In my previous post we had spent 24 hours in transit to eventually end up in Svalbard, a Norway archipelago, and spent two nights there in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, where we went day drinking at night and tried to find ways to occupy ourselves in a small community, particularly on a Sunday. Now the time was here, we were aboard the Kinfish, the boat where we’d be spending the following 11 days circumnavigating Svalbard in search of Arctic wildlife with absolutely no connection with the outside world. Brace yourself for a ton of photos and videos!
Monday, July 17, 2023
Once aboard that afternoon we were shown our rooms in the maze-like ship, ours being in the bow and almost entirely below sea level, and then taken to an upstairs lounge area to do a meet and greet with the other passengers and crew and it soon became clear that along with another British woman, Tor, we were the youngest people on this boat. When we were planning this cruise we could’ve saved a bit of money and opted for a far larger ship with hundreds of passengers, one that wouldn’t be able to access the smaller, narrower areas in the archipelago, but for a once in a lifetime trip we opted for a small vessel that was able to get into the hard to reach locations along side another 10 passengers and two private expedition guides, as well as the crew. As for our fellow passengers there were two older Australian women, a group of six retired friends from the UK, two other women that were also from the UK, and it turned out that the person we had hitched a ride with to our Longyearbyen hotel was professional photographer and photography magazine editor Andrew James.
We sat around in a group, introduced ourselves, and stated why we had wanted to visit the Arctic. Most had been to Antarctica and wanted to see how the North Pole compared, referring to themselves as “Bi-polar” having now visited both. The most common answers were to see polar bears as well as the effects of climate change, but it wasn’t until one of the crew spoke that I had a major epiphany; he told us half seriously that he doesn’t feel comfortable anywhere there were trees and that’s when it occured to me that during our stay in Longyearbyen we hadn’t seen a single tree! Not one, even in the mountains. Seriously, check those photos and you will see that it is completely devoid of trees.
Once we were all acquainted we were then told what our basic routine would be over the course of our journey: Breakfast was at 7:30am, lunch would be around 12:30pm, and dinner at around 7:00pm, however, these were subject to change depending on the conditions and discoveries in between, especially when we took dinghies called ‘Zodiacs’ back to land to explore sites and search for wildlife. We were then left to our own devices while we were fitted for our buoyant, waterproof safety suits, mine being the largest, but still at least a size too small, and then it was time for dinner, cooked by our Swedish chef, Lotta. We also had a free bar so when we having a couple of drinks after we had finished eating I discovered that two of the staff, one male, one female, had Australian accents so I asked where they were from and they both answered Wollongong. I mentioned that I used to love the stoner band Tumbleweed, who also hail from the ‘Gong, the girl replying, “Yeah, the singer’s my friend’s dad”. Definitely not an answer I was expecting, and we all spent a bit of time socialising, checking out the decks and the helm, but we couldn’t have a late night, we had an early start every morning for the foreseeable future and we were both still a little jet lagged. There was just one minor issue when we were trying to sleep, there was an enormous swell that had the ship strongly lurching front to back as well as side to side. We don’t tend to get seasick so that wasn’t an problem, however, that swell did make nodding off that night a little tricky.
A look around our humble little ship, the Kinfish:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023
Sleeping in that tiny bed was not easy; it wasn’t long enough for me and there was a foot spanning about three quarters of the end on it so I would need to get in the right position and try not to hit my shins when I rolled over, but we managed to get up and make it to breakfast, albeit still in a bit of a daze.
We wouldn’t be leaving the boat that morning, just sailing around South Spitzbergen National Park and taking in its beauty from the ship’s bridge:
Sør-Spitsbergen National Park (English: South Spitzbergen National Park) encompasses the southern end of Spitsbergen island in the Svalbard archipelago, Norway. The park was opened in 1973 and includes Wedel Jarlsberg Land, Torell Land and Sørkapp Land. Over 65% of the region is ice cap, with much of the rest tundra.
