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Published: August 25th 2008
The Svalbard archipelago lies in the Arctic Ocean, about midway between Norway and the North Pole, and belongs to Norway. It comprises all lands between latitude 74° North and latitude 81° North and between longitude 10° East and longitude 35° East. The principal islands are Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, Barentsøya, Edgeøya, Kong Karls Land, Prins Karls Forland, and Bjørnøya.
Longyearbyen with nearly 2000 inhabitants is the largest populated area on the territory of Svalbard and lies at the southern side of Adventfjorden, stretched out along the Longyearelva River. It is named after American entrepreneur John Munro Longyear (1860-1922), who as head of the Arctic Coal Company founded the town and the neighboring coal mine, the first large mine on Svalbard. Mining is still big business, with the roadsides and mountainsides littered with mines and their equipment, but tourism is catching up fast with Longyearbyen being the most accessible destination and a stepping stone to the rest of the islands.
Flying into Longyearbyen just after midnight was a bit surreal with the surrounds still light with the sun still up, and getting off the plane the realization that yes it was going to be cold! Two expedition boats were leaving over the next
two days and as we boarded the bus into town for the hotel it was interesting trying to work out who we would be seeing on the shore the next day. Day One:
After not much sleep…too light and too excited…..I had the morning to wander the street (yes just one) of Longyearbyen. I thought it wouldn’t take too long but add in a trip to the very interesting museum and the 4 hours just flew by and it was time to board the bus to get to the dock and the boat.
The boat called home for the next 11 days was to be the Akademik Shokalskiy. A Russian expedition boat built in 1982. At only 71.6m long (not even the length of a touch football field), with a crew of only 24 and 43 passengers, it was much smaller than the boat we traveled on in the Antarctic (that was the Explorer which was the first choice for this trip but for the fact that she sank at the end of 2007!!)
After boarding by zodiacs and going through our mandatory ship safety and polar bear safety lectures (why does mandatory training seem to follow me wherever
I go??) it was time to settle in and head off in search of wildlife and ice. Day Two:
Next morning saw us arrive at the scientific community of Ny Alesund located in Kongsfjord. Coal mining again was the original base of this community and the mines ran up until as recently as 1964, but now in summer as many as 130 people stay to do research including studies on climate change.
It is also an historical site as there still remains the mast from which Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile launched their airship “Norge” in 1926 for the first flight over the north pole. Day Three:
A landing at Smeerenburg (Blubbertown) this morning to look at the remains of the blubber ovens used by the Dutch whalers from 1620 to 1660. The ovens were used to render the fat of the slaughtered whales, and this is also the site where 7 men stayed one winter (to stop other whaling parties destroying the houses) and actually survived, though only just. Can’t imagine it would have been a very nice place to stay way back in the 1600’s, with no light for months and none of the modern stay
warm gear we have the pleasure of using today!! A special surprise here to find a walrus asleep on the beach, our first glimpse of wildlife other than birds.
After leaving Smeerenburg it was off north to Raudfjorden and Hamiltonbukta for a zodiac cruise around the cliffs and bays. At first it was difficult to see the cliffs through the fog and it made them seem so much bigger. But as the fog cleared the scenery was beautiful. Here we were also lucky to sight a family of Arctic Blue Foxes with the cubs playing on the hillside. Also what appeared to be bear tracks along the shore…but alas still no bears. Day Four:
A day to explore to region of Liedefjorden with the Monacobreen the large glacier at the end. Another exciting trip in the zodiacs due to the wind picking up..so not the calm trip of yesterday! The glacier was huge with the surrounding water scattered with chunks of ice and boulders brought down and left by the glacier as it melts.
One thing that has started to intrigue me about the landscape here is that from the boat everything looks so close but then once in
the zodiacs to head for the shore line, it all seems so much further away. Judging distances seems to be extra difficult with lots of ice maybe because of the lack of landmarks such as trees to compare structures. Late in the afternoon was our first polar bear sighting...or charismatic mega-fauna if you so wish. It was way off on a mountain and after ages trying to see it through the binos I gave up..I think I saw a small yellow dot moving..could have been a rock though..even so I hoped there would be more! Days Five and Six:
The next two days started with a view to heading further north to Hilopenstretet. We were all very excited as we stood on the bridge to watch the counter tick over 80 degrees north. As close to the North Pole as I will probably ever get, unless next time I get on an icebreaker to try and make it the whole way.
Getting to Hinlopen however was hampered pretty soon by a lot of ice that had appeared, blown down from the north and obstructing our passage through. It was here that we ended up stopping to stay, drifting in
the ice for a day while the engineers worked on some ’engine maintenance’ and taking in the quietness of the surroundings. Very eerie with nothing but ice as far as you could see.
On the Friday morning I was most excited to go outside on deck and see the midnight sun for my birthday as well as later a walrus that turned up at about 4am in an ice hole next to the boat to see what was going on!! At first some staff didn’t’ believe me when I said there was a walrus at 4am…..thought it must have been an illusion caused by the amount of polar bear cocktails consumed in the bar…good thing I got lots of photos!!
Later in the morning we started to move through the ice with another ship the same as ours that was nearby to help make a passage for two smaller ships that would have been really stuck without our help. Even though not an ice breaker as such, the strengthened hull allowed us to carve a way through and standing on the bow as we did was amazing. Some of the ice was pretty thick to so the captain did a
great job to get us all out. Following the boat too were the ever present Kittiwakes making sure that any fish under the ice surface were quickly snapped up as they were exposed! Day Seven:
A very busy day all round. After two exciting days drifting in and breaking ice we were set for three excursions in a day. A very early wake up call to first visit Ny London, or Blomstrandhalvoya. This was the site of a failed marble mine which we walked around as well as having some of the best flowers in Svalbard! There are also a few old huts used as holiday houses by other resident of Svalbard.
