Franz Josef Land and Svalbard High Arctic Travels
Author: Lois Gray Photos: Kay Gilmour
Arrangements: Apex Expeditions
Feral & Fantastic Franz Josef Land
Apex Expeditions on Poseidon’s “Sea Spirit” July 5 to July 19, 2018
TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction ............................................................................................................... 3 Franz Josef Land ......................................................................................................... 4 Svalbard ...................................................................................................................... 4 Discovery Days ........................................................................................................... 5 Day 1 – Barentsburg & “All Aboard!”.................................................................. 5 Day 2 – Sea Day ........................................................................................................ 11 Day 3 – Sea Day ........................................................................................................ 12 Day 4 – Cape Fligely ............................................................................................. 14 Day 5 – Jackson Island ......................................................................................... 16 Day 6 – Zeigler Island ........................................................................................... 18 Day 7 – Georg Land & the Russian Icebreaker .................................................... 22 Day 8 – Bell Island & Jackson’s Hut ................................................................... 27 Day 9 – Bear, Belugas & the Polar Plunge ........................................................... 31 Day 10 – At Sea .................................................................................................... 31 Day 11 – Brasvellbreen Glacier & Alkefjellet Bird Cliff ........................................ 32 Day 12 - Alkehornet ............................................................................................. 33 Day 13 - Pyramiden ............................................................................................. 37 Day 14 – Back in Longyearbyen ........................................................................... 40
Introduction What is the attraction of Earth’s Polar Regions? Are the magnetic fields of the geography the “pull” that some of us feel? Perhaps I cannot answer for everyone who ventures north above the Arctic Circle or south below the Antarctic Circle, but I can share what attracts us in this journal. The wildlife is the first “magnet” because there are species of birds, mammals, and even insects that live nowhere else in the world as well as ones that live parts of their life cycles in these areas. The unspoiled beauty of the stark and angular landscapes is another attraction. The intensity of a world of ice, glaciers, tundra plants and the black and white glory is another. The changing light every hour of the many hours of daylight is so beautiful and amazing. The variety of cloud shapes and densities is a constant sky show. The sea colors are equally changeable and impressive. All these factors are augmented by the personal thrill, fun, and satisfaction of seeing such a remote wilderness with so little imprint of man in its space! An important lure for some adventurers is certainly the fascinating history of the many explorations of the area. Intrepid explorers mapped their findings, looked for passages through the Arctic ice fields, searched for possible resources like coal, and hunted the outsized creatures living there for science or sport. Many left physical evidence of their experiences, like huts, campsites, and journals. Some of these brave efforts ended in tragedy, some in total failure of purpose, and a few actually found success and fame for their hardships and mere survival. This expedition also brought Kay and me back to Norway’s northernmost possession, the archipelago of Svalbard, where excursions into the high arctic often begin. Longyearbyen, the northernmost capital in the world, sits on “valbard’s largest island, “pitzbergen. It is a fascinating multicultural small town with its interests spread over scientific research, tourism, education, conservation, and sports activities like snowmobiling, dog mushing, skiing and even fishing. The several islands comprising Svalbard offer some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, with major fjords, craggy, cloud-kissed mountains cradling the icy water fingers, expanses of beautiful tundra with tiny but gorgeous plants and flowers, magnificent skies overhead, and wildlife as varied as Artic Fox, Polar Bears, Walrus, Reindeer, Seals, and Whales in the sea waters surrounding the various islands.
Franz Josef Land
This Arctic Archipelago is Russian territory even though it was first explored by adventurers from the Austro-Hungarian countries (hence the overall name still attached to the area). Norwegians and others have claimed to have first explored the area but never made their findings public or made any territorial claims before Russia claimed sovereignty in 1914 and formally annexed the archipelago on April 15, 1926. Norway and Italy protested the annexation futilely but nothing came of their protests. Since l999, scientists from all nations are welcome to conduct research in the territory and Franz Josef Land was declared a nature reserve in 1994 and then became part of the Russian Arctic National Park in 2011. Now tourism is also allowed under specific guidelines and requirements. Franz Josef Land sits at Latitude 80 degrees 33 minutes North and longitude 54 degrees and 46 seconds East. The archipelago comprises 192 islands covering 6229 square miles. It is 233 miles from East to West and 145 miles from North to South. Cape Fligely on Rudolf Island is the northernmost point of the Eurasian continent, 566 miles from the North Pole. The history of all the explorations and claims and counterclaims is convoluted and history was not our primary interest in visiting the area as already noted. Anyone intrigued by this tangle can visit the Wikipedia website and “read all about it.”
