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High Arctic Adventure - Circumnavigation of Svalbard

The 'official' text from the daily 'Spitzbergen News' as published on board the Polar Pioneer.

Dear family friends and blog readers. I have cheated a little for the following 10 days. Each day on board, we would wake at about 7:15 to hear the expedition leader Henrik saying "Good morning good people." on the speakers in each cabin. Tucked by the door was that days 'Spitzbergen News' giving us some times for that days activities and a brief overview of the previous days happenings. Breakfast would be followed by a kayak trip in the morning and after lunch we would move to another place for another kayak. Busy days.
I have used Sue's text for the following days on board the ship, so it is not written from the perspective of a paddler, but should give you an idea of where we went, what we saw, and what we did. (Not only did I not have a computer, we were actually quite busy doing things most of the time.)So, here is a wrap of my Circumnavigation of Spitzbergen with Aurora Expeditions on the Polar Pioneer. August 7-17th. (7th we boarded in the evening, so first 'day' is the 8th of August. Day 10, the 17th, we woke up and left the ship after breakfast.)
The credit for the following text belongs to Sue Werner, the assistant expedition leader.

First day of 10 on the ship -
Last night we sailed north with the rolling Gulf Stream along the western edge of Spitsbergen. Not long after breakfast we saw our first Polar bear quite a distance away. Henrik and Alan then briefed us on "how to avoid being eaten by a polar bear" and "how to enjoy our interaction with the Arctic flora & fauna", whilst causing minimum disturbance: Polar Pioneer nudged her way into Magdalene Fjord where we found some relief from the rocking sea. We marveled at the glacier’s dramatic jagged ice cliffs and sweeping moraine, some of us saw a carving from the glacier as we approached. Heading out of Magdalene Fjord, Henrik gave us a Zodiac briefing: Then our ceremonial distribution of gumboots was held down in the lecture room as we sailed further north - all before lunch.
Early in the afternoon the ship anchored off the two most northwesterly islands of Svalbard, Amsterdamoya and Danskoya. It was an interesting afternoon and where the kayakers had their first taste of arctic paddling.
The landing was the site of the Old Dutch whaling station of Smeerenburg, a featureless sandy beach devoid of any vegetation. It must have been a pretty grim place to work some 400 years ago, and difficult now to imagine several hundred men going about their daily business – ships anchored in the bay, smelling whale carcasses hauled up on the beach, a cobbled street, the noise of a blacksmiths hammer; a place where men could earn a lot of money and think of an easy life at home -- one day.
We took a nice walk across the stone sorted tundra covered in mosses. 8 to 9 reindeer grazed filling their bellies with vegetation before the winter sets in. On our walk back to the Zodiacs along the foreshore, we discovered large Polar bear footprints in the sand, they looked reasonably fresh!
Our late afternoon adventure was at a place called Bjornfjorden (bear fjord) it was a bit windy but this didn't stop us intrepid expeditioner's as we clambered down the gangway and into the Zodiacs. Smeerenburg glacier was a fare distance from the ship, well worth the wet and wild ride. Small bits would break off the glacier and lots of birds feeding. Then just as it was time to head back to the ship a Beluga whale appeared from know where!! It was close enough to see its wrinkled skin what an exciting experience. Meanwhile three other Zodiacs saw a Polar bear awake from a snooze, he sat up and sniffed the air giving us all a good look at his powerful physique. Getting back on board Polar Pioneer took some technical maneuvers, which we all managed very well.
Back on board for a welcome, warming, hot shower. Then drinks with the captain in the bar.
Today we will explore Woodfjorden, all eyes on the bridge to look out for those polar bears!

Day 2
We woke to a beautiful morning yesterday. The sun was trying to push through the clouds as we anchored in Bockfjorden. Soon after breakfast we found ourselves ashore in a new environment. We hoped to find some interesting geological features and we were not disappointed. To the east, the red sandstones of Devonian age form steep majestic hills. These rocks in some areas contain early plant fossils and the remains of many primitive - armour plated fish. On the eastern side of the valley, a fault zone separates the younger (400m.y.) red sandstones from much older protaozaic rocks (2000m.y.). This north – south fault zone has been active for perhaps 300m.y. and about 150,000 years ago several volcanos erupted along this zone of crusted weakness, sending lava and volcanic ash over a large area of land, prior to the most recent period of glaciation. The thermal springs on the hillside lie along this fault zone and they dictate that the area is still an active volcanic and seismic zone. We took a very enjoyable walk where wild flowers grew amongst the boulders and there were a few tricky sections to cross which required style and grace. The kayakers had a lovely paddle and saw a fox chase some geese into the water.
Back to the Zodiacs to cross Bockfjorden. We walked on undulating terrain and discovered tundra rich in vegetation and autumn colours. Henrik showed us the workings of a fox trap, before heading back to Polar Pioneer for a well deserved lunch.
Into Liefdefjorden during lunch, then we were treated to a close view of Monaco Glacier at the end of the fjord. This is a huge glacier: 5 km wide and 38 km long. A bear was spotted sleeping on the tundra as we cruised towards the marbled ice wall. One Zodiac had to do a quick replacement, all passengers successfully transferred Zodiacs. Engines were switched off to enjoy the snap, crackle and pop of the ice and the sounds of the glacier’s movements. Now and again chunks of ice would calve off and crash, making a dramatic sound into the aquamarine water. Kittiwakes, Fulmar and Glaucous gulls were fishing by the thousands. An Ivory gull flew by while a couple of bearded seals hauled out onto small pieces of ice, we quietly approached them to get good views of their elegant whiskers. It was a wonderful afternoon cruise and to finish off with a big bang!!
Back to the ship, for a hot toddy and a delicious evening meal. Then we sat back and enjoyed the video documentary “Frozen Hearts”. A film about Roald Amundsen. Onwards to 80 degrees and Moffen Island, a walrus sanctuary on a donut shaped spit. A few walrus where seen from 300m as unfortunately we are not allowed to go any closer as the midnight sun shone from behind the clouds. Signed off at 2230 good night good people!!!

