Spitsbergen, Svalbard, The Arctic

Blue Whales in the Arctic

June 23, 2016

I’m back from my blogging hiatus.

We had one last night on the ship and were told we were in a good place for whale watching. A wake up call came over the loud speaker around 2 am; “I’m sorry to disturb, but there are three large whales on the starboard side of the ship.”

I thought to myself, I wish they announced what type of whale as I didn’t want to get up for a humpback to view in the distance when I have snorkeled with them.

A little while later, we heard over the loud speaker, “We believe these are blue whales.”

Well, that got me out of bed. It is rare to spot the largest animal in the world. David and I, not appropriately dressed for the cold, scampered up the stairs to the deck to have a look. Along with other passengers and crew, we spotted some blows and dorsal fins, both near and far. There were a few pods of whales around, both blue and humpback. After about 45 minutes of waiting to see a fluke, we finally retreated inside to warm up.

Sharon came bursting through the door, and excitedly questioned, “Did you see the blue whale?”

“Yes, but only the blow and dorsal fin,” we replied.

“That’s all you usually ever see…back, back, back, fin…back, back, back, fin.” It was true. We saw the back for forever and then the fin. I always waited for the fin to take a picture, and then it would promptly go underwater. So, anyway, after we heard that is the best we’d see, we felt satisfied and went back to sleep.

We exited the ship the following morning. We had the rest of the day to spend in Longyearbyen. I recommend not doing this and booking the first flight out! I was worried we might miss the plane if our expedition was delayed, but I think it would be worth the risk. There are very few half-day tours in Longyearbyen, so there is not a lot to do. We purchased the brewery tour, but it turned out the brewery was closed, and the agency mistakenly sold it to us, so that wasted our day! We strolled in and out of all six or stores at least twice to try to find a “trip treat” for the kids. We finally settled on truffles from the northern most chocolatier in the world and a scarf.

We will be happy to get to Oslo! ETB

Norway, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, The Arctic

Duck, Duck, Goose in the Arctic!

June 12, 2016

The loudspeaker wake up call came at 7:30 for breakfast starting at 8. I opted for an omelet and fruit. David added some lox to the mix. There was no shortage of food at the morning buffet. The rest of the morning was filled with preparation…a kayak fitting to adjust our foot pegs, a boot fitting for our landings, and of course a briefing on all the does and dont’s in the Arctic. We now know the correct way to enter and exit the zodiac, how to clean our boots at the gangway, and the importance of staying close to one another and near the guide with the rifle in case a polar bear comes near!

P1020595 kayak meeting

Our first outing wasn’t until after lunch. I believe this was due to our delay leaving port yesterday. In order for 74 passengers to disembark the ship into zodiacs for our outings in an orderly fashion, we were split into three groups. The groups were named Amundsen, Barents, and Nansen after Arctic explorers. Each group was called to the gangway for departure and rotated order first, second, and third with each outing. The select few (only 10 spaces available) who paid extra to kayak were placed in the Barents group. This didn’t matter too often as kayakers were always allowed to depart first if we got to the gangway 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. This is likely due to the time it took to load into the zodiacs pulling the kayaks, to motor to our starting point, to individually load into our kayaks, and then to climb back into the zodiacs after our paddle to motor back to the ship.

Our first stop was at Lilliehöökfjorden, located at the northern side of Krossfjorden, a fjord that extends 14 km and terminates at Lilliehöökbreen, a glacier with a 7 km front. The glacier is named after the commander on Torrell’s Swedish Spitsbergen expedition in 1861.

Once we were all situated in the kayaks, we took a slow paddle through light brash ice by the island cliffs that were swarmed with birds. We spotted a Glaucous gull which is the second largest gull in the world. It uses its large size to intimidate nesting birds to steal their eggs. It will also eat other birds as we witnessed when we turned the corner! The light grey and white gull breeds in the Arctic regions and the Atlantic coasts of Europe. In the winter it migrates as far south as the Great Lakes in the United States.

The Barnacle goose was another common sighting on the land’s edge. The medium sized goose has a white face and black head, neck and chest. These birds also breed in the Arctic islands of the North Atlantic. There are three populations that breed and winter in different areas. Those that breed in Svalbard winter near the England/Scotland border and in the Netherlands.

