Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Lemon or Orange, Flag or Chart…?

Wow, so this is how Svalbard can also be, huh?
Ice is cold, so the air above it gets denser and starts to sink, gaining momentum over the glacier, coming down as a catabatic wind. These winds can either be terribly strong in their own right, or - like today - add to the weather conditions that are prevailing already.
Anyway, we are greeted by a strong gale on entry of the Hornsund. The waves display  small white crowns and the howling is unmistakable. So, no Kayaking here, that is for sure. As for the hike we have to change plans, too, as the original itinerary involves a 2,5-mile boat ride, which would result in a group of hikers who start already drenched to the bone…
But there is more options, always. So we take off at the other flank of the valley, where huge whale bones and green mounds tell the tale of the whaling times that were. But this is not the only important piece of history that we come across. In the mountains around we see several cairns that were not put there by happy tourists but by the participant of a famous scientific expedition, Arc Meridian.
At the end of the 19th century people were keen on knowing more about our planet, especially how it is shaped. Two schools were discussing hard: Those who said Earth looks like a lemon, e.g. elongated towards the poles, and those who favored the orange with a dent north and south.
The method: Measuring the distance between parallels close to the poles; a greater distance means lemon, a shorter indicates orange. This required meticulous gauging and loads of trigonometry, which was carried out by the Russian/Swedish participants of the expeditionHence the cairns which served as beacons.
The orange won.
And in Gåshamna a hut in great solitude is all that remains from this amazing effort.
In spite of the strong wind and the sand storm we go out, and we enjoy this last landing very much.
In the afternoon Captain Hårvik invites to his Farewell Speech, followed by the charity auction, the proceedings of which go to polar bear research and protection. Maybe the fact that we saw ten of these remarkable animals was still present in everybody’s mind, the auction yielded a substantial amount. Well done!
The day ends with the last dinner on board, well deserved. And well served, too…

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Just liquid sunshine...

What weather out there! High waves and windspeed up to 12m/s made it impossible to land at Andreetangen. The nature of expedition struck us in all it’s power. So what to do? The expedition team was not tired to put up some lectures for us and distract us a bit from the greyish weather outside. So the german speakers learned how Svalbard’s glaciers are on the move and the English listened to Thomas’ highly interesting facts about the king of the Arctic: the polar bear! And after lunch we went for real expedition, we made a landing at Russebukta, a new place on Edgeøya MV Fram hasn’t been before! The weather was still somehow “rough” and it was raining – but that was just liquid sunshine.. J 
The place itself was lovely, soft ground basaltic rocks, lots of polar willow, knotweed and saxifrages. Some of us spotted reindeers and red throated divers, barnacle geese, eider ducks, kittiwakes, snow bunting, northern fulmars, arctic terns and purple sandpipers, all the feathered friends were there. Some of us spotted a ring seal lying on the beach. Unfortunately it had an infection on its eyes and seemed not to be very well anymore, so we kept our distance, not to stress it even more. 
The way back to MV Fram turned out to be “quite” wet – we all got soaked with sea spray, it was hilarious! How nice to get back to the warmth of a cozy boat, awaiting us with pancakes and hot coffee! (And a hot shower…)

