Wednesday 31 August 2011

Alkehornet & Skansebukta

 Our first landing of the day was at Alkehornet.  As usual there was a large heard of approximately 30 reindeer grazing peacefully throughout much of the landing site.  This is a mixed heard of young calves with their mothers and males of various ages.  Some of the males had a very impressive rack of antlers.  Several of the males were in the process of shedding the velvet from their antlers.  You could see the soft velvety skin hanging in ragged patches.  The antlers appeared bloody red where the skin had recently been shed.
They were not at all bothered by our presence.  They would often wander within 3 or 4 metres of camera bearing people much to the photographer's delight.
The morning was completely overcast.  A chilly damp wind blew constantly while we were ashore.  Despite the cool air it was wonderful to stroll about this very peaceful site.  For those who enjoyed views from on high there was a nice vantage point a little closer to the nesting Kittiwakes.
Once and a while a trio of birds would go rocketing by at Exocet speeds.  Parasitic Jaegers chasing young Kittiwakes and sometimes seen chasing Puffins.  We weren't sure if this was pure harassment or if the Jaegers were sometimes successful.  
At 17:30 we all met in the Observation where the Captain gave a nice speech about what a successful trip we had enjoyed.  We raised a glass of champagne or fruit juice to toast our voyage which was followed by the MS Fram choir singing for everyone. 
In the early evening at 18:30 we landed at Skansebukta (one of my favourite sites!).  It was still damp and overcast.  The ghost of a feeble sun struggled behind the clouds. Despite the date, autumn is settling in here in Svalbard.
A few of the hardier souls chose to hike up to a small but beautiful waterfall at the vertical cliff face.  Suddenly, midway through the landing we heard a series of very loud gun shots.  The sound reverberated off opposing sides of the fjord.  We soon discovered that two people from Longyearbyen were engaged in some target practice.
Back on the ship the hotel staff had prepared a really great bbq for everyone.  There was a light rain falling so most people chose to eat there meal in the Observation Lounge.  It was a nice way to wrap up a fantastic voyage.

Tuesday 30 August 2011


Polar Bear scat!!!
Because of the great distance involved we were not due to arrive at our landing site at Gnålodden until later in the afternoon.  It was a perfect day for scenic cruising and just about everywhere you go in Svalbard is scenic.  We had partly cloudy skies and calm weather throughout the day.  Partly cloudy also means partly sunny.  It was a day to put a smile on your face.
Mornings or afternoons without landings are never wasted on board Fram.  We always use that time to continue with our lecture series.  This morning was no different. We had lectures on several topics in English and German as well as showing two different documentaries.
I need a thesaurus to come up with new words to describe the scenery in Svalbard.  Gnålodden and the bird cliff, Gnålberget are spectacular. I believe I have also used all of the following synonyms for spectacular when describing Svalbard: stunning, incredible, amazing, fantastic, fabulous, magnificent, brilliant, dramatic, dazzling, breathtaking, astonishing, marvelous, wonderful and exciting.  Take your pick.  They all work.