In addition to the Glaucous gull and Barnacle goose, countless birds hovered overhead as they swooped in and out the cliffs. We were careful not to open our mouths when we looked up! Birds were not our only sighting. Hidden around the corner was a bright blue iceberg. As we admired its beauty, a curious harbor seal joined us. The seal swam in between and around our kayaks as it popped its head up occasionally to check us out. David was leading the pack, and the seal seemed to like to hang around him. It proved to be elusive anytime I raised the camera, and I couldn’t swing around quickly in my kayak or I may have tipped over. Fortunately, Carsten got this video while we were all looking around for it: https://youtu.be/w6j3X91lG1Y

While we were kayaking, the rest of the passengers were hiking. The expedition crew offered several hiking groups…fast, medium, slow and contemplative! We could see one group of hikers on the ridge. Their guide radioed Sharon, our kayak guide, that there were two ringed seals in the brash ice between us and the land. This section of brash ice was big and thick. All the pieces were very close together. We followed in a line so that we could make a pathway. Sharon went first. A double kayak followed and then David. The procession ended there as the person in front of me got stuck. At this point there was hardly a place to go as we were squeezed by the ice. My burning desire to see a ringed seal drove me to paddle forward and backward and to even pull myself along the ice pieces to get around my fellow stuck kayaker. I suppose I should have followed my initial thought (we’re going through that?) and the logic of the rest of the group who waited on the sidelines as Sharon and the rest of the group returned before I could reach them given the ringed seals were too far away!

During this stretch (that felt like an hour), I sweated up a storm while completing my 1,000 point turn…go forward, hit a big piece of ice, back up, try to turn slightly, hit another piece of ice, move the ice slightly, paddle on more ice while being careful not to catch the paddle underneath the ice and flip, pull and push myself with my hands on the ice, and so forth. Just as I created enough space to get turned around, our zodiac support had to drive into the brash ice to create a path for the other kayakers. UGH…all the space I had just created vanished as the ice came surging toward me! When I finally reached the ice’s edge, a fellow kayaker snapped my photo. Relieved and exasperated at the same time, I exclaimed, “I don’t think I’m smiling!” While those who stood by may have been smiling more than me, in their relaxed state, they were fighting frozen hands and feet. While they took a quick warm-up paddle, the brash ice paddlers took a cool down paddle back to the zodiac before loading the Sea Adventurer. Paddle 101 Class was complete, though I’m not sure we passed!

IMG_8405 david adventuresofacouchsurfer

To see where we were, click here:http://www.trimbleoutdoors.com/ViewTrip/3249379?secretLinkKey=980c0db8-6c0c-4935-ad8e-1cb0f9940e16

For our second outing, the ship moved to 14th July Glacier (Fjortende Julibukta), Krossfjorden. The 16km long glacier is named for the French National Day. Here, we took a zodiac cruise along the rising, rock cliff coastline to view birds and hopefully spot some reindeer and/or fox. As we approached the nesting colonies of Brünnich’s guillemots, the common eider lifted off the shore. The common eider, which also breeds in the Arctic builds a nest by the sea out of eiderdown plucked from the female’s breast.

The Brünnich’s guillemot (also known as the thick-billed murre) featured a white chest and black wings with two small white dots on their back. The waterbird nests in vast colonies on narrow ledges of steep cliffs. The smarter, more mature birds pick their area in the middle of the colony to stay more protected from predators like the Arctic fox. Because the Brünnich’s guillemots don’t build a nest, they only lay one long egg which is very pointed at one end to keep it from rolling off the cliff ledges. The Brünnich guillemots are not the best at flying, though they are quite good at swimming like penguins eventhough they are not from the same scientific genus. The birds have learned to fly to escape predators, but they are much safer in the sea. As such, the adults push their 3-week old chicks off the high ledges and they plummet to the sea before they can fly!

While it was exciting to see Brünnich’s guillemots (especially for the birders), it was more exciting to spot the puffins as this was the only time on the two week expedition that we would get a chance to see them. Of course everyone loved the pelagic seabirds’ colorful beaks. Generally, puffins dig holes for each single nest. In Svalbard, the northern limit for Puffins, they can’t dig holes in rocks, moving glaciers, permafrost, or sinking bog, so they find miniature caves in the cliffs for their nests. The puffins we spotted waddled around the edges of the cliffs protecting their nests and flapped their wings rapidly when they took flight to land in the sea. Puffins prefer the water and the only time they spend on land are to lay eggs and protect their newborn chicks. The rest of time, at least 7 months out of the year, they are at sea.