The archipelago of Svalbard also has a very lengthy and labyrinthine history, actually longer than that of Franz Josef Land because it was discovered and exploited, particularly for whaling, much earlier. Willem Barentsz is the official discoverer of the archipelago in 1596. The coordinates of Svalbard are 78 degrees 53 minutes N and 18 degrees 00 minutes East and it is 650 miles from the North Pole. The whole archipelago comprises 15,075 square miles. Though it is now officially a Norwegian possession, there are two Russian cities located in the archipelago: Pyramiden with 12 occupants and Barentsburg with 500 residents and a fully operational mining operation. The legal and political entanglements between these two cities and Norway are also very complicated. Check these websites for more information if you are interested. Barentsburg and Pyramiden.
Our visits to both these Russian settlements will be described in more detail in a chronological sequence as I cover our wonderful days in both Svalbard and Franz Josef Land.
Day 1 – Barentsburg & “All Aboard!”
Usually expedition ships are not available for boarding until late afternoon on the first day of the voyage and this trip was in the norm. So to keep all of us entertained while we waited in Longyearbyen for boarding, we were taken by catamaran (The Arctic Explorer) to visit the Russian settlement, Barentsburg. The city of 500 Russians and Ukrainians was a sail of 1 ½ hours away. The sky was gray with dense hanging clouds that threatened rain but never delivered. The craggy mountain tops were at times obscured by the clouds and their steep sides were black and wet. Still, our “float” was impressive since we could see how bleak and cold the whole area we traversed looked.
And when we moored at the town’s loading dock, this impression lingered. From the dock to the city required walking up 252 wooden steps to reach the flat plateau where the streets and buildings were located.
Though the dark mountain behind the city glowered from on high, we could see that attempts were being made to brighten the buildings and thus the overall ambience. We saw murals on the walls and varied colors on the structures, like the lime green color that identified the “Governor-General” residence. Our guide was animated and very positive about life in this remote outpost of Russia. The gloomy mountain is indeed the town’s raison d’etre since it contains the coal bed the town exists to exploit. There are 500 permanent residents, including children, and 120 of them are the miners. During the summertime, most of the town’s children are sent to the Russian mainland to stay with relatives and friends. Most of the miners sign a 2-year contract but end up staying at least one year more. We supposed that the salaries are better than the men could earn at home. Because there are whole families here, the town boasts a school, a Russian Orthodox Church, a brewery, a huge community center that houses a pool, library, sports arena, a bakery & delicatessen/dining area and a theater. Living quarters are contained in huge Soviet-style apartment buildings that line the street as well. The town main street is wide and paved with concrete. There is also a new hotel at the very end of that street since the city is trying to attract tourists.
We learned that the life of a miner is not easy. They ride an underground rail/tram system for an hour to reach the coal face and then it takes another hour to leave the mine. They work inside for six hours six days a week. The mine operates 24/7. Each miner is tested before his shift for alcohol intake. If his test is positive, he is sent home—without pay for that day—and another sober miner takes his shift. Our guide told us that 80% of the excavated coal is sent to a UK company and the 20% remaining is used to power Barentsburg itself. There are colorful political signs and slogans in Russian that date back before the fall of the USSR as well as some outdoor paintings of Russian heroes. Many of the older building below the plateau where the town sits now are derelict and gradually falling apart. Those “ruins” make the whole city appear even more dreary and cheerless. For a brighter spot, we visited the fairly new Russian Orthodox Church. In the early 2000s, a plane accident cost some Russians their lives and this church was built in memoriam to them. It is small but constructed in a typical Russian style with dark wood cladding outside and a very colorful inside complete with icons, paintings and colorful hangings and other adornments. It doesn’t appear to be used very often however.
It was cold and humid during our visit but only a few raindrops actually sprinkled us a bit. Unused to cold as we are, we just could not imagine how frigid it must be in Barentsburg during the long winter days and nights. Despite the guide’s positivity, we would never want to be a tourist in this sad city and we could only bow to the toughness of the folks who choose to live here year-round. Brrr! Our “magic carpet” into Franz Josef Land is a vessel 297 ft. long and 50 ft. wide. She carries 114 passengers, but our complement was closer to 97. The crew numbers 72 and she can “fly” over arctic waters at 15 knots. The ship is comfortable and equipped with a restaurant, outdoor bistro (too cold outside for us during our visit), gym, library, bar, conference area, club lounge, reception area and bridge. Our cabin was on the bottom deck just steps away from the restaurant and it was larger than we expected. Great accommodation.
After lunch at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, we were driven to the marina by bus around 2 p.m.
