Polar Journals - Day 3 & 4
Oslo airport was as busy as usual this morning as we checked-in for our flight to Svalbard. The three-hour flight was uneventful and we landed on time at Longyearbyen airport. This was in complete contrast to the busy terminal at Oslo. Though it did seem busy at the time for the most northerly airport deep in the Arctic. The terminal building was small and packed with travellers from across the globe. Luggage reclaimed, off the single carousel, and we were soon on the transfer bus for the short journey into town and the hotel Funken. Once inside, this was a most splendid establishment and would not have been out of place in any capital around the world. Eager to explore our new environment, we quickly unpacked a few essentials, like extra warm clothes and camera equipment.
Svalbard is the collective name for all the large and small islands situated within the 62,000km sq archipelago bounded by longitudes 10 degrees and 35 degrees E, and latitudes 74 degrees and 81 degrees N. The largest island is Spitsbergen, followed by Nordaustlandet, Barentsøya and Edgeøya.
Longyearbyen, the principle settlement, was named after John Munroe Longyear, an American iron worksowner who visited the area as a tourist in 1901. He became interested in the coal deposits and his Arctic Coal Company bought the mining rights in 1906. The main seam in this area is around 1.6 m thick and this is the most northerly coal mine in the world. In fact, the most northerly mine of any kind in the world.
Relicts of the mining industry are still very evident, dominating this ‘frontier’ town, and serve as a visual reminder as to its working past. The only mine in operation today supplies coal to the generation company, who provide electricity and hot water for the settlement.
On the perimeter of town are the dog ‘husky’ kennels and this is normally a good place to find barnacle geese and eider ducks, both of which use the area close to the kennels as a secure nesting site against the prowling Arctic fox. Some of Svalbard’s more ‘interesting’ birds are usually found here, both Ivory Gull and Grey Phalarope. However, since the kennel owners have changed the practice of using seal/whale meat to feed their dogs, to a more conventional drier dog food, that comes in packets, the rare Arctic Ivory gull no longer visits. We did find two female Grey Phalaropes; this species has a sex reversal role, where the male is much duller than its partner and gets all the domestic responsibilities. Does that sound familiar chaps?
Just beyond the kennels is perhaps the most photographed road sign in the world and serves as a constant reminder, should you ever need one, of the dangers of wandering away from the security of town.
There is of course, 24-hour daylight during the Arctic summer, so with the sun still high in the sky and a sense of tiredness creeping over us, from a long day of travelling, we headed back to the hotel for a lovely meal, and a very expensive beer, before retiring for a good night’s sleep.
The following morning, we arranged for a local guide to take us out in search of the Arctic fox. Though initially it proved elusive, we did eventually find a very obliging individual to photograph. Since this event took most of the morning, we just had time to drop-off our luggage at the designated collection point, from where it was to be transported to the ship. Time for a last-minute walk around town and coffee before embarkation.
On board, we soon found our comfortable cabin and our luggage awaiting our arrival. A quick familiarization tour of the ship, then up on deck as MS “Expedition” slipped her moorings and smoothly sailed out into Adentfjorden and into Isfjorden.
Teatime, and all guests assembled in the ship’s polar lounge for the mandatory safety drill and an expedition briefing followed by a wonderful meal. Around 9pm we had our first sighting of a Blue Whale that was feeding along the junction of Isfjorden and Forlandsundet. It was exciting to observe this immense creature, the largest on the planet, so close and a great start to our High Arctic adventure. Though it was a surprise to learn at the briefing that we would be sailing all night, to the far northwest, missing out on some of the important historical landmarks and special areas of Arctic fauna and flora along the west coast.