Monday, 11 August 2014

Bear Symphony

The morning finds us on the way to a famous passage, the Freeman Sound, connecting the Storfjord with the Hinlopen Strait. Remember? That’s the one we wanted to cross from the North, was it three days ago? Three weeks? Time’s really getting fuzzy up here…
Until we get there it’s time to go for a bridge visit or hear some lectures, and just after lunch we reach the entrance to Freemansundet.
Several landing opportunities await here in Svalbard’s East, where the landscape spoils the eye with gentle, horizontal layers, interrupted only by meltwater canyons. You can watch for miles and miles. Which is good when you plan a landing with many people: We have a strong interest in knowing if there is a furry landing party waiting for us, the one without antlers, that is.
And indeed, our first intention to go ashore in Sundneset is thwarted by the presence of a strolling bear on top of the long basaltic wall leading into the hinterland.
Well, no landing here, but a bear, right. We continue into Freemansundet.
To not make it longer than necessary - we encountered a “bear infestation” this morning: No less than eight bears show up in the slopes, foiling our every attempt to land.
So we decide to take our chances with bear #1, at least it was pretty far away.
As we approach Sundneset the animal is nowhere to be seen. That calls for a thorough search before we land anyone. Expedition Team fans out, careful and keen-eyed. Luck favors the brave, and 20 minutes later we find our bear, even further in the distance, awake but at ease. May the landing begin!
And  a wonderful landing it is, the land is wide and breathtakingly beautiful. It seems that you can see a hundred miles far, the slopes of the mountains gently disappearing in the distance. It’s a paradise, actually more for the birds than for the bear. Whereas large numbers of pink-footed geese, ptarmigans, snow buntings or red-throated divers find everything they need here, it is herbal diet for the king of the Arctic. For want of better food we have seen them scrambling up the scree and chewing all kinds of greenery.
Not so much our “landing bear”. Peacefully she (looked like a female from the distance) was stretched out on the ground, absolutely aware of us, sniffing every now and then, listening, watching. But not interested at all in us, so our extended polar bear watch has nothing to do than - well, watch.
And as the landing comes to an end, the bear also gets up and strolls away. Show is over, for her and for us. Now we are headed for the South of Edgeøya, see what happens tomorrow!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Sparkling glacier ice

So we were on the way down south to Bellsund with high speed, doing 14.5 knots! The plan was to arrive about 15 o’clock in Recherchefjorden, but what to do until then? The team of MV Fram put up lectures, so first we could dive into the geology of Svalbard with Steffen – and yes, geology rocks! For the german speakers, Manuel together with Ralf told us the little secrets about the feathered creatures flying around on Svalbard. And from the birds it went straight on to Svalbards hunters – the trappers! 
But if you now think, that was all a looong time ago – compared with some age of the glaciers on Svalbard that’s nothing! Also this we learnt this morning.. So, but enough about lectures and learning, it was time to get off the ship! But… what was awaiting us when we were arriving at Recherchefjorden? A polar bear… The white fellow was luckily not very interested in us and still quite far away, so we could do the landing! And what a landing: right in front of the glacier on the terminal moraine we got dropped off by the polar circle boats! From far we could hear the glacier’s calving – and all the big pieces of glacier ice on the sandy moraine pit looked sparkled crystal clear and looked just beautiful! 
We were wandering around, of course watching the polar bear from a safe distance and we encountered its traces all over the place on the sand! How big they were, impressive! On the side of the mountains we could clearly see the lateral moraine of the glacier, so where we were actually standing it was all glacier – which was quite impressive to see as well! The time went quick and soon it was time to leave this marvelous place – not without 5 bags full of garbage we collected on the shoreline!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Nature of Expedition

If it weren’t for the ice one would really have a doubt: Are we really in the highest Arctic??
The morning finds us with immaculate blue skies, mild temperatures above 5 degrees celsius and literally no wind at all. No need for the big sweater - “why did I bring all these warm clothes…?” 
But then again, just look ahead. We are using the morning hours to hover in front of one of the most majestic glaciers in Svalbard, the Monacobreen. Named after Prince Albert of Monaco (the older), who was an ardent fan of the Arctic and financed many costly enterprises to explore the beauty of this barren world. Well, we can only wish he had one single day like we are having today!
But that was only the beginning. High north as we are, we definitely like to have an audience with the King of this beautiful place. So all binoculars are propped to keen eyes, every bright rock, log, dirty snow patch is a suspect for a short moment.
But no, it seems like Master Bear doesn’t want to be seen today, not in the pretty labyrinth of Andøyane, neither on the expanses of ice that lie north of this.
Well, patience is a virtue…
After a while we see the flat silhouette of Moffen ahead of us, usually a reliable resting place for walrus, but of course we are a little skeptical now. However, on approach we see a medium-size group of the brown “monster sausages” on the beach, the tusks gleaming white in the sun.
But what is this? One of the big logs on the land spit is suddenly starting to move and raise its head. Round white ears, black nose big neck - a polar bear!
And indeed, the massive male gets to its feet and walks leisurely across the island, right past all the camera lenses that are pointed at it. We have our first bear…
And now it’s ice time. While a week ago we had to move another 25 miles north to find the ice edge, we see the white stripe on the horizon after only half an hours ride.
The pack ice stretches from horizon to horizon.
Now Expedition Leader Karin plays a trump ace: We launch the Polar Cirkel Boats and start a cruise into the pack ice with everybody. Sometimes it looks as if the boats are totally engulfed by the ice floes and will never make it out again. But that is of course an illusion, all drivers and staff are experienced and safely bring everyone back to FRAM. 
As the light of the evening imbues the whole world in soft colors we start heading for the Hinlopen Strait to continue the tour around Spitsbergen. But today we encounter a surprising obstacle - the ice itself. So much of it has accumulated at the entrance of the strait in the last to days that it is absolutely impossible to pass. Here goes the circumnavigation…
But it would be only half the fun if everything were foreseeable, wouldn’t it?
Immediately a plan B is forged, so we turn the ship around and start heading down the west coast to get to a place that we normally don’t have the time to visit, Bellsund.
That’s what we mean when we tell you at the beginning of our journey: You’re not on holiday - you’re on expedition…