A commercial ship had taken the mooring space we had expected, which required transfer from a dock to the ship by Zodiacs. Because of this, boarding took longer than usual, but it was accomplished as efficiently as possible. Once on board, we surrendered our passports for the duration of the voyage, received our room keys and found our checked luggage. We went to safety lectures and lifeboat drill, received our bright red parkas (a gift if we wanted to keep them) and our loaner boots. In between our required activities, we happily unpacked our luggage and stowed it away in our very commodious cabin (262). Surprisingly, our cabin had much more storage space than we have found on other expeditions ships (or even cruise ships). There was room to spare once we had put everything away. We knew we would be happy with this cabin! Dinner was tasty and we enjoyed sharing the meal with an Australian couple. That’s how we learned that our passenger list included some 67 Apex clients, 12 passengers with a Russian travel company called “Mir,” and 21 others had booked with Poseidon Expeditions. There were two Expedition Leaders, one an employee of Poseidon and ours who was working for Apex Expeditions. We realized that the double leadership could be problematic, but on the whole, things ran smoothly for all passengers except for a few minor communications glitches.
Day 2 – Sea Day
After a calm first night at sea when we slept well, we awoke to a gray day, both sky and sea. The Arctic Ocean was displaying only small ripples but the temperature outside was indeed chilly! Air temp was 38 degrees F and there was only mild breeziness. However, as soon as we stepped out on deck, we realized that these polar parkas were going to get heavy use during our days in Franz Josef Land.
Today was a sea day so we attended lectures at intervals during the day: topics included Cetaceans of the Arctic Ocean and histories of the many polar explorations that used FJL as their jumping off point in addition to those that were exploring the Archipelago itself. The skies grew bluer and brighter as the day wore on and we were occasionally called on deck to view bird and animal life: walruses on a faraway low-lying island but recognizable and beautiful birds, fulmars and little auks mostly, following along just above the ship! After an interesting dinner discussing “sleep research” and “Hamilton” among other things, we went to our cabin and read, played games, talked a bit and then realized with some shock that it was already pretty late and we were still wide awake and there was plenty of light coming into our 4 round portholes. How are we going to learn when to go to sleep when it is daylight all the time?
Day 3 – Sea Day
Another sea day because we had to get through Russian Immigration procedures at Alexandra Land before we could operate in FJL! The process requires facial identification of each individual passenger along with checks on our visas. We were warned it would probably take between 3 and 5 hours to complete the process. The Russian National Park rangers (5) joined the ship during this time and they accompanied us as long as we were in Russian territory. Since they carry guns and flares, they established perimeters of safety for us any time we were on land. They also scouted possible landing sites to insure that no polar bears had already occupied the area. At various times when we could go outside on deck, we saw two Bowhead Whales spouting not too far off our ship! These are smaller whales with no dorsal fin which allows them to escape predators (like Orcas) by slipping under the ice cover. And we learned that such a sighting is pretty rare, so we have been lucky.
We also were greeted by 4 polar bears, one of which swam very close to the ship—probably curious, we supposed. Seals and walruses were also swimming around in the bay where we
were anchored. The Russians would not allow any photography from the deck while the “passport ceremony” was ongoing so we were frustrated that we could “document” our sightings.
Oddly enough, I was the last passenger to be admitted to Russian territory on the Sea Spirit. One of the reasons for that was because our deck was the last to be called for the passport inspection. The more puzzling delay was caused by another passenger identifying herself as me (I think she misheard the named called from reception for document retrieval) and taking my papers with her. When she realized her mistake, she had to come back to Reception and then the staff had to give both of us new documents as well as sorting out the passport mix-up. Oh well, no real harm done—somebody had to be last, right? In the morning, we requested a tour of the ship’s clinic from young Doctor Gloria, a “alvadoran physician who has been with Poseidon for 6 years now. We were impressed with the facility and the confidence this ship’s doctor demonstrated. She had x-ray equipment, an oxygen concentrator, EKG machines, a hospital room off the clinic proper where a sick person could be housed while being treated. She told us that she had been trained in general surgery as well as emergency medicine and had at one time been required to perform an appendectomy on a young crewman. She related that it was so lucky that one of the passengers was a woman anesthesiologist who agreed to work with Dr. Gloria as she performed the surgery. The two doctors and the patient were transported to a Russian base facility where the procedure took place. The crewman recovered well and returned to his duties fairly quickly. Dr. Gloria and her anesthesiology assistant saved the expedition for everyone on board since the ship did not have to abandon the trip! In the afternoon, we were treated to a slide show created by a Russian photographer for BBC & National Geographic, Sergey (never got his last name) who showed some of his wildlife pictures taken on this trip as well as candid shots he had taken of the crew and passengers of the Silver Sea. He was travelling with us as a guest of Poseidon Expeditions so we supposed that his show for us was a sort of “singing for his supper” payment for the support. We enjoyed his work, but
we all knew that he was not showing us his “money” shots since they would be sold to NatGeo and BBC.
