Tuesday 19 August 2014

Whisky Time! Oh, and a few bears…

And now, folks, something really exclusive. It’s got to do with ice, although many say that it doesn’t belong there at all: I’m talking about whisky. Not just any honey-colored liquid, but something entirely unique - our MV FRAM expedition whisky. 
Distilled 23 and 25 years ago, this magnificent single malt has traveled on our ship in huge barrels across the globe, both Polar Circles and the Equator were crossed before the bottling. The barrels were even baptized by Neptune himself…
Everything with this whisky is expedition, is FRAM, is unrepeatable. Even the wooden boxes were handmade (!) here on the ship. The quality control, the bottling, the labeling - all done here.
And it will be sold ONLY only board FRAM, mind you. Very soon after the world caught wind of this amazing product we had many request to sell some bottles to stores, distilleries, large sums were mentioned - but we don’t! 
To drink MV FRAM expedition whisky, you have to be on FRAM. Period.
Now all work is done, and the whisky can be served.
Doesn’t that call for a toast…?
And that's not the end of it - we are up for more!!
After this little detour, let’s get back to business:
In the morning we visited the probably most impressive glacier in the area, the Monacobreen. Big, mighty icebergs were drifting majestically in the silent Liefdefjord, creating an amazing atmosphere, from wherever you watched it.
We also used the time for some lectures and bridge visits, now everybody knows how this ship works…
And as if we haven’t had enough polar bears already, here comes the announcement: This time it is a female with a cub, now that’s new in our collection!
Not far away from this we visit the certainly most sophisticated trapper hut in the whole of Svalbard, Mushamna. The craftsmanship of this block house is outstanding, everybody agrees that here, in this wooden palace, it would be not so bad to spend a couple of months.
Especially with the wonderful hinterland, which we explore with a large group of interested hikers. A whole array of glaciers come down into a vast tundra valley, decorated with a braided river, glittering in the afternoon light.
And what can we say? There was another polar bear waiting for us, a yellowish dot on the dark flanks of the mountains. Fortunately in a safe distance, so everybody got a good peek at it before it took off, approached the fjord, and posed for the ones who had stayed or returned on the ship.
After all this it was show time on deck seven, but still something else followed: As we were a little unlucky with the weather at Moffen yesterday, Captain Arild decided to give it another go. And this time it was perfect.
What. A. Day.

Monday 18 August 2014

A Pile of Walruses

We awoke on day five of our odyssey to find heaving grey seas and an overcast sky. Northern fulmars reveled in the chaos, skimming over the wave-tops and past the port-holes. In contrast, the more frantic looking little auks flapped hysterically to escape from the path of the ship. As ever, we are at the mercy of the seas and the conditions demanded we abandoned our proposed morning landing and continue up the Hinlopen Strait, seeking more sheltered attractions.

Our route took us close by a bird cliff of some fifty meters, disappearing into the mist high above the ship. The rock, stained with guano from years of occupation, hosts the nests of the Brünnich's guillemot in their tens of thousands. From all sides the birds soared out of the fret, calling to one another. The scene appeared almost otherworldly; a strip of rock caught between the sea and the mist, dyed a ghostly hue by the low light conditions.

Fram ploughed on, seeking calmer waters in which to land. We found them at Kinnvika; a small settlement established to host a scientific collaboration in the 1950's. It was constructed at exactly eighty degrees north and now lies abandoned, though it remains well-maintained. 
The terrain on which it is built is inhospitable to say the least. Life, as adaptable as it is, has struggled to gain a foothold here. The ground is bare rock, packed together and cycled into geometric formations by the permafrost.

The fog lifted for just long enough to enable the guests to spend a few happy hours wandering about the fascinating site, taking in the abandoned buildings and machines which are largely accessible.