Friday, 8 August 2014

First Cruise Day

First cruise day! And we woke up surrounded by beautiful blue bits and pieces of glacier ice from the Kongsvegen and Kongsglacier.  
14 lucky ones tied on their crampons and went for a fantastic glacier hike on the Conway-Glacier. 
All the others visited this morning Ny Ålesund, one of the world`s northernmost year-round communities, with about 150 mostly scientists, living there during the summer months (in the winter there are about 30 people). Since 1964, so 50 years already, Ny Ålesund is now a science “town”, but it`s full of mining history as well, as this was the start of the place, when Kings Bay Coal Company initiated mining in 1917.
Several mining accidents with a severe happening November 5, 1962 when 21 miners got killed lead to the closing of the place as a mining community. A white painting of a coffin on a harbor hall still marks that tragedy.. We were heading further into “town” and discovered the old school, the Nordpolhotel, the Svedrup Station and also the house of the famous polar expeditioner Roald Amundsen! He came there in 1925 to make an attempt to reach the Northpole by seaplane, but did not succeed, as they had to do an emergency landing about 136 nautical miles apart from the Pole. Nevertheless, Amundsen started a second attempt with the airship “Norge” and this time they succeeded! But as tragedy is tragedy, he died on the way to rescue his earlier fellow Nobile, who went to the Pole with the Airship “Italia” in 1928. How much history in this tiny town somewhere high up in the Arctic!

In the afternoon we dropped our anker in front of the majestic mountains in Magdalenefjorden, one of the most beautiful spots on Spitsbergen. Beside a just magnificent landscape with high mountains and tall glaciers, this place also tells a lot a bit of a story: one of the largest burial grounds for whalers on Spitsbergen can be found here, with at least 130 graves. But on Trinity harbor something really “alive” happened: Some of us went for a polar plunge! In 2°C “warm?” water the brave hearts went for a dive, neither afraid of the cold, nor the “Greenland Shark”! ;). 
A bit further away, we had a nice view on a bay on the westside of Gullybreen, where we`ve seen walruses lying on the shoreline, digesting and resting. Back on board we went for dinner and did as the walruses, while watching the beautiful scenery passing by as we went through Sørgattet. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Would you wanna know...

What your Expedition Team is doing in the few hours that they have on Thursdays?Thursday is the day where we have to be quick in every respect - It’s changeover day for MS FRAM in Svalbard, starting with the farewell to the guests who have shared our adventures for one week. Then they are gone and we dig out the to-do-lists.
So many things, so little time…
But first things first: Training with the rifle is imperative in this line of work, so everybody has to go. Every week. Period.
But then again, rifle training is also fun.
Then there is the shopping, toothpaste, shaving foam, tea, coffee, maybe some crackers. Our hotel manager comes out of the shop with bags full of wool for the next knitting frenzy.
OK, our food on board is great, no doubt. But every once in a while you just crave for something different - a huge piece of crusty pizza for example.
At the same time it’s meeting friends. Feels a little odd, having to rush the conversation because we have to go back to the ship. But that’s thaw way things go in this business, it never sleeps, it never stops.
Just after lunchtime the luggage for the new guests arrives at the ship, has to be sorted labeled and brought to the cabins.
And not so long after the buses with the “future bluejackets” pull up on the pier.
After a few hours of civilization it is: Here we go again, ready for a new adventure!

