Sunday, July 6, 2014

7/6/14 Six Amazing Norwegian Arctic Days without Internet Access

It’s been six amazing and busy days in the Arctic without Internet access.

On Sunday, 6/29/14, I’m up very early and hike around a deserted, quiet Oslo. It is beautiful down by fourteenth century fortress Akershus Slott and Pipervika harbor, and the only people I see are a jogger, the street cleaning crews, a policeman, and some locals fishing off the docks. I am disappointed that the castle grounds don’t open to visitors until 9am – after the time we are scheduled to leave for the airport  - so I have to be content with looping the perimeter of the castle grounds and admiring the architecture from outside the imposing wall.

On the way back to the hotel, I stop to photograph Stortinget, the meeting place of the Norwegian National Assembly.
After an interesting breakfast back at the Thon Bristol hotel, the travel group flies from Oslo to Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen, Svalbard. The 3-hour flight north to Longyearbyen is uneventful, but for a few fleeting glimpses of rugged islands and breath-taking glaciers from above through the thick clouds and a wonderful meal of smoked salmon and potato salad. Upon arrival in Longyearbyen, the group has a tour of the historic coal-company community including a local museum displaying taxidermy mounts of local seals, polar bear, walrus, birds, and fish in addition to the geologic history and human exploration of Svalbard.

In the late afternoon, we board the National Geographic Explorer, participate in a safety drill, tour the ship and lifeboats, and settle into our cabins as the ship heads west out of Isfjorden.


We have hardly left the fjord for the open Arctic Ocean shelf, when a blue whale and fin whales were spotted ahead of the ship. The group quietly assembles on the bow to witness the majestic breathing and diving of the largest mammal to have ever lived on Earth.

Monday, 6/30/14, brings an early announcement to awake and view Lilliehookbreen, an actively calving glacier in Krossfjorden. Everyone is enthralled by the beautiful blue colors in the ice and stares in near silence. Then we hear deep cracking noises and all watch in awe as first small pieces and then tons of ice crash into the ocean off the glacier’s leading edge repeatedly. As I see the shockwaves spread on the water surface, I wish I was in a kayak.

After lunch, I have the opportunity to get out in a sea kayak in the same fjord, but away from the active calving, in a location the crew calls Stephan’s Garden. It feels good to paddle, and the sea allows a close view of a thick-billed murre (Brunnich’s guillemot) colony nesting on the cliffs as well as an abandoned fishing vessel run aground in shallow water and interesting formations of brash ice.

After an hour of kayaking, it begins to rain, but we return to the ship and get a zodiac ride ashore to take a very short land hike anyway. The tundra is covered with mosses, lichens, and tiny flowers, and that is all covered by shed reindeer hairs. It seems too delicate to walk upon, but it is surprisingly resilient, springing back and hiding my bootprints almost instantaneously.

As we step shore, our naturalist guide picks up a decapitated wing and shows us the telltale markings of a kittiwake. I wonder why there is a fresh-looking, loose wing detached from its body simply laying on the shore for the convenience of the guide. I soon get my answer. There are many noisy birds, most fishing in the sea and fertilizing the land as they fly back to nests on the cliffs. I see common eiders, arctic terns, puffins, and snow buntings. Suddenly, a glaucous gull attacks a kittiwake and drags it off the cliff to the tundra below. A 10-minute losing battle for life ensues before the gull consumes to body of the kittiwake, but leaves the wings. Later we see several parasitic jaegers (arctic skua) harassing kittiwakes returning from fishing in the sea in aerial battles until they vomit their catch, which is promptly consumed by the skua. Apparently, the life of a kittiwake is a tough one.

The ship travels north along the coast of Spitzbergen as we sleep, and we wake early on Tuesday, 7/1/14, to view the navigation through a narrow and shallow side passage into Smeerenburgfjorden. As we approach the passage, it appears as if the Captain and Chief Mate are driving this large ship straight east into a wall of mountains. As we get closer, we can see a turn to the north will put us through a narrow gap near the head of the fjord. In the passage, we see an emergency shelter with barrels of emergency fuel stockpiled next to it. It is amazing what the Norwegian government does to maintain and protect the lives of people living in this challenging environment. Even more amazing to me is that no one tampers with it unless they really need it. I can scarcely imagine such a system working in the U.S.