It’s not every day you wake up to a sight quite like this!:
After briefly considering patronising flat-earthers that I had found the edge of the disc and had photographic evidence of the alleged ice wall that contains us we eventually went back inside for lunch and soon we had reached our next stop, Russelbukta, an islet that appears to make up part of the Russebuholmane island group:
Russebuholmane are the four westernmost islets in Kong Ludvigøyane, part of Thousand Islands, an archipelago south of Edgeøya. The largest is Ækongen. The three outermost islands are collectively called Russeholmane (English: Russian Islets). They are named after a Russian trapper’s hut found on one of the islets. One of the three is named Russeholmen (English: Russian Islet).
We boarded the two Zodiacs for the first time, driven by our two expedition guides, one a British man named Hadleigh, the other a Chilean ornithologist by the name of Marcelo. Once on the islet we were once again reminded of what to do if we encountered a polar bear before Hadleigh surveyed the area with a shotgun to make sure there were none in the vicinity, a common safety measure that would be repeated over the coming days. We were guided around, first exploring the aforementioned trapper’s hut, then after finding a strange shaped-rock jutting out of the water to use as a landmark we ventured up to an area populated by little auks and there weren’t just a handful of these things, there was an enormous flock of them circling around above us.
Once done with the birds we ventured back, taking in small amounts of greenery along the way and when we eventually arrived back at our landmark it turned out not to be a strange-shaped rock, but rather a regular rock with a large bearded seal laying on top of it with another swimming around. Seals were among the animals we had come to see so we could tick that one off the bucket list, and there were also a few reindeer wandering around where we were to board the Zodiacs again in order to return to the Kinfish, drawing to a close our first walk on dry land in almost a day.
Some scenes from our first off-boat experience of the cruise:
When we were back aboard for some reason I had trouble keeping my eyes open. It could’ve been due to many factors, such as jet lag, a side effect of the minor absence seizure I’d had the previous afternoon, a poor night’s sleep in a tiny bed on a rough ocean, or maybe never knowing when it’s night or day here, but I just had to have a nap so that’s what we did until it was time for dinner. This was followed by a lecture and powerpoint display by Marcelo on birds that we would encounter over the coming days and due to our little afternoon kip we were able to stay up a little later and get to socialise with the rest of the guests properly that evening, learning some absolutely fascinating facts about them in the process and many more were still to come out of the woodwork.
Wednesday, July 19, 2023
It was about 12.30am that an announcement came over the loudspeaker informing us of a large pod of humpback whales swimming around the ship and, as much as we wanted to continue sleeping, we knew that events such as these were the reason we were on this cruise in the first place so we got dressed and made our way up to the bridge into the midnight sun. To our surprise there were whales everywhere, even swimming up right up beside our ship.
It’s difficult to get photos of whales besides their tales, but here are some of the better ones, as well as some videos to show the sheer number of them and how close they got:
It was after 1:30am by the time we were back in bed and before we knew it breakfast was being served again so we made our way up to the dining area in a daze once again. While we were eating and drinking our coffee it dawned on us both that I’m not a morning person and Anna likes to sleep in when she can, especially when we’re away and she can’t even do work if she wanted to due to their being no wifi in the North Pole, plus we don’t even usually eat breakfast anyway so did we really need to be up this early every day? How about from now on we get an extra hour or two of sleep and just stroll upstairs a bit before we jump in the Zodiacs on our next adventure?
Well, that day’s first trip off the boat would be to Russebukta, located on the west coast of Edgeøya, the third-largest island in the archipelago, and it was a great spot for bird watching if that’s your thing, but besides some chewed up reindeer remains and a minke whale skull half-buried in the ground, there wasn’t a whole lot there for us.
Kapp Lee holds one of Svalbard`s largest remaining historical slaughtering places for walrus. Numerous nose-chopped walrus skulls and bones from hunting done by the whalers and later Russian trappers scatter the entire beach. The octagonal cabin was for several decades used by Norwegian hunters and trappers. It was built in 1904 of prefabricated elements and was called Karosælen (the carousel). The two other cab- ins were used in connection with oil exploration in the 1960s. On the ridge above the present cabins lie the remains of a Russian Pomor hunting station. The station has been excavated.