Back on board, the mist descended again as dinner was being served, so that our final stop of the evening, the island of Moffen, came out of nowhere. This bizarre place lies some kilometers of the coast of Spitsbergen and takes the form of a shingle doughnut, the hole in the middle filled by a brackish lake. 
It is a protected nature reserve and is home to several rare species of bird, the Arctic fox and an abundance of walruses. As these creatures gave the whole ship a lesson on relaxation, a discussion opened up as to what the collective noun for a group of walruses should be. We settled on a "pile" of walruses (the rather disappointing correct answer is "herd")

Sunday 17 August 2014

Ice Time, Bear Time

The second half of yesterday presented us with strong winds coming from the North. Uh, oh… This is where we want to go, this is where the ice is coming from, this is where the mouth of the Hinlopenstretet opens up like a funnel towards the ice.
That means one thing: Expedition. Only one way to find out what the conditions are - go there and see for yourself.
But before we get hit by the ice we want to hit it ourself. The ice edge seems to be on the eastern shores of Nordaustlandet, pretty far south. So we approach the vast expanse of white, lower the Polar Cirkel Boats and take a ride into the endless brightness. It is a mind-blowing experience, knowing that from here to the North Pole you might even walk. So much space!
Everbody’s faces were glowing on return, not so much of the morning temperatures, but rather of enthusiasm.
Well, there is no free lunch… The ice that gave us this wonderful morning experience suddenly seemed to be closing in from all sides. So FRAM had to show what she’s got, for the next hours we were crunching through the ice sheet with much less speed than anticipated. Here goes the afternoon landing. The question is even more pressing: Will we be able to go through Hinlopen Strait in the first place? What if…?
Well, our Expedition Leader Karin managed to get the positions of two other expedition vessels on the East side of Spitsbergen, even talk to the captain of one of them. The information was a relief: Not only had they found a clear passage, but also our next stop, Torellneset, was not iced over.
So here we go, into the ice a little more!
Luck favors the brave. And so - just before the afternoon lectures were about to start - we hear the familiar “bing-bong” from the bridge: Polar Bear on the ice! This is what we were yet missing on this voyage, the bears where they really belong to!
And it proved to be the best possible bears you can imagine. First resting on the ice, occasionally lifting the head, yawning, sticking out the tongue, then slowly walking away, giving us ample opportunity to get the best shots, in perfect light.
Of course the lectures (one of them about - ice, of course…) were interrupted and only continued after the “bear was over”.
In the evening the material that kept us busy was chiseled into something beautiful during the food and ice carving demonstration.

Saturday 16 August 2014

What Does the Fox Eat?

As the guests slept, Fram made its turn northwards for the first time and steamed towards Barentsoya. This island is the fourth largest that comprises the archipelago of Svalbard, but has little in the way of human history. Robust ice conditions in centuries past made it almost inaccessible to sea-farers of old. However, what it lacks in human history, it makes up for in the natural variety.

We skirted the coast, heading for Freemansund. This passageway does not suffer fools lightly and is plagued by strong currents if caught at the wrong tide. It is navigated nonetheless for its on-board reputation as "The Polar Bear Corridor". On this occasion it did not disappoint, with a total of eight bears spotted along the decaying coastline. Indeed, so ubiquitous was the presence of the world's largest land carnivore that by the time we arrived at our only landing site of the day, a wait ensued for three of the bears stationed nearby to depart before we could begin our landing.

Under the watchful eye of one remaining (but fortunately distant) bear, a heavily armed expedition team landed on the island to secure the beach. The wind built throughout the afternoon, recording gusts of over 20m/s that aggravated the surrounding waters as the guests were ferried ashore. Those who braved the waves were richly rewarded.

They were to be entertained by an eddying flock of kittiwakes, tethered to a narrow canyon in which they had constructed their colony. Arctic foxes swept the floor, picking off the young, the weak or simply the unwary. Some even scaled the sides of the canyon, ambushing unfortunate birds which were wrestled down from the cliffs in a welter of feathers. Those kittiwakes that strayed too far from their compatriots found themselves battered to exhaustion by a gang of Arctic skuas, attempting to brutalise the birds into surrendering their last, half-digested meal.

The show was dynamic and enthralling; appearing all the more so for the barrenness of the desert that surrounded it. Somehow here, in this fissure in the rock, life had concentrated and competed ferociously for the right to survive another year in this wilderness. All the main players were too busy to care much for the bunch of blue-jacketed observers who came and went in procession, staring up at the relentless nature of life on Svalbard.
The evening held more relaxed entertainment than the amphitheatre of the birds - the crew fashion show. Press-ganged members of staff were paraded back and forth wearing various items from the on-board shop and painful smiles on their faces (much to the amusement of the guests). So ended another splendid day in the High Arctic.

