Thursday, June 30, 2016

Svalbard, Part 1

I can't recall into how many questioning eyes I looked after answering the question where I would travel to: Svalbard???? Where or what is that?
Well, Svalbard is an island archipelago north of Norway and east of Greenland. It is under Norwegian jurisdiction but does not belong to the Schengen area.

If you have read Philip Pullman's Golden Compass, Svalbard is the home of Iorek Byrnison and the armored bears.

After some looong plane rides, I finally arrived in Longyearbyn, Svalbards "capital", located on the main island called Spitsbergen. Only a thousand kilometers away from the North pole!
As the snow had just melted and new snow is expected from August on, there are no trees or any vegetation as we know it. There are lots of mosses and lichens though and a few tundra flowers here and there.

Longyearbyn was founded by and named after John Munro Longyear, an US entrepreneur,  in 1906. It owes its existence to coal mining which is still going on in a down scaled version.

During the short summer Longyearbyn develops into a flourishing tourist town which offers almost everything a cruise traveler might need and else. My favorite hang-out, the Fruene cafe, not only serves an excellent coffee it also is home of the most northern "Sjokoladeri".

To make the post not too long, I split the journey into two parts, the highlighted section shows the part of the expedition I will cover in this blog.

One thing I did not take into consideration was the constant daylight. During the height of summer the lowest position of the sun is about equal to our early evening never disappears below the horizon. Although still quite exhausted I couldn't get myself to go to bed...I could miss out on something, right?

And I was not alone on deck photographing this arctic paradise.

Around 11.30 pm on the first evening, I assume the sun reached it's lowest and, together with the light cloud cover, produced a wonderful coppery color on the water.

I don't recall when I went to bed, but it was rather late, or let's say rather early

Brepollen and Burgerbukta were our destinations the following day.
Magnificent glaciers and an abundance of birds in Brepollen.....

Black-legged Kittiwakes

...and "cool" icebergs at Burgerbukta

Our main transportation away from the ship, the trusty zodiac.

The Svalbard area experienced a very mild winter and an early and comparatively warm spring. Most of the sea ice was already gone and with it one of the main attractions, the polar bear. Our expedition leader decided it would be worth a try and chase the ice. In addition to that, a huge storm front had come up and heading north would be the fastest way to escape the rolling sea. hence we spent day 3 at sea,  a very rolling sea...

All were relieved as we entered calmer waters on the morning of the fourth day, and we had found the ice!

Unfortunately it was already too broken up for the polar bears. Nevertheless, we saw four bears, two males and a mom with her cub, on the distant shore.
Sailing through the ice by itself was just an amazing experience....

On day 5 we set foot on land again atTorellneset, a known walrus hang-out. Before we even saw the walruses, arctic terns had already announced our arrival.

I'm not sure who watched who...the walruses sure were curious about these funny stick figures walking all around.

Some took the opportunity to stretch their legs and went on a hike with one of our guides.

The afternoon we spent at Alkefjellet, an immense rockwall harbouring 60.000 breeding pairs of the Bruennich's Guilemot, also known as thick-billed murre.
I wish I could have taken a video, just to make you experience the noise and atmosphere around this rookery. Imagine almost a quarter million birds (120.000 adults plus about two hatchlings per breeding pair), perched on a precariously steep rock wall, constantly flying away or coming back and of course communicating at all times.
But being in a zodiac with quite a swell that would have been a mission impossible...

Close up of some neighborly dispute

The end of the rock wall was covered with yet another magnificent glacier

The evening ended with an outside BBQ,,,yup, BBQ in the Arctic with a once in a lifetime view.
The next day would bring us even farther north.....

Did we find more ice? And polar bears? What about reindeer?
I am already working on part 2 of the Svalbard journey which will answer all these questions.....