Blocked by Sea Ice!

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Europe » Svalbard » Spitsbergen
September 24th 2009
Published: March 28th 2016
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The ringing of the ship bell jolted us out of our slumber. The bell was reserved for letting us know when it was time to eat and when there was something amazing to see, so we all rushed on deck. The sky was blue and cloudy and there were amazing, jagged mountains rising up all around us. On the shore we spotted two large polar bears milling about. One of the bears had a dead seal in its mouth and was enjoying its morning feast. The landscape was breathtaking and I was torn between watching the bears and scanning the Arctic expanses. There wasn’t any ice in the sea around us, which made me wonder how far we had gone during the night. After about an hour watching the bears the bell rang again to tell us breakfast was ready. We walked inside and filled our plates with cold cuts and cheese and fruit and then took a seat. During breakfast the Captain informed us that the ice conditions had been too unpredictable and that he didn’t want to risk getting stuck, or worse, so he turned the ship around in the night and headed out of the Hinlopenstretet – My only hope of seeing narwhales was gone! There was a lot of disappointment, but we quickly turned our attentions to the places we would see on the west coast and accepted our fate.

We were in Liefdefjord on the north side of Spitsbergen Island. When we left the bears we sailed around the corner to a safe anchor point in view of the expansive, flat plain of Reinsdyrflya. After breakfast we geared up and took the zodiac across to the beach. We spent the next several hours exploring Reinsdyrflya. As the name suggested, reindeer were common visitors to the area, but we never found any. We did find several fox and bear tracks, as well as an old trapper hut, which we explored. When we reached the highest point of Reinsdyrflya we found two snowy-white ptarmigans and we were able to get quite close to them. We also spotted the bears that we had first seen that morning, only there were three of them instead of the two. They were a long way off, on a narrow spit of land separated from us by a shallow channel of water. We watched the bears closely, because we knew that they were close enough to reach us if they wanted to. It was exciting to see them away from the protection of the ship. It was also a little strange to think that while we were a part of the Arctic wilderness the ice bears considered us prey – Polar bears were one of just a few animals in the world that actually thought of humans as a legitimate food source!

We all sat down within view of the bears and we let the Arctic silence flow over us. Ten minutes of motionless silence really helped us feel the Arctic solitude. The whisper of the wind, the crackling of the snow beneath us, the distant call of the Arctic tern and the skua – All was silent and wonderful. When the chill of sitting motionless in the snow became unbearable we began walking again. Back at the landing site we spotted a pair of red-throated divers, some Eiders and a few purple sandpipers. Just as we were loading into the zodiacs a few beautiful ivory gulls flew over us.

We weighed anchor and continued deeper into the Liefdefjord. The rugged mountains rose up around us, and the water became clogged with ice. We took the ship as far into the fjord as we could go. Eventually the small icebergs got larger and the fjord took on the look of a blue slushy. The scenery was amazing. There were giant icebergs all around us, some were grounded, others were floating, and all of them were beautiful works of art sculpted by Mother Nature’s own hands. Every shade of blue was present, from the dark, inky blue of the water in the narrow channels through the ice, to the bright, luminescent blues of the icebergs, backlit by the sun. All was presided over by a perfect cerulean sky. The massive glacier at the head of the fjord flowed down between the jagged, icy mountains and reflected the sunlight creating a blinding, but majestic icescape – It was a beautiful place to be!

When the captain dropped the anchor the ice was so thick that there was no hope of going further in. We were in the midst of our own ice adventure, but in a more certain environment than we would have found had we continued down the Hinlopenstretet. Once the anchor was set everyone started preparing for an excursion to the ice front in the small boats. I decided to sit the adventure out. I knew from experience that I would have a hard time keeping my feet warm sitting in the small boats for so long. I also knew that, while the boat ride would be amazing, I would be very uncomfortable in the unfortunate life preservers that we had to wear. I was already feeling a little down and I knew that sitting in an uncomfortable boat for that long would make me unpleasant to be around. I said farewell to all of my companions and then they loaded into the zodiac and the small tender and motored away into the icy seascape.

I spent my time pacing the deck and watching the lovely icebergs float past. The water was as clear as glass, so I was able to see the amazing bulk of the ice that was hidden below the surface as the bergs floated by. I always knew that most of the icebergs were concealed below the water, but seeing the true extent of it really opened my eyes. The sun made it warm enough to sit on the deck and take in the absolute silence of the fjord. The ice made small tinkling sounds as it flowed around the hull. Occasionally a large thud indicated that one of the bigger bergs had come to say hello.

