The lonely shores of Svalbard

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From a distance, it looked like a ballet. It was 2 a.m. and I was standing on the bow of our Zodiac, looking at the pack ice east of Daudmannsodden, Dead Man’s Cape in English. Two large male polar bears circled each other in the midnight sun, the Wahlenbergbreen glacier glistening behind them.

As we got closer, it became clear that it was a duel, not a dance. Throat screams carried by the crisp air, then headbutts, raised paws and bared teeth. As the bears fought, we spotted something red near their feet: a bearded seal carcass, staining the ice with blood. It was dinner for a week, for one person.

Expedition guide Christian Bruttel cut the engine and we floated through the pack ice along the shore. Two more bears appeared above a crusted ridge – this time a mother and cub, now very close – and Christian raised a finger as if to say, “Hush!” Then, not far away, a fifth was spotted through binoculars, walking through a flurry of scavenging Glaucous Gulls. Wildlife sightings usually require patience, local knowledge, subterfuge and luck, but in Svalbard in May, at the start of the polar summer, sightings were quick and surprisingly easy. It was only the first day, before a vast uninhabited realm of black sea, gray sky, white ice and wild creatures.

We were sailing north of Longyearbyen on an “expedition micro-cruise” organized by a new tour operator called Secret Atlas. The micro does not refer to the route or the duration (several hundred miles over nine days) but to the size of the vessel. While many Arctic cruises carry hundreds of guests — and one, the Crystal Serenity, has carried more than 1,000 through the Northwest Passage — Secret Atlas limits its ships in the region to a maximum of 12. Not only do these small groups make it easier to appreciate the quiet wilderness, the smaller vessels can be more impromptu with their itineraries and schedules and can get much closer to shore.

Polar bears fighting in the wild © Florian Ledoux

The company was founded in 2019 by avid boaters and polar enthusiasts Andy Marsh and Michele D’Agostino, but the pandemic has put everything on hold and means it’s only their second season. They organize trips to Antarctica and the Arctic, but Svalbard is clearly a particular source of inspiration. “Svalbard is a wild frontier in a world short of adventure,” says Marsh. “Compared to Antarctica, it looks abandoned.”

In truth, even Svalbard is less abandoned than it was. The number of tourist overnight stays in hotels and guesthouses in the main town of Longyearbyen increased from 46,000 in 2009 to 147,000 in 2019. However, amid the ice floes and towards the far northwest of the archipelago, we were very alone.

The brilliant colors of floating ice
The dazzling colors of floating ice © Florian Ledoux

We were on board the MV Villa, a former buoy vessel built to order for the Norwegian Coastal Administration but now converted to carry passengers. Functional exterior belies surprising levels of comfort: three-course meals with paired wines were served in a modernized dining room, and the deck served as a communal viewing deck for guests and the 12 crew . The sea ice that makes Svalbard’s fjords and islands impenetrable from September to late April has retreated, leaving channels that are navigable but clogged with an ever-changing maze of icebergs. Some served as rafts for groups of seals and walruses; others rolled along without warning, like dogs wanting to have their bellies scratched. With temperatures exceeding -10°C, we pushed further north.

Beyond Prins Karls Forland, on the “Coast of Seven Glaciers”, the sun hit the fog and the ice crystals shimmered like a kaleidoscope. We saw reindeer fattening along the shoreline and cliffs pockmarked with black guillemots. No one lives here, but there are echoes of past lives.

MV Villa, a former buoy-laying vessel built to order for the Norwegian Coastal Administration now converted to carry passengers
The MV Villa, a former buoy vessel built at the request of the Norwegian Coastal Administration converted for passenger transport © Florian Ledoux

On the island of Danskøya, we pass the site from where, in 1897, the Swedish balloonist SA Andrée took off in a hydrogen balloon with two colleagues to try to reach the North Pole. Their flight only lasted 65 hours; the crew crashed safely onto the sea ice but perished after a three-month struggle to return safely.

GM250611_22X Wkd Voyage Svalbard

Nearby, we saw the ruined ovens of Smeerenburg, a Dutch settlement whose name is commonly translated as “city of fat.” It was established by whalers from Amsterdam in 1619 and by the 1630s up to 200 men worked there, boiling blubber in copper kettles to make oil and crafting barrels to transport it. A fort was built to ward off whalers from rival nations, but the project was short-lived. By the 1640s, so many whales had been shot that they had become rare in the region, and whalers increasingly brought blubber back to port in casks rather than using local processing plants ashore. Around 1660, the town of Blubber had lost its last inhabitants.