Fortunately for the walruses and us, their slaughtering for meat, blubber, and ivory ceased before the area was declared a Nature Reserve in 1973 so there would be plenty of them there for us to see… and smell. See, when you weigh between 550 and 900 kg (1,220 and 2,000 lb) and live a pretty sedentary lifestyle, you’re probably going to have some decent body odour, which walruses do. However, this is compounded by the fact that their diet primarily consists of clams and they spend their spare time just laying around in large groups and constantly farting, so the combined smell tends to get rather rancid and this is coming from someone who picks up bulldog turds every day when we’re home.
We spent about two hours at Kapp Lee, watching walruses amble out of the water and smelling them as they relaxed on the ice in large herds, as well as taking a look at the octagonal hunter’s cabin, entry being prohibited, and then we watched reindeer grazing while surround by the remains of dozens more that had been killed by polar bears.
A bit of what we saw in Russebukta and Kapp Lee:
Over the past couple of days the group of British friends had been sitting at the same table for every meal, meaning that we had been spending a fair bit of time chatting with the two Australian women, Deidre and Karen, and had been hitting it off quite well, the latter snidely informing us that she worked as a “lubrication engineer”, so dinner was spent with them again, followed by a bit of getting to know the others over a couple of drink as well.
Thursday, July 20, 2023
This was the day I was dreading; we were going to be donning the full-body flotation suits and mine was a tad too small, plus with only one dress rehearsal a couple of days earlier, they were quite difficult to put on as well, mine taking a little extra effort due to the twisting and manoeuvring required to get it both under my groin and over my shoulders, but eventually I managed. We weren’t going to be leaving the Zodiac, instead approaching Koner Island, getting close to the shore in the hope of viewing polar bears from the water:
Koner Island (Norwegian: Konerøya) is a minor island in the Bastian Islands in the Svalbard archipelago. It lies east of Wilhelm Island and northeast of Spitsbergen.
The island is elongated, measuring 1.5 kilometers (0.93 mi) in a north-south direction and no more than 200 meters (660 ft) in width. The island is a low basalt cliff that reaches an elevation of only 27 meters (89 ft) above sea level. The closest neighboring islands are Lange Island about 4 kilometers (2.5 mi) to the northwest and Geographer Island about 2 kilometers (1.2 mi) to the south. The wildlife consists largely of polar bears.
Anna and myself were in the Zodiac with Marcelo and we made the first of two unsettling discoveries, just how much plastic and other rubbish there is this far north. Marcelo said it was our duty to collect any trash that we saw and rightly so so we stopped multiple times en route to Koner Island to fish plastic, rope, and netting out of the water and upon arrival we saw almost immediately, besides a lot more garbage, a lone polar bear cub, our first sighting of this voyage. The sad reality of this situation, however, was that it had more than likely been abandoned and with its mother no longer in sight, this cub would almost certainly die, probably within a matter of days as it wouldn’t be able to hunt to survive. We watched the cub for a bit and then took a ride around the island to see if the mother was nearby, but to no avail so the only real option was to go back to the boat for lunch and come back out later to see if the situation had changed.
Once lunch was done and a short nap was taken it was back out on the Zodiac in search for the cub’s mother and it didn’t take long to find her climbing up some rocks, but it was nowhere near the cub and probably wasn’t too concerned either. However, we soon came across the cub again and it had managed to find a rather large walrus carcass to feast on, pawing at the still attached entrails in its mouth as if it were playing a double bass, so that gave a slight glimmer of hope of the cub’s survival, but being realistic, this would more than likely just fend off its impending demise a bit longer. Once it was done with its meal, the cub then walked back up the hill before settling on a rock precariously wedged in a gorge.