After the boats had been away for a little over two hours I heard a gunshot ring out from the poop deck. I went up there to see what was going on and the Captain said he was doing a firearm check, but I suspected that he was concerned about the boats being gone so long and was sending a signal to help guide them back. After about three hours we spotted the two dinghies making slow progress through the ice flows. As they got closer I noticed that the zodiac was towing the tender by its painter! When they finally made it back on board we heard the story about how they had made it through the ice to the glacier front where the engine on the tender died and couldn’t be restarted. They tried for a while and then decided to tow it back, which was a long and tedious process in the narrow, ever-changing channels through the ice. My companions had had a real ice adventure!

We shipped the dinghies and then raised the anchor. We put the amazing glaciers and the icy fjord astern and we sailed back out of the fjord and set a course for Dead Whale Bay. As we turned the corner around the Reinsdyrflya, where we had walked earlier in the day, we spotted the same bears sitting on their little spit of snow-covered land, seemingly content with life. The blood-smeared ice and the gore where the seal had been that morning spoke of the feast they had enjoyed. We gathered for yet another wonderful dinner and then we watched the sun set over the jagged peaks of Spitsbergen. Afterward, I retired to my cabin and drifted off to a fitful sleep.

During the night my vivid, polar dreams returned in an epic way. This time I was in charge of defense at a large tourist castle. I was digging in the dirt in the dungeon looking for swords we could use. I found one rusty scimitar that was still useable. With my sword in hand, I ran through all of the torch-lit halls and tunnels getting everything ready for the impending siege. By the time I reached the treasure, which was what the invading hordes were after, the battle had begun. I hurriedly locked and relocked the chamber that had the jewels and gold inside to the sound of clashing steel and cannon blasts and the evil din of battle. I had just closed a heavy wooden door and locked it when the hordes reached me. I alone stood in front of the door with my rusty scimitar held high. The invading army raced across the little bridge toward me. After a brief clash of steel I was injured! A small girl with a little knife had cut my thumb. I cried out in pain, as if I was a baby, and then the authorities rushed in, did a hurried investigation and then hauled the girl off to jail… It was a strange end to an odd dream, but it was a lot of fun, especially the Monty Python-esque ending!

I woke up feeling great! All of the grumpiness from the day before had died in my dreamland battle. We were back in Sallyhamna, anchored beside the dead whale. When I walked out on deck with my morning coffee there were five ice bears feasting on the dead leviathan. We spent the morning with the bears, spotting another arctic fox, as well. After breakfast we headed off to Ytre Norskøya to climb to the mountaintop vantage point of Zeeuwse uitkijk, which whalers used as a lookout to spot whales in the 1600s. It was our third attempt to land on the island and the conditions were perfect – The third time was the charm!

We landed on a pebbly beach away from the old whaling station. The entire island was blanketed in thick, calf-deep snow and all was beautiful. Our guides led us up a steep, somewhat grueling ascent of the mountain. The ridge we followed was made up of large boulders blanketed in deep, powdery snow. The going was tough, but enjoyable. Each step sunk deep into the loose snow. An arctic fox and a ptarmigan had left the only footprints in front of us. The pristine snow and the elevated views made for an amazing vista out over the ocean. After about forty-five minutes the ridge we were following leveled out onto a large, plateau-like summit. We walked across the summit to the side facing the ocean where we found a well-made stone cairn marking the highpoint.

We were standing in the very spot that seventeenth century whalers stood as they watched for the spouts of the whales. When they spotted the whales they would have signaled the men down on shore where they would have launched the whale boats and headed off for the hunt – In those days whaling was a true, Moby Dick-like battle between man and beast and the odds were fairly even for both combatants! We stayed at the lookout for a long while, but we never managed to see any whales. Our guides told us that we would be the last tourist group authorized to land on Ytre Norskøya and climb the Zeeuwse Uitkijk – Apparently, the fragile nature of the whaling station, and the huge graveyard necessitated the closing of the site. We walked to the other side of the summit and looked down on the coastal plain, where the old whaling station had been. The Antigua was anchored just off shore with a backdrop of rugged mountains and giant flowing glaciers – It was a beautiful sight and I felt privileged to be seeing it!