Day 3 -
Henrik's sunny wake-up call roused us to a day of brilliant sunshine and further adventures. Overnight we had sailed south into Hinlopenstretet and now we were anchored near one of the wildlife gems of Svalbard - the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. Alkefjellet is a series of dolerite towers, over 100 m high, like ancient castle ruins built by mighty Norsemen, guarded by hanging glaciers. In most places the black dolerite is sandwiched between white limestone deposits - a geologists' delight. Tens of thousands of Brunnich's Guillemots nest here, along with a few Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Fulmars and Glaucous Gulls. Simon and the kayakers got an early start and were soon dwarfed by the towering cliffs. The rest of us followed in Zodiacs and spent several wonderful hours experiencing the sights, sounds (and smells!) of the place. As we drifted slowly underneath the cliffs, some of us also experienced the excretory blessings coming from on high. On these precarious narrow ledges the throngs of Guillemots raise their families - a single chick each year - if they are lucky. The gulls, foxes, and occasional polar bears live off the unlucky ones - the eggs and chicks which fall. The surviving chicks leave the colony when only a third grown. The original base-jumpers, they flutter to the sea accompanied by their father, and complete their chick-hood out at sea, fed by the attendant parent. We were lucky to see several of these chicks with their dads, swimming among the other guillemots near the cliffs.

After lunch, at we all had the opportunity to work off some of the benefits of the delicious meals we've been enjoying. Henrik and Don led the more energetic of us up the hills above the lovely Faksevagen bay to a high lookout to view the Gullfakse Glacier. This group saw more than 15 reindeer, including a weird cross-species tussle between a reindeer and an Arctic Skua. At first the skua chased the reindeer across the tundra, but finally the deer turned, and rising on its hind legs, chased off the skua with its fore-legs. Meanwhile the lowland group was experiencing something equally enthralling - a female Svalbard Ptarmigan trying to distract an Arctic Fox. For over 20 minutes the fox zig-zagged about the tundra slopes, evidently looking for the ptarmigan's hidden chicks, all the while being harassed by the female ptarmigan. Eventually the fox trotted off to seek easier prey. On our homeward walk we did our part to "Clean up Svalbard", bringing bags of plastic rubbish from the beach back to the ship. A group photo on the foredeck preceded dinner. Lively conversation over another excellent dinner and a movie ended this brilliant day.

Day 4 -
Polar Pioneer had steamed on through the night and by breakfast time yesterday morning we were off Phippsoya, the northerly most island of the Svalbard Archipelago.
It was a calm, overcast morning with a light rain as we headed out in our trusty Zodiacs. We cruised around the corner to find two small groups of walrus hauled out on the beach. We made a slow approach in the Zodiacs to shore. Henrik checked out the site for fuzzy critters before we all came ashore. Quietly we crept towards a group of about fifteen walrus. It was like watching the Light Horse Brigade going into battle. A line of very keen expeditioners all armed with cameras and binoculars creeping ever so slowly towards the lying, snoozing, snorting and scratching walrus huddled together. They appeared to be aware of our presence but showed little concern.
Back to the Zodiacs to see what else we could find, it was still raining but that didn't stop us. Behold a bear on the horizon near that cairn of stones. He stood there looking at us then with a blink of an eye he sat down for a nap.
Cruising along we ran into half-dozen or more walruses in the water. They came over to inspect our boats, rearing out of the water so we could see their tusks and short whiskers that looked like scrubbing brushes and are used for finding their seafood prey. Over yonder a large group of about 100 walrus lay on the sandy beach. As we approached we could smell the aroma. It was our lucky day, not just walrus but another four bears!!! Eureka!! One of the bears looked to be a male, once he saw us coming he started to move quickly, we then noticed he was not alone. A female bear and her 2 cubs were also in the area. She was just as quick to lead her cubs away from the male bear, as male bears will kill a cub if they have the opportunity. The sky darkened, the rain got heavier and the mist rolled in, it was not a good time to take photo's this was a moment to remember and enjoy.
It was a quick return to the ship for a well-deserved lunch shortly after Alan gave a lecture on "Seals and Walrus" followed by a bit of retail therapy.
In the afternoon we cruised into Rijpfjorden; this was new terrain for Aurora Expeditions. Captain Nikolay skillfully maneuvered Polar Pioneer into unknown waters, finally coming to anchor near the end of the fjord. Henrik gave a 15-minute Zodiac call and we were off again!!
We landed at Haudegen in Wordiebukta near an old German weather station. An old boat made of oak and copperplates sat up from the beach; it was in amazingly good condition. The weather station was a sorry sight, it was very rundown and old wooden boxes littered the marshy ground. A family of pink-footed geese had taken up residence; unfortunately they had a dinner appointment and had to leave in a flurry. On the rocky cliffs behind the hut the hooting call of a ptarmigan was heard. We could see about 5 chicks with a parent scaling the wall. Not bad little rock climbers at all!!
The evening was only getting better. The rain had stopped and the sun was casting magical light over Rijpfjorden. The Kayakers toasted with a Cointreau in front of a great iceberg as they had their 80° North paddle while the rest of us stretched our legs on the richly lichen covered stone tundra.