On that miserable note, here’s the polar bear cub that we might be the only ones ever to see alive, as well as a couple of pictures of its mother walking away, taken on two separate trips several hours apart:
Soon we were back on board and when we had finished eating everyone returned to the bridge as we went through another fjord, taking in all of the icebergs, walls of ice, and the streams of water flowing over them near Sørdomen:
Sørdomen (The Southern Dome) is an ice dome of Austfonna at Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. The glacier cap of Austfonna has two significant ice domes, Sørdomen and Norddomen further north. The part of Austfonna west of Sørdomen is called Palanderisen.
All I can say is that it was absolutely beautiful, definitely worth freezing outside:
Friday, July 21, 2023
It seemed like we had only just gone to bed when we woke, even after we skipped breakfast that Friday, but we were going to be putting on our big, uncomfortable suits, rental gumboots, and my enormous oven gloves to take the Zodiacs to Ardneset on the island of Wahlbergøya:
Wahlbergøya is an island in Hinlopen Strait, between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet of the Svalbard archipelago. The island has an area of about 48 km2 (19 sq mi). The islands highest point is 194 m.a.s.l. Named after Swedish botanist Peter Fredrik Wahlberg. It is the largest island of Vaigattøyane.
Now, if Thursday’s polar bear sighting was a little depressing, this one would definitely be more uplifting. On this occasion when we approached the island we weren’t picking plastic out of the water, instead seeing almost immediately three bears swimming, another fit-looking, healthy polar bear just laying on the snow, and as we cruised around even further we came upon a pack of three more polar bears slowly making their way to a huge herd of walruses, the bears eventually just laying down on the shore in front of the smelly, tusked mammals. In fact, it seemed the further along the shore we went, the more polar bears we would see, the highlight being witnessing the rare occurrence of polar bears swimming with some walruses, as well as a polar bear eating a dead orca, only for a large male to swim over to chase it away up a cliff (an event of which I was only able to film the final moments, above, right) and take over the meal where the smaller one had left off before going up for a nap upon that same cliff .
This was just from that morning, the day was only getting started:
After spending four hours of watching polar bears and smelling walruses from the Zodiacs we were back to the boat, but not for long as we needed jump in again and take a look at the birdlife around Alkefjellet, a cliff in Lomfjordhalvøya:
Lomfjordhalvøya is a peninsula at the northeastern part of Ny-Friesland on Spitsbergen, Svalbard. It is 44 kilometers long, and 24 kilometers wide at its base. It is located between Lomfjorden and Hinlopen Strait. Its northern tip is Kapp Fanshawe. Former names of the peninsula include Terre Margareta and Margaretas Land. The peninsula is covered by two glaciers, Balderfonna and Torsfonna. It also includes the large nesting cliffs of Lovénberget.
As for Lovénberget:
It is located on Lomfjordhalvøya. Lovénberget is among the largest bird cliffs of Svalbard, the steep cliffs with heights of more than 400 meters facing east towards Hinlopen Strait. It is named after Swedish zoologist Sven Ludvig Lovén.
Now, that says “Among the largest bird cliffs of Svalbard”, however, it’s hard to truly understand what that means until you see it for yourself and I have never seen this many birds circling at once, including ivory gulls, easily identifiable by their black legs. Marcelo must’ve been in heaven.
For Anna and myself on the other hand, it eventually wasn’t about the birds, even when it was a seagull on a rock eating the carcass of another bird, it was more the arctic foxes we were later to see, sneaking into the nests and back out again with an egg in their mouth to bury later. We were fixated on the foxes, the idea of them stealing and eating eggs seeming completely bizarre, seeing multiple thefts from our time on the water. I didn’t know foxes even ate eggs.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to get a good shot of a fox actually burying an egg, but here are some of what we did managed to capture:
After dinner that night we sat around and chatted again with our fellow travellers for more interesting exchanges, one of whom was named Gavin. He commented on the Frank Zappa t-shirt I was wearing, Anna informing him that I was a fan so Gavin proceeded to tell me about how he had seen Zappa play live around 1980, but was a little disappointed, because it was the tour for Sheik Yerbouti and he didn’t really think much of that album. He then turned to Anna and asked her a bit about her background and after some back and forth, Gavin told us that he had spent several years living in China, including near Tiananmen Square during the protests and massacre in 1989! The cherry on the sundae, however, was when he began to speak Mandarin to Anna and it turned out he was more competent in the language than her.