Our second stop was at the 14th of July glacier. Here we got in the zodiacs and went past the bird cliffs to see nesting guillemots, glaucous gulls and puffins before stopping on land to walk to the glacier. A magnificent sight once there through all the ice washed up on shore as well as in the water and we sat for a while to listen to the ice grumble.
Evening saw us at the smaller island of Prins Karls Forland and Poolepynten to observe a large
Beach at Smeerenburg
Even with the little wooden huts that were here it wouldn't be a very inviting place to spend a winter!!
group of walrus on the beach. Lucky enough to find them at home we were able to go ashore and actually get quite close to them. Very funny to watch as they bask together grunting and poking each other with their tusks, scratch their butts on the ground and generally laze about. I was in the second group to go and watch and was lucky to see a group of walrus in the water (three of them) follow the first group back along the beach, then watch and follow us up the beach and when we got into the zodiacs to return, the same group of three came over close to the zodiac to have a bit of a look before heading off…very curious those walrus! Day Eight:
Bellsund is named for a bell shaped mountain just south of the entrance to this 80km fjord complex. The most magnificent scenery taken in while having lunch on the bow of the boat….even if we were all rugged up in our ski gear! Most exciting part of the day…a sleeping bear…looked like a little yellow rock…but slightly bear shaped…. Day Nine:
Awoke to the sight of the most magnificent fjord
scenery ever!! The ipod on playing Peer Gynts Morning....perfect! Spent some time admiring a rather small glacier...even commented to Karen about what a nice sight it made when out comes Martin from the bridge all excited.. “Did you see the bear??” It was sitting right next to the glacier…either really well camouflaged or I just need new glasses!! We watched him for a while then hoped into zodiacs to get a closer look. He wasn’t particularly fussed and we followed at a distance for a while. Only to be interrupted by another pod of Beluga whales…
Hornund is the southern most fjord on Spitzbergen and also has the most amazing scenery with eight large glaciers with calving fronts. The sun was out and the scenery breathtaking. Also an opportunity to see another sleeping bear…must be the sunshine that makes them sleepy! After this we headed for another fjord and a zodiac cruise that turned out to be a bit of a marathon with the glacier turning out to be quite a long way further from the boat than we thought. All the charts were done some time ago and with the glaciers melting it is hard to say just exactly
where they are. We were on the zodiacs for about 3 hours which took us through the icebergs to the farthest glacier then on the way back a rare sighting of a pod of Beluga whales! Seen even less than the polar nears so a rare treat!
An afternoon landing at Bourbonhamra and Bamsebu (home of the bear) another old whaling site scattered with literally thousands of whale bones. Did a hike to the top of a hill and the resulting view was pretty good to say the least.
Another bear sighting….this one quite close on shore and a rare chance to see bears and humans in the same spot. The trappers who live on the island were farming eider ducks for the down which goes into our quilts. Also on shore a bear that was taking a liking to duck eggs and fossicking around the nests. The trappers are allowed to scare the bears off…nothing else as bears are protected and you can’t even look at one the wrong way without getting into trouble! So a sighting of a bear being chased off by a flare..very exciting..us watching the bear watching the trappers watching the bear…. Day Ten:
Waiting until we broke the ice to get the fish underneath.
From here another fjord with glaciers and many ice bergs too tempting not to go for a look at.
Alkhornet is part of the Northern Isfjord National Park and the site of our last on shore journey. Masses of reindeer, lots of flowers including a very rare arctic flower that I can’t remember the name of and again a wonderful view.
After this our last landing it was back to the boat for our last supper on board. Again amazing....the chefs on boards these boats certainly do a most fantastic job!! It's a good thing we all got plenty of exercise or we would have all come back as big as houses!! Day Eleven:
A very sad morning we were all up early with bags packed and ready to leave our little boat. All with great memories of wonderful scenery and events shared with wonderful new friends who I'm sure will be seen in the future.
The staff on board were wonderful. Full of information and always ready with a story or two. Most definitely a recommended destination. Things I find disturbing:
After another delay in yet another airport the last thing I expected
was another Julie is a goober magnet moment! But there he was...resplendant in top to toe lycra...some sort of Nordic keep warm suit and I imagine not supposed to be worn as ''outer wear'' especially with a physique like a broom stick (for those at home think Newk in lycra....but way, way skinnier, with a huge head and a really bad haircut....no offence meant to Newk at all.....I know he wouldn't be seen dead in lycra or a bad haircut!!). He took up the window seat and since he had his bag underneath the seat in front of him-which is admirable considering those are airline rules after all-had no room for his feet which he then proceeded to keep underneath the seat in front of me!!! I could have got around it had he also not decided that going shoe and sockless was a necessity and had better smelling feet. Not to mention the annoying twitchy lets change position in seat and elbow the person sitting next to him (me!) and the weird snort that emitted from his nose every 3 minutes 40 seconds....give or take 5 seconds...hey it was a 4 hour flight and I had to amuse myself
Can't see the midnight sun from Adelaide on my birthday!!
somehow!! Anyhoo, I would have loved to have seen the beautiful mountain scenery above the clouds as we descended into Longyearbyen at midnight and but for the polar fleece covering the window I would have.
As I got to the dock the next day to board the boat all I could think was "Please don't let Lycra man be on this trip.
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