After all the official procedures had been fulfilled, we sailed out of Cambridge Bay and headed North for our first possible landing in FJL. The day had been a little bit colder than the day before but still not nearly as intense as we had feared. Skies had been clear and the sea was calm.
Day 4 – Cape Fligely
Our first proposed landing (at Cape Stolbovoy on Rudolf Island) was planned for this morning. The day started off a bit colder yet (freezing at 0 degrees C). Everyone was eager to step foot on land but a swimming polar bear interrupted those plans. He was a very curious fellow who swam very close to the marina deck on the ship. The two ELs were becoming concerned that he might even climb aboard and they were planning how to prevent that, when he apparently saw enough of us and swam away. That interval required the ship to change course and sail further north to an alternate site: Cape Fligely, still on Rudolf Island. When we learned that the Cape is the furthest north land on the Eurasian continent, we were all delighted that this would be our first landing site (81 degrees 52 minutes). It was a difficult landing in that ice met us on the very narrow strip of rocky shore but most folks managed to at least get their toes on the land. Some climbed higher above the beach and others returned to the ship after the touchdown (Lois). Those who climbed higher (Kay) had to hurry back down and quickly get on the Zodiacs since yet another polar bear began approaching the area from a nearby glacier.
We left Rudolf Island and sailed further north until we reach the pack ice. Then we were only separated from the North Pole by that ice which the Sea Spirit could not enter (it is not an ice- breaker). That huge expanse of ice was impressive, beautiful and frightening when we thought of the various explorers who had dared enter that “icy desert” only to become entrapped and unable to leave. Then come the harrowing survival stories or the tragedies that befell many.
Day 5 – Jackson Island
Air still freezing, and our first planned landing site at Cape Norway at Jackson Island was blocked with ice. So the ship moved to another site which was open. The seas were choppy and the landing area was in front of sheer cliffs. After some deliberation, Kay decided to try it and Lois decided to sit this one out. Kay got some good shots of the tundra plants and lichens— even an Arctic poppy.
After lunch, we found ourselves in a wonderful seascape—moving slowly through something called “pancake ice.” This is formed by the summer breakup at the edges of the permanent ice pack and it is really something beautiful to see! It appears to be a huge floating floor covered with tiles that are broken into angular shaped pieces about 6 ft. thick. On the edges of each broken pancake there is a fringe-like pattern that appears to be lacy-quite lovely. Because the individual pieces are moving freely, the Sea Spirit effortlessly nudged them apart as we floated through them. The sky overhead was gray with heavy clouds, casting a silvery light on the sparkling pancakes. Adding to the full sensory experience was the sound of the little bits of ice called “growlers” as the ship passed against and over them. Truly a magical setting.
To cap off a nearly perfect day, we had an evening zodiac cruise in search of walrus and our vessel was the most successful of all. Perhaps we were so lucky because Shirley was our driver and she is known to go her own way. We became separated from the other cruisers and were rewarded with close encounters with at least 24 of the comical creatures—mothers with babies and even some young males.
There was much cumbersome interplay among this largest species of the pinnipeds and also much vocalizing. As the light became a little dimmer because the clouds were closing the curtain on us, we lingered on longer and enjoyed the evening walrus show.
Day 6 – Zeigler Island
Our landing for this morning was on Zeigler Island at Cape Brice but it almost did not happen because of shifting ice moving into the shore. And it was cut short for the same reason, even necessitating a change in the embarkation point different from our landing site. What was supposed to be a choice between a long walk (3-5 hours) and a medium walk (1-2 hours) was made easy when the long walk had to be cancelled due to the shifting ice.
What we saw on the walk was so rewarding—this time it was the plants and flowers that were the stars of the show. Tiny plants so short they barely stood above the ground covered the tundra. Some with flowers of many colors: yellow, purple, white, red, vivid green mosses and silvery lichens. Such hardy life to exist and bloom in this harsh climate and soil. It’s difficult not to call all the flora “brave.”
The landscapes provided magnificent dramas of black and white: snow patches, shiny ice gleaming among the rocks and boulders, all against the backdrop of the harsh and dark escarpments. No creatures enlivened the scene, except for one lone sandpiper mother trying valiantly to frighten us away from her nest. Jonathan, the champion birder, protected her from any harm a careless step could cause.
This gorgeous and moving excursion recalled to me the joyous words of the American poet Edna “t. Vincent Millay. “Oh World I cannot hold thee close enough!”
