Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Special Birthday For Me!

Map picture

This was started on June 23rd, and is just now being completed today on July1st.

Yesterday was my 68th birthday, and what a special day it was, as you will see.

We had been told to set our alarms early and to expect some spectacular scenery and a little surprise upon awakening. Well, the surprise was easy enough to see – the entire ship had pushed into the ice and was sitting quietly, fully “anchored” as it were by the surrounding ice. Svalbard, NorwayAs for the scenery, well it was a thick and chilly fog. The Captain had purposely pushed into the ice in an attempt to find ice thick enough that we could go ashore and actually walk on ice while surrounded in a beautiful fjord. Unfortunately in the fog, we would not be able to keep a safe perimeter against the polar bear, and so we had to reverse engines and go look for another adventure.

The ship set sail for what was expected to be a four hour repositioning which would allow us to have lunch, and hopefully enjoy some scenery right after lunch. By late morning, conditions started to improve dramatically, and as we headed to lunch, the day was starting to look good. All of a sudden the bridge watchers spotted a polar bear, and immediately the Captain turned the boat around and preparations were put into place for launching the Zodiacs as quickly as possible. Lunch was postponed, or rather quickly forgotten, while we all hurried to make ready for yet another adventure. Once the ship had moved a little closer, it became apparent that we not only had a polar bear spotted, but it was a mother with two cubs in tow.DSC04997

From the moment that a Zodiac launch is initiated, it takes around 45 minutes to complete all the necessary preparations. The outer doors must be opened and the launching platforms readied. Then the Zodiacs themselves have to be lowered into the water, and before a passenger ever sets foot into a craft, the bear patrol must first insure that the area is safe. Everyone was so excited to get out and get going before the three little bears disappeared, but not to worry because the mother seemed to be out for a long walk that actually followed the shoreline during the entire afternoon. Even so, only about half the passengers may go out at one time, and the ship has a very well thought out plan for rotating groups in order that everyone gets a fair turn. We were in the second group to launch, and were able to observe the mother and two cubs at fairly close range for almost an hour before returning to the ship. DSC04819(2)To see a polar bear in its natural environment is a thrilling experience, and so unlike seeing the animal in some zoo, no matter how fancy the “cage.”

My entire day onboard the ship was really amazing. Somehow it seems that everyone, passengers and crew, knew that it was my birthday, and I received so many hugs, kisses and handshakes that it was all a little overwhelming. The Hotel Director joined Lisa and me for dinner at a lavishly decorated table, and with his compliments, we enjoyed one of the best wines on their menu; but the best part was that a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue was ours to enjoy for the evening --- whoopee! Sitting at our table was also a photograph of the entire dining room staff, and each had signed a special greeting on the reverse side. It could hardly get any better until we looked out the window in front of us and noted that the ship had come to a virtual stop because just across from us was yet another polar bear majestically strolling across the ice while just down and to the right was a mother Walrus and her cub all rolled up on the ice. We all toasted to a very special moment, and that in my mind goes for the entire cruise.

Our final two days went by at such a breathtaking speed and with so much that was special that it literally became quite impossible to keep up with writing and organizing photographs. It seemed as if we were running from one fantastic adventure to yet another. Just to give you a sample, the ship anchored on the 23rd amidst the glassy waters of a magical bay surrounded on all sides by glaciers, most of which were “calving,” meaning that they were pushing into the bay and entire sides of the huge ice shelves would fall off into the waters with a horrendous loud noise.Svalbard, Norway We launched our boats to go out among the glaciers and to witness close up this awesome spectacle of nature. Along the way, right beside our little Zodiac a beautiful all white Beluga Whale came to the surface spouting waters sending mist across out little vessel. It seems that we had fallen into the middle of a pod of feeding Beluga, and for almost 30 minutes they were all around us. Svalbard, Norway (Beluga Whale)I tried with all my might to get some pictures, and while the two I posted are not great, you can clearly see the small whales as they surfaced for air.

