Sea days

Greenland sunset

This morning we were supposed to do a landing to see more walrus, but when we get to Poolepynten where they normally gather, they are simply not home. Rather than hanging around we decide to set course for our afternoon’s excursion and have more time there. It also gives everyone a chance to catch up on diaries and spend some time reading or simply relaxing.

In the early afternoon we reach Alkhornet for the excursion. The kayakers go out in our boats first, with the plan being to land our kayaks on the beach below Alkhornet and from there walk up to see the reindeer. The rest of the guests go straight by zodiac and will get to spend more time with the reindeer, with some becoming the object of curiosity for some young reindeer, who venture up very close to them (I’m looking at you, Tracy!).

Velvety reindeer grazing at Alkhornet

Today I have opted for a single kayak, but the conditions were not very conducive for it. Here in the mouth of Isfjorden, the waves are a bit choppy and are joined by a substantial swell, which makes me feel a bit vulnerable in the slightly less stable kayak, compared to the double kayaks. Valerie, our guide, asks me how I’m going and I tell her I’m living on the edge. But I stay upright and eventually settle in. But with the wind and wave conditions it is a lot harder work to keep up with the double kayaks and I lag behind the group as we cross the fjord and am the last one to beach the kayak.

Alkhornet

We walk uphill in our dry suits and neoprene booties on the spongy mosses that line the hills here. We go past the Sysselmannen’s hut, which is now no longer inhabited – the official tourism season having ended already. And before too long we see the reindeer peacefully grazing on the slopes under Alkhornet, a 427m mountain that looms like Mordor above us. On the cloudy day the effect is particularly atmospheric, coupled with the cries of Arctic terns and other seabirds that nest and breed on its steep faces.

We couldn’t have timed our exit from the water better, as within 20 minutes of beaching our kayaks the wind is picking up to 25 knots and the weather deteriorates rapidly. We beat a retreat to the ship in a choppy zodiac ride. Once everyone is back on board John informs us that the decision has been made to leave Svalbard early and sail for Greenland. The intention is to keep the stormy winds to our back and set a course straight across to Greenland until we hit the ice pack and then head south with the Greenland current in our back until we reach Scoresby Sund.

Fulmar at sea

And so commence our sea days. It doesn’t take long for the seas to grow heavy and most people head to their cabins, pop some seasickness medication and go to sleep. I’m in dreamland before I know it and stay there for as long as I can. The next morning the ship is doing the ‘potato chip’, or like a corkscrew, if you will, and the best position is to stay horizontal. I skip breakfast and lunch, but I manage to get upright for dinner. By then the seas have calmed a bit from the Beaufort 6/7 they were, but the ship is still moving a lot. Another Phenergan after dinner and dreamland beckons again.

On the second sea day the seas have calmed down substantially, so much so that I’m up for a shower and for breakfast. Today I can read, catch up on downloading photos and listen to talks given by the expedition team, although I still struggle with the sleep-inducing effects of Phenergan. It is interesting to see how our group of 75 passengers is starting to form small sub-groups. Where in the first few days everyone socialises with everyone, gradually you see small clusters forming, like cells splitting off from a major organism. It’s a logical development as it is impossible to socialise with everyone and people inevitably are drawn to like-minded souls.

Sighting of the Greenland East Coast

On the third sea day the weather is finally clearing and the fog that has surrounded the ship for the last two days is lifting and we are seeing the coast of Greenland. Everyone is up and about again and peering through binoculars at the coast, marvelling at the sea ice around us and looking for polar bears and whales. It is a magnificent sight this coast, sheer cliffs alternate with glaciers and ice caps and are framed by a dark blue sea. We are due to reach Scoresby Sund tonight at around dinner time. After three days at sea I can’t wait for some new action and more opportunities for photography.

Broken ice pack near Scoresby Sund

As we cruise close to Scoresby Sund we encounter a lot of drift ice, small and larger pieces that have broken off a larger ice sheet in the last 24 hours. Just as we have sat down to dinner and put our main course orders in the announcement comes through that a polar bear has been spotted about a mile ahead of the ship on an ice  floe. I don’t hesitate for one moment and I dash from the dining room to grab my camera and warm coat and rush upstairs to the panorama deck.

After some time trying to spot the bear, I see him on one of the larger pieces of ice, asleep. As the ship very quietly slides closer, he suddenly becomes aware the ship bearing down on him. He glares at us before getting up fully and he starts running away, jumping from floe to floe in an effort to create distance between himself and the ship as fast as possible. Through my lens I can see he is a big bear with a beautiful thick and clean coat and well rounded in all corners. This bear has had sufficient food this summer and looks very well. When he finally feels he has put enough distance between us and himself he sits down on his hindquarters and stares at us.

Polar bear wakes up

Defiant polar bear

After the excitement and around 200 photos later, I return to the dining room to see if there is still dinner and to our delight service continues and they plate up our main courses. After dinner I head back to the panorama deck to catch the sunset, as we are now back in latitudes where the sun sets at least for a few hours. The colours are spectacular with the water turning pink, while the icebergs keep a beautiful turquoise colour that slowly fades to pale blue.  I can’t stop taking photographs.

Sunset on Scoresby Sund

But the night is still not over and it is time for our quiz night and our team consists of Barb and Sandy, Amar, Tracy, John, and yours truly and much to our surprise we win the quiz night, which then descends into one big dance party (at least for a few of us!).

Sunset on Scoresby Sund

Brash ice

Kayaking in Fuglefjorden

“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.

Zodiac landing at Smeerenburg

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.

Walrus on the beach

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.

Colours in the brash ice

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.