Day 5 -
. During the night we had made our way down the east coast of Nordaustlandet to Storoya, an island mostly covered in ice. A thick sea mist had descended and few of us could even see the island let alone guess in which direction it lay. Nonetheless we were soon motoring along the edge of it in the Zodiacs keeping a sharp lookout for bears, which often get marooned by retreating summer ice in such places. Sadly the poor conditions made it difficult to see anything and we returned to the ship cold and disappointed. A few walrus were seen by the kayakers.
Before lunch Dave enlightened us on the history of Svalbard, which is fascinating. It is sobering to think that 150 years before European settlement in Australia, people were slaughtering walrus and whales in Svalbard. In the afternoon it was Alan's turn and his talk was about Polar Bears, which to a lot of people epitomize the Arctic. The photos of bears on ice last year where today there is none brought home the reality of global warming.
We had a long journey down the Erik Eriksenstreten between Nordaustlandet and Kong Karls Land which is a reserve in the true sense of the word: not only are you forbidden to land there, you are not even allowed to fly over the islands. The reprieve gave us time to regroup and play bridge and scrabble.
In the late afternoon after traveling down the east side of the impressive Austfonna Icecap - the 3rd largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland - we arrived at Isispynten. This promontory was named by the 1924 Oxford University Arctic Expedition after the river Isis that flows through Oxford. The similarity to the word icy did not escape us as we sped past the frozen ice cliffs. Segments of the glacier had calved off the main icecap and become grounded revealing details of these fascinating structures frozen in time. The kayakers had a cold but enjoyable paddle interrupted by chocolate breaks. Henrik eventually found a place to go ashore and after a short pitch of ice climbing we were on a fairly flat summit. The view along the ivory cliffs towards a sun that didn't set was memorable. 10 nations were represented on that endless mound of ice but for a moment we were as one. As the midnight sun drew nigh we set a course for Freemansundet between Barentsoya and Edgeoya.

Day 6 -
Overnight we cruised south towards Barentsoya. By breakfast we had entered the waters of Freemansundet, which separates the islands of Barrentsoya and Edgeoya. It was a beautiful day; the sun was shining brightly with hardly a breath of wind. A bear was sighted way off on the hillside. He was a good distance away so the landing took place as planned.
There was a strong current running alongside the ship, the kayakers decided to abandon their morning paddle and joined us as we ventured forth in the Zodiacs to explore the beautiful fertile plains of Sundneset. The spongy ground was rich with bright green mosses, a variety of delicate and colourful flowers, particularly the yellow marsh (bog) saxifrage, various mushrooms and a number of small tarns with Long tailed ducks, Barnacle geese and Red throated divers. We explored the beautiful terrain on foot, marveling at the contrast between the colourful soft ground and the barren, rocky terrain of further north. Reindeer antlers and a mixture of bones lay decaying in the tundra. We looked over several Alpine lakes. The song of snow buntings aroused our attention, as small groups danced around the rocks. It is easy to understand how trappers chose this beautiful location to build a small hut.
A wonderful Antipasto platter awaited us back on board for lunch as Polar Pioneer repositioned. A short distance from Sundneset for the afternoon landing was Doleritneset on Edgeoya. No sign of polar bears! But there where some walrus around. We landed by some old wooden huts, one of them dating back to 1899, it had been built for the Swedish/Russian Arc of the Meridian Expedition. Walrus bones littered the whole area where there had been the scene of mass slaughter of these seemingly docile creatures during the early whaling days. In 1606 Stephen Bennet of the Muskovy Co ship “Grace” described the scene. They had now become so expert at sea morse [walrus] hunting that in six hours they killed six to seven hundred beasts, out of which 22 tons of oil were made and three hogsheads filled with tusks.
Just over the ridge a small group of walrus lay basking on the sandy beach. They were quite timid and nervous so we approached slowly not to scare them into the water. It was nice to just sit and watch them in the afternoon sun. We noticed that one of the larger walrus only had one tusk and it seemed to have some kind of tracking device attached to it. Meanwhile the kayakers enjoyed their paddle along the rocky shore past some walrus who, looked at them from the water as they paddled by.
Splitting into two groups we went for a lovely walk over easy going ground past a lake where lots of purple sandpipers frolicked around the edge, large jaw bones of the rare bowhead whale lay in the same position as whence it came. Henrik's brisk walkers went up onto a small lookout point to take in the beautiful surroundings of Rosenbergdalen and saw several reindeer. While Alan and co explored the nooks and crannies between the boulders finding a lush haven for some new wild flower we haven't seen like the Arctic Dandelion. It was time to make an orderly retreat to the beach after a great day in the Arctic wilderness. It was then back to the warm comforts of our Polar Pioneer and Tilly's happy cocktail hour.
After a great dinner and Don's well-attended talk on his South Georgia crossing, everyone was off to their beds for a well-earned snooze.

Day 7 -
After quietly riding at anchor overnight we were already in position for our first landing of the day. It was a fine morning as the zodiacs rode into what is one of the finest natural harbours in Svalbard. The early whalers had established a base on the low headland of what is now known as Habenichtbukta. As the whales depleted in numbers so the men pulled out. By the mid 18th century the site was once more occupied, this time by Russian hunters, the Pomors, who journeyed from the White Sea in their small sailing boats each year to over winter and hunt polar bears and arctic fox for their valuable white coats. We looked over some fifteen building remains; it had been quite a large settlement. The nearby freshwater lake abounded with bird life and the rich mossy ground was home to a variety of flowers.
Back to the ship and Alan gave a talk on the bird life of Svalbard before lunch. Time then to get in a few ZZ's whilst on passage for our afternoons outing on the small island of Bolscheoya to the south of Edgeoya.
As Polar Pioneer moved slowly across the shallow waters to the anchorage several walrus were startled, it's probably not very often that they are disturbed at their feeding grounds by such a large monster looming down on them. We were soon ashore and again seeing such a variety of wild life, terns with chicks, little auks, red-throated divers and a number of puffins. On one of the beaches we saw more remnants of the old whaling days, some graffiti on a whalebone with the date 1859 engraved, together with a couple of sailors graves. Whilst walking over to get a closer look at the puffins nesting beyond a small tarn, Amanda (Tilly), who was taking a zodiac ride around the island, informed us of a polar bear. It wasn't long before it was sighted again and it was time for us to make an orderly retreat back to the boats. As the bear, a skinny looking female with a tagged collar moved forward, we retraced our steps. Once on the water we were able to skirt around the coast and see her at a close, safe distance. Stranded on the small island that she is, with very little food, she made rather a sad sight. And it's a long time yet before the sea will freeze and with it the chance of a proper feed.
We left the island and made back to the ship for the long overnight passage around the southern tip of Spitsbergen and the balmy Gulf Stream side of the west coast.

