30 June, 2023


Our exciting and luxurious Norway-Svalbard expedition on the NatGeo Resolution came to an inevitable end when we docked in Longyearbyen, (Svalbard's main centre of population amongst very few others). The town is located in Adventfjorden and there was tourisim to this area since 1896. The present name derives from an entrepreneurial English whaler John Munro Longyear who, having first visited as a tourist and seeing the opportunities offered by the mineral deposits there, returned and established the Arctic Coal Company. The mines have all but ceased operations now, but what remains of them define (some would say 'blight') the appearance of the town. The only other towns on Spitsbergen, and indeed in all of Svalbard, it seems, are the Russian mining communities of Barentsburg and Pyramiden, the former is still operating. Both are on Adventfjorden but neither are accessible by road, only by boat or helicopter, or ski-do in winter.

Nearby mountains by Adventfjorden and Longyearbyen. [7592]

Avalanche fences protect the township of Longyearbyen during winter. [7636]

Once you leave the town limits of Longyearbyen, polar bear protection must be carried, guns and flares. We understand that there is also a night-time curfew within the town, for pedestrians. [7624]

In WW2 1943, the Germans almost completely destroyed the town, but it has been rebuilt. Longyearbyen is still predominantly a minining town, but tourism must be a major earner. Longyearbyen has a population of 1800, of which 16% are from Thailand, Sweden, Russia and Ukraine. The brief time we spent in the pleasant village centre made us wish we could stay here for a few days more, but we had commitments to London to meet, so just one day here nad then we flew out via Oslo. Only SAS (Scandinavian Air) services Longyearbyen with flights to Tromso and Oslo, "some to Russia".

The portal to one of Longyearbyen's defunct coal mines. [7655]

Coal mine artifact in Longyearbyen. [7659]

Out of town a few kilometers, up the fjord, we visited Camp Barentsz, a custom built function centre we think. There, in what was apparently a circular Sami meeting place, we were treated to a cosy fire, a presentation on polar bears and fresh pancakes. Another building there was a replica of the cabin that Barentsz' carpenter built to shelter his team when they were locked in the ice over winter during his third attempt to find the north-east passage to China. The cabin was built from his ship's own timber (there being no trees), so they had to be rescued when summer came. And at Camp Barents, ane enthusiastic man introduced us to his team of husky dogs and talked about their lives and how sleds work. No live demonstrations though, not enough snow! Our expedition co-passengers were very attracted to the animals.

The sparse setting for Camp Barentz on the outskirts of Longyearbyen. [7599]

The Sami meeting hut where we had pancakes and learned about polar bears, in particular how protected they are. [7602]

Cosy interior of the meeting hut at Camp Barentz. [7604]

Dog-sled driver demonstrates its finer features at Camp Barentsz. [7615]

All sled dogs live outside, even if they are pets, because it is too warm inside for their furry coats. [7616]

Pancake making in the Barentsz cabin replica. It would have been very cramped with the entire crew sheltering inside.[7618]

It has been estimated that there are 3000 polar bears in all of Svalbard. We saw two of them. They have been seen in Longyearbyen. They are strictly protected and we were told repeatedly (on the ship and in town here) that to harm a bear is a criminal offence, to kill one is as serious as murder, and that you must prove self-defence to get off the charge. The bear must be attacking you and be within 10m. A bear shot in the back is proof of murder.

As southerners, Willem Barentsz (spelling is variable) is not well known to us, but his exploits were of similar significance to those by others in the Antarctic. He is well recognised up here, with his name given to many geographic features, not just this camp! The Dutch, frustrated by the dominance of Spain and Portugal, wanted a north-easterly passage to opportunites and markets in the orient. Barentsz was the leader of three Dutch expeditions. After being turned back by sea ice in the first two, he took a different tack in 1596 and in the process discovered Bear Island and, continuing north, Spitsbergen (previous blog posts). Again frustrated by sea ice, Barentsz pushed ahead with only one ship but got stuck. Despite the cabin, he and other crew members did not survive, but most eventually made it back to Amsterdam where they were first excoriated for failing and losing everything, but then feted when it was realised what they had achieved.

Eiders nest happily near dog camps because their predators (foxes) don't like the barking. [7628]

Tuft of raindeer fur found on the ground. [7684]

Longyearbyen township itself is replete with small apartments for mine-workers and visitors. Laid-up ski-dos are everwhere, relatively few wheeled transports. The small CBD centres on a pleasant square and features an impressive statue commemorating the miners who have worked the area. There is at least one bar, cafe, hairdresser, pharmacy, and a myriad of souvenir shops. An outdoors wear store has everything you could need, and there is a large supermarket. For a frontier town, Longyearbyen is pretty well complete.