We descended the mountain slowly, being careful to maintain our footing. Close to the bottom I found a thick, snowy slope that ran rock-free for about one hundred feet. It was steep and well packed, with a fairly soft landing, and I saw a huge opportunity in it. I adjusted my path to intersect the top of the slide and then I sat down and slid to the bottom. It was amazing fun, so I climbed back up and slid down again. I was unable to talk any of my companions into joining in the festivities, so they slowly plodded down as I had my fun. I did the slide six times, including several face-first belly toboggans that were as exciting as they were fun, before the whole group had reached the bottom. I walked away from the mountain with a huge smile on my face and a bunch of snow packed deep into my pants and shirt – I have no idea how it got in, but it helped cool me down.

We walked over to the whaler cemetery, which dated from the 1600s. Most of the 185 graves were buried under the thick snow, but a few of them had been scoured clean by the wind. It was proof that the whales won several of the battles in the early days of whaling, before the ships and the harpoons got more sophisticated! We walked along the shore for a while longer to were the remains of a few of the station’s old blubber ovens were. The same blubber-cemented sand outlines, like we found at Smeerenburg, were all that remained. By the time we reached the shore and the zodiac had come to pick us up I was soggy and cold thanks to the melting snow in my pants. I will always remember my time on Ytre Norskøya fondly – I hope it will be opened in the future, so that others can experience it as well!

We spent the rest of the day heading south through some amazing scenery. At times there was ice floating around us, but most of the time the water was smooth and glassy, reflecting the jagged peaks that gave Spitsbergen its name. At one point the wind picked up enough that we were able to set some sails for the first time on the voyage. It was a lot of fun working the ropes again, but it made me long for my days on the Europa, when sail handling and going aloft were regular occurrences. The sailing was short-lived. The wind left us with fluttering sails, so we took in the sails and motored on.

Around dinnertime we dropped anchor amongst the stunning scenery of Magdalene Fjord. We took the zodiacs to shore before dinner and went for a long, exciting walk to a glacier front. It wasn’t the grand scenery, or the beautiful glacier that made the walk exciting, as amazing as they were, but the fresh polar bear tracks we found on our path! The footprints were crisp in the powdery snow, so we knew they were only a few hours old. We also knew that that meant the bear was still in the area. We continued our walk with extra vigilance. The landscape we were walking in was constantly changing with hills and ravines and several rocky outcrops that would have made excellent hiding places for a hungry bear. We made it all the way to a sandy beach below the glacier. The ocean in front of the ice face was frozen over and a bearded seal was asleep on the ice. While we took pictures of the stunning vista, another seal swam up to the shore near us to say hello.

We wanted to make it back to the Antigua before dark, due to the ever-present bear danger, so we headed back after about half an hour. Along the way we watched one of the most amazing sunsets I have seen over the icy fjord. The mountains changed from brown to pink and then a deep, blood red as the sun descended. The sky was a deep purple and the floating ice glowed a brilliant blue in the pink and orange water – It was like a painting! Once we were back in sight of the ship we explored the remnants of an English whaling station and poked around a hut that was there – There we found the skull of a reindeer with the antlers still attached, which was cool. We watched the final rays of the sun disappear behind the silhouette of the Antigua and then we took the zodiac back to the ship. We hoisted the anchor and headed southward into the night - What a great day!

I awoke at 7:30 the next morning with the clatter of the docking procedures at Ny Ålesund. We had returned to get more fuel. We stayed at the dock for an hour and a half while we fueled up and ate breakfast. We also took a quick walk to the store to stretch our legs. When we left Kongsfjorden we saw some Brünnich’s Guillemots, fulmars and a single puffin, the latter of which I saw after it had flown past us and was a small black dot – I had always wanted to see a puffin and I guess it counted, but it wasn’t a good view. We spent the rest of the day heading southward. I got an unexpected treat as we passed Isfjorden, were Longyearbyn was located, when a lady on the ship, who knew I was missing my girlfriend, handed me her cell phone and told me to call her. Maria was surprised to hear from me and we had a quick conversation about the happenings in the Arctic and at home before the window for cell coverage closed and the line went dead. I felt wonderful knowing all was well at home! The wind came back in a big way, so we set our sails and shut the motors off for most of the day, which made for a quiet, considerably more enjoyable passage. The wind brought with it some rougher seas and we all struggled to get our sea legs. Some of us felt quite ill, myself included, but we knew that it would go away in a few days at sea.