Day 8 -
It was back to the Gulf Stream side of Spitsbergen and wow, what a day we had. During the night we had rounded Sorkappoya (the south cape), then turned north for Hornsund, which we entered around breakfast time. The ship steamed east and stopped by Samarinbreen. The sun was shining brightly on the jagged peaks of the surrounding mountains.
We went for an amazing Zodiac cruise in search of the illusive polar bear, which was sighted by some, while the kayakers headed out for a long days paddle! We then headed across the waters to the glacier front. A few beautiful blue icebergs scattered the water as we sat in silence amidst the brash ice and listened to the rumblings inside the bowels of the glacier.
A timid ringed seal popped up near the Zodiac to enchant us. A mixture of birds were sighted as we cruised along the glacial front - black guillemots, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls and fulmars. We sat quietly, taking in the gentle, relaxing ambience of it all and watched small pieces calve from the ice wall. It was a spectacular morning. Back on board, to enjoy a nice warm hot chocolate before we set off again.
Just before noon the Polar Pioneer headed towards the spectacular cliffs of Sophiabogen that towered over Burgebukta. We had a nice time ashore. Beneath the cliffs were lots of nesting kittiwakes buzzing around like one gigantic beehive. Their constant chatter broke the silence. An old trappers hut on the beach was surrounded by the clutter of many expeditions and residents before. Some of us scaled the high peaks where the barnacle geese grazed and the kittiwakes lived. A young Arctic fox played around the large boulders with onlookers only metres away, he gave us a great show and didn’t seem to mind our presence. The slopes were filled with the last wildflowers of summer. It was hard to drag ourselves away from this Arctic environment.
Then it was onwards to Brepollen, the bay at the end of Hornsund into which numerous glaciers flow. In the evening twilight, on the bow, in front of the Hornbreen Glacier we were treated to close up views from the bow as Captain Nikolay moved the ship to within 200 metres of the snout of the glacier - a position that on a 1976 chart was well over a mile inside the ice front. Possibly a bit of global warming? A huge crack and a bang was heard as a big piece plummeted in. The gulls and fulmars peered at us from above as the ship turned, the light on the jagged glacier front only got better. The grand finale ended with a whole face of the glacier front crumbling into the sea sending out a monstrous wave which Polar Pioneer surfed away on and the Captain voice over the PA "Passengers beware".
Dinner was a surprise from our trusty chefs, Tina and Judd, who put on a BBQ banquet on the stern deck. The fine food and mulled wine warmed the hearts on this tranquil summers evening. What away to finish off another great day, “Truly awesome!”
Overnight we have travelled north into Bellsund. Time to do a little more exploring.

Day 9 -
Another beautiful morning for our first outing in Recherchefjord. The kayakers went for their final paddle and the rest of us Zodiac-ed into a large tidal lake trapped by an old terminal moraine of the Recherche Glacier. It was a maze of stranded bergy bits, all sitting on the shallow sea floor. Several ringed seals were seen in the water. Suddenly, Don reported a large Polar Bear near the entrance to the lagoon. The bear had a dirty grey-brown coat, probably from swimming in the murky glacier run-off. For the next half-our the bear wandered about on the moraine while we jockeyed our Zodiacs around to get better views. Eventually we all got good looks at him before he swam across the lagoon entrance and wandered off down the shore. But more excitement - the kayakers had spotted a pod of Beluga Whales within the lagoon. We positioned ourselves near the shore, moving slowly to avoid disturbing the whales and we were rewarded by excellent views as they surged about in the muddy water searching for fish. Two pure white adult Belugas were accompanied by two grey juveniles. The bear had been reported lying in the shallows of the lagoon entrance and so the Zodiacs accompanied the kayakers as they traversed back into the open sea.
Over lunch the ship re-positioned to Bourbonhamna. As we approached our intended landing site we spotted the carcass of a whale on the shore. And bears! One feeding at the whale carcass, another two snoozing on the slopes and then a female with two cubs emerged from behind a ridge and wandered up the slope. Six bears in clear view - all looking plump and well fed. As the anchor rattled down we hastily put on our warm gear and headed for the Zodiacs. A few minutes later we were drifting slowly closer to the whale carcass where one bear was still feeding, tearing bits of blubber off the whale. The bear ignored us but eventually lumbered off, hauling itself up the shoreline cliff and up the green slopes. We then motored in to inspect the whale - it was a Sperm Whale, and judging by the state of the carcass (and the aroma!) it had been dead for a while. It was sad to see this magnificent creature lying distorted and rotting on a beach. But it was not going to waste and, apart from the bears, dozens of gulls and fulmars were also feeding.
We then landed at Bamsebu, the site of a Norwegian Beluga-whaling base active until about 60 years ago. Dave described how the hunters netted and killed the whales, and Alan used the whale skeletons to explain some of the biology of the whales. Family groups of Belugas were spotted by the hunters from the sheltered lookout higher, up the hillside. A quick launch of their motorized clinker-built boats would be followed by the slaughter, and the many piles of hundred of old bones told of years of this activity. The log cabin, well fortified against polar bears, now serves as a weekend retreat for people from Longyearbyen.
Back on board after a hot shower and some packing, we all gathered in the bar for a recap of our amazing journey. Time to look back and realise how much we have done in the past 10 days. This was followed by our final get together - drinks with the captain. Tina and Judd put on a magnificent feast. They have done an amazing job keeping us well fed. Captain Nikolay took a final ship cruise past the coal-mining town of Barentsburg. It’s a Russian mining centre with a population of 1000 - 1200, which extracts about 250,000 tons of coal annually.
Our journey is drawing towards its end now, as we close in on Longyearbyen. We all came together from near and far; we have banded together; now leave as one. We have all endured amazing experiences in so many different ways, holding all the memories close to our hearts. We’d like to say a very special thank you to our excellent crew for an absolutely wonderful voyage.