During lunch, two more polar bears were spotted but at the ice edge, but they seemed totally uninterested in us and began meandering further away from us. So we sailed on instead of trying to get closer to them for photographs And as if to cement that feeling in my mind, our afternoon zodiac cruise took us to an amazing bird cliff on Salisbury Island. The colony of thousands of nesting black-legged kittiwakes announced its presence long before we could actually see or photograph this wildlife wonder. The strong odor of guano wafted towards us on the winds and the loud and constant “chattering” of the birds assailed our ears next. Then when we saw so many birds on the wing and on the water, we knew what was coming.
First we found ourselves cruising through an empire of ice floating on a flat pewter-colored sea.
Towering glaciers could be seen around us, small icebergs (bergie bits) floated around us, and forbidding snow-covered mounds of columnar basalt rose against us. What a glorious introduction to the small birds who live and thrive in this inhospitable environment!
Black-legged Kittiwakes are a gull species, with particularly attractive plumage which changes colors and patterns throughout their life cycle, as does that of many birds. The cliff face was pocked with many holes and ledges and there seemed to be a bird in every one of the available niches from the top to the bottom, some of them seeming to be too close to the water’s edge. The birds were in the business of reproducing, feeding, and protecting chicks. Such cacophony of sounds and a true wonder that the birds returning to their nests from fishing can ever find their own nests and chicks.
To make the visit to this colony even more satisfying the island is covered by a glacier whose toe reaches the water. It was shining and glittering with the ever-changing light conditions as we watched the birds at their work. The blue sky kept playing hide and seek in the huge skies above us which were predominantly gray with gauzy low-hanging clouds. With all the activity, the beauty and the wonder all around us, we barely noticed that the air temperature was 32 degrees augmented by a fairly chill wind!
Day 7 – Georg Land & the Russian Icebreaker
Cold and still windy this morning, so Kay and I decided against the early morning zodiac cruise to scope out Geographic Bay at the northern part of Georg Land. That meant that we missed a couple of polar bears and some swimming walruses. Some fellow passengers who did brave the elements got some really good pictures I am sure. But . . . After lunch, we experienced something surreal! We had been sailing along for 7 days and not seen any other vessels or human beings (except for the Russian immigration officials at the beginning of the voyage). For all we knew, we were alone in the ”Empire of Ice.” What a shock
and wonderful surprise when we saw from our decks a red speck approaching us steadily. The speck grew larger and larger until it became an enormous Russian Icebreaker (the most powerful in the world with 75,000 horsepower engines to crash through the permanent ice pack around the North Pole. In reality, the “50 Years of Victory” was on its way to the Pole carrying scientists and crew on a research voyage. The captains of the two vessels showed their skills when they got them almost nose to nose with no bumps to either. Then we had a sort of “love fest” as the folks on both ships communicated with one another through shouts, gestures, songs and selfies! One of the crewmembers of the big ship was having his birthday that day so all of us sang a lusty “Happy birthday” song to him! It should be noted that both the Sea Spirit and the icebreaker belong to the same company. Our mid-arctic meet-up was so two Russian seamen who had traveled with us from the Immigration Station were to be transferred to the icebreaker.
Our rendezvous with the really massive red-orange ship took place near a small spit of land called “Dead “eal Island.” While the rest of us were greeting the icebreaker, the fellows on the Bridge had seen a mother polar bear and her cub on that little “oasis” in the big Arctic Ocean. So the zodiacs were quickly unloaded and everyone piled in as far as possible for a run to see the bears. And what a show they put on for us. Binoculars were unsheathed and cameras were working overtime. The naturalists said the cub was a male probably about 18 months old and nearly as big as the female. Young bears stay with their moms for up to 3 years so it was no surprise he was still with her.
He was curious about all the zodiacs filled with red jackets that were edging up on them and he kept venturing out to end of a narrow point of land and ice. Mom clearly was not thrilled with his temerity and kept calling him back to her. Several times he returned to her and they rolled around on the ice together and generally played “follow the leader.” Then the brave boy went back to the land projection closest to us and now Mom was “over it.” “he jumped in the water and swam around the spit and positioned herself between the nearest zodiac and her boy. Then he jumped into the water himself and they back around the island farther away from all of us. Then they shook off the seawater like a dog and rolled in the snow and ice to further dry off. It was so endearing to see the cub on his back with his feet in the air as he wriggled around. What an hour long show those two provided for us!