We pushed through the waltzing ice into the Magdalenefjorden, where around 130 Dutch sailors from the 17th and 18th centuries lie buried. (It is feared that erosion, accelerated by climate change, will soon bring some skeletons to the surface).

Walruses were once heavily hunted on Svalbard, but their numbers rebounded after a hunting ban
Walruses were once heavily hunted in Svalbard, but their numbers have rebounded following a hunting ban © Florian Ledoux

One evening, beneath the looming Smeerenburg Glacier, the freezing iceberg suddenly trapped our Zodiac. Three stunned walruses appeared beside us to assess our predicament. Then, with the outboard motor spitting slush and the reinforced rubber nose hammering an unrelenting pace on the ice ahead of us, the pack ice changed course, splitting in different directions and freeing us. It started to snow heavily. It was a reminder of the distance that separated us from summer and from home.

Here, the sky was teeming with life. The rare king eiders and puffins were constant companions, as were the little penguin – like a little penguin – and the arctic tern, which migrates from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year, a distance of three times to the moon in a life. They added splashes of color and movement against the dark backdrop of the glaciers.

Expedition Guide Christian Bruttel

Expedition guide Christian Bruttel © Florian Ledoux

The Dangers of the Wild Frontier

The Dangers of the Wild Frontier © Mike MacEacheran

Because, while inspiring and awe-inspiring, Svalbard’s glaciers can be dark places. They are melting the ice at record speed: the Kongsvegen and Kronebreen glaciers, which we saw the next day, are retreating more than 200 meters each year. As we watched, there was a clap of thunder as if from a Norse god, and suddenly a pillar of ice the size of a London bus calved from Kongsvegen into the fjord. Drifting for a while, we saw more ice disintegrating before our eyes. Of course, these glaciers have always calved like this, but it was hard not to feel uneasy.

A day later, in Ny-Ålesund, I succumbed to the lure of the real world. A storm forced us to seek refuge in the Kongsfjorden, so we dropped anchor in what is the northernmost permanently inhabited civilian settlement in the world. Originally a mining outpost, it now houses around 100 scientists and climate change researchers in the summer, and around 30 people year-round. I strolled past the northernmost post office, the northernmost museum and the northernmost Roald Amundsen bust, for a drink in the northernmost pub. Unnamed and unsigned, it’s only officially open to scientists who work here, but it was a Saturday and they took pity on me. Inside, I drank subsidized beers with eloquent French, German, Norwegian and Scottish academics, then left the next morning with an explosive hangover.

On our last day we arrived at Poolepynten on the east side of Prins Karls Forland and set off in a Zodiac to see a large pod – or ‘out’ – of Atlantic walruses. Ironically, the promontory is named after Jonas Poole, an English explorer and avid hunter of whales, seals and walruses, but it has always been considered a refuge for long-tusked mammals. Like whales, walruses were heavily hunted on Svalbard, not only for their blubber, but also for their ivory and thick hides, which were used to create machine belts during the Industrial Revolution. By the time hunting was banned in 1952, only around 100 remained, but numbers have rebounded strongly; a 2018 survey estimated there were 5,500 in the Svalbard region. At Poolepynten, dozens of tough males, all fat and sharp ivory, thronged the shore, beautiful if foul-smelling.

A century ago, the great Norwegian explorer, scientist and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen sailed on his own yacht, Veslemøy, in Svalbard. His goal was to make oceanographic observations, but he clearly felt a deep connection to the magnificence of the Far North. “Strange, there is always sadness at the start,” he wrote. “It’s as if after all we couldn’t bear to leave this dark desert of ice, glaciers, cold and toil.” Those words stuck with me as I found myself waiting at the baggage carousel at Heathrow less than a day later. Shortly after, my thoughts lost in the Arctic, I was quickly engulfed by the streets and a blizzard of people.

Details

Mike MacEacheran was a guest on Secret Atlas (secretatlastravel.com). Eight-day trips on the MV Villa cost from £6,700 pp, with departures from April to August. Double rooms at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel (radissonhotels.com) in Longyearbyen cost from NKr1,740 (£142)

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