With all the birds, comes all the bird guano which fertilizes the Arctic tundra. This in turn attracts the Svalbard Reindeer, the smallest subspecies of the reindeer, who spend the whole summer grazing to store up fat for the harsh winters. This reindeer, which has lived for more than 5,000 years, is the northern-most living herbivore mammal in the world. Both the male and female reindeer grow antlers, though the male lose their antlers in the early winter while the females tend to retain theirs all year. We spotted a few from a distance, but not nearly as close as the ones in Longyearbyen.

IMG_8496 reindeer adventuresofacouchsurfer

The bird colonies also attract the Arctic foxes as the harsh winter weather forces them to be both scavengers and hoarders. They eat birds’ eggs and both seal and reindeer carcasses. Currently, the foxes are in the middle of changing their coats from winter white to summer brown. David and his eagle eyes spotted a fox with a mottled black and white coat near the bird cliffs. Little did we know how rare they were to see. Our zodiac driver, Woody, who was also the expedition leader, radioed the other guides. We followed the shoreline at the pace of the fox as it nimbly trotted along and up the steep cliffs. It was little and sometimes hard to see as it was well camouflaged.

In addition to the amazing wildlife sightings, we were blessed with fantastic weather (partially cloudy skies and little wind) which made for a warm, peaceful zodiac ride. After our outing, we attended tea, a debriefing, and dinner. What a nice first day! ETB

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Norway, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, The Arctic

Tour of Spitsbergen, Norway

June 11, 2016

We enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the hotel…mostly European style. We had to check out by 11, so we packed our bags and left them in the common area for Quark to pick up while we took a “taxi” tour with 13 others. It was more like a shuttle bus tour. I’m thankful we were able to find a short and relaxing activity before boarding the ship!

The driver took us on the main road through town. He pointed out the the old mining barracks, the elementary school, the theater center, the university, an indoor pool, and the old and new hospitals. Who knew there were so many other things to see! The old hospital is the only building in Longyearbyen with a basement and cooling system. All other buildings are lifted off the ground to keep from melting the permafrost (soil frozen for more than two years). The cooling system in the old hospital (now apartments) kept the permafrost from melting until it was turned off two years ago. Now the building is cracked and sinking and the residents were given only hours to leave and weren’t reimbursed by the insurance company for the foundation damage. Across from the old hospital was a building with missing a roof. Apparently, there was an avalanche this winter that destroyed 11 homes and killed 2 people.

After driving through town, we took the main highway away from the airport through the valley where we saw a nesting area for Eiders, large seaducks. Apparently, we were lucky to see a King Eider and a Ptarmigan that our driver pointed out, but we had know idea at the time. Then we enjoyed watching the reindeer graze. They are white and unique to Svalbard. They are also relatively tame as they have no predators. They can run farther and faster than a polar bear! Speaking of which, we got our token photo taken with the polar bear sign by the valley.

The driver said never to go anywhere without your rifle! We followed the packed, gravel road past old mines and several dog sledding operations as it zigzagged up the cliff side. The dog sledding operations hang seals for dog food really high off the ground so the bears don’t get it. The driver said in the winter once the snow kept him from turning around, so he had to reverse down the switchbacks in the shuttle bus and no one spoke for 20 minutes! I could see why…the switchbacks were numerous and steep. At the top of the mountain, we reached some giant antennas used for atmospheric research in coordination with NASA. The summit provided a lovely view of the valley and harbor.

We also passed the old airport that was built in the early 60’s and replaced in the mid 70s. The runway was sand, so it was only operable in the winter, but with the dark of winter, fires had to be set so pilots could identify the runway. The new airport has a 3,000 meter runway, 1,000 meters longer than normal to accommodate military planes that need to land in emergencies.

We returned back down the mountain, passed the town and headed toward the new airport where we drove up the mountainside to the international seed bank. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was established to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples, or “spare” copies, of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The seed vault’s purpose is to protect the loss of seeds in other genebanks during large-scale regional or global crises. Every country is able to store the seeds for free. The vault, located 150 meters into mountain, is considered ideal because at 430 feet above sea level the site will remain dry if the ice cap melts. In addition, the permafrost aids in preserving the cold temperature (-0.4F) in which the seeds should be kept. Locally mined coal is also used to cool the facility. It is thought there are about 1.5 million distinct seed samples in the world. The vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million, and the vault currently holds approximately 1/3 of the world’s important food crop varieties. The seeds are stored in sealed three-ply foil packages and then placed into plastic tote containers on metal shelving racks. Because this vault was established in case of a crises, no seeds are allowed to be taken from this facility. Any seed requests have to go to one of the other 1,750 seed banks worldwide.

