The weather and seas cooperate enough for us to visit Jan Mayen on the morning of Sunday, 7/6/14. After breakfast and a briefing, we all head down to the mud room. Everyone is used to the zodiac routine now: Life jackets on, scan out on the computer so no one gets left behind, and walk through a disinfection tub when boarding the zodiac for a shore excursion. Disembarkation from the returning zodiac requires the reverse procedure, plus a boot-scrubbing stop prior to the disinfection tub. Great care is taken to ensure that invasive species are not transported from place to place as we travel through the Arctic. No seeds or spores will get a free ride to an inappropriate new home on the National Geographic Explorer.
Jan Mayen is the northern-most volcanic island in the Mid Atlantic Ridge. It is approximately 35 miles long, a bit over a mile wide at its narrowest, and it has 18 human residents total. On the map, it looks like a spoon with a handle to the southwest, the large bowl of the active volcano in the northeast, and a narrow saddle of land in the middle. Since 1929, the Norwegian Armed Forces has maintained a small meteorological station, LORAN, and some radio communications in this remote outpost 340 miles north of Iceland. I love volcanic landscapes, and this divergent plate boundary does not disappoint. Last active in 1970 and 1985, the land is raw and barely vegetated. It appears as a rocky moonscape of alternating layers of basaltic lava flows and ash or tephra, save for a few areas with sparse dandelions, arctic flowers, and mosses. We make a wet stearn zodiac landing on a black sand beach as the waves break on the more protected northwest shore and overtop the rubber knee boots of many guests. Although it is raining and the waves steadily march ashore, I stay dry since I am mastering the snug alternating of layers – liner socks, thermal underwear, wool socks, water-resistant pants inside rubber knee-boots, rain pants with tight Velcro at the cuff outside the boot. I suspect I can wade through thigh-deep water and stay dry and toasty.
Like so many places in the Arctic, Jan Mayen has an interesting history of exploration and exploitation. First discovered by Irish monks, they described the island’s imposing rock towers of ancient volcanic plugs and sulfurous gasses as the gates of hell. In 1614, the Dutch named the island after a whaling captain. In their typical whaling fashion, they used the relatively flat sandy beach as a processing site, dragging bowhead whales ashore and rendering their blubber into valuable oil in large copper pots over driftwood fires. Within a few decades, no whales were left, and they moved on to a new slaughter. Seals were decimated in this region in a similar pattern. Norwegians moved in next to trap valuable blue fox, prized for their thick and dark blue-grey pelts. The blue fox is a phase of the Arctic fox that was well camouflaged against the dark volcanic rocks in summer, but not immune to the traps that bored soldiers set for them. The Norwegian commander tells us that no mammals, other than humans, have been seen on the island in decades, but there are many birds.
The long hike in the intermittent rain from the zodiac landing is pretty easy going as we follow a military road that climbs and curls around a series of volcanic cones. We cross the saddle connecting several imposing ancient cliffs covered with sea birds to the northeast with the 2277-m, active, glacier-topped volcano, Beerenburg, to the northeast. The road turns southwest, and we follow it high along the southwestern shore. A broad, low lava plain stretches far out into the cold sea on our left and it has a primitive air strip on it. We see the massive base of a volcano ahead, but the peak remains shrouded in the clouds that have been plaguing us for several days. The warmer ocean currents from the south combine with the chilly pack ice just to our north creating a persistent and dense fog that slows the ships progress and thwarts attempts to site wildlife from the ship. Now the fog is hiding this amazing volcanic peak from view. Nevertheless, the scenery below the cloud level is lovely. After a few miles, we veer off the road following our Norwegian guide Kenneth up a drainage channel to the north and come to a lush pocket of bright green moss beds. It is impossible to step on these soft carpets without leaving deep footprints, so we retrace our steps back to the zodiac landing site. It is nearly time for lunch onboard the ship anyway.
We spend the leisurely afternoon circumnavigating the Jan Mayer to appreciate the glaciers, cliffs, and waterfalls at all angles from the comfort of the ship. In the late afternoon, Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg, give an interesting talk on their lives as professional photographers for National Geographic and show some of their best photos. I only got 2 hours of sleep last night, thanks to the midnight sun and navigating into two sets of swell at right angles to one another tossing the ship at awkward angles all night, so I skip supper and go to bed early hoping for a more restful evening.
Monday, 7/7/14, brings a leisurely morning since we are at sea en route to Greenland. It turns out I missed a great Pilipino Buffet with a full roast pig last night, complete with live singing and guitar music. I am disappointed, but I did get a good night’s sleep and feel more human this morning. Since we are at sea, the day is filled with several talks on quests to reach the north pole, the development of ice-breaking submarines, and Viking history. (They never, ever wore horns on their helmets!) The talks are only interrupted by meals – wild boar for lunch and duck breast for supper – and the siting of wildlife. We see two more blue whales before lunch and a polar bear after supper. Late in the day, we also start seeing many colossal ice bergs brought into our path by the East Greenland Current, and we site the mountainous coast of Greenland. Tomorrow we may be able to go ashore in Scoresby Sound, Earth’s largest fjord, if the weather and seas are not an insurmountable obstacle.