At 14:30 we hopped into the Polar Cirkel boats and enjoyed a short ride through lots of small bergy bits to a gravel beach.  Looming impressively overhead were the lofty bird cliffs of Gnålberget.  Thousands of Kittiwakes, called shrilly. The cliffs seemed to amplify the sound.  There were also a lot of Northern Fulmars still soaring about the cliffs as well as the occasional Puffin and Arctic Skua.
In one area of the landing site there was so much bear dung that it more resembled a cow pasture than a scene visited by Polar Bears beneath a remote sea bird colony.  Most of the scat was relatively fresh.  This information put the Expedition Team on high alert.  Before long the Team spotted a lone bear on a large ice floe about a kilometre away.  With good binoculars you could see that the bear was busily eating a seal.  The bear posed no immediate danger so we continued with the landing operation.  After about an hour the bear hopped into the water.  It appeared to have no destination in mind as it seemed to swim aimlessly about.  Perhaps it needed to bath after feasting on the seal.  Regardless, after about twenty minutes the bear went back to the same ice floe and continued with its fine meal of seal.
Meanwhile on the other side of the landing site, an Arctic Fox came very close to some people and was even chewing on the boot of one of the Expedition Team.  Amazing!
Many people chose to go high up on a grass covered scree slope where they could view the sea birds better and where they also had good viewing of both Barnacle Geese and Pink-footed Geese.
By 17:30 the last Polar Cirkel boat had left the shore and soon after, Fram was under way again.  At 19:15 there was an announcement that several large whales had been seen on the horizon.  We changed course and headed for the whales.  As we got closer we could see that it was two feeding Fin Whales, the second largest animals to have lived.  The whales were feeding right at the surface.  At times we could see them roll onto their sides with their mouths wide open in a feeding lunge.
We stayed with the whales for 45 minutes before going back on course.  Perhaps we would encounter more whales on route.

Monday 29 August 2011

Bear City!!

This morning we went Polar Bear watching from the Polar Cirkel boats.  If you’re not jealous, you should be.  It was an incredible experience.  We had heard reports of a whale carcass washed up on shore.  Knowing that whale carcasses attract Polar Bears we decided to investigate.  As we approached the northern shore on Edgeøya in Freemansundet we counted at least thirteen bears!
There was hardly anything left of the whale. Along the shoreline you could see scattered vertebrae, many of them still connected to one another.  There were large jaw and rib bones and other unidentifiable bits of the skeleton. It was a baleen whale but we couldn’t get close enough to tell which species.  That had something to do with the seven Polar Bears in the immediate vicinity of the carcass.  It was much larger than a Minke Whale and smaller than an adult Fin Whale. 
I pictured a scenario where the whale had died at sea from unknown causes.  Eventually it would have bloated and then floated from gases formed in the body cavity.  Then, like all the drift wood in the area, it was probably deposited by currents on this remote beach.
It looked like most of the meat and blubber had been stripped clean, yet these nearly bare bones were still enough to attract at least thirteen Polar Bears.  That tells you something about how little food there is in this area at this time of year for the bears. Most of the bears looked to be in reasonable shape.  There was however, one very skinny adult bear that appeared rather weak. It waited lying submissively near the whale bones. At times it would get up and half-heartedly paw and sniff at the remains.  There didn’t appear to be enough to interest even this starving bear.
Later in the morning a rather plump female bear lumbered down to the beach.  She was wearing a large tracking collar.  She plopped herself down beside part of the carcass resting her head on the vertebrae thereby proclaiming to the other bears in the area, “this is mine.”
Expedition Team getting ready at Kapp Lee
The bears were not bothered by us in the Polar Cirkel boats.  Indeed, they mostly ignored us.  It was unlikely that we were their first visitors.  By 13:00 almost everyone on the ship had seen the bears including many of the crew. 
In the late afternoon we landed at a beautiful spot called Kapp Lee which was further south and west on the Island of Edgeøya. Once again there was the reminder of the extensive hunting that happened in Svalbard.  The area above the beach is littered with old Walrus bones.  On the north end of the beach you could see the tracks in the sand where Walruses had recently been hauled out, perhaps even earlier this same day.
Walrus bones at Kapp Lee
Just above the landing site were three small huts.  One of the huts was in an interesting octagonal shape that had been used by Norwegian trappers. 
View from 279 metres at Kapp Lee
We had the options of going on a short or long hike.  The Expedition Team stressed the importance of walking in single file, especially in the wet muddy areas.  Despite their warnings of the possibility of getting stuck knee deep in the mud, several people wandered off the preferred track and needed rescuing from the sucking sludge.
The long hike continued up a dry, easy slope on the back side of the cliffs of Kapp Lee.  Along the way we could see reindeer grazing on distant slopes and even found several fossil fragments. At the top we had a fantastic view where we gathered for a group photo.  The hike took three hours to complete.  This time, on the way back, everyone made sure to stay in single file through the muddy areas!