Saturday, July 22, 2023
We were back on the Zodiacs that morning and fortunately we would be able to exit and walk around, this time on Nelsonøya:
Nelsonøya (anglicized as Nelson Island) is a small island, part of Sjuøyane, north of Nordaustlandet.
The island is named after the well known englishman Horatio Nelson, who served as midshipman aboard HMS Carcass, under Captain Skeffington Lutwidge. The Carcass was one of the two bomb vessels sent under the command of Constantine John Phipps to Svalbard during the 1773 Phipps expedition towards the North Pole.
The cloud cover was low so most of the island was barely visible, but once on land Hadleigh the expedition guide took his shotgun once again to check for bears before taking us for a stroll around the island and it was a good thing he did, because we had already seen one laying in the snow on another part of the island as we were approaching and we would see another that morning, however, this time swimming and playing around in the ocean close to shore. But it wasn’t just polar bears we saw on Nelsonøya, there were more seals too, but especially to Marcelo’s delight there were many more birds, this time puffins, some flying around, but most just seated on the rocky cliff face covered in bird poop and it seemed that some of birds and their eggs had been falling victim to foxes again as well. In typical style, Anna tried to inform everyone that, “For the Chinese, pooping on birds is good luck”. Sorry, but I think it’s supposed to be lucky if it’s the other way around.
Some scenes from a very cloudy morning:
From the delivery of his evening briefing each night of what to expect the following day, to the comments, descriptions, and random factoids both in the Zodiacs and on land, to the fact that he often discreetly steered the Zodiac with his backside while talking and making hand gestures, it had become abundantly clear over the course of this cruise thus far that Hadleigh had a similar dry, dark sense of humour to me and I think he realised it too. We were seated next to each other at lunch and he leaned over and asked, “Do you remember ‘yo mama’ jokes?”. Of course I do, but I let him know that I hadn’t heard one in about two decades. He just smiled and replied, “Your mama’s so fat, when she goes into the wilderness the bears hide their food”. I was in stitches so an onslaught of ‘yo mama’ jokes continued over lunch between the two of us, one of my favourites of his being, “Your mama’s so fat, she gave Dracula diabetes”, but things were only going to get more amusing from there…
The Birth of Long Man
If you have made it this far, you may be wondering what the whole ‘Long Man’ thing in the title of this and the previous instalment is. Well here it is — When we had finished lunch I was standing with my head tilted in order to fit under the ship’s ceiling, waiting to be able to go sideways down the narrow stairs into the bow so my feet didn’t slip off each step in order to have what was becoming my daily afternoon nap. When I came back up an hour or two later, the two Australian service staff started to chuckle to themselves before letting me in on the joke; the ship’s chef, Lotta, really only spoke broken English and she had noticed over the past six days that it was quite difficult for someone my size to get around on a ship. After lunch she had pointed at me and said to them, “Long man has problem”. From that point on, for the rest of this cruise I’d be known simply as “Long Man”, despite the fact it takes twice as long to say as “Tim”.
Anyway, some of us wouldn’t be getting off the Kinfish again that day as it traveled down another fjord en route to an area near Vesle Tavleøya, cracking our way through the sea ice the entire way:
Vesle Tavleøya (English: Little Slate Island) is the larger island of the two northernmost of Sjuøyane – the other being Rossøya, north of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. Vesle Tavleøya is situated some 7 km northeast of Phippsøya, the largest island of the islands, separated by Sjuøyflaket sound.