Posted by TheWandera 06:40 Archived in Norway Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Circumnavigation of Spitzbergen - My log for a day.

A month or two after our expedition, each of the expeditioners on board will receive a log book of our written submissions and some photos.
I created a crossword using clues and words applicable to our time together.
We were asked to nominate a person for each of the 10 days. I wrote Day 4 and this is it.

At 3 am I saw a polar bear up really close. Then I woke up and realised I was dreaming.

Waking again at 7am to the voice of happy Henrik we were informed that those passengers wanting blue skies and calm seas, could stop dreaming.
The kayakers breakfasted early and set off first towards the bird cliffs lining the Hinlopen Strait, first stop the terminal face of a glacier. The crack of a gunshot was not the demise of a polar bear, rather a piece of glacial ice being released of its pressure and falling into the sea. As the kayakers moved off, the passengers following in Zodiacs were treated to a spectacular carving of the glacier. Compared to yesterday, this was a small glacier, but surrounded by cliffs, and no less inspiring, the ice pieces in the water providing pure refreshment for those who tasted this ancient ice.

If the glacier was the appetiser, the main course was divine. The soaring cliffs of Alkefjellet full of nesting guillemots, and occasional kittiwakes.
The cameras clicked madly, but it was the experience that was special. The photos will be a reminder, but it was the wonderment of travelling right underneath cliffs soaring hundreds of metres into the sky that made this place so special. Photos won't capture the sound of the squawking birds and their chicks, the soaring Glaucous Gulls looking intently for a chick to steal, or the sky around the cliffs thick with swarming birds. The water around the kayaks and Zodiacs was alive with bobbing birds. For the lucky ones, a treat from on high was dropped on them.
If Aurora made a movie they'd call it Zodiac Now, "I love the smell of guano in the morning!" And what a morning it was!
Massive seafront cliffs, their shapes inspiring on their own, were made even more memorable by the birds nesting in their thousands.
Looking upwards at the ledges full of nesting guillemots, my kayak buddy Nathan described it as, "A city of birds."
The kayakers poked through narrow gaps between rock pinnacles and the cliffs, secret hollows hid waterfalls only they could see. Zodiac passengers wielding zoom lenses captured close-up photos of nesting birds and the cliffs 'painted' by their presence.
Back on the boat after a morning that for many has been a highlight so far, another tasty meal appeared from the kitchen of Tina and Judd - Fettuccini Bolognaise. How good has the food been on this trip? Our galley duo have impressive Svalbard and Spitzbergen to compete against for our attention, and they are more than up to the challenge.

Afternoon activity time again, this time we were in the Lomfiorden, also on the north-east corner of Spitzbergen. So calm and peaceful that despite the desire to 'stretch the legs', some of the kayakers, myself included, thought that maybe this wasn't the kayak trip to decline. Nevertheless we did decline and joined the 'Zodiacers' onshore for an afternoon of walking. Some chose to stay close and helped clean up Svalbard by collecting washed up litter while 26 others joined Happy Hill Hiking Henrik on a hike up into the hills above Faksevagen Bay. Dear Don armed with his bear busting blunderbuss followed behind.
Smooth rocks on the beach became lichen-covered rocks as we headed up the hill. This in turn gave way to tundra, which in places became waterlogged and squishy. Squishundra?
It is incredible to think that for most of the year, this place is frozen. The array of flowers spotted left the hikers in awe that ANYTHING could grow in this environment, let alone the beautiful variety we saw.
For those not so botanically focussed, the fauna did not disappoint. Many Svalbard Reindeer provided photo opportunities aplenty. The highlight for all must surely have been watching a bird attacking a reindeer and seeing the reindeer flee, to a point. At this point, the reindeer turned on the diving skua and, raising onto its hind legs fought back with its front legs, before returning to grazing on the tundra and ignoring the continued harassment of the bird.
What a great hike! Sweeping panoramas, glacial valleys and everywhere, views to die for! How fantastic is this weather that not only was this place so special, we had the chance to enjoy it, not just survive it!
A quick zip back to the Polar Pioneer in the Zodiacs, helped by the efficient Aurora team both on and off the boat was the perfect end to a magic afternoon.

Dinner and drinks were the perfect end to a magic day.

Posted by TheWandera 06:39 Archived in Norway Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Circumnavigation of Spitzbergen, Svalbard

The ultimate Arctic adventure! Spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife.

It seems I saved the best for last!
The last 10 days have been absolutely INCREDIBLE!
WOW! Words can't really describe what Nathan and I have just experienced, but I will try.

The expedition company Aurora Expeditions - faultless.
Landscape and wildlife - simply stunning.
Weather - unbelieveably magic!
Kayaking around icebergs - exhilarating - all 110 km of it.
My feelings? Privileged. Svalbard is absolutely one of the world's most beautiful places. I felt then and still feel now, priveleged to have seen something so wonderful, yet rarely seen. The isolation and pristine wilderness of this place is magical. Words fail me.

Unusually, the sea ice had drifted north, away from the northern tip of Svalbard allowing us to do a circumnavigation of Svalbard, not just Spitzbergen. In true 'expedition' style, Aurora threw the planned itinerary out the window and went exploring, taking us further north and then further east to places previously unvisited, because the opportunity presented itself. (My kinda company.) So, travelling in a clockwise direction, instead of coming south through the center of the archipelago, we continued east and came right around the east coast.

The 50 passengers on board were older than I expected. (Nathan and I were the 3rd and 4th youngest respectively.) Although a similar age to the Hurtigruten passengers, the similarities stopped there. These people were real travellers, not cruise ship passengers. This was an active expedition, not a passive cruise and the demographics reflect that.