Sunday 28 August 2011

Kinnvika, Alkefjellet & Torellneset

Polar Cirkel boat ride to the beach at Kinnvika
 Although we reached our most northerly point yesterday (81˚29’N), we are still very high in the Arctic.  Our landing this morning at Kinnvika in Murchisonfjorden was at 80˚00’ N.  That’s only 600 nautical miles (690 land miles, 1,111 kilometres) from Santa’s house (he lives at the North Pole and not in Greenland, as some people from Greenland and Denmark would have you believe).
Helicopter used by researchers at Kinnvika
And as you might expect we are experiencing Arctic temperatures.  When we landed at 08:30 the air temperature was 2˚C with a thirteen-knot wind blowing on shore.  Factoring in the wind chill, we were experiencing –11˚C.  It was a tad chilly.  With the cooler weather it made it easier to imagine what it might be like to stay here for an extended period like the many scientists did in the first International Geophysical Year in 1957.
Historic buildings at Kinnvika
Nine of the eleven buildings they constructed for that project still stand today.  The men stationed at Kinnvika were studying many things including geomagnetism, atmospheric chemistry, observations of the sun, the ionosphere, geomagnetism, aurora and cosmic rays.  They were a small but important part of a global research project involving 60,000 scientists from 60 nations.
Like the air and the clouds above us, the landscape was cold and grey.  We meandered through the science ghost town and into the Arctic Tundra beyond.  We walked on sharp shards of rock that had been splintered and shattered by the freezing, melting and refreezing of water countless times over countless millennia.
In the afternoon we cruised along the incredible sea bird cliffs of Alkefjellet from the comfort of Fram.  The water was deep where the cliffs met the sea enabling us to come very close to the rock face.  Black-legged Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Puffins perched precariously on thousands of tiny ledges.  A confusion of birds filled the sky.  How they avoided avian collisions was beyond my ken.
Soon after the amazing cliffs of Alkefjellet Fram cautiously approached the low sandy beach at Torellneset where a group of about twenty male walruses were hauled out in a tight thigmotactic cluster.  To have such an extraordinary opportunity to witness these splendid animals in such a wild and remote location was indeed a very special privilege.
We still had many miles to sail through the night so after about fifteen minutes we went back on course moving steadily eastward on the northern section of  our circumnavigation of Svalbard.

Saturday 27 August 2011

"We Saw A White Beare"

“The 12th of June in the morning, wee saw a white beare, which wee rowed after with our boate, thinking to cast a rope about her necke; but when wee were neare her, shee was so great that wee durst not doe it.”
Willem Barents’ journal entry from his 1596 voyage.

Today was a rather special day in our voyage in the Arctic for several reasons: 
  1. We reached our furthest point north: 81˚29’00” N (Yippee!).
  2. We found the pack ice and cruised along the pack (very cool).
  3. We found a beautiful big male Polar Bear in the pack ice almost right away (double yippee!).
  4. We saw many Harp Seals and a few Bearded Seals in the open pack ice.
  5. We all went for a cruise in the Polar Cirkel boats in the open pack ice (fantastic!)
  6. It was an absolutely beautiful day. Clear blue skies and no wind.

We went to bed last night knowing that the ice charts showed the edge of the pack ice a little further north than what we could realistically reach.  Therefore it was a very pleasant surprise this morning when the announcement came from the bridge that ice could be seen on the horizon.  As we approached the pack ice, we could see many Harp Seals along the ice edge and in openings in the pack.  Very soon a Polar Bear was spotted roaming along the edge of the ice.  The Captain slowly maneuvered Fram closer to the bear.  We could see the bear jumping from one ice floe to the next.  At times it would lie down and then roll luxuriously in the snow, a behaviour which Polar Bears often indulge in after swimming.  Soon the bear noticed Fram sneaking up on it, but it didn’t seem very concerned.  It lay on the ice for awhile, stretching, yawning, rolling about and then it leisurely got up and slowly strolled away from the ship, deeper into the pack ice.  Everyone had ample opportunity to great views of the bear.
At 12:30 we dropped the Polar Cirkel boats into the water.  With clear skies and no wind, the conditions for cruising in the ice were perfect.  It was magical.  We were in the home of the Polar Bear. 

