“Good morning, good morning, ladies and gentlemen” intones the voice of expedition leader John in his wake up call at 7.00am on this second day at sea. This morning we head out for a zodiac landing on the site of Smeerenburg, a historical site which was the most important whaling station for the Dutch in the 17th century. Here they processed whale blubber, which explains why it is also known as “Blubber Town”. The stories about the place are legendary, but the reality was a bit starker, with maybe a few hundred people that would have lived here at any one time and horrendous tales of scurvy. The only remains of the town are stone rings on the beaches where the blubber was cooked. Despite the majestic glaciers surrounding the site, it is a fairly bleak place and it doesn’t take much to imagine what life would have been like here.
We head around the island for a longer walk, accompanied by two of our guides, Yvonne and Emily, both equipped with flare guns and rifles in case the odd polar bear gets a bit too interested in our group. We look at remains and I am horrified at the amount of plastic that is everywhere. Prevailing ocean currents bring much of the world’s plastic to Svalbard. A clean up program has been set up and I’m told it has been very effective, as apparently it originally was far worse than what we are witnessing this day. Yet, it does make you think about your own waste stream. How much of what I do and use is impacting an environment a long way away from me?
At the end of our walk we come to four walrus lying on the beach. We approach slowly and cautiously as walrus can be a bit temperamental. In single file we approach, quietly, cameras at the ready until we are all close enough to get good photos. They lie on the sand, wallowing and occasionally scratching themselves with big flippers, in close contact with one another. When we finally have had our fill, it is time to head back to the ship in the zodiacs.
After lunch kayaking guide Valerie informs us that it is finally time for our first kayaking outing. After we put on our dry suits, neoprene skirts, life vests and booties we look like Navy SEALs ready for a secret op. We head off in the first zodiac, driven by Cam, with the kayaks trailing behind, like mother Duck and her ducklings. Amar and I are paired up for kayaking and we slide into double kayak “Blue” for our first paddle in the midst of brash ice, which is now my new favourite thing. The sound of air bubbles releasing from the ice is like music; the thud of ice against the hull of the kayak; the grinding when we hit a bigger piece of ice on which we almost beach. I never realised ice was so heavy until you feel it around you. You can play bumper cars with the bigger piece, although anything higher than one metre we have to keep at a respectful distance.
It is good to leave the noise of zodiacs behind and just be in the peace and quiet of our small group, paddling along the ice and floating around the most wonderful nature-made ice sculptures. The colours of the ice range from pure transparent to opaque, to blues and greens. One piece stands out in particular and has a brown part that contained sand from the moraine, then turned this incredible colour in between green and blue, deeply intense, and then a light blue, at times transparent. Simply beautiful.
The glacier was rumbling and thundering and at times released huge calvings into the sea. We paddled relatively close, but not so close that we could be hit by a wave. I don’t even know how much time we spent on the water; time seemed to stretch out and we just floated in the moment. Eventually we got the signal to paddle back towards the ship, gradually being collected by Cam in the zodiac, and we head back to the ship for a hot shower, wrap up briefing and dinner.
During the briefing John advises that a big storm is brewing, which may impact our itinerary. It means we will either have to leave Svalbard earlier and spend more time in Greenland or leave Svalbard later and have less time in Greenland. I have hunch it is going to be the former. As I return to the cabin later that evening, the weather has worsened and the ship lurches from side to side, which makes getting down the two sets of stairs to the cabin quite a challenge. Once I’m back in the cabin I feel very queasy, so I pop a Phenergan in the hope of holding it together.