We had been told there are the Big Five of the Arctic but it was absolutely true for us that the polar bear is the King of the Arctic over the other four: the walrus, the narwhal, Beluga whales, and bowhead whales. And all around were hundreds of walrus which we barely noticed until polar bear show was over. Then we took lots of wonderful looks and photos of them as they honked and swam around. It was interesting that the two species paid no attention to each other. In the groups were mothers, calves, and males. One big male brandished his formidable tusks at the zodiacs that ventured too close to his family. So while he looked pretty menacing to us, we later got a good laugh at him when he tried unsuccessfully to haul himself onto an ice-floe, finally giving up the attempt. While we watched him, he never used those big tusks to help pull his huge body onto the flow—apparently walrus often use their tusks like icepicks to gain purchase on the ice. Maybe this fellow had a “tusk ache”?
Day 8 – Bell Island & Jackson’s Hut
This morning and landing was planned at Cape Flora on Yuri Kuchiev Island but the tidal swells and the winds were too high for a safe zodiac disembarkation. The ship next moved to Bell Island at the more sheltered landing spot where Camp Eira with its famous 1881 cabin erected by the explorer, Frederick George Jackson, still stands. Though he built the cabin expecting to use it the following year, circumstances intervened and he was unable to land there and never occupied it. However, many others have benefited from it. The interior of the cabin showcases the signatures and dates of many of them.
Despite its being a safer landing site, the announcement warned that the site was rocky and icy and difficult. Kay decided to chance it and she got some excellent pictures of the beautiful site and cabin and the tundra plants again. Lois once again opted out of this one. The afternoon landing was planned for Mabel Island but once again Mother Nature had other ideas. A thick fog was crawling down the mountains an appeared to be headed for the sea. The ship turned around headed back to Cap Flora to see if conditions had changed but sadly they had not so no landing was possible there. Never to be stymied, the staff and captain headed for the calmer strait between North Brook and Yuri Kuchiev Islands and it was full of walrus.
The scenery was outstanding what with massive glacier faces and craggy mountains all around. We even spotted a huge male polar bear on the ice but we did not have long to watch him or the walruses because a dense and swift moving fog bank began to close in. One minute we were watching the bar and the next minute he disappeared under the fog cover. And here we were, out in the Arctic Ocean with little visibility. We heard the crackling of the zodiac drivers’ phones and heard the commands that all the zodiacs stick together (within sight) and aped back to the ship which none of us could see at all. The drivers really put their outboard motors to the test and before any kind of fright could sink in, we saw the Sea Spirit looming out of the fog.
Thank goodness for GPS and the experience of our Expedition Leaders.
Everyone seemed relieved to be back on board.
Day 9 – Bear, Belugas & the Polar Plunge
The ELs were still determined to make a landing on Mabel Island but again the fog was just too impenetrable so the mission was abandoned and the ship sailed north towards George Land. We passed the morning attending lectures and rushing out on deck when any creatures were spotted. Three more bowhead whales revealed themselves to us but at a very far distance, so what we saw best were the spouts. Then a young female polar bear appeared very close to the ship in Smith Bay and made the day for many of us. About 50 belugas suddenly came into view, some swimming around the ship and others further away. For anyone tired of polar bear watching, the belugas made their afternoon. Can’t even imagine who among us was tired of polar bears though? At 4 o’clock, we were challenged to take the fabled “Polar Plunge” off a zodiac. some very intrepid (or perhaps crazy) folks picked up the gauntlet. Dr. Gloria stood by in another zodiac in case anything untoward occurred but all went well. Three Russian rangers, Jonathan, Dan, his wife and their 3 sons, Sue from England, Grace from Taiwan, Adrian, Bo, and Tall Tim accomplished the feat and were rewarded with Certificates of Accomplishment as well as bragging rights. The requirement to succeed is to jump into the water and be sure that your head goes under at least for a second. Kay took every divers’ pictures and made sure each got a video of his/her heroism (except for the 3 rangers who had no way of receiving the videos (no cellphones or other technology). Crazy stunt, but it is Arctic tradition after all even though the sea temperature stood at -1 degree Celsius. Kudos to all!
Day 10 – At Sea
Last day in Franz Josef Land and the Arctic again show us it was in control of our activities. We have learned that there are 4 reasons that activities are cancelled in the high arctic 1. Polar Bears 2. Fog 3. Swells and Otherwise Unruly Seas 4. Ice The zodiacs were in the water at Skvortskoya when the thick fog rolled in again covering us completely! After we waited around for about an hour, hoping that the fog curtain would lift, the ELs realized that that was just not going to happen. So then it was decided that we should proceed directly to Nagruskoya where we would be cleared out of Russian territory. The early checkout would allow more time for exploring Svalbard on our way home to Longyearbyen.