After a while our driver stopped and turned the engine off. It was a strange and beautiful environment.  It was wonderful to just sit quietly and listen.  The only sounds were those of the slapping of waves against ice floes and the occasional bumping and grating noises of the ice.  It was quiet and peaceful. But as we have seen throughout the summer, cloudy days are more common than warm sunny days.  Picture a few weeks from now when a snowy gale comes screaming through here with 50 knot winds. Ursus Maritimus belongs here, we don’t.  It is as comfortable in a cold windy snow bank as we are in the jacuzzi on Fram. This is a place that, were we left on our own, that same cute and cuddly bear would eat us, or we would quickly die from exposure. 

Friday 26 August 2011

Swimming At 80˚... That's Not the Temperature!

Flat calm.  Those words are a balm. It means life on the ship is a lot easier.  It means the decks are horizontal and they will stay that way. It means the water in the jacuzzi stays in there.  It means the soup boiling in the galley will stay in the pot until served.  It means walking in a straight line unless you’ve been in the Observation Lounge too long.  It means breakfast stays where it belongs.  Generally while cruising in Svalbard we have calm seas.  If you’re thinking of coming with us in Greenland or Svalbard you don’t have to be too concerned about sea sickness.
This morning at 09:30 we met in the Observation Lounge where the Captain gave a short welcome speech and introduced us to key members of the ship.  We toasted the start of our voyage with a glass of champagne.  Then it was the Expedition Leader, Karin Strand’s turn, to introduce her staff.
While all of the introductions were going on we enjoyed a panoramic view of the superb scenery in Kongsfjorden on our approach to Ny-Ålesund. The flat calm sea mirrored the surrounding mountains and glaciers.  It was a beautiful morning.
At 10:00 we walked down the gangway and assembled on the pier in language groups.  As soon as everyone was gathered, we were lead on a short guided tour of Ny-Ålesund by the Expedition Team.  After the tour, we had lots of time to explore on our own. Many people took advantage of the world’s most northerly post office to send a few post cards. There is also an excellent museum depicting the history of the mining era in Ny-Ålesund and a really good information centre with interactive displays.
At 13:00 the gangway was raised and Fram departed Ny-Ålesund. At the same time the Expedition Team organized two “boot rental shops” on decks two and three.  Anyone that wanted could rent a pair of the ship’s excellent Muck Boots for the duration of the cruise for a small fee.  At 14:30 we all attended a mandatory safety drill outside on deck five.
We enjoyed really excellent scenic cruising in the afternoon and were also able to attend a couple of lectures.  At 17:30 we dropped the anchor in Trinity Harbour.  This morning had been completely overcast but now there were blue patches of sky showing.  The glaciers and mountains surrounding our landing site at Gravneset took it in turns to be bathed in sunlight.  Speaking of bathing, many people went for a popsicle plunge.  The beach at Gravneset is beautiful soft sand.  Anyone crazy enough, er... brave enough, to go for a dip, has no fear of stepping on sharp rocks.  You can get in and out of the water in about a nanosecond.  I bet it still felt like an eternity.
The Expedition Team stationed themselves at key points of interest at this historic site.  The site was manned from the point of view of monitoring for Polar Bears but the Team was readily available to dispense information about the centuries of whaling that took place here or to answer any questions anyone might have regarding the geology or the biology of the area.
The hotel staff set up a mini-bar on the beach with a selection of hot and cold beverages available.  I am sure it was a welcome tonic to the crazy, (oops) I mean  enthusiastic swimmers.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Turnover Days