List of creatures seen, in addition to birds:
polar bears (23 in total, 2 from the kayak!), walrus, ringed seals, bearded seals, Arctic fox, Svalbard reindeer, and to top it off during the last paddle yesterday, Nathan and I had 4 Beluga (white) whales just off the front of our kayak. Incredible.
Unrealistic as it had been, my wish list was complete. Mother bear and cubs were on my list too and we saw two lots.
I had big dreams and this journey has exceed even my wildest ones.

Some highlights briefly -
- Midnight sun.
- Kayaking around icebergs in front of the terminal face of glaciers.
- The food on board. (Better than the Hurtigruten, by a long shot.) Passion by the chefs goes a long way.
- Zodiac trips to shore to explore and hike on the tundra(with crew members standing guard with guns looking out for polar bears.)
- MASSIVE carving of a glacier close by - captured on camera by yours truly! We were on the ship, but the carving was so big and so close the waves from it rocked the ship.
- Not seeing ANYONE else for the 10 days away. True wilderness.
- Trapped in a glacial lagoon by a polar bear waiting in the shallows of the narrow entrance/exit and having to 'run the gauntlet' out of the lagoon with our kayak guide in his boat out first with his flare gun ready on his lap!
- The weather. Out of our control and could not have wished for better. So gratefull because it can make such a difference.
- Sipping Cointreau with glacial ice while sitting in a kayak at over 80 degrees north, less than 1000km from the north pole.
Oh! Did I mention the world's most spectacular scenery? All day every day.

If, as I have come to believe, Norway is the "World's most beautiful country", Svalbard is the gem in their crown. The last 10 days have been absolutely INCREDIBLE! I hope my photos and Nathan's videos do it some justice.

THE KAYAKING 110km of high Arctic paddling.
The boat was perfect for the expedition. Zodiacs could be launched quickly for shore trips that most passengers did, and the kayaks for the few crazy paddlers were also fairly easily launched from the back deck, onto a zodiac and then we climbed into it from the zodiac.
For Nathan and I, the kayaking was the icing on the expedition cake. Our guide was very experienced. There were 5 double kayaks, of which Nathan and I had one. We'd paddled lots in Perth, getting fit, but we had never paddled a double before. We found it easier than expected and not only did we not tip out or whack paddles, we are still friends. We wore a waterproof dry-suit underwhich we wore thermals and another layer. Despite the near-freezing temperature of the water and air, we kept warm by paddling and only got cold if we stopped for a cup of tea on the shore.
The paddling was both challenging and inspiring.
Having Arctic water spashing on your face as you crossed a icey fiord and paddled into choppy headwind reminded you you were alive! Close encounters with wildlife, yes we saw polar bears from the kayaks.

Paddle trips were 'optional' and on two occasions Nathan and I opted to join the other passengers in the zodiacs. This was because on those occassions they were doing a hike on shore up a hill that appealed, both as a chance to stretch our legs, and also to see the landscape from a different perspective to sea level. For me, it also allowed me to use my SLR camera instead of the little one in the waterproof housing that I took kayaking.
We would usually leave from, and return to, the ship waiting at anchor. Our guide used a GPS to determine exact distance covered. He also carried a flare pistol and rifle in case of trouble with polar bears.
Most of our paddles were 8-10km, but the best one was a 24km paddle on the second last day. The weather was perfect. We took lunch with us and went out for a day trip. The ship sailed passed us and disappeared out the fiord. On mirror-flat water, glaciers, icebergs and sharp mountains surrounded us and we paddled after it. At the 23 km mark, with the ship looming larger, another kayak in the group took off past us. Not to be out-done, Nathan and I and another couple raced them. We were stuffed, but as the youngest, there was no way that if there was a race, we would be anything other than first. Point proved, the hot shower and cold beer on board the ship felt well deserved.

That night on board we had a BBQ dinner and beers on the back deck of the ship with carving glaciers and mountains surrounding us and blue sky above us. Absolutely magical moments all day and our best day of many special days on board.

Our last paddle in a glacial front lagoon the following morning was a cracker too. Close encounters with an active polar bear on the shore was followed by a pod of 4 Beluga (White) whales swimming next to our kayak. We had entered the lagoon by a very narrow bit with a strong current flowing out. Hearing by radio the bear ws now waiting in the shallows for us to come out added an element of excitement. We grouped up and our guide went first with his flare piston on his lap! We followed paddling as fast as we could! We made it.

We did SO MUCH in the time on board, but that's my wrap in brief.
For a more detailed version, read on.

Posted by TheWandera 06:37 Archived in Norway Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen, Svalbard, Norway

78 degrees north is an amazing part of the world.

Longyearbyen Part 1

Thursday the 10th of August – Fly from Oslo to Longyearbyen, via Tromso.

Not the easiest flight to book. When I’d asked the travel agent I wanted to go to Longyearbyen, she said, “Where the hell is that?” Now she knows.
If you too are wondering where it is, look on a map for the group of islands way north of Norway called Svalbard, right near the north pole.

Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen, Svalbard, Norway? What the?
Norway is the country that administers the archipelago of Svalbard, the capital of which is Longyearbyen on Spitzbergen, the largest island. Nathan and I have 4 days here before meeting up with the Aurora Expedition vessel on Monday to attempt a circumnavigation of Spitzbergen over the following 11 days.

They say in Norway, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing.” Perhaps here in Longyearbyen? We’ll see. My thermals, fleecy, beanie, down jacket and then a Gore-Tex shell should do the trick, meaning those wise Norwegians were right. If you have the clothes the weather doesn’t matter. Better still, live somewhere like Perth where clothes are rarely worn for warmth.

The weather here has meant that the foil disposable BBQs, so popular on the Norwegian mainland were not to be seen here in Longyearbyen, though the ubiquitous Brunost (brown cheese) was just as plentiful on the breakfast buffet table.

