Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Smeerenburg on Spitzbergen

Map picture

Note: This was written on June 21, 2012, but not sent until now because we did not have satellite coverage for the remainder of our voyage.

I need to do a quick lesson on geography in this part of the world. Svalbard is the name given to an archipelago in the Arctic, constituting the northernmost part of Norway. Located north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Within this chain of Islands, Spitsbergen is the largest, and we will spend much of our time in this area exploring Spitsbergen. When I left for this trip, I was under the impression that we would actually go as far north as the Arctic Ice Cap, but that is no longer correct. In the not too distant past, the Arctic Ice Cap reached all the way to Svalbard, and in fact, our ship was not able to circumnavigate the island of Spitzbergen. Today, however, the Ice Cap has retreated north to such an extent, that if we wanted to actually reach the edge, our ship would have to sail at maximum speed for a full day to get there – even then there would be nothing see. Afterwards we would require another full day to return to Svalbard. For this reason, the Explorer now spends its time here in the far north exploring the area for Polar Bears and Walruses, and visiting some of the historical ruins left by the early settlers.

This brings me to Smeerenburg. It was the main base of operation for the Dutch whaling trade in the 1600’s. Whales would be brought here for processing, and at one time, Smeerenburg had as many as eight companies that maintained bases here. We were set to anchor off this area around 8am. The ruins are located along a sandy shore surrounded by a beautiful sound. You might be interested to know that the difference between a “fjord” and a “sound” is that with a fjord, there is only one way in and out. A sound on the other hand, has at least two separate entrances. The main entrance into the Smeeerenburg Sound is quite narrow and is surrounded on all sides by magnificent glaciers. Barentsburg, Svalbard, NorwayIf the conditions early in the morning made getting up worthwhile, then we were promised a wake up announcement around 6am. So when the loud speakers started blaring at 6 am, we were told to dress quickly and come on deck for an absolutely beautiful sight. All around the ship you could hear people quickly throwing on clothes, grabbing cameras and making their way up to the observation deck. Everyone looked as if they had just rolled out of bed which is in fact what just happened. I was one of the first to arrive; however, before I could take too many pictures, a fellow passenger spotted a polar bear on a small island in the middle of the narrow channel. All interest in the scenery immediately evaporated, and an announcement was made that the Captain was turning the ship around, and would anchor in a safe location. In the meantime, the Expedition Team was preparing the Zodiacs with the intention of taking us as close to the island as possible.

Suddenly the Captain himself came on to announce that a pair of Walrus were frolicking just off the bow of the ship. Sooo, everyone stops running for their cabins, and instead runs back upstairs to see if they can catch a picture of a walrus. Barentsburg, Svalbard, NorwayI quickly got several good pictures before heading down to our cabin to change.

Now remember, everyone had just rolled out of bed and thrown on clothes to take some quick pictures on deck. Getting dressed to go out in the Zodiac was an entirely different issue. It meant taking off everything that we had just put on, and dressing in an entirely different set of clothes. It happened that we were in the first group to leave the ship, and moving as fast as we could, it was all we could do to get ready. The temperature outside was hovering around freezing, and the winds were quite high already, thereby guaranteeing a wet and cold ride. The corridors of the ship looked as if a Chinese fire drill had been called. From where the ship was anchored, the bear could barely be seen as a tiny white dot moving around the small barren island. Approaching the island, the winds calmed down because we were on the leeward side. But, wouldn’t you know, just as we approached the bear decided to climb over the top and go down the other side, so off we roared in pursuit. This meant, however, that we were going right into the wind and the ocean swells, which meant that the ride was like a rollercoaster. All four Zodiacs in our group managed to get quite close to the bear, which appeared to not even be aware of our presence. Barentsburg, Svalbard, NorwayThe only problem for those of us who wanted a good picture was that we were on a moving platform that was at times doing its best to literally throw us out of the little boat. By the time it was all over, the bear crossed back to the other side, and we dutifully followed, and in the end, I took somewhere close to 400 pictures, and my camera and everything I had was soaking wet with seawater – BUT-I had a big smile on my face – I had seen a real polar bear in its natural environment, and in all those pictures, there were a few that were really good.Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway

During lunch, the Captain returned to our original plan of anchoring off the historic ruins at Smeerenburg in order that we could all go ashore in the afternoon. Upon reaching the site where he would normally drop anchor, he found strong winds and equally strong currents such that the anchor would not “hold.” Rather than giving up on a landing, the Captain, instead, decided on another cleaver strategy. Remember I explained that a “Sound” has more than one entrance. Indeed, Smeerenburg has three different ways to enter the Sound. The Captain set out at high speed to circle round the coast to the North, and to enter the Sound from a different direction. He hoped that this would allow him to anchor in a narrow part of the Sound which was protected on both sides by high mountains, and thus provide us with a good anchorage. What a ride is all I can say. When we left the Sound the winds outside the sheltered area quickly rose to over 70 mph, and the seas were equally rough. This wind was coming directly from our side, and it caused the ship to move forward with a list. In other words, we were tilted on our side by as much as 20 degrees at times. It made walking comical, and caused several things around the ship to fall and break, but by the end of lunch, we were safely anchored off Smeerenburg, and set to go ashore to explore. The only problem was that even in our sheltered area, the winds were 30 gusting to 40 mph, which meant that we were in for not only a rough and wet ride, but also a very cold afternoon out on the fully exposed beach.

The precautions taken by the ship for our safety ashore were impressive. If you will remember, we are in an area where the polar bear is king, and potentially a very dangerous animal to people. Before we went ashore, the ship sent out a party of six guards to insure our safety. Each of these six were armed and on sentry duty against any curious bears. Three of the guards were positioned around our perimeter on shore, and three were located in Zodiacs which surround our position on the beach. They were on the lookout for any bears that might approach us from the water. Each group was accompanied by two members of the ship’s Expedition Team, and one of them was armed with a pistol as a last resort should the need arise. If a bear did appear, the first order of business would be to evacuate us from the area as quickly as possible. Only in the direst of circumstances would a bear be shot, because among other things, the consequences of shooting a polar bear in Norway are greater than shooting a person we have been told.

Lisa was not feeling well this afternoon, and so I went by myself. There was really not much to see. After all, we are talking about some ruins from the 1600’s that have been exposed to some of the most severe weather on our planet. So in the end, I can say I was there, and as predicted, by the time I returned, everything I had was wet and cold with only a few pictures to show for the effort.

At this point, I have no idea where the ship is headed for tomorrow. In this part of the world, schedules are based on current conditions. Each evening we have a “destination briefing,” and so in about an hour I will learn about our upcoming plans.

There is no question we are having a good time. It is unbelievable that on our first day really exploring the Arctic, we spotted both a walrus and a polar bear. It cannot get much better.

I hope everyone is doing fine. .


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