Turnover days. Not the Sarah Lee type of apple turnover but the passenger ship sort of day when the people from the previous trip leave and the people from the new trip arrive.  It’s a busy day for us on Fram.  All of the cabins have to be stripped of towels and bedding, cleaned and re-supplied.  The galley takes on new provisions particularly fresh produce.  The ship takes on fuel. Every department on Fram is busy preparing for the new voyage.  Phew! It’s a lot of work.  Generally we have less than eight hours to make the ship completely ready for our new guests.  But we manage every single time.
Pier in Barentsburg
Your first day when you join the ship is generally pretty busy too.
You have to check out of the hotel and leave your luggage in a secure room.  You have the information session in the morning.  Then lunch.  Then right after lunch there is a nice three hour tour of Longyearbyen.  That brings us to 16:30 when you are finally brought to the harbour and board Fram.  And we are ready for you!  (why did you think you had that three hour tour?  ;^)
Happy smiling crew members greet you as you board the ship on deck three.  At reception you are issued a ship I.D. card and your cabin key card and then escorted to your cabin where your luggage has arrived ahead of you. 
Weather proof blue jackets are handed out to everyone by the Expedition Team on deck four in the café.  Many people choose that time to register their credit cards at reception.  Before you know it, the dining room is open and you are treated to the first of many excellent meals prepared by chef Jan Olé and his incredible team in the galley.  I never really thought about it before, but it’s an all male crew in the galley.  They are a great bunch of guys and are all expert at their jobs.
One of the many colourful billboards in Barentsburg!
Here’s a buffet tip for you.  The dinner plates are really large. Be careful.  By the end of the voyage you may have to loosen your belt by  a notch or two.  And please don’t hesitate to have a really delicious dessert at lunch and at dinner.  They are all low cal’ desserts.  If you believe that, I have some property you might be interested in buying.
At approximately 20:00 we pulled up alongside the dock in Barentsburg. Once the gangway was secured on deck two we assembled on the pier in language groups.  We then proceeded up the 252 steps to the beautiful Barentsburg theatre where we were entertained by a fabulous show of Russian folk dancing and singing.
Is it a hovercraft or a spaceship?
Playground in Barentsburg.
After the show we met again in language groups and enjoyed a tour of the highlights of Barentsburg led by a local Russian guide.
By 23:00 we were all back on board, tired but exhilarated by all of the new experiences and adventure of the day.    

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Alkehornet, Skansebukta & A BBQ!

The white cliffs of Alkehornet
The triangular white cliff face of Alkehornet is unmistakeable.  To some, the cliffs resemble the shape of a large horn.  It is the site of one of the world's largest colonies of Little Auks, hence the name Alkehornet.  At this time of year the Little Auks have already gone out to sea.  There were still hundreds of raucous Black-legged Kittiwakes flying about and perched high up on the cliff face. 
Alkehornet framed by the window of an
old ruined trapper's hut.
We were free to roam around a huge area.  The Expedition Team was stationed around the landing site at key spots for the interpretation of the history, geology and biology of the location and also to keep a watchful eye out for bears.
Small ship wreck on the beach at Skansebukta
There has been a large herd of approximately thirty Reindeer here over the summer.  Since this is a fairly heavily visited site it is not surprising that the Reindeer have become habituated to the presence of people.  It was often possible to approach the Reindeer within a few metres without disturbing them.  They were all in fantastic shape getting ready for the leaner times in the winter.  Right now the vegetation around Alkehornet is still lush and green. 
Our next landing was not scheduled until 18:30 which meant there was lots of time to attend some lectures in the afternoon.
Even though the second landing of the day was a late landing, no one missed the opportunity to go on shore in Spitsbergen one last time.  
I keep writing that the scenery at each landing site is impressive, stunning, amazing, awesome.  Pick your adjective.  The fact of the matter is, I'm not exaggerating!  The cliffs on both sides of the fjord are stupendous.  Really impressive.  It is also the site of another large seabird colony.  Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Puffins busily fly to and from the cliffs.  There is a beautiful beach for a leisurely stroll.  It was also possible to hike way up to the bottom of the vertical cliff face.  Hidden beneath the touring cliffs was a beautiful little gem of a waterfall.  About thirty people made the arduous climb to the waterfall and were rewarded with a spectacular view.
Meanwhile, back on the ship, the hotel staff had prepared a delicious bbq for everyone on deck 7 at the stern of the vessel.  All those that had hiked to the waterfall could have an extra dessert guilt free!
Yup.  It had been a very long day but what a great way to wrap up our Arctic adventure.  We can all sleep in when we get home!