Sure enough, the check-out was not nearly as long as the entry process, so we left Franz Josef Land and the Arctic National Park filled with the beauty of the Arctic and all its creatures. The
fragility and vulnerability of this earthly treasure had been impressed upon all of us, so there was some worry and pessimism about its fate at the hands of man. But our wonderful adventure was not over yet and there were more surprises and satisfactions to come in wonderful Svalbard.
Day 11 – Brasvellbreen Glacier & Alkefjellet Bird Cliff
After a long night of cruising (we slept until 8:30!), we heard some folks complaining that the seas had been rocking and rolling while we sailed into Svalbard. If that were so, we had slept right through the turbulence. There was a lecture at 9 a.m. which we attended.
Then a drive-by ship cruise was announced before lunch. So it was all passengers on deck. And what an impressive sight appeared “to our wondering eyes” (not a sleigh with 8 tiny reindeer— that came later). We were face to face with the 3rd longest glacier in the world—Brasvellbreen, some 113 miles long and 28 miles from its ice-cap to the sea. What a magnificent and incredible sight it was. Not only was its size impressive, but the way the blue sky reflected into its depths, and the bergs that were breaking off caught the shadows and bright spots. Glacial milk bled from the glacier’s foot into the sea water creating a clear demarcation line between sea water and water from the ice-cap. Kay’s pictures will show its glory much better than mere words. Later in the day, we had another ship cruise, this time for an hour in front of the Alkefjellet bird cliff. This very high and craggy granite cliff is home to 120,000 breeding Brunich’s Guillemots. These are very handsome black birds with white accent points. They are among the most seabirds in the world. It was mind-blogging to stand on the deck and hear and watch these hardy birds going about their business of creating, raising and feeding their chicks. Incredibly, some fellow passengers actually saw an Arctic fox descending the precipitous cliff face to steal either eggs or baby birds. Kay and I saw a flash of movement in the indicated area, but she could not get a photo and neither of us saw any detail, no did we know or not the marauder was successful.
A bonus for our returning to Svalbard was the glorious weather we enjoyed. We were under blue skies with shining white clouds rather than gray curtains of fog and overcast conditions. Temperatures were somewhat higher (in the 40s) as well.
Day 12 - Alkehornet
Since we had left our armed Russian rangers in FJL, we had to return to Longyearbyen to pick up some rifles and flares so we could do some landings in the Svalbard Archipelago where Polar Bears often visit and stay awhile. The scenery was stunning as we made our way up Adventfjord to reach Longyearbyen to pick up our rifles.
Rifles in hand, later in the afternoon, we had first Svalbard landing at Alkehornet in the Isfjorden area. And what a splendid landing it was too. Wet but not rocky or icebound. We had to climb up to a ridge where we were promised a look at some Arctic foxes. The climb up was not arduous but it was a little tricky because of the soft tussock terrain with many shallow ponds and narrow running creeks that turned into marshy areas
The hike was made more pleasant when we spied two Svalbard Reindeer grazing not far from where we were walking. They are fairly small compared to caribou in Sweden & Alaska but are actually the same species. Wild ones are called caribou while the domesticated variety are dubbed reindeer. The reindeer were backlit so beautifully that their antlers and fur glowed.
The light and clouds were astounding!
On the way farther up, we saw two young Arctic Fox kits, about 4 months old according to the naturalists. They were completely unconcerned about our presence and played with one another like puppies—pouncing, wrestling, play fighting, and trying to catch a bird. While they were playing with a bird carcass, we could not be sure that they had actually caught a living bird. But they are lovely creatures in coloring and agility. Of course at this time of year they do not wear the famous pure white color that is necessary in wintertime. Instead, the coats are brownish-grey with some whitish patches.
Not only were the creature encounters wonderful, the scenery at this landing spot was sublime. Tall granitic rock faces and even some columnar basalt towers. Some birds were nesting in the nooks and crannies here as well. The green of the tussock grasses and the tundra flowers was a good contrast for the dark walls and the bright blue overhead was the crowning glory.
Day 13 - Pyramiden
Another beautiful day in Svalbard this morning though the clouds looked somewhat threatening. However, though we took raingear with us for the visit to Pyramiden, only a few sprinkles materialized. This Russian Mining Ghost Town is trying to make a comeback based on tourism, a la Barentsburg. But at present there is no intention to resume coal mining there. 12 people occupy the city year round, but the population does increase to around 50 during the summer, not counting any tourists who might appear on the scene (mostly Russians).
