Tuesday 15 June 2010

The "real" start of the season

7th and 8th of June

FRAM awaits her season start in Longyearbyen. While waiting for new supplies, FRAM gets ship shape for the summer season 2010.

9th of June - Longyearbyen/Barentsburg

With almost 200 newly arrived guests from all over the world we leave Longyearbyen at 18.00. The eternal midnight sun sets no constraints for our travelling along the sunlit Icefjord. We are heading towards the Russian coal-mining settlement Barentsburg. For the Russian dance ensemble from Barentsburg the beginning of the season brings a closure to the winter-long preparations resulting in their excellent rendering of a joyful mixture of old and new traditional songs and dances. We thoroughly enjoy this gem of arctic artistic splendor, before we head south to the southern part of Spitsbergen.

10th of June Hornsund - Gnålodden

The old 'English' whaling fjord Hornsund with its eight long-stretched glaciers awaits us with "Kaiserwetter" [emperor's weather] as some of the German passengers on board spontaneously remark. Our landing site this morning, Gnålodden, unveils the majestic and monolithic 'Gnålberget' which constitutes the outermost spur of the long-stretched mountain ridge 'Sofiekammen'. This spectacular view strikes a chord in us that reminds us of the the 'sublime feel' of the grandeur of nature. It needs no mentioning: the abundance of colours and contrasts on this day is beyond words. Directly from sea level, we can marvel at this bird cliff which would be unheard of when traveling in the Alps or other scenic parts of the world.

After having cruised in 'Burgerbukta' we explored 'Brepollen' where the ever-receding glaciers invited for closer scrutiny of this majestic fjord. This day stays in our memory for a long time due to the extraordinary arctic sunlight on this day which is so utterly special for this region of the world.

11th of June Bjørnøya

During the night we have continued further south and left the southernmost headland of Spitsbergen to sail for Bjørnøya. The island where the fog reigns shows mercy on us. Slightly overcast but with good visibility we approach the southern corner of this forlorn island in the early hours of the day and start our tendering along these impressive sedimentary rocks. Their existence hints at the old sea beds that they once served as in prehistoric times. Only a minor swell is left and puts no noteworthy strain on our tender-operations. Thousands of Kittiwakes and Guillemots have started their breeding season and invite us into their universe. At a safe distance we can closely follow their 'to and fro' on the rocky ledges. Some of them point their black plumage towards us probably waiting for some of these scarce arctic sunrays in order to warm their elegant bodies.

Filled with marvelous impressions from this usually wind-torn and mist-covered island between Norway and Spitsbergen we head back in northerly direction.....This time heading for the ice-covered Bellsund in the southern part of this Arctic Archipelago with its secretive ancient Nordic name: "Svalbard".

Saturday12th of June Bellsund

Another day of peak experience has passed in one of Mother Nature’s most northerly cradle on earth. This time we sail for the Bellsund situated at the southern part of Spitsbergen. This day, indeed, is a blessing and one could think of the Danish Poet Piet Hein’s saying: “Living is a thing you do either now or never which do you? And living we did: with our two lungs breathing the cold arctic air in this magnificent labyrinth of fjords which finally brought forth our landing destination ‘Ahlstrandhalvøya’ in the van Keulenfjord. The majestic ice and snow covered mountain ridge of the adjacent ‘Berzeliustinden’ made us feel humble when walking over its low lying and long-stretched plains. They consisted of soft exposed sedimentary layers hinting at the existence of a prehistoric sea-bottom that had risen above the surface due to the age-old melting of Svalbard’s ice sheet. Few troops of barnacle geese set the scene as they fly at a distance between the glittering mountains and our bespoke travelers on this sunny day. Now and again an eerie sound from foraging ‘Common Eider’ at a distance breaks the silence and gives us a feel of ‘civilized’ comfort. At least we are not alone.

Alas, and alone we were not. Particularly due to this one capital polar bear who was trying to swim past the headland across which we had just commenced our stroll. Navigating through the maze of ice-floes he came ever nearer and curiously pointed his nose to us; probably realizing that many tele-lenses had targeted his until recently secretive swim. Following a short pause and somewhat startled he commenced his chosen path through the ice littered fjord continuing his solitary existence.

