Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago and the only one with a permanent population, the largest town being Longyearbyen. It belongs to Norway but is outside of the Schengen area.
Having just returned from my Antarctica trip, I noticed Speyside was advertising a trip to the Arctic: a ten-day cruise around Spitsbergen on board the Plancius, the same ship on which I went to Antarctica. I had always wanted to go to Svalbard and so did Jean, my cabin mate from the Antarctica cruise. Having decided to go, we managed to get the same cabin as before.
We had to spend a night in Oslo at the start and end of the holiday so I decided to take the opportunity to spend an extra few days with my family in Norway after the cruise.
Day 1 – Sunday 24 July
We flew to Longyearbyen with a stop in Tromsø to go through passport control as Svalbard is outside the Schengen area. In Longyearbyen, we had some time to look around before boarding the ship. There we saw the remains of coal mines on the hillside and lots of snowmobiles everywhere, ready for the winter. You could see it was a working town.
It was good to be back on the Plancius. Alex, the bar manager, and some of the staff were remembered from the Antarctic cruise but the expedition leader and guides were all new; they were introduced, with a glass of champagne, after the necessary safety drill. We were ready to start our voyage.
Day 2 – Monday 25 July
I woke early, as usual, and went to the lounge for my coffee. It was very foggy which meant we couldn’t land as they could not check for polar bears. The fog didn’t stop us from watching the birds. There were lots of fulmars and the odd kittiwake following the boat, and groups of little auks, and Brünnich’s guillemots out on the sea.
There was always a Plan B if the intended activity was not possible. On this day, it was a zodiac cruise along Lilliehöökbreen, one of the largest glaciers on Svalbard. We saw some oddly shaped icebergs and heard and saw several calving events where ice fell into the sea: quite loud. There were quite a few birds, including black guillemots, feeding in the water at the edge of the glacier.
After lunch we went ashore at Ny Ålesund, the second largest settlement in Svalbard and mostly populated by scientists. Near the dock there was a little pool with a pair of red-throated divers, purple sandpipers, and a grey phalarope in breeding plumage, much to our delight. In the harbour there were some seals which, on closer inspection, appropriately turned out to be harbour seals. There were lots of flowers and some reindeer grazing.
It was from here that Roald Amundsen began his aerial expeditions to the North Pole and I walked down to where there is a bust of the explorer to listen to a brief talk about the history of the place.
I didn’t stay long as somebody told me there was a king eider to be seen near the dog kennels. I rushed back as this would be a ‘lifer’ for me. I managed to see it through Roy’s scope but it was rather far away and so not a great view. As we returned to the harbour, there was an ivory gull on the beach, another first sighting for me and a great view of it too.
Day 3 – Tuesday 26 July
I woke early again and found the ship had rounded the top end of the island during the night and reached the end of a fjord in front of Monacobreen, a huge glacier. What a view! As we made our way further north to our landing site, we saw a bearded seal on a small ice floe. Its whiskers really were long.
This was our first wet landing. We gathered on the beach in front of an old wooden hut called the Texas Bar which was built by one of Svalbard’s most famous trappers, Hilmar Nøis. It is still occasionally used and is well stocked with alcohol from all around the world.
Walks here had to be guided and our guide was Karen, the ship’s botanist, much to Roy’s delight. We spent several fascinating hours looking at plants, including tussocks of moss campion, carpets of mountain avens, several species of whitlow grass and some gorgeous polar campion.
There was another landing after lunch, this time in Bockfjord. The geology there is interesting, with red sandstone on one side and dark metamorphic rocks on the other. There is also a tiny hot spring and the remains of volcanic rock. Led by our guide, Gerard, we continued looking at plant life. The mountain avens flowers were over but the seed heads were lovely. We also found a slime mould and lots of colourful lichen on the rocks.
Unfortunately, I then came down with the ‘Plancius bug’ and retired to bed straight after dinner.
Day 4 – Wednesday 27 July
We spent the day at sea up in the pack ice scanning for polar bears but, alas, none were seen. I was still unwell and spent most of the day in bed. We had reached a latitude of 81°35’ north, which is about 900km from the North Pole, and this was the furthest north we were to go. It was noticeably colder and we had some hot chocolate with rum to warm us up.