Friday 15 August 2014

Going the other way round

Nobody can stop Nature, especially not in these parts, so close to the pole. We have re-learned this lesson on the last trip, when we had to turn around at the point of furthest north. To avoid this from happening again we changed our itinerary significantly by starting the trip counter-clockwise, in order to reach the most tempting part, Svalbard’s East, whatever the conditions are.
So we arrive at the legendary Hornsund after breakfast and the introduction of the officers and Expedition Team, under grey skies and with moderate winds. The name “Horn Sound” may seem a little confusing, as it is a dead end. But in fact it is only a lot of ice at its end that blocks the passage. Come warmer times and the name is absolutely accurate.
We start our activities in Austre Burgerbukta, one branch of the huge fjord, limited by a pretty glacier, Kvalfangerbreen.
From here a small group of intrepid hikers ventures into the flanks of the mountains, across steep moraines, having great views into the area and finding interesting fossils. At the end of a pretty strenuous walk they happily join up with the others who have been kayaking, glacier-walking, or simply strolling along the beach with this incredible scenario.
After a Polar Cirkel Boat ride to the impressive front of Kvalfangerbreen we weigh anchor.  Hornsund has the reputation as a good spot for polar bears, so all available binoculars are propped against keen eyes.
And we don’t have to wait for very long: High up in the neighboring fjord’s flank rests a bear, most likely after hunting for bird’s nests. One would not believe how good climbers they are! For a while we look at the furry mountaineer, then our captain takes us further into Hornsund, to Breepollen, a stunning spot where several glaciers meet and calve, shedding great amounts of ice into the water.
The fading light of the evening (although we are still a bit away from a real sunset) creates a monochrome and surreal atmosphere, here in this icy world.
During the night we will pass Sørkappen, the southernmost point of Spitsbergen, in order to cross the Storfjord (which is not a fjord…) to tomorrows destination, Barents Island.

Thursday 14 August 2014

The Journey Begins (Again)

Arriving in Longyearbyen after another excellent voyage, the Expedition Team was up early to bid farewell to our latest batch of guests. Time to reflect on a job well done is scarce, as once again the team headed straight to the rifle range to sharpen their polar bear defence skills. It is an important weekly ritual, building confidence and a steady hand for the close-encounter that nobody wants to have.

Guests from three continents assembled at MV Fram to check in and be issued with our famous blue jacket. It will need to protect them from the wind, rain and snow of Svalbard's capricious climate and raised expectations as the mooring lines were cast off and Fram struck out into Arctic waters.

Our first port of call was the nearby Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg. Your telephone adjusting to Russian time is the first signal that you have arrived at a place which, in spite of significant recent development, remains inescapably Soviet. Devastated by a plane crash in 1996, the town has an air of unrequited ambition. 
A statue of Lenin watches over a communal garden, splendidly inappropriate for the Arctic climate. Several buildings are clad with Soviet-era murals of birch- and pine-trees, reminding the local population of what they are missing back in less hostile latitudes.

The guests were shown around town by native guides and then unleashed to wander the streets. Many of the buildings are splashed with Soviet artwork demonstrating man's oneness with nature. 
In one corner of the town sits a bizarre hovercraft-cum-boat creation, so outlandish in both design and paintwork that it looks as though it has dropped out of a poor 1980's sci-fi film. The gift shop, post-office and Pomor museum are all worth a visit too, but most made sure to be in the theatre by 21.45 for the highlight of the evening - an absorbing Russian folk-concert. 
The crew has become used to the catchy number "Welcome to Svalbard, We Are from Russia" being hummed as guests wander the ship for days afterwards.

It was 23.00 before the guests were back on board and able to reflect on a busy first day.  
Fram cast off from the pier and steamed out of Isfjord before turning south. The winds lay dormant. The midnight sun shone overhead. The seas were mirror-smooth and the engines purred. Life on a ship doesn't get much better; flawless conditions and an adventure ahead.