Day 1: Friday, 15 May 2015 – Embarkation, Longyearbyen.

Svabard-SS

We arrived in Svalbard in the early afternoon along with most of the guests who had flown north from Oslo on the same flight. At Longyear airport we were greeted by Rupert, the Blue Planet Expeditions representative, and a mini bus that was waiting to take us to the ship

Due to the fact that we couldn’t embark the MS Stockholm until later in the afternoon we stopped just long enough to offload our luggage. Once this was completed we got back into the minibus and continued onwards for a tour of Longyearbyen.

The town is small but its uniqueness and interesting history provided an interesting interlude, and our guide Wiggo, who is a fourth generation Svalbard resident, gave us a potted history that was both interesting and humorous. Longyearbyen is the furthest North town in the world, a distinction shared with the northernmost church and university campus. The town is also home to the World Seed Bank – a strategic repository for seeds of most of the world’s plants and trees and the crops we rely on.

On our tour, we also learned about the colourful social history of Longyearbyen, and of Svalbard, which, while not having an indigenous people, only a century ago was the ultimate representation of the ‘wild west’. During that time, Svalbard was populated by coal miners, whalers, fox and polar bear trappers – tough, self-reliant people. The human population was scattered sparsely along the archipelago’s cold shores in rudimentary cabins built from driftwood. The capital was formed in Longyearbyen, which had grown up at the bottom of the valley off Isfjorden where the first coal had been discovered. There was no law in Svalbard in those days, adding to the harsh nature of life there, and it was a place suited only to the hardiest and most independent people.

The Svalbard treaty of 1920 saw Norway open its remote High Arctic territory to any other country or people who wanted a part of it, although only Russia staked any claim, later consolidating their access to coal in other areas of Isfjorden, and designating the towns of Barentsburg and Pyramiden as formal Russian inholdings in Svalbard.

After a break at Cafe Fruene, we stopped at the Radisson Hotel to pick up guests who had arrived in Longyearbyen earlier, and then drove down to the port where we boarded the ship.

Just after 5pm, we let go the lines and sailed west into Isfjorden and the beginning of our adventure along the west coast of Spitsbergen.

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Day 5: Danskoya – Amsterdamoya

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Having avoided the worst of the low pressure weather front, we spent the day in the pack ice in the vicinity of the islands of Danskoya and Amsterdamoya, off north-west Spitsbergen.  In our quest to find wildlife, we saw some bearded seals, which we were not able get close to, and some more walrus, but no polar bears.  By now, we are getting used to seeing Brunich’s guillemots, common guillemots, and eider ducks, on the water, and kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, fulmars and little auks flying around the ship.  We have also been quite lucky with our sightings of walrus and reindeer, but as the days pass now, the tension of the expectation and hope of bears is mounting.  However, today did bring some new things; coastal pack ice when we reached Danskoya, and bearded seals, which along with Greenland seals and hooded seals are one of the three great seal species in Svalbard.  The first seal we saw was clearly recognisable, with its small head, large, mottled grey body and prominent yellow/gold beard.  Bearded seals can be quite skittish, and are a challenge to approach without being scared-off, and this seal was no exception, inevitably slipping off the ice into the water before we could get far enough away for it to become relaxed again.

Before dinner, which was excellent, as usual, we had a lecture about polar bears from Rupert.  Later, Martin ‘parked’ the ship in the ice, and then moored it to an ice floe, so that we slept in the great silence of Svalbard, silent and still and surrounded by the magnificent scenery of this wild place, drifting gently with the ice without risk of breaking an anchor chain.

Day 4: Danskoya

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Early after breakfast, Rupert, Jordan and Heidi took a zodiac out to check if there were any walruses in the well-known haul out closeby in Gullybukta. Only one poor walrus was there on the beach, and we agreed that it was not worth taking everybody there. Arthur then started sailing towards Smeerenburgfjorden (the fjord of “Greasy town”). Smeerenburgfjorden was full of large ice floes and was a good indication of what the conditions would be for the following days.
Just as we were getting worried about the sailing conditions Laura spotted the first polar bear, climbing in the hills close to shore. We immediately took two zodiacs out as got closer to the shore. This first sighting made us forget about the unpleasant weather conditions: horizontal snow, wind, waves… The bear was obviously interested in the bird nests on the cliff, and kept climbing up and down and around the hill. After a couple of hours of observation we went back to the boat for lunch and enjoyed yet another of Hervé’s delicious soups. We then headed towards Virgohamna, today desolated beach but once world-famous when the Swedish ballooner Salomon André set off to fly over the North Pole in 1897. The weather went from bad to worse, and we decided to stay in the comfort and the shelter of the boat during the blizzard, and enjoyed Heidi’s lecture on the History of Svalbard.