That might not seem all that interesting, but what needs to be pointed out is that we’d be at 80° latitude and those that would be getting off the boat would be doing so by jumping into the ocean under claims that doing so has rejuvenating benefits! Anyone planning on taking the plunge was required to sign a waiver and I was strongly advised not to take part due to my heart conditions, giving me the perfect excuse besides the fact that I can’t swim. It was 6:30pm when we arrived at the dive spot, almost all of the women and one of the men onboard taking part, but I stood up on a higher level of the boat and filmed Anna’s jump. Dressed in only a regular swimsuit with a rash vest over the top, a rope was tied around her waist and she just jumped into the -0.4°C (30°F) water, trying to scream when she returned to the surface, but unable to make a sound. When she climbed back on the ship she was given a towel and a shot of whiskey, waiting on deck for the remaining few to take their plunges, one of the ship’s staff claiming he does this almost daily before laying on a sheet of ice and then jumping in too.
See for yourself and credit to our photographer, Andrew, for the picture of Anna jumping in, one which I enlarged from a far smaller image:
After dinner I went to have a shower in our cabin and the water was absolutely scorching! On the first day we were told to be careful, because the water in the showers was exceptionally hot and I guess after Anna’s little dip in the Arctic she felt the need to shower in water that should’ve left her medium-rare.
We ploughed on through the ice overnight, making for a noisy sleep once again, but we managed to get a few hours to carry us over to the following day.
Sunday, July 23, 2023
Today’s only stop would be in Sorgfjorden on another sadly garbage-strewn island, Eolusneset. For a place in an area with such an interesting history resulting in it being covered in centuries old huts, graves, and cannonballs, it is difficult to find much information on Eolusneset besides some details of the most northerly sea battle fought in the fjord:
In 1689 a war broke out among the seafaring nations of Europe. There were no rules, and nobody escaped it, not even the whalers in Svalbard. In 1693, the French captain Antoine d’Arcy de La Varenne was given the mission of sailing north to Svalbard and burn and sink all ships that sailed under the flags of the enemy: England, Holland and Hamburg. The catch was to be seized as war booty. Four French frigates set off towards the archipelago and started a raid against all “enemy” whalers in the waters around it. In the end 40 Dutch ships gathered and attacked two of the French frigates in Sorgfjorden.
The fight in Sorgfjorden lasted for hours and there was much fire from both sides. The Dutch ships then began to flee the fjord by towing their ships, although difficult to manoeuvre, with their rowboats. They made it past the French, who could not stop them as their own rowboats had been destroyed in the midst of the fire. Despite this, the French managed to trap 13 of the Dutch ships. The French frigates sailed out of Sorgfjorden with 11 whalers as their loot, after having burnt two of the ships. The total number of deceased is not known but it may have been low: one of the French frigates reported two dead. The French claimed untruthfully that they had confiscated all catch from the Dutch in Svalbard that season, and that the Dutch ships that managed to escape returned home with practically nothing. In fact, of the 89 Dutch ships went northwards that year, 26 were taken and six sank in the ice; the rest of the fleet returned with 175 whales – a pretty good catch.
Fortunately, shortly after we were on land I had decided to record Hadleigh informing us about the history of the fjord, particularly Eolusneset, the origins of its graves, and the details of the whaling battle, so this might be able to shine some light on what little information I was able to find, above. It’s a little quiet and you’ll have to excuse the rustling of my enormous jacket and other background noise, but it’s quite informative if you’re interested:
Before Hadleigh’s presentation we had gotten out of the Zodiacs and onto the shore and almost immediately all of us began picking up old nylon rope, weathered pieces of plastic, and lengths of PVC pipes that had washed ashore, something we would continue to do over the course of the two hours we spent traipsing around the island. But besides our little cleanup we explored the piles of stones that covered the graves, one in particular with a cross jutting out of it, but apparently the cross doesn’t just commemorate whalers killed during the war, nor are all of the graves from that period of time, as I discovered here:
By the approach to Sorgfjorden lies Eolusneset, on top of which a cross stands tall. It was raised by skipper C. Holmgren from the schooner Eolus of Bergen, which was trapped by ice here in 1855. According to the inscription on the cross, it was raised in memory of fallen whalers, after the famous sea battle in Sorgfjorden in 1693. The burial ground that lies a little further out on the headland also commemorates this. But something is not quite right here. Parry, who visited Sorgfjorden and the graves in 1827, gave a good description of the graves and the inscriptions that were still legible on the crosses. The inscriptions revealed that the 30 graves have no connection with the sea battle, but were, as were many other coastal areas and beaches along the west and north of Svalbard, a cemetery for 17th and 18th century whalers.