The buildings are in considerable disrepair and we could see very few indications that rehabilitation is in progress. The hotel is operational and heavily booked though we could not see why. All the mining equipment looks very sad and it appears that it is being kept around for historical purposes since no maintenance is being performed on the items. The very best thing about our visit there was the man-made kittiwake cliff. One of the big dormitory buildings which was originally used for families with children has now become the nesting area for the kittiwake families. Ironic and appropriate. The birds have taken over the window sills to use as ledges for their nests. Three nests occupy each sill. So the colony is not nearly as large as the ones we have seen on natural cliff faces,
but it appears to be thriving. We could not figure out why the sills of other buildings are not utilized. The site even has arctic foxes nearby as predators but though the foxes can climb down treacherous cliff faces, they apparently have not figured out how to go straight up a sheer building wall. “o they must wait for chicks to fall from the nests. Maybe that’s why the one fox we saw was pretty skinny and scraggly—rather like the rest of the site.
The scenery around Pyramiden is rugged and impressive but I still think the place is a bit more depressing than enjoyable.
It is probably true that the Russians don’t want to lose their ownership of this property in Svalbard and that could explain there is this attempt to wake the town from the dead by encouraging tourism. They still export coal to the Motherland.
Our last activity from the Sea Spirit was a landing at Ekmanfjorden on the south of the island of Flintholmen. It was without doubt the most beautiful landing we enjoyed on this entire voyage.
And in addition to the stunningly gorgeous site, we also had a couple of hours to watch the antics of 4 very young (naturalists estimated about 10 or 12 days old) arctic fox kits. They were amazingly agile and active but they did show their babyhood by falling over into dead sleeps periodically. We just watched them enthralled even when they were asleep in a pile together! After a brief baby nap, they would hop up and start playing again!
Another unexpected gift was the appearance along the beach of a Long-Tailed Arctic Skua, a rarely seen bird. This bird is the smallest of the Skua family. Since he came back towards us, Kay was able to get a fabulous picture of him on the wing. What a marvelous flying “machine” he was! Kay’s pictures document how dazzlingly gorgeous the landing site and its surroundings were. Open blue sky over head with mare’s tails clouds, green tundra grasses and plants, colorful rocks and boulders, clear and colorful waters in the fjord and at the landing, great gray and black cliffs rising around the setting and a wonderful waterfall splashing noisily down toward the sea.
What a way to say goodbye to Svalbard though we had another full day to spend in Longyearbyen before our flights took us off in all directions home.
Day 14 – Back in Longyearbyen
We left the Sea Spirit this morning about 9:30 and dumped our carry-on luggage at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel (our checked luggage was already at the airport for our flight from Longyearbyen back to Oslo). We were offered activities for the morning and the afternoon as well as lunch on Apex and dinner as well. The morning activity was a tour of the town with
visits at the Brewery, the Svalbard Museum, and Polar Exploration Exhibition. Since Kay and I had been there a day before most of our fellow travelers, we had already been to all those places except for the Brewery in which we have no interest. So we elected to go into town on our own, shopping a bit (postcards & such). We then returned to the hotel to await the others and our lunch. The afternoon choices were between a birding walk with Jonathan and a 3-5 hour hike with Kevin. We opted for the birding adventure and were glad we did because we saw several new bird species as well as three really handsome Svalbard reindeer stags really close up. The new birds for us were Barnacle Geese with their big and fuzzy chicks bouncing along with their troupe of many sets of parents. Next we saw the Pink-footed Geese and they also were proud parents of big and fuzzy chicks. Dinner that night was at a very good restaurant for our farewell. The FunkenHusen served delicious grilled Arctic Char (a white meat fish) along with reindeer “appeteasers” featuring fried, grilled, dried, roasted and baked styles—all quite good (I guiltily add). The dessert at this fine establishment was caramel crème brulee with a chocolate square on top. Just sinfully tasty. Following dinner, we were taken to airport to catch the flight to Oslo. All went fairly smoothly except for the delay caused by all our names being on a single manifest rather than each of having an individual ticket. But we all got aboard around 9:30p.m. and landed at Oslo about 12:30 a.m. Back to the Radisson Blu Oslo for about 4 hours sleep before Kay and I had to head to the airport (just a very short walk away from the hotel) to catch our 7:40 a.m. flight to Munich, then Dulles, then Jacksonville where we landed at 7:30 on July 19. A superb experience from Longyearbyen to Franz Josef Land and back. Thanks to Apex Expeditions and its excellent leaders and guides. We are also grateful to Poseidon Adventures and the lovely m/v Sea Spirit for such comfortable accommodations and friendly, efficient and always responsive staff from the Captain through to the many folks we never saw but know are necessary to the running of the ship as a transportation machine, a restaurant and a hotel.
Cheers to all!
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