Wednesday 3 August 2011

Virgohamna, Ny-Alesund & A Bear

The hike at Virgohamna
This morning, overcast skies enveloped the rocky terrain in soft shadowless light.  The grey clouds added to the essentially monochrome nature of the land.  A cold light rain was falling as we set foot on a rocky beach not far from the historic site of Virgohamna.  But what is a little rain to grand adventurers such as ourselves?  Ha!  We laugh at the rain. 
Polar Cirkel boat on the way back from Ny-Alesund
We had an option to go on a long hike or to join a shorter beach walk.  In either case we were divided into language groups.  Once everyone from our group was on shore we set off to go exploring.  Each group was accompanied by two members of the Expedition Team.  All of the Expedition Team were carrying high-powered rifles. It was an effective reminder that we were in the home of the Polar Bear. 
We soon came to a vantage point where we enjoyed a nice view of the old whaling station and the famous site where the Swedish Engineer, Salomon August Andrée launched his hot air balloon in 1897 in a tragic attempt to reach the north pole.  We were not able to go right down to Virgohamna as it is protected as an important historic site.  In the distance, we could see not only historic rubble left from the whalers and the aviators, but at least 9 nine Harbor Seals that were hauled out on the opposite shore.
We really had the feeling of exploring.  This was the first time the Expedition Team had taken this particular route.  We were led on a large circuit which eventually took us back to the beach.  The beach was littered with small pink comb jellies (ctenophores) and bits of flotsam and jetsam.  A ten minute stroll brought us back to the waiting Polar Cirkel boats.
Shortly after 10:30 we were all back on the Fram a little damp but exhilarated.  And then, just like the intrepid explorers that tread this land before us, we doffed our gortex and polar fleece layers and headed to the sauna, the jacuzzi, the Bistro and the bar where we could admire the scenery in comfort.
At about 12:20 the announcement came for which we had all been waiting.  A Polar Bear had been spotted!!  Captain Rune Andreasen adroitly stopped Fram and cautiously steered the ship  towards a large adult bear which lay sleeping peacefully in the grass and moss.  In fact it was sleeping so soundly we began to wonder if the bear was sleeping or...  But after a few minutes it raised its massive head and blearily peered in our direction.  What a wonderful sight!  The bear was not bothered at all by our presence.  It rolled over onto its back and then seemed to go asleep once again.  For many people this one ursine encounter was enough to make their trip.
At approximately 16:45 we arrived at the pier in Ny-Ålesund.  The sky was still largely overcast but the rain clouds had moved on.  We were guided through the most northerly settlement in the world in our various language groups.  The Expedition Team informed us about the fascinating history of Ny-Ålesund.  There was the tragic history of the coal mine and the accidents that had happened there.  And there was the equally tragic history of Arctic exploration and the race to the North Pole by air.  It was a saga of heroes, villains and victims.
The near history and the future of Ny-Ålesund is much cheerier.  It has now entered an age of international cooperation for Arctic research.  At any given time there are at least ten nations conducting environmental research there.  The winter population is about 30 but when spring arrives more researchers from various nations migrate to the north.  The population swells to around 150.
By 20:00 everyone was back on Fram.  We cruised the front of the glaciers at the end of the fjord and then turned our bow to head back to Longyearbyen.