After breakfast, we take a zodiac ride to a wet landing on Smeerenburg (or Blubber Town), a 17th century whaling camp on a flat sandy beach at the mouth of the fjord. The remains of blubber-boiling sites are plentiful. Our Norwegian guide, Kenneth, tells us about the thousands of whales that were killed by hand and dragged by rowboats unto this shore to be boiled down for oil. He points out a spot of land across the water where hundreds of whalers are buried in shallow graves covered with large stones due to the permafrost preventing a deep burial and tells us of someone who got caught at the airport attempting to leave with a human skull as a souvenir. We hike about a mile and a half north along the coast full of decomposing kelp and turn west toward higher ground. Kenneth has not hiked here before, and we stop to regroup at the top of a small hill. We soon realize we are standing in the middle of 8 graves, rectangular areas covered with larger rocks. On closer inspection, we notice rib bones protruding from under the rocks in the middle of several graves, pushed upward by 400 years of freeze-thaw cycles.

We move on toward the lake until the footing becomes too muddy and a few people in the group manage to sink in knee-deep, so we return toward the zodiac landing. On the way back, we stick close to the shore and everyone picks up trash – fishing nets, plastic bottles, discarded rope. Even in this remote location, the sea tosses its load of garbage onto the shore, and we do what we can to improve the situation. When we have all retrieved our life jackets from the storage bin, we fill it with the trash we have collected and return it to the ship for proper disposal.

After lunch back on the ship, Fred McClaren gives a talk about his life as a submarine commander mapping the Arctic shelf and ice. After supper, the ship is breaking through loose ice pack heading north of Spitzbergen. The sound of ice grinding along the side of the ship and suddenly lurching the ship sideways when an especially big piece is encountered is unnerving at first, but the ice pack is where the interesting wildlife is concentrated, so we head north into the ice. We are not disappointed. Most of the people on the ship gather on the bow to watch the ice floes breaking under the weight of the ship. As our progress opens leads, polar cod that were once hiding under the ice are picked off by the kittiwakes trailing our path. Soon, minke whales, ring seals, bearded seals, and walrus are spotted and photographed. The Captain does an amazing job quietly and slowly navigating us into great observing positions without disturbing the wildlife at all. In all instances, we eventually back away, leaving the marine mammals at peace on the ice. Most people get cold and return to their cabins, but we soon get the call – a polar bear has been spotted! Everyone dons their warm gear, grabs their cameras, and returns to the bow.

There it is – a polar bear in the wild walking at a steady pace away from us, sniffing the air for its next meal. We can see a couple of bearded seals on the ice ahead of the bear from our vantage point. I wonder if the bear sees or smells them as he veers off to the left of the seals’ location. After watching for 10-15 minutes, I realize the bear has turned right and is looping downwind to sneak up on the seals. He keeps a slow and steady pace on the ice, sniffing the air every few steps, but the seals are on to him and slip into the water while he is still well out of striking range. The bear turns to our left and continues at the same pace sniff-testing the air every few steps. The Captain turns the ship to port and we see several more groups of seals on ice floes downwind. The bear does, too. This time, he takes to the water, disappearing for a few minutes and reappearing in an opening closer and closer to the seals. Again, the seals sense the bears approach and take to the water, thwarting his hunting attempts before he has a chance to strike. The bear looks fat and well-fed. I’m confident he will be successful soon, and I’m a bit happy when the ship turns away to head east for the night. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to look away, but I don’t really want to see blood spilled all over the beautiful white and blue ice. It was better to simply watch the hunting strategies.  