As I mentioned before, we also stumbled upon ammunition casings, rusted cannonballs, a polar bear skeleton, and old whaling huts that we could only view from the outside. Once done on Eolusneset we gathered up the piles of trash we had collected, loaded them into the Zodiacs, and headed back to the ship.
We would be staying on the Kinfish the rest of the day which was a relief, because we both really needed some sleep again. The plan for the afternoon was to go fishing off the side of the ship, but Anna and myself wouldn’t be taking part, however, it was a roaring success. Our shipmate, Neville, said that almost as soon as he dropped his line in the water he already had three fish hooked and over a relatively short period of time the guests had caught a total of about 30 fish. These were all cleaned and filleted by the onboard staff while seagulls circled the ship looking for scraps and it’s pretty obvious what we’d be eating that night, after which we sat around and chatted over a few drinks, a routine that had now become a staple.
Some sights from Sunday:
Monday, July 24, 2023
Monday would begin a lot like the previous day, this time hiking up a similar, but larger and more elevated island, Ytre Norskøya:
Remains of a whaling station exist on the southern side of the island, possibly rivaling Smeerenburg in size. It was Europe’s northernmost outpost ever established until the early 19th century; and the most northerly permanent settlement established of any size until the 1950s. The station had as many as nine tryworks, some having a single furnace, others having two. To the west of these structures were buildings used by the men working ashore. Further west is found one of the largest grave sites in Spitsbergen, where 165 graves have been found. The station probably belonged to the Zeeland partners of the Noordsche Compagnie, who were forced to settle on Ytre Norskøya sometime after 1619 because the whaling vessels belonging to Amsterdam would not allow them to establish themselves at Smeerenburg. A high look-out point on the island called Zeeusche Uytkyk (Zeeland Look-out) was used by the Dutch to search for the spouts of bowhead whales.
The station was abandoned in 1670.
The terrain was quite steep and the scenery was very much the same as the previous day — The remains of whaling huts and a bunch of old graves, another on the cliff edge with a metal cross jutting out of it.
When we were done, I confirmed my suspicions and noticed that Hadleigh had been steering our Zodiac once again by using his buttocks while talking to us when traveling to and from the ship so bear witness to this and a few other scenes similar to the previous day from Ytre Norskøya:
After a lunch spent chatting with Deidre and Karen again I bowed my head to walk out to the deck, yet still managed to hit it quite hard on a small, solid metal case protecting a fire sprinkler, which irritated me somewhat and then as I was walking up some very narrow steps I smashed my shin into one of them and that was it; Long Man officially had cabin fever. We had been on the ship for a full week and during that entire time aboard I hadn’t been able to stand fully upright, yet still kept smacking my head on things and also hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep due to not be able to fit comfortably in my bed or even roll over normally so my back and legs were constantly painful, I had blisters on my feet, and I was perpetually tired, no matter how many naps I took. Add to this the 24-hour daylight and the fact that I wouldn’t be off the ship again until the following morning and I’d had enough. I told Anna that I just needed to lock myself in the dark, stretch out on my stomach on the floor, and just zone out for the afternoon. It may sound a little overprivileged doing this on a once-in-a-lifetime arctic cruise where you spend the entire time with gorgeous surroundings, great people, and exploring historical sites of great importance while seeing endangered animals in the wild, but constant aches and pains and a lack of sleep in an environment where you don’t physically fit eventually takes its toll on your body and your mind.
After a few hours of me-time and a hot shower I felt rejuvenated and joined the others just in time to witness another polar bear playing near the shore and several seals as we cruised through Virgohamna:
Virgohamna (English: Virgo Bay) is a small bay on the northern coast of Danes Island, an island off the northwestern coast of Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen and Danes Island are islands of the Svalbard archipelago. The bay is named after SS Virgo, the vessel of Swedish engineer and explorer Salomon August Andrée’s 1896 expedition.
