caves alive and mysterious. The ice at the lower parts of the walls of caves is often black, sometimes even opaque, the upper parts are lighter in colour and more transparent. Shades of sapphire and of blue are mesmerizing, but we also see green, yellow or brown, depending on the incoming light and the surroundings.  

We can see air bubbles, stones, volcanic ash and even parts of plants caught in ice.  Glacial caves reveal much about climatic history.  The air bubbles contain information on the content of various gases in the atmosphere from many hundreds of years ago. The layers of ash indicate volcanic activities and the tree fossils say something about the flora before the ice age. Scientists take ice cores from the Arctic to research the past climate, but I could see it through my lens.  I will not make any scientific discoveries from my images, but they allow me to understand better the importance of the research based on the ice cores and at the same time I can enjoy the complexity of the ice content, its colour and the plethora of imaginative features changing as the ambient light changes.

In the very dark caves everything seems black and it is not easy to see what is there.  However, when your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, the cave reveals its beauty. Photographing in such a dark environment is somewhat hit and miss. In Blue Dragon cave the exposures were very long, but the camera recorded what was there, well-hidden from a naked eye.  While photographing I hoped for something interesting, but when I looked at the images on my computer and brightened them a bit, my expectations were exceeded. As in the dark blue water in a deep ocean, there seems to be amazing life here too; we have creatures floating in dark blue ice, momentary impressions of real physical entities.

The caves I visited in 2018 and in 2019 on the south edges of Breiðamerkurjökull, in the area called Treasure Island, do not exist anymore. They disappeared together with the retreating glacier.  Creation of caves and under-glacial tunnels is a dynamic process and new ones form while the old ones largely change or disappear. The two caves I visited this year may not be accessible next year. Blue Dragon Cave on the side of Skeiðarárjökull as well as Sapphire Cave on the south-east edge of Breiðamerkurjökull, have rather small chances to survive the summer in their current form. The meltdown is fast, as I could see over my three annual visits to the same area.  The place was quite different each time with the lagoon Jökulsárlón enlarged and packed with floating icebergs calved from Breiðamerkurjökull’s terminus.

The images I froze in my camera stay, while the subject of my photography melts. I set myself the project of photographing these ethereal treasures hidden in ice.  These pictures cannot be taken again.  However, they can be seen by those who have or have not been there. I want to show what is so fragile, unique and valuable, and what we must try to save. 

More images from the Vatnajökull caves can be seen at the gallery of my website

Blue Dragon Cave
CREDIT: Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Blue Dragon Cave. This is one of the tunnels in this cave, Skeiðarárjökull, 27 February 2020.

Icy Coral
CREDIT: Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Icy Coral. Fossil air in small tunnel well exposed to light in the area of Treasure Island, Breiðamerkurjökull, 7 February 2019.

CREDIT: Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Jellyfish. Fossil air bubbles and volcanic ash around a small cavity in the wall of Blue Dagon Cave, Skeiðarárjökull, 27 February 2020.

Leaves & Twigs
CREDIT: Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Leaves and Twigs. A small fragment of the wall of Blue Dragon Cave, Skeiðarárjökull, 27 February 2020.

CREDIT: Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Octopus. Similar features in the same place and time as Jellyfish.

CREDIT: Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Troll. This is a fragment of the ceiling of Sapphire Ice Cave, Breiðamerkurjökull, 3 March 2020.

Two Headed Dragon
CREDIT: Barbara Bogacka ARPS

Two-headed Dragon. This is another tunnel in Blue Dragon Cave, Skeiðarárjökull, 27 February 2020.