Housing in Longyearbyen. [7630]

Miners' memorial in Longyearbyen shopping centre. [7635]

Salubrious beauty salon in downtown Longyearbyen. [7638]

The supermarket guarantees that there are no bears inside the shop. [7639]

The spectacular wood-lined natural history museum in Longyearbyen. Multiple universities participate in research from the university complex here. [7643]

A special treat was a lunch at Huset, just means 'house', which is a large and dated establishment closer to the mines than downtown built for the relaxation of miners. Possibly it's the only place in town capable of handling our boatload of passengers? You could describe it as 'art deco with Norwegian touches', and our meal was served in a large theatre area. The buffet was excellent. Old photos of the walls indicated past good times in this place!

The Huset function centre is surrounded and dwarfed by mountains. [7666]

Buffet lunch in the theatre in Huset. [7653]

Arguably, Longyearbyen's most significant contribution to the contemporary world is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which is dug into the side of a mountain (abandoned coal mine) and overlooks the airport. The vault, which stores seeds from all over the world, is entirely funded by Norway, was opened in 2008, to provide 'security of the world's food supply against the loss of seeds in genebanks due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts, war, sabotage, disease and natural disasters' (Wikipedia). It is almost never open to the public, we could only look at it from outside, and it started as a domestic Norwegian project in 1984.

The concrete portal and secure entrance to Longyearbyen's famous seed vault. [7675]

It was sad to depart the NatGeo Resolution which is such a modern and innovative vessel that it is a destination all by itself. The experience on board, a ship that is so quiet you can hardly tell it is moving and can turn on a dime by itself, was enhanced by great facilities and comfort on board, truly excellent service from the hotel staff, fine dining quality food throughout, a most experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic expedition team, and an adventurous capatin. There is really nothing to criticise and plenty to be in awe of!

79 Degrees North

The biggest island of Svalbard is Spitsbergen. The island, the only one permanently populated on this large arhipeligo, is midway between the northern extreme of the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, and was named (meaning 'pointed mountains') by the Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz in 1596 while he was looking (and failing) for a north-eastern route to China. We started making south down the east coast of Spitsbergen and in the process passed 2000 nautical miles for the expedition. We were lucky: weather contined to be sunny and calm. After after the crowds of some previous locations, we were happy to see no-one else at any of our stops or travels.

A kittywake flew conveniently close for this portrait. Kittywakes are a gull named for their shrill call, and were quite common on our travels. [7133]

Mountains of Spitsbergen and the clouds beautifully reflected in still waters. [7148]

Scouting Zodiac weaving through drift ice to check out a possible landing destination. [7161]

Passengers out in kayaks could get pretty close to the drift ice, to inspect the deep blue colorations. [7164]

Now on the west coast of Spitsbergen, a day in the 18km long fjord of Bellsund was greeted by warming conditions, 3oC but overcast skies, possibly a sign of deterioration in the weather. The barometer in our cabin seemed to agree. Bellsund was first seen and named by Willem Barents (like most things in Svalbard, it seems) in 1596 on one of his hapless voyages. He thought a nearby mountain looked like a bell. There was a Dutch whaling station here from 1615, but it was then appropriated by the English, accompanied by ongoing fighting, until 1650.

Accessing the land by Zodiac, passengers enjoyed a comfortable stroll in a demarked area on the foreshore of a long gone glacier. Underfoot, it was rocky, mossy and muddy. Lots of different wildlife was espied: reindeer, arctic skua, barnacled geese, red-throated loon, long tailed ducks, snow buntings and some pretty, tiny wildflowers, purple saxifrage.

An arctic skua. Skuas are scavengers and thieves, not known for hunting but for feeding on carrion and stealing food from other birds. They are named from the Faroese, skúgvur. [7102]

National Geographic Resolution pulled up close to the land. The four barrels are where we stored our life jackets. [7225]

Wandering around looking for wildlife and other Instagrammables. [7228]

Meandering stream across the plain of a retreating glacier. [7213]

Red throated loons. The red colour is most apparent in breeding season. [7223]

The weather turned rainy, but encouraged by Captain Martin, we went ashore again later to a beach elsewhere in Bellsund in front of a receding but impressive glacier. The mud beneath the glacier was gooey and one passenger sunk into soft mud and had to be pulled out, losing his boot in the process. We don't know if it got fished out or not.

The glacier in Bellsund is huge compared to the few of us in front of it. [7344]

Guide Anne keeping a watchful eye out for bears from a high vantage point. [7248]

Tiny clumps of purple saxifrage appeared underfoot wherever we walked. [7212]

With all land excursions off the NatGeo Resolution in Svalbard, biosecurity arrangments were strict. On returning to the ship from any outing where we touched land or ice, we washed and scrubbed our boots in a well-designed apparatus, then walked through a pool of some chemical. Prior to that, before our first arrival in Svalbard, all our external clothing (gloves, coats, pants, boots) plus back-packs and walking poles, and my tripod, were inspected, cleaned, vacuumed or scrubbed if necessary, with particular attention to Velcro and anything touching the ground, this to avoid bringing any mainland contaminants to Svalbard. We can recall similar procedures in the Antarctic.