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Ytre Norskeøya and Gravneset

The cloud layer was so low and substantial this morning you felt as if you might bump your head as you walked about the shore at Ytre Norskeøya.  Ralf, our tallest Expedition Team member was convinced it was fog and not cloud.  All a question of perspective I guess.  Nevertheless the air was damp and chilly.  The pervasive low cloud rendered the rocky landscape in soft shadowless tones of greys, greens and browns.  The heavy atmosphere seemed fitting for this particular location.  The northwest corner of Svalbard  saw some of the heaviest whaling activity in the archipelago. At Ytre Norskeøya there are the remains of nine blubber ovens and 165 whalers.  While there weren’t any shadows walking the land today, one could feel the presence of the whalers still stirring their giant copper pots of boiling whale oil.  It took little imagination to picture an industrious scene of slaughter and hardship driven by commerce. Still, it was difficult to identify with the lives of men from 300 years ago.  I couldn’t help wondering what will people think of us 300 years hence? Undoubtedly we will appear vastly more primitive to future generations than the whalers do to us.
The visibility improved slowly throughout the landing. We enjoyed a great hike to a prominent view point where we could overlook the whaler’s final resting point.  Far below we could see the Polar Cirkel boats busily shuttling people to and from the ship.  While we were on shore the wind picked up.  It was a wet and bumpy ride back to the ship.
Beautiful evening light at Gravneset
While we cruised towards our next landing site, rays of sunshine punched blue holes through the cloud.  What a difference.  In the morning everything was cold and wet.  In the afternoon it was cheery blue skies and warm sunshine for our landing at Gravneset.
Trinity harbour at Gravneset
Gravneset is also the final resting place of many whalers.  With warm sunshine and grand scenery, the atmosphere here was not as oppressive as in the morning.  We could see the Expedition Team set on the perimeter of the landing site keeping a watchful eye out for wayward bears. We were free to wander about a very large area.  Over the years visitors have disturbed the graves, taken artifacts and have left important messages such as “so-and-so was here”. To protect further damage the entire gravesite is now a protected area.

Behind the graveyard at Gravneset

Monday 22 August 2011

Monacobreen & Jotunkjeldene

We were due to go cruising in the Polar Cirkel boats along the Monaco Glacier front at 08:30 but heavy fog and thick ice delayed our starting time.  The Expedition Team first made a trial run. Using hand held GPS’s they were able to safely navigate to the glacier and back to the ship without incident. The announcement was made that we would go ahead as planned and soon the first boats headed into the fog. Closer to the glacier the fog parted revealing all 5 kilometres of the terminus of Monaco Glacier.  As is usually the case when fog settles in, there was nary a whisper of wind.
Around 10:00 the fog lifted giving us 100% visibility once again. Monaco seemed to be calving more than usual this morning.  Many of us saw and heard large chunks of blue ice fall into the sea with a thundering splash.  Each time Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls would flock to the site of the fallen ice in the hopes that a tasty morsel had been stirred to the surface.
It took over four hours to give everyone a chance to go cruising through the ice but by 13:30 everyone was back on the ship and we headed off in the direction of Jotunkjeldene in Bockfjorden -  the site of our afternoon landing.