The town was founded by Mr Longyear who started coalmining operations here in 1906, making this their centenary year. Byen is Norwegian for town.
Longyearbyen is 78 degrees north and only 1300kms from the North Pole.
For a place that proclaims its wilderness credentials like Svalbard, Longyearbyen is an aberration, a blot on an otherwise pristine Arctic landscape. The town of 1500 mostly coalminers, is a scar up the valley.
Mining relics blighting the scenery and skyline are ‘preserved’ for posterity as historical.
It’s a strange town with a frontier feel. People walk around with guns slung over their shoulders and the bars have gory hunting pictures on the walls. Due to the very real risk of polar bears, stepping out of the town without a gun, or someone with one, is foolhardy
I say, “Any year in Longyearbyen is a long year.”
Norwegians LOVE their summer houses. I was surprised to see them here in Longyearbyen, given their short summer. On enquiring, I was told, “Would YOU want to live here all the time?”
Another fact about Longyearbyen is that no one is born here and very few people die here and even fewer buried here. Residents go the Norwegian mainland to give birth. As for deaths, you need to work here to live here and in Norway you must stop working at 67, so there is no one over 66 resident in town. It makes for an interesting mix of people and families, but with no grandparents. Even if someone in Longyearbyen does die, the family on the mainland usually repatriate the body.
Interesting and unique place. Again I say, “Any year in Longyearbyen is a long year.”
That said, Nathan and I are only here for 4 nights.

We kind of knew this was going to be a special place when driving through the town centre on arrival, we saw wild reindeer out grazing!
Our accommodation, whilst in the new part of town, is 2km up a valley from the town centre. The upside is that we’re flanked by two mountains and not one, but two glaciers!
Bags dropped in our room, we walked the 2km from Guesthouse 102 into town. (We’ll know for next time to wear more layers. I guess the lack of warmth in the air is the price you pay to be so high in the Arctic.)
The town only has one street of shops, but they are quite spread out. Of course the tourist bureau was at the far end, closest to the fiord. We sniffed out our options for available activities over the next few days that we are here.
Passing a pub on the way back, we were sucked in.
Svalbard does not have taxes or duty, so the huge price of alcohol on the mainland of Norway does not apply here. That is of course balanced by increased transport costs, but it is much cheaper.
This pub had the largest selection of spirits, liqueurs and other treats on display that I have ever seen!
The publican showed us a menu offering every vintage of Armagnac since 1908.
1971 was a great year in the Roberts and Holmes households, so Nathan and I had a 1971 Armagnac to celebrate. We might be in Longyear, but ’71 was a great year. We toasted to 35 years of health and 19 years of friendship.
One patron left the pub staggering, did the ‘Svalbard dive’ (Longyearbyen Leap?) into the door and passed out. Nathan and I left while we could and went for some food. Options are limited and the Kroa bar and restaurant had no problem catching our eye. The pizza topped with garlic sauce was a winner, though I’m not convinced about the shredded raw cabbage on top.
Sitting quietly in Kroa we realised that in addition to the seal skins adorning the walls, all the seat covers throughout the restaurant were also made of sealskin. It seams in Norway, seal never goes out of style.
We walked ‘home’ late and really noticed how it wasn’t dark and never got that way all night.

Friday – A boat cruise.
But first…a walk into town. After taking close-up photos of an unperturbed Svalbard Reindeer grazing outside my room window, I saw birds by a small lake and crept up on them for a photo.
A large gull sat on a nearby roof and Nathan said, “It looks like the attacking variety.” Sure enough, while focused on my stalking, I was startled by a squawk by my head as the gull attacked. I dropped onto my bum in reflex and sat there laughing at the fright the gull had given me. I didn’t even spill my coffee!

In town we found a fur shop. This place sold cute little baby seal toys………made with real baby seal fur. They also had a full stuffed polar bear as well as various bear and fox skins and fur coats for sale. Wouldn’t Australian customs just love me bringing back a polar bear rug!

Our boat trip was supposed to leave at one o’clock, but then that became 2 before we finally left the wharf at 3. Dodgy little ship with even dodgier Russian crew and here we were heading north from Longyearbyen 50km up Billefjorden to the Nordenskioldbreen Glacier.
The views getting there were beautiful and would have been even more so if it hadn’t been overcast.
The glacier itself, was the first one I’ve seen actively carving into the water. The blue hues of the ancient ice breaking off the terminal face into the water. These icebergs would break up further, filling the area in front of the glacier with ice. It had a popping sound as thousand of little pieces slowly melted. Think of the sound when you add a drink to a glass of cubes, now multiply that by a thousand and you will see that it is not always quiet, even in remote places. Or listen to your bowl of rice bubbles and magnify that sound.

After our glacier experience, we travelled to nearby Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian coal mining town. Located in the fiord with views of the Nordenskioldbreen Glacier and mountains around, the setting for this town is beautiful. The town itself is not. Massive mining structures blight the otherwise pristine landscape. The dirt and grime of a heavy industrial area is everywhere.
There’s an eerie feel here, as it looks like someone blew the whistle at 5pm one afternoon and everyone downed tools and left….completely. We had a guide with us carrying a gun, in case we met a polar bear. Although in its halcyon days of the mid 1990s, Pyramiden had 5000 residents, the mine was abandoned in 2001. For an hour and a half, we explored this place in amazement at what was here and what good condition everything was in. The obligatory Lenin bust still stood in pride of place at the top of the avenue.

Back at the boat at 9pm , we were starving. We’d been told food and drinks were provided, but the late departure was just the first issue in a day of disappointment in regard to the outfit running this day cruise. It wasn’t until now that we got our first bite of anything and whilst the salmon soup was delicious, we were all so hungry there wasn’t nearly enough. Drink(s?) was a can of Fanta.
The return journey was slightly slower as we had a headwind, but again we saw Fulmars, puffins and other birds.