Jackie, a vivacious Canadian, was possibly the most knowledgeable amongst the many great guides on the Resolution, here presenting in the Circle of Truth in the Resolution lounge. [7370]

Twin mountains under ominous skies as we exited Bellsund. [7376]

A beluga whale ballet thrilled and entertained us at 9:30pm that night. [7389]

Bad weather was confirmed the next day in Krossfjorden, dark, overcast and raining on and off. This fjord is named after a cross placed nearby by English explorer/whaler Jonas Poole in 1610. Krossfjorden was the northernmost point we reached on this expedition, more than 79oNorth, only about 1000km from the North Pole. We feel like intrepid explorers conveyed in luxury!

One highlight on this gloomy day was a rare sighting of a blue whale which flapped its tail at least two times for us. The longest confirmed length of a blue whale is 30m, and it can be up to 200t, making it the largest animal to have ever existed. An then we appraoched the biggest glacier we had ever seen.

Stark Svalbard landscape as seen in Krossfjorden on a brutally cold, spitting rain morning. [7434]

After the crew first spotted its flume from the bridge, patience was rewarded by a flip of the tail of a giant blue whale. [7424]

Deceptively close but we were several km away, no photo can capture the grandeur of this huge glacier at the end of Krossfjorden, wrapping around the bow of the ship with a face 18km long. [7464]

The rain mostly held off, but we made no landing in Krossfjorden. Instead, we enjoyed a pleasant Zodiac cruise amongst small ice 'bergy-bits' broken off from a more modest glacier in an arm of the fjord. Accompanied by a loud booming noise, the glacier calved while we were in a Zodiac, amply illustrating why we mustn't sail our Zodiacs too close to its face!

The blue colour of floating bergy bits indicates that it was once underwater prior to flipping over as the bottom melted and it got top heavy. [7519]

A sliver of ice rescued from the water in front of the glacier. [7575]

Stern view of the National Geographic Resolution showing its custom designed Zodiac garage at water level open at right, and the two rather decadent hot tubs and an igloo on an upper deck. [7579]

15 June, 2023

Walrus, then Bear...

Belonging to Norway (since 1920), Svalbard is an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, and it is first mentioned in Icelandic saga from 1194AD. These remote, freezing places have long histories! The name comes from Old Norse for "cold coast" [Lonely Planet]. Its latitudes extend from 74o to 81oN so it is very north indeed. Indeed, our visit here will be as close to the North Pole (about 1000km) as we will get on this expedition, and it is much deeper inside the Arctic Circle than our previous northern record, Barrow Alaska USA.

17-18thC whalers based themselves in Svalbard, but gave it up. The 20thC saw coal mining and several permanent communities established. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 assigns Svalbard to Norway. No one is required to have a visa or residence permit on Svalbard. Regardless of citizenship, persons can live and work here indefinitely, which is possibly why, as we discovered later, returning to Norway after being in Svalbard involves full passport control.

Storfjorden, where the Arctic comes true...
Svalbard comprises a number of islands, and the NG Resolution's first venture was up a central waterway called Storfjorden (meaning 'great fjord', but not the only one so called in Norway) with the main island Spitsbergen looming large to the west. We then "made our way", with Captain Martin at the helm, through the dense drift ice of Freemansundet between two large eastern islands Edgeoya [5073km2] and Barentsoya [1288km2]. Edgeoya is mostly glaciated and its west facing slopes are largely ice and snow free exposing black Triassic shale, we're told. The expedition leader, Peter, pointed out that the NG Resolution, thanks to its superior specifications, can go this route when other expedition ships cannot. [Later that evening, Peter showed us a map of Svalbard showing the locations of cruise ships and expedition boats. The NG Resolution was on its own in Storfjorden on the east side of Spitsbergen - about 8 or so others were all on the west side of Spitsbergen. And at the end of the voyage, Captain Martin confirmed was the very first vessel to transit Freemansundet after winter. That sort of achievement clearly pleases Martin no end.]

