Friday 2 September 2011

Ny-Ålesund & Gravneset

The first thing on our agenda today was a welcome speech at 09:30 from the Captain in the Observation Lounge on deck seven.  The Captain took the opportunity to introduce key members of the ship and then toasted the start of our Arctic Voyage.  Next it was the Expedition Leader Karin Strand’s turn to introduce the Expedition Team.

Post office in Ny-Ålesund. (Photo © Joe Decker).
Following the introductions it was time for our first landing of the day.  Fog enveloped the sea as we slowly approached the dock in Ny-Ålesund at 10:00.  As in a good mystery novel, the story of Ny-Ålesund was revealed a little at a time only this was a mist-story. At one time, this tiny village was a place of high Arctic adventure.  In 1926 Roald Amundsen, the greatest polar explorer of all time, flew in a giant air ship from Ny-Ålesund, over the north pole to Alaska and back again.  He was already the first man to reach the south pole. He also became the first to reach the north pole (albeit by air).  His fame and eventually his death are inextricably linked to Ny-Ålesund.  His former friend Umberto Nobile became his nemesis over a dispute as to whether it should be Norway or Italy that would receive the acclaim for reaching the North Pole first.  Part and parcel to this dispute, Nobile crashed in a subsequent attempt to fly to the north pole in his own airship the Italia.
Marble lions in front of Chinese research
building in Ny-Ålesund (Photo © Joe Decker)
Flying from Tromso, Amundsen joined in the massive search for his former friend.  Tragically, Amundsen’s airplane crashed leaving no survivors.
The Expedition Team recounted this mist-story as they led us through the high Arctic village.  We also learned of how this was originally a coal mining community with a past also steeped in death and tragedy.  There were several serious accidents and deaths in the mines.  Finally, the coal mines were shut down in 1963 after 21 miners died in an accident the previous year.
Now Ny-Ålesund’s raison d’être is Arctic Research.  Ten nations have permanent facilities and in the summer three or four more nations take part in research that covers everything from atmospheric sampling, aurora, various biological studies, and plate tectonics.  In the winter the population here is 30.  In the summer that swells to about 150 people.  When Fram visits add another 200+!
After the guided tour we were free to walk around the town and even out to the mast where the giant airships were once tethered.  It wasn’t hard to imagine a big zeppelin floating in the breeze high above our heads.
Arctic Tern protecting its chick at Gravneset
(Photo © Joe Decker)
Many people visited the world’s northernmost post office to stamp and mail a few cards.  Others visited the museum, the information centre and of course, the gift shop.
By 13:00 everyone was once again on board Fram. We plotted a course for our next landing in Magdalene Fjord. 
Meanwhile, back on the ship, some of the Expedition Team had been busily setting up Muck Boot shops on decks two and three.  If anyone wished to use the ship’s boots he/she could try a pair on for size and then rent them for the duration of the voyage for a modest fee.
At 14:30 there was a mandatory safety drill.  When we heard seven short alarms followed by one long alarm we were to assemble at our muster stations outside on deck five.  We were then instructed on how to put on a thermal protection suit and a life jacket in case we had to deploy the life boats and abandon the ship.  It was all very interesting and obviously an important drill with which to be familiar.
In the mid-afternoon there was time for a couple of lectures as we weren’t due to arrive in Magdalenefjorden until 17:00.
Beach at Gravneset (Photo © Joe Decker)
During the afternoon the mist had cleared up.  As we sailed into Magdalene Fjord we could see beautiful glaciers and mountains on both sides of the fjord.  At 17:00 we dropped anchor in Trinity Harbour which is a beautiful and very sheltered bay deep inside the fjord. 
This was the first time for us to use the Polar Cirkel boats.  It was a short ride to a beautiful sandy beach where we discovered it was rather easy to embark and disembark the little Norwegian boats.  The Expedition Team had placed an aluminum stair at the bow of the boat. We could just walk off the boat and step into 15 centimetres or so of water.  Easy.
Once on shore we were free to wander about on our own.  We were advised not to go beyond the Expedition Team as they were set in a large perimeter around the landing site to keep a lookout for Polar Bears.
We were astonished that so many people went for an Arctic swim.  The beach was soft and sandy and the water was a balmy 4˚C!
By 20:30 everyone had had a chance to stretch their legs, go for a frigid swim or to visit the ruins of the old whaler’s try-pot ovens for rendering blubber into oil.