IMG_8366 seed bank adventuresofacouchsurfer

After visiting the seedbank, we looped around on the 45kms of road in Longyearbyen and passed by the outskirts of town where the original town started. The driver pointed out the northernmost church, the oldest building on the island which was a post office, and a cemetery where very few people are buried because the permafrost pushes the bodies out of the ground. Most everyone is cremated now. We also passed a giant white building standing alone. Inside is a restaurant which used to be rated one Michelin star. Admittedly, the food has been very good here, so we may have to try it upon our return.

After lunch in town at Kroa (also good), we walked back to our hotel, but not before snapping a photo of the world’s largest mailbox which was Santa’s. We just hung out in the common room until 3:30 for our ride to the boat.
Eventually we got picked up on the second bus and boarded the ship which has a capacity for 117 passengers. Only 74 people are on our voyage, so the trip should be somewhat spacious! On the boat, we turned over our passports, got our boarding card, and headed to our cabin on the third deck. It was relatively simple with twin beds, a bedside table and desk, a small bath room, two closets and a porthole. That’s about all we needed.

Unpacked, we headed to a presentation and then prepared for our evacuation drill, a requirement before the ship can leave port. Our departure time was delayed due to the SAS pilot airline strike. I guess a few people were coming from Sweden. I’m so glad that didn’t affect us!

Dinner of corn chowder, calamari salad, chicken piccata and a cheese and fruit plate was tasty. Over the next few hours, we familiarized ourselves with the boat (gym, hot tub, library, clipper room, the bridge, and salon), got briefed on kayaking, and enjoyed the scenery on the outside deck. By 11pm we turned out the lights, though it was still light outside. It was a really great day. I really enjoyed the tour of Longyearbyen and the surrounding area of Spitsbergen. I would highly recommend it. Our driver had come to Longyearbyen for the summer to make some extra money as the pay is good and taxes are much lower than in the mainland of Norway, and he ended up staying. He said several people end up doing this. Now, we are anxiously waiting to see a polar bear and a walrus in the wild! ETB

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Norway, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, The Arctic

Finally Arrived in Longyearbyen, Norway

June 8-10, 2016

We left Wednesday evening. It is now Thursday night at 10:15 in Oslo and still light. We only have one more leg to our journey tomorrow morning when we fly to Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, Norway. So far, our trip has been rather uneventful.

We took a red eye on a British Airways 747, a rickety old plane. I skipped the meal service, took a sleeping pill and actually slept a good six hours quite comfortably in coach. I couldn’t believe it…I usually get four hours of sleep at best! We killed time during our five hour layover in London by having lunch at Giraffe, browsing the shops, and catching up on some reading.

Our next flight to Oslo was half empty. The two hour flight and one hour time change got us into Oslo around 9:30pm. We experienced one of the easiest immigration and customs processes ever…no landing card and no line. We picked up our bag and walked out the door straight to the information desk and asked where we could find the airport hotel. “Out the door,” the gentleman said. “If you get lost, it is your fault.”

Yep, it was that simple. We took the crosswalk to the Radisson Blu, checked in, and chilled. I think it was easier to get to Norway than to New York the last time we went. Hopefully we’ll continue this smooth sailing!

The next morning, we cued up in the three person line at SAS Airlines and within just a few minutes it was our turn. Little did we know that the pilots were planning a strike and the airline and the pilots union were up through the wee hours of the night negotiating a deal. Fortunately for us, the Norwegian pilots came to an agreement. The Swedish pilots, however, went on strike. Tons of flights ended up being cancelled which stranded some 25,000 passengers. I am glad I did not know this until after we landed in Longyearbyen which I still don’t know exactly how to pronounce.

When I told the lady at the ticket counter, we were going to Longyearbyen (LONG-year-by-en), She responded, “Long-YER-Ben?” “Yes…there,” I replied. But since then, I’ve heard it pronounced several ways. Uniquely it is named after an American, John Munro Longyear whose Arctic Coal Company started operations there in 1906. Byen means town in Norwegian. Anyway, the town is located in the Southwest of Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard archipelago.

With boarding passes in hand, we asked where we would find security and how long would it take. She pointed to the turnstiles to our right and said, “the sign says 5 minutes”. Brilliant, I thought, an electronic sign that provides the time to get through security. Knowing we had plenty of time, we found one of only a few seats upstairs, though there were plenty downstairs, and enjoyed our “to go” breakfast that we grabbed at the airport coffee shop.