Anne, indigenous Sami, guide, naturalist and Zodiac pilot. [6786]

Doug, a naturalist and guide who we first met on a previous expedition, Antarctica maybe? [6876]

Cieran, an Irish naturalist with a particular strength in birds. He can spot them out of nowhere! [6881]

Eva, an Englih guide and naturalist who has made her home in Iceland to pursue her love of arctic regions. Unfortunately, she sprained her ankle on one of our walks and was confined to the ship for a few days. [6920]

Expedition Leader Peter, an Irishman, recapping the day's activities and predicting tomorrow's, in the Lounge of an afternoon. [6968]

Not at anchor, but continuously dynamically positioned, the NG Resolution awaits our return from Zodiac cruising in a corner of Storfjorden. [6885]

The first thing we, the passengers, noted is that the Expedition Team were "winging it" which is to say they were deciding and modifying the activities according to conditions and observations, and we witnessed many changes of plan. All of them yielded great results, and Peter's team's flexibility plus the boat crew's experience and willingness gave us splendid days here, compounded by the sunny, still conditions at a balmy 1OC! The water is mirror smooth. The first change of plan gave us a Zodiac tour to close up views of a huge huddle of walrus, lounging unglamorously on the beach with a few frolicking in the water.

Safe from having his features stuffed into bedwear, this eider scoots away when approached by a Zodiac. [6793]

Walruses lazing about on their private beach on the shores of Storfjorden. [6814]

This walrus seemed to have popped up to look at the strange contents of a Zodiac nearby. [6834]

The mirror smooth waters of Storfjorden relect the snow and shale of the fjord walls. [6908]

The first afternoon, while ploughing through the drift ice of Freemansundet, the NG Resolution stopped at a polar bear sighting. Great credit is granted to the "spotter", and in this case, it was Captain Martin himself. He set the bridge, already crowded enjoying the push through the drift ice, on fire when he called it out! This bear, however, wasn't keen to see us and quickly retreated across the ice. A second bear, spotted at 2am that "night" (bright sunshine) by the Navigation Officer, Natalie (Ukranian, looks like a teenager, her parents must be very proud). Again, the ship was stopped and the Expedition Leader gently woke us up. This bear was closer and was toeing the water and sniffing the air, but eventually he went away too. From the bow of the ship, many good photos were taken of both bears.

The Resolution's passengers crowd the Resolution's bow to watch it gently plough through the dense drift ice of the Freemansundet passage.. [6898]

Lit from behind, the wake of the NG Resolution, as it carves through a field of drift ice. [6905]

From inside the large NG Resolution bridge as the ship makes its way through Freemansundet. [6912]

Captain Martin always seems to find himself at the wheel when the going is tough or exciting. [6926]

Clare studying the drift ice as our ice-breaker rated ship pushes it aside. Each bump in the ice is felt throughout the ship. [6916]

The Resolution stopped in the drift ice as soon as we spotted our first polar bear. [6940]

Is this polar bear wondering what this huge blue monster is that has appeared in his drift ice? [6938]

These birds liked trailing the Resolution as it breaks up the ice cover. Maybe hoping to spot some startled fish? [6964]

Spotted at 2am in bright sunshine, this polar bear sniffs the air, probably detecting the smells on food on our ship? [6979]

We thought he might dive into the water, but the presence of the ship might have made him bashful? [6987]

Eastern Svalbard
Having traversed Freemansundet, we headed north into a bay between Spitsbergen and another big island, Nordaust-Landet or Gustav Adolf Land and passed huge and spectacular ice cliffs, reminiscent of those we saw in Antarctica some years ago. We were in awe as we passed close by this giant wall, kilometer after kilometer, in brilliant morning sunshine. For at least these few days in Svalbard, we have experienced just perfect weather in slightly sub-zero temperatures.

Tall sheer vertical cliffs that seem to go on forever. [7005]

Ice cliffs reflected in the Resolution's windows, together with one of the igloos available for guests to sleep in. [7006]

On the lee side of the Resolution on a sunny day we were treated to a barbeque lunch. [7026]

Eventually, we pulled up to a large ice shelf (ice cap), a vast plateau of fast ice (ice fields locked fast to land). Unlike earlier days, ships are no longer allowed to plough into fast ice for easy landing of passengers because the damage caused makes life more difficult for polar bears, already suffering the loss of fast ice. Thus, we Zodiaced the 50m or so onto the fast ice and were allowed to walk in a marked area previously scouted and guarded by armed naturalists. [Our fast ice walks in Antarctica did not need these precautions, of course.]

NG Resolution passengers walking gingerly on the softish fast ice. [7045]

No going outside the marked perimeter on the fast ice as scouts watched for polar bears from the ground and the bridge. [7050]

The traditional 'polar plunge' took place at the ice shelf. Passengers and crew jump one by one into the frigid waters under supervision of the ship's Doctor (Dr. David) and with plenty of help to get them out if they have been stunned into paralysis (no-one was). We maintained our previous record of not participating, and did not participate again!

Many brave passengers and crew took up the polar plunge challenge. The ship's Doctor told us that this is what he dreads most on the voyage, but he and his partner dived in together anyway![7058]

Alexandra, the assistant Expedition Leader, an Iceland native, relished the cold water more than any other participant, and proudly (and unknowingly) advertised an (once?) Aussie swimwear brand! [7066]