If you are a geologist you might fall in love with the land surrounding the geothermal hotsprings of Jotunkjeldene. Beautiful glaciers circle the landing site.  Deep red mountains are nearby to the east and the Sverrefjell volcano is in the south.    A variety of wild flowers were still in bloom including Golden Whitlow Grass and Svalbard poppy.  Everywhere there were signs of Reindeer and on the opposite shore we could see three Polar Bears!  Wow!  What a place.

As we departed at 20:00 Fram cruised nearer the shore with the Polar Bears to get a better look.  Sure enough, a mother bear with one cub were close enough to the shore line where we could see them whilst enjoying our dinner in the dining room!  Incredible.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Ny-Ålesund & Fjortende Julibukta

This cone of silence works!
Amazing scenery at Fjortendebukta!
Ny-Ålesund is fascinating for all sorts of reasons.  The first man to successfully reach the north pole by air left from here.  It was probably Roald Amundsen who was also the first person to reach the south pole.  I say probably because on May 9, 1926 Admiral Richard Byrd flew out of Ny-Ålesund in a small aircraft on a mission to be first to fly to the north pole.  He returned 15 hours later claiming that he had achieved just that.  Today historians are somewhat doubtful that Byrd could have been successful. Two days later Roald Amundsen & Umberto Nobile left in a giant airship also hoping to reach the north pole.  The sad thing was that they both thought that Byrd had already beaten them to the pole by air.  Amundsen and Nobile were quite possibly the first people to fly over the north pole making Amundsen the first person at the north and south poles.
The glacier calves very often at Fjortendebukta.
There are more fascinating stories forever connecting Ny-Ålesund with heroes and victims of polar exploration.  There are also sad stories linking Ny-Ålesund to the deaths of many coal miners in the 1950s and the early sixties.  It was after the last terrible mining accident where 21 miners died that the coal mines in Ny-Ålesund were shut down forever. 
Since 1964 Ny-Ålesund has been a site of world wide importance in terms of Arctic research.  There are ten nations with permanent research facilities and several more nations join in the Arctic science party in the summer.  The populations swells from 30 people in the winter to 150 in the summer.  Today we increased that number by about 230 people.  The Expedition Team guided us through the science village in small groups.  It was really great to hear about the stories of polar exploration.  Most of us walked out to the 30 metre tall mast where the giant airships were once tehered.
Many people chose to buy some souvenirs in the gift shop or to explore the museum and the information centre.  Still others went to the northern most post office in the world to put a stamp on their cards.
At 11:00 everyone was back on board and we set sail for Fjortende Julibukta.
Fjortende Julibukta is one of my personal favourite landing sites.  There is lots of wildlife with Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Puffins and Guillemots nesting high in the cliffs.  There are often Reindeer roaming about.  There Arctic Skuas and Glaucous gulls which often predate upon the other bird life. The scenery is fantastic.  There is a large, beautiful glacier at the head of the bay.  The glacier calves regularly, so there is often the booming sound of falling ice.
It has an easy beach to land on and a nice flat area to explore.  There is even a neat geological feature often referred to as the cave of silence.  A slight indentation in the slope below the seabird cliff cuts out all of the sound from the noisy birds high above.  It was like shutting a sound proof door.  Amazing!  Lots of people chose to walk right down to the glacier and up on the lateral moraine where they had excellent views of the river of ice.  I doubt that there was anyone that didn’t enjoy this landing site immensely.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Recherche Glacier