Saturday – Two fools at play.
We’d booked an organised glacier hike for tomorrow, but today we decided to hike out of town to the base of the glacier to some rich fossil beds we’d been told about.
Being busy at this time of year, the towns rental guns were gone, so Nathan and I decided not to bother with a gun and just go anyway. It’s close to town so there shouldn’t be any polar bears.
“Before you can be old and wise, you must be young and stupid.” Being stupid was our way of staying young. “You can’t out-run a polar bear”, I hear you say. True! But I don’t need to out-run a polar bear, just out-run Nathan and I have sabotaged his shoes.

65 million years ago, Svalbard was in the tropics. The results of this are rich coal and fossil beds.
Heading towards the glacier above the fossils, we crossed several small rivers, with difficulty. We had to really hunt for a place with suitable rocks for jumping across. Playing around in the ice and snow was especially fun for a couple of Perth boys.
As we walked upwards, old mine workings were everywhere. How they dug into the permafrost only 1 meter below the surface is uncertain. So much stuff is still just lying around. So much for pristine!
Continuing up the valley towards the glacier we got to the terminal moraine. This is a huge pile of dirt scraped and pushed there by the front of the glacier. As the glacier recedes during summer the moraine is exposed. Hoping for some leaf fossils, I was encouraged by the fact that the first piece of stone I picked up had fossils on it. We spent some time here fossicking and judging by our success and the lack of footprints not many people came to this bit, isolated between two rivers. We kept upgrading the quality of found fossils until we were happy with the size and shape. BIG was easy. There were big rocks covered in leaf fossils. Problem was I couldn’t lift them, let alone carry them in my backpack! We ended up with a couple of good ones each and continued back down oblivious to the very real polar bear danger.
(We only heard later that only in 1994 were two girls fatally attacked by a polar bear just there!)
Noon until 4pm made a very enjoyable afternoon out in the mountains.

Tonight we walked to The Husset for dinner. Husset means ‘house’ in Norwegian. This place is famous for local delicacies and did not disappoint. When in Svalbard…I ordered seal casserole and Nathan had a slab of marinated whale meat. Nathan’s rare whale steak was much nicer than the overcooked whale I’d eaten on Lofoten, though I did like the smoked whale I tried in Bergen. My seal pot featured the blackest darkest meat I have ever seen. Very strong in flavour and quite tough, there was a noticeable taste of seafood right at the end, just as you finished chewing each piece of meat. Not surprising given seals eat fish!

Sunday – organised hike with gun-carrying guides.
Knowing what we do now about the bloody polar bears, we were happy to be doing todays hike with Spitzbergen Wildlife Services.
Our accommodation is at the top of town and for once the location was to our advantage as all 12 hikers met out the front of Guesthouse 102 right next to the car park full of snowmobiles parked up until snow returns.
Christine and Marline were our gun-toting guides, and after sharing around flasks and giving everyone a pair of crampons and an ice pick, we headed off.
As we walked towards the glacier on the left, the weather got better…and better. This was the first blue sky we’d seen since arriving and what a difference it made. The air temp might have been sub 10 degrees, but with the effort of hiking, I soon found myself wearing only a t-shirt. We skirted the left glacier to the right ad climbed to the top of, the divider between the two glaciers. At 550m Mt Sarkofagen afforded amazing views of Longyearbyen and the surrounding valleys. We cracked the flasks and enjoyed tea and biscuits as we savoured the surrounds. The weather remained perfect and I took many photographs today. We hiked down the other side to the top of the glacier that Nathan and I had been to the base of yesterday. Here we tied our crampons to our boots. (Crampons are metal ‘teeth’ that go under your boot and grip ice like you would not believe.) After dividing into two groups and roping ourselves together, with ice pick in hand we hiked carefully down the glacier. It was amazing to see streams of water on top of the ice of the glacier and even more amazing to see the convoluted forms it took as the water snaked its ways downwards, even disappearing down into the ice sometimes.
At the bottom, crampons removed, we stopped to fossick for fossils. This is a spot that many people visit and it was easy to see the lack of quality intact fossils in ground that had been picked over, as opposed to yesterday.
Heading back we had a couple of rivers to cross. The first done at a spot we’d found yesterday. Some of us then crossed via a thin pole that we’d also found. Many weren’t happy to trust their balance and headed upstream looking for a place to cross. With the sun having blasted the ice and snow all day, the rivers were rising rapidly with the thaw. Safe on the other side, myself and one guide fetched a ladder to bring to the others. Even as they crossed the ladder over the river one at a time the river kept rising and by the time the guide crossed last, the ladder was nearly underwater.
After a shower and relaxing over a couple of games of Bao board, we walked into town in the evening. What a change of weather! It is all overcast windy and cold. Time to rug up!
Stopped at the Kroa bar for a beer – Gotta love sealskin seat covers.
The SAS Radisson at the bottom end of town was our destination and our objective was to enjoy their buffet dinner. That we did. In addition to the usual fare, on the unusual platter I found slices of smoked reindeer heart and reindeer tongue. I’d had reindeer steak a couple of times in Norway, but never this. It was delicious! (Don[t think that one would be too popular if I served it at work!)
Weather still awful, so we caught a cab home.

Monday – meet the Polar Pioneer.
Although not until later, this was our objective today. We had a lazy morning and checked out as late as wee could. Walking into town for the last time, we stopped at Galleri Svalbard. The 10 minute video presentation of Svalbard was amazing, but I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the art for sale on display. I did however, purchase the beautiful 2007 calendar, published by the Longyearbyen Camera Club.
We spent some time in town, buying duty-free grog to take on board the boat and catching up on internet on one of the few terminals here in Longyearbyen.
We cabbed it to the pier and met our ship the Polar Pioneer. The staff were SO helpful with our stuff on arrival that I knew this was going to be a great trip.
Read on for what happened.

Posted by TheWandera 05:13 Archived in Norway Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

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