At around 5:00am I awoke to the noisy clatter of the chain as we dropped the anchor in Van Keulenfjord at Malbukta, in Bellsund. The landscape surrounding us was amazing. The mountains lining the sound had huge sedimentary bands that flowed across the landscape like waves. Thick fields of snow separated the sedimentary bands and made for a stunning arctic vista. We spent about four hours hiking across the flat tundra in Bellsund. Our goal was the distant whaling station of Bamsebu on the shore of one of the branches of the sound. The wind had scoured most of the snow from the tundra, which let us see what the landscape looked like beneath the snow. We spotted several reindeer, a recent ice bear track and some amazing formations in the earth as we walked across the arctic landscape. Eventually we walked over a low ridge and looked down across a stunning, coastal landscape to a few old wooden huts and the ruins of several small wooden boats. There were no bears in sight, so we walked the rest of the way down to the huts.

The huts were in good condition, which meant they were probably still in use as a retreat, or a research hut. The area around the huts was littered with rusty implements left over from the whaling days 75 years before. There were rotting piles of rope, giant barbed hooks, parts of iron stoves, and beautifully ruined wooden boats. The boats had been built a long time ago, judging by their craftsmanship, and the years had not been kind. While the boats were my favorite part of the ruined whaling station, there was another feature that left a bigger impression on me. There were several massive piles of bleached bones from beluga whales! The piles spoke of the carnage that had taken place there in the not-so-distant past when the whalers would herd a pod of the beautiful white whales into the bay, string a big net across the entrance and take their time slaughtering them. Judging by the quantity of bones, it must have been a horrific scene. It was difficult for me to imagine what people who would be okay with such a horrific slaughter would be like and I would have liked to think that their breed had disappeared from the earth long ago, but I knew that similar scenes to the ones that played out in Bellsund years ago still take place yearly in places like the Faroe Islands – Shameful!

We left the piles of bones at Bamsebu behind us and walked back toward the Antigua. Along the way we found another ruined boat that was in such good condition that it could have been restored to sailing condition. We climbed up to the top of a big hill and from our vantage point we could see the entire sound stretch out around us. The whaling station was to our right in a beautiful blue harbor, the Antigua was to our left in the deeper part of the sound, and mountains were all around us, hemming in the flat tundra that we had been walking through.

We walked toward a rocky beach called Alistrandoden that separated the water that the Antigua was in from the harbor the station was on. About halfway down the gentle slope we found a snow-white ptarmigan pecking through the snow, almost invisible. While we watched it we heard a commotion coming from the water. We looked down and saw the zodiac speeding away from the ship toward the rocky spit of land we were heading to. One of the guides’ radios crackled with unintelligible garble that was translated into, “They have spotted some beluga whales!” We collectively started running toward the spit hoping to see white whales with our own eyes. The guides watched in dismay as a few of the people rushed ahead in a sprint, leaving the bear protection behind them and creating a dangerous situation. Luckily there were no ice bears hidden among the rocks. When the group was together again the guides gently, but firmly reprimanded the people that ran ahead and explained to the group how dangerous it would be for us and for the bears if we got into a bad encounter where the rifles had to be used. We milled about on the beach, which was strewn with more ruined wooden boats, for a while before the zodiac arrived. It was decided that the first group was going to take a circuitous path back to the ship to search for the whales – I happened to be in that group. We went through the waves for about half an hour searching for the telltale spray and the white bodies of the whales, but we were unsuccessful. The second group took a more direct course back to the ship with no sign of the whales – They had vanished making me think that they were the ghosts of the whales that had died in the sound so long ago.

We weighed the anchor at lunchtime and we set our sails and sailed out of the fjord. We were all still diligently searching for the whales, so the tiny puff of spray on the far side of the sound didn’t go unnoticed. The captain confirmed the sighting and moved the ship closer. They were still a long way off, but they were close enough to know that we were seeing two or three fin whales! They were the first whales we had seen, other than the phantom belugas, on the voyage, so we were all excited. We watched as spout after spout shot into the air and we got several good views of their dorsal fins, before it was time for us to say farewell and point our bowsprit southward. As we made the turn several Brünnich’s Guillemots flew around the Antigua’s billowing sails. We sailed through the afternoon, but the wind left us again about dinnertime and the rumble of the engines joined us again. The sunset sunk into the Greenland Sea and darkness set in shrouding the lovely Arctic scenery in shadow. I headed back to my cabin and said farewell to another lovely day in Svalbard.

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