And, friends of the Blog: We will be out of connection in a few hours, no chance to do anything about it.
See you on Monday night!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Was it All Just a Dream...?

Early this morning MS Fram sailed towards the distinct landmark Alkhornet which leads in to Isfjorden. We couldn't let a mountain like that go to waste so of course we had to go on shore. Alkhornet is a part of the long bay called Trygghamna. Trygghamna means «safe harbour» and indeed it is, with all its tall mountains surrounding it and keeping it sheltered from the weather. After several days of sun we are starting to get quite spoiled, but I won't forget to mention it in this post as well. We had amazing weather today as well, and that is something that you don't get served on a silver platter on Svalbard.
Some of the guests chose to experience Trygghamna by kayaking along the shore deeper in to the bay. Some tried kayaking for the first time and after an educational trip to the lunchspot the guide had a surprise that he had been talking about. Then he brings out some good norwegian chocolate, that is all good, but was that really the surprise?  Suddenly he takes up an accordion and starts playing songs from all the countries which were represented in the kayak group. What a guide!
The others enjoyed a nice walk under Alkhornet. With its steep mountainsides, it houses a massive amount of birds and when you are standing under it you see them all flying back and forth over your head. And where there are birds there is bird poop, and where there is bird poop there is fertile soil, and where there is fertile soil there is a lot of flowers and vegetation which attracts the reindeers. During the walk you could see several reindeers walking around and eating, totally unaffected by our presence.
This trip has gone by so quickly because suddenly we were in the lounge listening to the Captain and the crew saying good bye to us. Has this been a dream? Somebody pinch my arm because this feels so unreal. A part of going on an expediton cruise is the excitement.You don't know what kind of weather you will get or what you will see. Svalbard is not a zoo or a museum, and that's  the beauty of Svalbard. You can see the cultural remains in their original place and really get a feeling of how they lived up here in the earlier days.  Mother nature is the boss up here and seeing how she has shaped the landscape and how the nature with its animals and birds are in balance gives you a greater understanding and connection to nature and the Arctic that is difficult to explain. This has truly been the voyage of a lifetime and you don't know what you are missing out on unless you go there yourself!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Sound of Magic - Horn Sound

Well, we must have done something right, very right…
The skies are bright blue and clear as we stop the ship deep inside the Austre (Eastern) Burgerbukta. It is one of the side fjords of Hornsund, the Horn Sound. Not a breeze, gentle 7 degrees - are we really in the Arctic…?
Whatever, the conditions are more than perfect for a hike. Well, not just a hike, but a real piece of expedition: With 24 bold people we set out in the eastern flank of the fjord to make our way across the difficult terrain and up the moraine slopes.
That means balancing on boulders, crawling up the loose material that is giving way under our feet, crossing snow fields and muddy areas.
Truly no walk in the park. But our efforts are rewarded by the most magnificent views you probably can get here, and that says a lot. The majesty of the surrounding mountains and glaciers is breathtaking (well, the hike is, too…).
And after a great many photo stops, after 3 hours of scrambling, we arrive back at the beach, where we are picked up by the boats.
What a morning! And, man, are we hungry!!! Fortunately, we are welcomed aboard with a delicious barbecue, so we eat a lot - outside, just in front of the glacier.
One thing the hikers didn’t see was polar bears. This is not a complaint, a glacier moraine is not the place where you want to meet them.
But this doesn’t meant there are not around: Only half an hour after FRAM moves deeper into Hornsund we see two of them, on the ice and swimming. And this time we got really close, as if the day wasn’t good enough already.
Time to leave the fjord, now we go out further at sea, to a special place: The continental drop-off. What sounds like an accident-prone place is rather our best shot to spot whales. It is the place where the continental plateau of Svalbard dives deep into the ocean. The resulting cold currents provide a lot of food for marine animals, so often they gather in these parts. The conditions again are perfect, all we can do is hope.
But alas, this evening we are not lucky, the gentle giants won’t show up. Maybe this is faith telling us “Hey folks, you had so many sensations on this trip, why not leave a few for the ones after you…?”
Never mind, everybody had a blast at the hilarious MV FRAM crew show the same night.