As we drifted in silence, we could hear the ice all around us as it moved and cracked, with the occasional loud calving event. Out boat handler reached over into the water and pulled into the boat a beautiful clear piece of glacial ice that we each got to hold.Svalbard, Norway Let me tell you, holding a piece of glacial ice is quite a thrill. Our guide told us that on some occasions they actually collect the ice in coolers and use it as ice cubes for a special “glacier” party.

On our last day, we spent the morning going ashore to visit a promontory where walrus are known to congregate, and as luck would have it, there was a herd of around 30 large animals pulled up on the desolate beach.Svalbard, Norway We were told that the animals tend to be very skittish, and so silence was the rule. Initially a very large perimeter was established behind which we had to stay, but as the animals became more accustomed to our presence, we were able to move much closer. Our little Zodiac was the last to come ashore for some time, and it was a pretty scary ride to boot. Since the initial anchoring that morning, the winds and seas had increased substantially to the point that by the time we attempted the landing, everyone on our craft was covered in water, and the Zodiac almost flipped right after we had exited. So while we got to spend time with the walrus, the Captain had to reposition the vessel to the opposite side of the little promontory, and I actually got a photograph of the walrus with our ship sailing by in the background. Svalbard, Norway

On our final afternoon, they positioned the ship to allow people to go ashore on a deserted tundra area with a large mountain that could be climbed to afford spectacular views of several glacial fields. Lisa and I were worn out my then, and we still had to pack in order to be off the ship early the next morning so we took the afternoon “at leisure.”

Our journey home was not the most difficult we have ever encountered, but it was long, requiring a little more than two days. We were departing our ship at Longyearbyen, Norway, which you will recall is the most northern city in the world. SilverSea had arranged a charter flight to bring in passengers for the next cruise, and we would then take that aircraft back to Oslo and spend the evening there. Early the next morning, we boarded a flight from Oslo to London then direct to Dallas, and then a flight into Kansas City, arriving home around midnight on Tuesday, June 26. Unfortunately, I managed to get sick on the flight home, and since arriving back, I have been about as sick as I can recall having been in many, many years. Lisa keeps flirting with getting sick herself, and we thought she was perhaps just tired, but today she is giving all the signs of going down for the call.

This will be my last “blog” for this cruise, and I would like to step back a minute and comment on the entire experience. Lisa and I had an opportunity last night to watch some of the pictures from this trip, and we both literally sat there mesmerized. I guess that neither of us thought that in our lifetimes we’d be floating among glaciers, or witnessing arctic wildlife up close and personal, or be visiting far off desolate worlds of unimaginable beauty; but we did! We got to within 600 miles of the North Pole, and saw a landscape devoid of trees, but not vegetation or wildlife. It seems that life can exists in even the most inhospitable places on this planet, and do just fine, thank you. So, from the perspective of where we were, and what we saw, this trip rates right at the top of our experiences, starting out with our visiting our friends Bill and Jayne in England, seeing Joyce and Patsy in Ireland, and all the places in between before winding up in the far north of Norway – WOW!

Finally, I really need to comment on the entire concept of “Expedition Cruising.” I do not know what rock I have been living under, but apparently Expedition Cruising as an industry has been around for some time. Perhaps one of the best examples of this would be the National Geographic vessel the Calypso, or the multiple expedition boats that ply the Galapagos Islands. Still, Lisa and I saw cruising in the more traditional sense, going on larger ships stopping at major ports. Now we find that we can enjoy luxury cruising on the Silver Explorer with around 100 fellow passengers and a crew of equal size, stopping at the most remote destinations and experiencing, really experiencing, the moment in a way that is both “up close and very personal.” If you hear excitement in my writing – that is because I am very excited about what we just experienced. Right now the concept of going back to a traditional cruise seems pretty tame.

So, we are back, but just a little under the weather. We are looking forward to seeing everyone soon.