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Ørnulf Opdahl ‘Census of Marine Life’

In 1893 the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen embarked on a perilous journey in a specially built boat, the ‘Fram’, to try to reach the North Pole. He didn’t return to Norway until 1896 having endured extraordinary hardships and trekking as far as latitude 86º 14', the farthest north any human being had ever been. Although he was a scientist, he was also a talented draughtsman and watercolourist. He took paintings on board with him, too, and as the first owner of Edvard Munch’s “Starry Night”, produced watercolours of the arctic wastes suffused with melancholy and mystery.

11/01/2006 :: History has a way of repeating itself and in June 2004, Ørnulf Opdahl joined the Norwegian research ship G.O.Sars and set sail with scientists from 16 nations on the two-month MAR-ECO expedition to study the mid-Atlantic ridge, a sub-marine mountain range several thousand metres deep, between Iceland and the Azores. Those of us familiar with Opdahl’s work from his earlier exhibitions here will recall his disturbing images of the threatening power of nature. When figures occur in his Nordic landscapes one’s tendency is to murmur, “Hurry home before the weather closes in on you.” And that is the way that, as ship’s artist, he began this voyage, by recording brilliant sunrises and sunsets as well as the seething and boiling sea as a storm approaches.

Gradually, however, he responded to the challenge of the project itself, the “Census of Marine Life”, which was to study its diverse distribution and abundance and explain its past and future existence. Echoing Constable who, in his systematic studies of clouds, maintained that he operated as a “natural scientist”, Opdahl gathered as many impressions as he could in the form of countless sketches which he called his “findings”.  “For fourteen days”, he said, “I followed what was brought up by the trawls and the remote-controlled underwater vehicle, until a whole stream of images based on impressions of what I had seen and experienced, emerged. “What did appear from the extreme depths was unimaginably strange, swimming sea cucumbers, for instance, or jellyfish three metres long, not to mention a host of translucent, luminous creatures beyond the limits of science fiction. Of course, Opdahl’s remark about his “impressions” is crucial. For all the quasi-scientific language of “findings”, his editorial and inventive instincts overrule mere documentation.

As part of the scientific research, however, he enjoyed some hair-raising adventures. One in particular involved sailing into the middle of a school of whales in a small wooden boat to harpoon them at close quarters. The purpose of this was not to kill them but to implant transmitters which would enable their cross-ocean journeys to be tracked. To be in a small, comparatively flimsy boat in the middle of a school of whales which were constantly diving and resurfacing seemed to Opdahl like living through a dream – or nightmare – of the climax of “Moby Dick”. He survived though and it is still his favourite book. 

William Varley © 2006

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Opdahl onboard the Norwegian research ship G.O.Sars