Arctic Svalbard, a True Expedition
by Chris Harter on Aug 19, 2011
Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, far north of the Arctic Circle, is not what one typically envisions for their summer vacation. The islands are often enshrouded in sea ice with glaciers and massive ice shelves in abundance. Travel is costly and time consuming. The animals that call this region home, such as the polar bear, reindeer and walrus can be elusive and easily spooked. The terrain is rocky and windswept with landing sites often being exposed to the pounding surf. All matter of tundra plant life, grasses, flowers and mosses alike are no higher than just a few inches, making them easily missed unless taking a second closer look. Not what most travelers would consider to be the ideal summer vacation destination, but the Arctic is not for the average traveler. Travelers that venture here go despite these difficulties, or perhaps because of them. It appeals to a select few, the rare traveler that can brave the elements and long distances to see wildlife and sights only a select few have seen. I am proud to call myself one of the privileged few.
Any trip into Arctic Svalbard first requires travel to Oslo, Norway, and then connecting on to Longyearbyen, Norway where all vessels sailing this area embark from. Simply getting to these remote destinations requires a considerable amount of time. Thankfully, Oslo is a gorgeous destination in its own right, and warrants a stay prior to or directly after an Arctic sailing. With dozens of museums, a gorgeous waterfront district, countless green spaces and a long, fascinating history of Arctic explorers it’s the perfect compliment to the natural wonders found further north. Once in Longyearbyen it’s immediately apparent however that continental Europe is far, far removed. Trees are noticeably absent, replaced with tundra mosses, lichens and grasses. Glaciers spill from the near by ranges in every direction, often clogging the areas many fjords. And locked trash can receptacles, sign boards and locals carrying rifles remind visitors of the ever present need for vigilance concerning polar bears.
After boarding our vessel, the M/S Expedition, that was to be our home for the next seven nights we immediately got underway and were obliged to join a mandatory and extensive safety and operational briefing. Such expedition nuances are always a good sign when getting acquainted with a vessel in such a remote and wild location as we were headed. As a polar retrofitted ferry vessel, she was very roomy and comfortable with such comforts as a dry sauna, expansive dinning area with views, large gym, a lounge large enough to accommodate all passengers in one sitting and a roomy library with the largest collection of reference and fiction literature I have ever seen on any expedition vessel. After getting acquainted with the layout of this vessel I could tell it would be both an educational and comfortable trip.
Our first night underway was incredibly scenic as we sailed south, and quite difficult to tear yourself away for a bit of sleep from the all the lasting views in the continual midnight sun. The next morning we found ourselves edging into the iceberg choked Hornsund Sound. Almost immediately as we entered our staging area for our excursion a polar bear was sighted high on slopes above, likely scavenging for fallen birds from the nesting sites up high. Understandably, this removed the possibility for a landing in the area. As we began our first zodiac cruise everyone’s eyes were ahead as the deep blue icebergs came closer into view. So it came as a surprise when countless black guillemot chicks began landing all around us, having successfully landed in the ocean for their first flights, and then crying loudly for their parents. I was sure that the scene unfolding around us had been shown to me with David Attenborough narration at some point, so to be actually experiencing it live and in person was quite a thrill. Although the impressive glacier making all of the icebergs around us was many miles ahead and out of reach, it was enough to simply sail amongst them as they had their own calving events with two spontaneously flipping end over, literally reaching their tipping point.
The next morning brought us to a landing site for a two hour hike in the sweeping hills and ravine landscape of Edgeoya Island where we hoped to see reindeer. The level of safety regarding polar bears was easily seen with rifle carrying sentries posted high above us surveying the landscape well beyond our fellow passenger’s and guide’s line of sight. At the height of our trek, three reindeer presented themselves almost as if on command. Keeping a respectful distance of about 100 feet we were able to observe them for twenty minutes before they moved on for greener pastures. Our next goal was the massive Brasvell ice shelf further north, but along the way a washed up whale carcass sighting diverted our attention. After a reconnaissance of the site returned we had confirmation of many polar bear sightings, so we spontaneously changed the day’s program and sailed in zodiacs for a closer look. In total we counted 12 polar bears in the immediate area, with as many as four at a time feasting on the large desiccated remains. It was yet another too good to be true National Geographic moment unfolding before us. This evening we sailed to our original goal of the Brasvell ice shelf, slowly approaching through sea ice. Well after dinner the low cloud ceiling lifted, and we began to see the 150 foot tall wall of ice extending in either direction as far as the eye could see. And if our sightings earlier weren’t enough we were again blessed with a lounging polar bear sighting that inspected the bow of our vessel as it traversed the sea ice and almost immediately after a mother walrus sighting with nursing pup. With the wildlife sightings and ice shelf as a backdrop few made their way to their cabins before 2:00am.
Still high from the previous day’s events, we made our way through the Hinlopen Straight west of Nordaustlandet Island for a clear weather landing on the walrus filled gravel bars of Torellneset. Even a mile away as we boarded out zodiacs the smell of the walrus colony was quite something. Once ashore we found ourselves in the presence of a colony that was 70 or 80 strong with most piled up in one congregation and a dozen or so off shore fishing for mollusks. We were incredibly fortunate to have a naturalist with us, Frank, an old Sea World researcher who had learned the art of calling walrus from the Inuit in Canada. With just a few deep bellows and an unusual “Woogy, woogy!” call Frank had almost a dozen walrus swimming to shore, coming with in just a few feet of us at the water’s edge. This went on for an hour; we were mesmerized by these special and curious Dr Seuss looking creatures. Of course for the remainder of the trip Frank was dubbed the walrus whisperer.
The stunning scenery, activity, history, education and wildlife sightings continued to unfold every day with simply too many highlights to relay in this already long report. Finding ourselves surrounded by baby and juvenile reindeer antics, large pods of beluga whales, hikes on the 14th of July Glacier, fishing arctic terns, blue and fin whale sightings, polar plunges, skuas dive bombing passengers, engaging lectures, arctic fox dens, hundreds of thousands of black guillemot nests along the castle shaped cliffs of Cape Fanshawe just to name a few. This trip, this destination is truly an expedition in every sense of the word. The passengers, guides and crew alike were on an adventure to simply see what we could see, and we saw more in my 7 nights aboard the Expedition than I ever thought possible. Admittedly, this was one of the most fortunate sailings the guides and crew had seen in a long time. We were lucky, and this is exactly why adventure travel holds such an appeal. We are searching for the unknown, and when we find it surprise, joy and the sense of a life lived is the result. For any travelers who have an interest in Arctic travel please don’t hesitate to give us a call. We’d love to discuss the options for travel to this dynamic and wild piece of our planet.