The Dutch were the first to use Virgohamna as a whaling base as early as 1633 (perhaps earlier). The Dutch over winterers in 1633-34 referred to it as “Houcker Bay”. In 1636, with no room being available along the beach at Smeerenburg, the newly added Friesland chamber of the Noordsche Compagnie established what was later called the Harlingen kokerij (“Cookery of Harlingen”). By 1662 the ships from Harlingen had found little use for the station, with the merchants of the original charter offering other Dutch whalers its use for a certain fee.
S.A. Andrée built a balloon hangar at Virgohamna in 1896, as part of his staging area for attempts to reach the North Pole by balloon. Adverse winds forced Andrée to return home on his first attempt. He returned to Virgohamna in the summer of 1897, and early in July made a fatal attempt to reach the pole.
The bear prevented us from being able to make landfall as originally planned and in a sad sight it soon found a large, discarded plastic jug on the shore. We were able to take a short trip out in the Zodiacs to the area where the failed balloon launches mentioned above took place, discovering a grave with an anchor perched upon it, as well as some old pipes and the remains of barrels that had been used during the process. When we were done we decided to go back and check up on the polar bear, only to witness it now biting the jug, as well as joyfully throwing it in the air and jumping into the water again to fetch it, before eventually settling for a much tastier walrus carcass with more garbage washed up around it. We also saw quite a few tiny jellyfish in the shallower areas nearby, and a pod of seals on the way back to the ship which helped lift the collective mood slightly.
After dinner we played a bizarre game created by two of the other guests that we had been spending a bit of time hanging out with recently, Neville and Karen, this particular Karen telling me how much I reminded her of her son. The the concept of the game seemed a little too simple; everyone writes a celebrity’s name on a piece of paper and then once the names are announced by a leader, everyone take turns in trying to guess whose character belonged to whom. Somehow it worked and got pretty funny.
When we were finished playing games we sat out on the deck and just took in the scenery as we made our way into Bjørnfjorden, yet another breathtaking fjord with giant ice walls on each side and incredible blue icebergs all around, the perfect way to close out what had inadvertently turned into a stressful day culminating in the awful sight of a polar bear playing completely carefree with a large, plastic jug:
I managed get a video of the bear and the jug, but it’s from quite a distance:
Tuesday, July 25, 2023
There had been some tough stops over the past week, but Tuesday morning would possibly be the most taxing of this entire trip, as we would be hiking around the Ossian Sars Nature Reserve:
Ossian Sars Nature Reserve is located at the inner-most part of Kongsfjorden on Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway. It was created on 26 September 2003 to preserve the mountain Ossian Sarsfjellet and the surrounding vegetation, although it had been protected as a plant conservatory area in 1984. The nature reserve covers 12.139 square kilometers. Hiking is permitted, but tenting is not.
The mountain and reserve are named after biologist Georg Ossian Sars.
It was about 9:30am by the time we arrived at the reserve and was also the first time in almost a week that we had had the pleasure of walking on a substantial amount of grass. I never really thought about it, but when the bulk of the land-based scenery is grey, it’s bizarre how much you come to embrace something as simple as grass once you encounter it again. Besides lush greenery, one of the first things we saw on land was the skeletal skull and spine of a reindeer, but there would also be some not-so-dead ones around as well and it didn’t take too long before we were watching one on a hill just laying on the ground while another grazed not far away, along with some more foxes nearby to boot.
We soon reached a part that was optional, as it would be the most challenging leg of the hike, but we hadn’t come to the other side of the world to pass up anything other than fishing. We would be taking an exceptionally steep trek down a hill that was in parts as narrow as my foot and some areas having nothing more than a slight cliff face to hold onto. Most of those that were able climbed down, but there wasn’t room for everyone to do so at once, even if in single file. Once down there we could take in the view of mountains across the water and, separated by a small gorge, a cliff face covered in nesting birds. Surprisingly, getting back up the hill wasn’t as difficult as going down, but our legs were still burning afterwards.