Wing of a Black-legged Kittiwake

More wind.  As has been said many times before in this blog, we don’t mind rain and we don’t mind snow. Cold temperatures are of little concern but wind, wind is not our friend.  We can land if it is raining or snowing but we can’t go on shore in high winds.  Guess what we had today? Yup.  High winds all day long.  Wind creates high seas which can make it very difficult to operate Polar Cirkel boats safely.  The little boats can handle pretty big seas but things become very, shall we say, challenging at the tender pit.  Then there would be big surf on shore.  It’s not at lot of fun getting people in and out of the boats in surf.  And then there would be the wet ride to and from shore.  Not exactly heaps of fun either.  So, sometimes like today, it is an easy call to abort a landing.  This was the second time we were blown out of Vårsolbukta in Bellsund.  We quickly realized that our planned afternoon landing at Bamsebu in Bellsund would not work either due to the direction of the wind.Plan C:  we would attempt a landing at Recherche Fjord and Recherche Glacier.  Looking at the charts it seemed very likely that this would be a sheltered spot.
As we turned into the eight kilometre long fjord, we could immediately see that this was indeed a protected site from the strong winds.
Deep inside Recherche Fjord, the sea was nearly flat calm. There was an excellent anchorage very close to a large, flat, sandy moraine area which had been left by the receding glacier.  Between the sand flats and the glacier there was a large glacial lagoon running the length of the glacier.
Since the region was so flat, the Expedition Team were able to spread out giving everyone a huge area to explore. On the west side of the landing site were beautiful tall cliffs with nesting Kittiwakes.  The moraine flats were a perfect area to do some animal tracking.  There were tracks of Reindeer, Gulls, Arctic Fox and Polar Bears everywhere, including dinner-plate sized paw prints from a rather large bear.
Like yesterday, it was hard to imagine that the previously planned landing sites would have been better than this. 
We were all back on the ship by 14:00 which left lots of time for a couple of lectures. 
While the winds continued to blow hard, it was not uncomfortable back on board Fram.  For the most part, the seas were catching us on our stern quarter just enough to imbue the ship with a pleasant lazy roll. 

Friday 19 August 2011

Samarinvågen with Bears!

Landing site at Samarinvågen

Today was a day filled with interesting activities on board Fram and a grand adventure on shore.
Glacier beside landing site.
Starting at precisely 09:30 we held a safety drill which is compulsory for all passengers to attend.  When we heard the ship’s alarm signal 7 short followed by one long alarm we put on warm clothes and headed to our muster stations outside on deck 5.  Even numbered cabins assembled on the starboard side and odd numbered cabins went to the port side.  Every single person was checked off on a passenger muster list.  Once everyone was in place we watched a crewman demonstrate how to put on a thermal protection suit and a life vest.  We learned that the life jackets and protection suits were stored at our muster stations.
Immediately following the drill we rendezvoused in the Observation Lounge where the Captain gave a short welcome address and then introduced us to some of the key personnel of the ship.
Karin Strand, the Expedition Leader then introduced the nine members of the Expedition Team.  It was interesting to note that these nine people were from seven different countries!
Mother Polar Bear with cub
At 10:30 we were invited by boat group to try on a pair of Muck boots.  For most of the landings we would be stepping into water so a good pair of rubber boots would be essential.  Muck boots are not only water proof but they are very warm and comfortable.  The boots were available for us to rent for a modest fee.
During the morning we sailed through a gale which put a bit of a roll to the ship.  Most of the time when we sail around Spitsbergen the seas are calm, but this morning was different.  Forty knot winds were ripping the tops off of cresting waves.  The heavy winds meant that our proposed landing at Gnålodden in Hornsund would not work.  Instead we chose to go to the much more sheltered site of Samarinvågen.
It turned out to be to be the right decision for several reasons:  
1. It was a totally sheltered, calm bay. 
2. The sun came out. 
3. There was a beautiful glacier right beside the landing site.
4. Two Polar Bears were about a kilometre away, on top of the glacier!
Everyone got a chance to go on shore to see the bears.  They were far away but with a decent set of binoculars we could see that it was a mother and what looked like a two year old cub.  At times they were playing and at other times they lay down to rest.  It was fabulous to be at a location where we could view the bears safely.  After a couple of hours the bears started moving.  The Expedition Team gathered us closer to the landing site in case the bears decided to come our way.  It seemed however that they were not very interested in us.
We proceeded with the landing in complete safety with the added excitement of bear viewing. Sometimes fate hands us a better choice!