The next morning, Wednesday, 7/2/14, I awake to the announcement that more walrus have been spotted on the ice. I head out and take some photos, and soon we also see a thin brownish polar bear on the land to the south. This is the “dangerous bear” type of which we have been warned. It’s hungry and looking for food – likely reindeer on the land where it’s searching, but anything it can get, it will eat. I’m glad we are on the ship. After breakfast there is a talk on the formation of sea ice and another on ocean circulation as the ship heads into Woodfjorden. Another polar bear is spotted on land. This one appears more healthy and is photographed by many telephoto lenses. Zodiac cruises into Liefdefjorden are offered after lunch. I jump in with the naturalist guide, Magnus, who directly speeds us out to a distant ice floe with five walruses chilling out on it. We get very close and spend 10 minutes photographing them.


As we circumnavigate a small rocky outcrop, we notice the same polar bear from earlier on the landmass to the north. The fog is setting in, and the ship is contacting Magnus on the radio with directive to return, so we head back. We are welcomed aboard with hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps, beer, and brats. I feel right at home. On the menu for supper tonight is venison tenderloin. It is delicious, and I wonder if it’s reindeer.

Thursday, 7/3/14, morning brings an opportunity for a zodiac wet landing and a long hike in Albert 1 Land over mossy and lichen tundra along the rocky shore near Hamburg burta / Hoelhalvoya since the ship has returned east and then south along the Spitzbergen coast all night. The tundra here is beautiful, wetter than at Stephan’s Garden and very spongy. Small streams cross the landscape, and snow still hangs in the little valleys and tops the small hills.



We identify polar bear tracks and scat in several places in the snow that are a few days old, according to the guide.
After returning to the ship for lunch, we have a talk about photography while the ship makes our way into the still waters of Kongfjorden for the polar plunge opportunity. The other two Grosvenor Teacher Fellows and I jump together into the 38-degree Arctic Ocean. It is invigorating to say the least! After a Malibu hot cocoa to shake off the chill, I make a second solo leap into the chilly sea.



After supper, we visit Ny Alesund, a scientific research village and the site of the Amundsen–Ellsworth–Nobile successful attempt to reach the north pole in the airship Norge in 1929.

We head toward Greenland. Friday, 7/4/14, and Saturday, 7/5/14, are spent crossing the Arctic Ocean. The seas are tame, but rolling, and I notice a dramatic increase in patches behind many people’s ears to combat sea sickness. The rocking makes me sleepy, but not too sick. It is quite foggy, so there’s not much scenery. Many naturalists give talks about topics ranging from seals, polar bears, and living a year as a remote trapper to climate change, public speaking, and photography. The one wildlife highlight of these two days occurs just after lunch on Friday. The ocean is 10,000 feet deep for hundreds of miles around us, but as we cross over an area with a single seamount that gets within 300 feet of the surface, fin whales and another blue whale are spotted. The seamount disrupts deep currents and deflects nutrient-rich waters from the bottom toward the surface, where the combination of light and nutrients creates an oasis of productivity in an otherwise fairly barren open ocean. The blue whale feeding on this productive area is amazing. Only one in five blue whales fluke as they dive, but this one does it every time it goes own to feed. We watch it for nearly an hour before continuing to head southwest.


At the recap on Saturday evening, we see enlarged photos of the polar bear taken by a guest on Wednesday. It shows some thin, green, fishing gear tangled around the bear’s neck. The staff tell us authorities have been notified and the Norwegian government is sending a veterinarian in a helicopter to tranquilize the bear and remove the strangling debris if needed. Also, fast ice retains a hold on Greenland’s northeast coast, and it is creating a lot of fog, so a landing in northeast Greenland looks unlikely. We are instead heading to Jan Mayen, a tiny volcanic island and meteorological station. We are hoping that the sea and weather conditions allow us to make a wet zodiac landing on this northern-most island on the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Tomorrow morning, I may be standing on a divergent plate boundary! 


  1. Looks AMAZING! Thank you for sharing such detail and terrific photos while aboard. Hoping to share your blog with friends and family! Courtney (Kelley Holmes' sister)

  2. In addition to all of the other things you are good at, you are an AMAZING writer. You're descriptions are so vivid! Thanks for sharing this amazing journey with us!