But not enough we would see a polar bear anew. However, this time showing us his ‘food chamber’ of slaughtered prey hidden carefully behind rocks along the icy coastline. While devouring his recent kill, our hardnosed friend measured our presence only from time to time. However, it was obvious we were dealing with a very confident fellow well aware of his position as the reigning king of this archipelago. It felt sad to say good bye to this spectacular scene. We wished him farewell and headed north ….this time on our way to the infamous northwestern corner of Spitsbergen excited to unveil yet another secret of the captivating past of this part of the world. Bear with us…..it is itching to tell more…..

13th June Magdalenafjord and Moffen

And off we go. In the polar circle boats we are leaving the FRAM behind us to our landing at Gravneset in the Magdalenefjord, the famous resting ground of whalers stretching from the 16th to the 18th century to the infamous whalehunting fjord Magdalenefjord. Puzzlingly, the FRAM appears tiny while it is tightly snuggled into a background of majestic and cathedral-like granite mountain ridges. The eeriness of this place haunts the visitor while learning more about the tragic background of many whalers perishing in these arctic waters. The old story goes that once a Greenland right whale was harpooned the crew in the boat could feel the whirling wind close to their ears. It was of such a breathtaking speed which the fleeing whale showed in his final endeavour to escape his hunters. This was ever so often associated with acute danger for capsize for the whalers in their small auxiliary vessels. The lecture on the Spitsbergen whaling history is captivating, however the erratic weather of Spitsbergen shows its face today and reminds us about the hardship for the earlier pioneers of Spitsbergen. Nevertheless, some of our hardened passengers are unimpressed and take the challenge by showing their elegant (at least some) swimming strokes in icy waters.

Finally towards the evening we reach ‘Moffen’, the tiny windtorn island sporting a walrus colony above 80 degrees northern latitude. From far beyond this area, we can sense the Northpole (600 sm away from us) somewhere out there in the white ‘nothingness’ of the eternal packice.

14th of June Krossfjorden/Ny-Ålesund
FRAM’s early start of the season, means that we still meet some of the inner areas of the fjords which are still icebound. We are flexible enough to change our landing site from the Lillehøkfjorden to the nearby Møllerfjorden and can enjoy a well-received stroll along the icy northerly coastline of this fjord leading us up to close vicinity to the glacierfront of the ‘Kolleerbreen’. Some of us even take the opportunity to follow the ‘sporty’ guides and climb up into the higher regions of the moraines that the receeding glacier had left behind. Some of the impeccably white looking ivory gulls seem to smile at us and wonder what we do up here. The sun lits up the scene and the contrasts of colours are crystal clear. A divine mighty force has made all this, one would think. We can only rest in deep contemplation about the grandeur of nature which meets unfiltered our eyes in this remote fjord.

Cruising the Krossfjorden and the Kongsfjorden we finally arrive at the most northern settlement in the world: Ny-Ålesund. Its reputation as an important research station is witnessed by many nation’s involvement into climate research.

15th June Isfjorden - Skansebukta
The ship arrives on the easterly side of Carls Prince Forland and puts its bow close to ‘Poolepynten’, one of the main destinations of walruss colonies in this archipelago. The thirst for knowledge is unabated also on this day. A cruise in this part of the world inevitably triggers our curiosity about arctic wildlife and the cultural history of the north. Undoubtedly, Norwegian polar history is one important pillar. Today it is abundant opportunity for lectures on various fields spanning from Svalbard’s reindeers year life cyclus to the historical FRAM expedition (1893-1896) led by Fridtjof Nansen. What a miracle that this vessel successfully drifted through the treacherous ice which - as a result- had put Norway on the world map as a leading polar nation.

We continue our journey through the Iceford and for a short while stop by at Pyramiden and come finally to our final anchorage at ‘Skansebukta’: the old gypsum mining place of the early 20th century. Here we enjoy our final landingsite, the prehistoric uplifted seabed on which we stroll around, the surrounding glittering mountains lit by the midnight let us marvel at the sublime wonder of this majestic place.

Sadly this journey comes to an end. There is a certain melancholy amongst us feeling the pending departure and leaving this sublime nature that has made us so very humble and appreciative for Mother Nature. We bid farewell to our newly made friends. Maybe it is the start of a yearning that will bring back some of us one day drawn by the secretive and inexplicable call of the North.