Eventually, we passed through security by scanning our boarding pass ourselves as opposed to waiting on an agent to scan it, sent our bags through X-ray, and found a hopping terminal. The bars were full with people enjoying their beer at 8:30am! Inside the terminal was the place to be. We kept walking to our gate at F. It required us to go through immigration again as while Svalbald is owned by Norway, it isn’t part of the EU. Regardless, this has been the friendliest and easiest travel we’ve completed in some time. Had I known how easy this would be, I would have likely booked the 8:30am flight instead of the 10:10am, but I thought we’d get in late and be tired so I gave us some breathing room. We were looking forward to getting to Longyearbyen.

We arrived in Longyearbyen at 1pm on Friday and loaded the bus that our expedition company Quark sent for the ship passengers and took a short drive from the airport to our hotel Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg. What a unique place with its kitschy outdoor decoration, spa, and restaurant. It was a stones throw away from the city center, but we had to walk down to the road and around the drainage ditch full of glacial melt in order to get there.

The town is home to a tiny indoor mall that included the northern most sushi restaurant, the northernmost chocolatier, a grill, a library, and a few clothing shops. Nearby were a few more hotels, tour operators, a fur shop, some outdoor shops, and a grocery store. After a few blocks, the Main Street led us to the local neighbor which included a few identical houses lined up next to each other with a view of the glacier a short distance away.

The wind blew off the glacier into our faces making for an unpleasant walk until we turned around. We were reminded everywhere that the town was located 78° North, about 817 miles from the North Pole. Today happened to be Longyearbyen’s 110th birthday, so the entrance to the Svalbard Museum was free.

The Svalbard Museum is the number one attraction in Longyearbyen according to Trip Advisor. Amazingly, it isn’t the only museum in the town. The North Pole Expedition Museum is located closer to the water on the main highway. The museum explained the way of life in the early 1900’s which included whaling, mining and exploration to the North Pole by several countries. It also discussed the geological significance of the island. The glacial ice has torn at the land so much that dinosaur fossils and even coal was found.

The coal mining opportunity put Longyearbyen on the map. The Arctic Coal Company operated for ten years until it fell upon financial difficulties around the First World War and it was purchased by Store Norske from Norway. This company added barracks and more mines up until the Second World War when the town was very unsettled due to fighting among the Germans and the English. After the Second World War, coal production increased again until the falling prices of coal. In the 1970’s, the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry began buying up the Store Norske shares and supporting the coal industry as it wanted the town to look economically successful during the Cold War due to its close proximity to Russia.

Now, mining is a very small part of the town’s industry as tourism is becoming its largest business. It was hard for me to believe tourism is the town’s biggest draw given its small size. After we visited the museum, we walked around the outskirts of town to visit the world’s most northern church, the old mine and the docks. We were finished seeing the whole town by dinner. The only way to see more was to sign up for a tour. In the winter, snowmobiling, skiing, dogsledding, and ice cave exploring were a few of the tour choices. For the summer, we could choose from activities like kayaking which we are doing the next two weeks, a harbor cruise though we were going to be on a boat the next two weeks, dog sledding on not the greatest snow, visiting a replica of a coal mine, or taking a guided hike. We could not hike on our own, as it is required by law to carry a fire arm for protection from the polar bears outside of the city limits. None of the summer tours sounded terribly appealing to us for tomorrow morning, so we didn’t sign up for anything, but perhaps that was because we were tired.

We chose to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, Vinterhagen, which was basically inside a greenhouse…no long underwear was necessary! Their menu was limited and unique…whale, seal, reindeer, dried fish, and steak. I went with the steak. It was excellent. David loved his reindeer. Afterward, we tried our hardest to stay awake until 9pm in the common room. I thought after two nights of sleeping pills I’d get on Arctic time, but as soon as my head hit the pillow, no such luck. Maybe one day my body clock will adjust to different time zones!

I laid awake listening to all sorts of noise as the night never came…it was daylight for 24 hours. I felt like there was a highway behind our room with all the evening traffic in a gravel area between two buildings. I don’t know what was happening except that I wasn’t sleeping. Perhaps if we closed the window it would have been quieter, but I must say the heat worked well everywhere! We were regularly stripping down to T-shirts inside buildings and of course removing shoes and using supplied crocs at the hotel’s request to keep from tracking snow/mud into the area. I think Svalbard may be keeping the croc shoe company in business. We are looking forward to getting on the ship tomorrow afternoon! ETB

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iceberg website copy