All stories must have a beginning.
After a long wait in Oslo and approximately a three hour flight to Svalbard the plane landed at midnight in Longyearbyen with the sun still in the sky, hovering above the horizon and a ribbon of fog, throwing a golden light over the airport and the small town itself. Much to my relief my bag appeared, and it turned out I wasn’t so wrong to worry about that: the day before 90 suitcases had not arrived and I learned later that our ship doctor Barbara also didn’t get her suitcase. Not exactly how you want to commence your 13-day Arctic cruise, but apparently it can be done and no one notices that one wears the same stuff day after day. Meanwhile the outdoor stores in Longyearbyen do a good trade and offer anything you could ever need for these type of travels.
After 25 hours of travel, not counting the half day worked before heading off, I was pretty shattered and relieved to get to the hotel and crash for a big sleep – complete with eye mask to keep the glare of the sun out. The next morning I had time to explore the small town and I particularly enjoyed a visit to the Svalbard Museum, which I highly recommend to anyone who visits Longyearbyen. The museum is very well laid out and provides a lot of information on the environment I was about to enter. I ran into a few people who had also been on the plane and were going on the cruise, including my future roomie. At 16pm we were all waiting for the bus to come to the town square to take us to the ship and then it was boarding time.
I discovered I was sharing my hut with one of the women from the plane – a very lucky combination. Amar and I got on very well and managed to live very peacefully in a very tiny cabin for 13 days, not just amongst our own gear, but also our kayaking gear, as she turned out to have signed up for the kayaking also. The cabins are quite small, so you really want to get along with your roomie, which is a bit the luck of the draw.
It didn’t take long for the ship to get underway and soon the swaying started, which I had to get used to at first, but which has remained with me for so long after disembarkation still. Every time I wake up I still feel like a drunken sailor.
After we sailed we got our first briefing from expedition leader John and were introduced to the expedition team. We got kitted out with boots and parkas and Amar and I met our fellow kayakers, who turned out to be a great bunch. For that activity we got kitted out with dry suits, neoprene booties and kayak skirt, life jackets and dry bags. The first time it takes a bit of work to get into the whole equipment, but as we progressed through the trip we got very fast at it.
We sailed out of Longyearbyen and up north during the sunny evening and night. In the morning we arrived at Kongsfjorden, near the settlement of Ny-Alesund. There a sleeping polar bear was sighted, on a hill above a walrus carcass on the shore. As she was still sleeping, the decision was made to first do a morning zodiac cruise in nearby Krossfjorden and then return to the site of the polar bear to see if she had woken up in the afternoon.
The zodiac cruise was great fun and we were very lucky to see a lot of calving activity of the glaciers, somewhat unusual for a morning, but very spectacular to watch from the relative safety of a zodiac. A curious seal was spotted and sea birds abounded.
Before we could even return to the polar bear, a giant of the seas made us aware of its presence: a humpback whale was spotted feeding close to the ship, even swimming underneath the ship and surfacing right next to it. It was a beautiful and impressive sight to see such an amazing animal so close. Marine biologist Colin explained how each humpback has a signature fluke that is identifiable from photographs. This particular humpback had some very odd things hanging off the two sides of his fluke, which we didn’t manage to identify, but they almost looked as if some sea anemone had attached itself.
After all that excitement, in the afternoon, the polar bear was still a bit asleep, but we were now able to see that she had a cub with her and that a little bit further away there was another mother with cub. Four bears in one fell swoop! We all got into zodiacs again and cruised quietly up and down the shore in order not to disturb the bears. They were quite a way off still, so my big zoom lens was a necessity, but it was wonderful to see these four bears.
After an action-packed day, the ship lifted its anchors again and we headed further north towards the remnants of old Smeerenburg, also known as Blubbertown.