Polar Journals - Day 7 & 8
We were woken early this morning, a sound reminiscent of a horse chewing on its bridal, as “Expedition” chewed on her anchor at Phippsøya. From the breakfast room we viewed a stark, barren landscape, a frigid mountain plateau, covered with a patchwork of snow between steep curving valleys. An old trappers’ hut the only indication of man ever setting foot on the island. The whole scene gave the impression it was bereft of wildlife.
The zodiacs were launched and we cruised along the edge of a rocky shoreline and found a small haul-out of Atlantic walrus. They were inactive, warming their enormous hulks on land before returning to the chilly seas, so we continued on to make a landing in a relatively sheltered bay.
While some took a brief leg-stretch up the frost-shattered scree slope to a lagoon, others investigated the old trapper’s hut, while I sat in deep contemplation on one of the many silver-grey drift logs, carried here by currents and waves from Russian rivers. Why have we come here I thought, and for what purpose? There were very few birds, even fewer plants, the whole scene was simultaneously bleak and uninspiring.
And soon it became apparent, we were here to collect rubbish that had accumulated on the beaches in a similar way to the log I was sitting on! Now, I have no problem with helping to maintain these environments in a pristine condition, but we had just sailed unknown nautical miles, passing more interesting areas on route, to be here. Two 60-litre plastic (?) bags filled with collected flotsam, that we had had the privilege of paying for, before returning to the ship. Now if I was an old cynic (which of course, I am not) I might suggest it was more to do with G-Adventures gaining environmental credibility with the Sysselmannen!
Over another amazing lunch, the ship sailed even further east onto Karl XII-øya, one of the most northerly points of land before the most southerly reaches of the Arctic pack-ice. Occasionally, during the brief summer-months Polar bears can become stranded here, caught-out by the speed at which the ice-edge recedes. Indeed, this was the case this year as we saw 2 bears onshore. Zodiacs were quickly deployed and we cruised towards the bears for a closer view from the relative safety of the sea.
After spending an hour or so with the bears we returned to the ship. Following the now well-accustomed ‘recap’, briefing and a very good supper, it was time for the ‘Fancy-dress extravaganza’ to be held in the Polar lounge followed by the ‘Monkey Eating Eagles’ band playing rousing rock music in the Polar Bear Bar!!!! Since we were busy in our cabin relaxing and processing images, we fortunately missed both these two ‘mega events’, so I can say no more on the subject - well I can, but perhaps not here!
Another overnight sailing and by breakfast we were anchored off Kramerpynten, at the tip of Kvitøya, the easternmost and remotest part of the Svalbard archipelago. Kvitøya lived up to its name as the ‘White Island’, covered by a huge ice-dome with giant ice-cliffs and glaciers. A small area of land, at the eastern end, was not entirely covered by ice and a place where Polar bears tend to hang-out as the pack-ice retreats. Four bears were seen on our arrival, though two were more difficult to spot, and of course the presence of bears meant landing was not an option.
Although we were on the island’s leeward side, the wind was gaining strength around the eastern tip and over the glacier. Sometimes the ‘White Island’ was covered in low cloud, looking very bleak and desolate, at other times the sun managed a brief appearance and when it did we could see two distant bears walking up the snow slope. Finally, the wind dropped enough for the zodiacs to be lowered. We cruised close to the shore, and from the safety of the zodiacs we managed good views of one of the resting bears. A second bear briefly put in an appearance before it ambled off into the whiteness. We also saw a few Walrus; including females with young, before the wind regained in strength forcing our return to the ship.
During the afternoon, we sailed back along the sheltered southcoast of Kvitøya until we reached Andreeneset at the western tip, the only other part of the island not covered by the icecap. This bleak area of land is named after the Swedish explorer Salomon Andree who, together with two other men, set off from Spitsbergen in the hydrogen balloon ‘Örnen’ on 11th July 1897 in an attempt to reach the Geographic North Pole. However, the balloon crashed on the pack-ice and after several weeks walking, pulling their sledge, they arrived on this remote island where they perished. Their remains along with a camera and diaries were not found until 1930.
With ever strengthening winds, a big swell and low clouds rolling in, any chance of a zodiac cruise was ruled out. So, we continued with our sojourns heading for the southern tip of Nordaustlandet, accompanied by stiff-winged fulmars tacking around the bow, sweeping the rails with ever pass of their wing-tips.