Day 5 – Thursday 28 July
Our first landing of the day was at Chermsideøya at the northern tip of Svalbard, with its barren polar desert landscape. This time we had Michael as our guide and he explained how the large amount of driftwood on the beach was due to logging in northern Russia. There was more wildlife than expected, including Arctic skuas, kittiwakes and Arctic terns. There were some reindeer on the hillside and a surprising number of flowers, including the lovely polar saxifrage and the Svalbard poppy.
The afternoon landing was on Phippsøya, one of the largest of the seven islands. This is a barren area and we were told not to expect much other than a nice walk. Apparently, the island is known for dangerous bear encounters, so the guides were on high alert. To emphasise the danger, we found a polar bear scull on the beach and an old hut with bear claw marks on the walls. We walked past a pair of Arctic skuas on a nest and sat for a while on some of the logs washed up on the beach. There were even more here than at the morning’s landing place. Alas, there were also the remains of old fishing nets and bits of plastic which the guides made an effort to pick up and take back to the ship.
In the evening we had a barbecue on the deck.
Day 6 – Friday 29 July
I woke to a beautiful sunny day, perfect for the morning’s zodiac cruise along Alkefjellet. There we saw huge colonies of seabirds, mostly Brünnich’s guillemots, with kittiwakes and glaucous gulls higher up, nesting on the cliffs. What an amazing sight. Apparently, more than 60,000 birds nest on those cliffs. As we came closer the sound of the birds increased, and the smell too. We tried to find guillemot chicks and eggs but didn’t see any, although we did see some glaucous gull chicks.
After lunch, we went to look at some walruses at Walbergøya and saw a big group of males on the beach. We spread out into a long line slowly moving towards them and got quite close before we were told to stop. Later, on a walk, we found some Polar mouse-ear, a new plant for the trip. We also came across some bones and polar bear paw prints.
While we were having our before-dinner briefing, there was an announcement that a polar bear had been spotted on the beach. We all went on deck to have a look. It was a bit far away but they decided that we could get nearer in the zodiacs so they postponed dinner and we donned our waterproofs and set off. We got to the maximum acceptable distance of a hundred metres from the bear which was having a snooze but looked up every now and then.
As it was such a lovely day, they took the ship close to the vast ice shelves of Bråsvellbreen. It was beautiful and we stayed out on deck until midnight. A good day indeed.
Day 7 – Saturday 30 July
We woke to another beautiful day as we were sailing south between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, the third and fourth largest islands in the Svalbard archipelago.
We couldn’t land at our first potential landing place as there were two polar bears on the hillside. One was fast asleep near the top and the other was desperately trying to grab some kittiwake eggs or chicks. We watched it for quite a while. The next potential landing place was also impossible as it too had a bear in sight.
A third landing site had a polar bear but it was in the far distance so we landed anyway through some choppy water. On shore, we saw polar bear prints as well as reindeer, goose, and arctic fox prints in the mud. A mother reindeer with her young was quite close, and the youngster was rather inquisitive until the mother galloped away and she followed. Going back to the ship, the sea was quite rough.
After lunch, we watched several more bears from the ship, including a mother with a cub, but all were rather a long way off. The plan was to have landed but the sea was too rough so we had a talk about polar bears instead.
Day 8 – 31 July
It was rather foggy in the morning but we were able to land in Gåshavna which is an old whaling station. Very little remains of it apart from some whale bones and bits of cooking pots. One of the staff gave a short talk about whaling and then our group set off for a walk, led by Philip. As the fog had thickened, we had to cut our walk short and return to the ship.
As we only had a short stay at Gåshavna, we had some extra time and went to Samarinvågen, a small glacier bay surrounded by stunning mountains. We were told that this bay is not often visited so it was a rare treat. We set off on a zodiac cruise along the edge of the glacier and watched as ice fell off into the sea.
There was a dramatic moment when the whole front of an arch in the ice suddenly fell and crashed into the water with a loud bang. Luckily, somebody managed to film the whole thing on her phone and kindly shared the video with us all. Here it is.
When we got back to the ship and had warmed up with coffee in the lounge, Roy spotted a humpback whale. During dinner, a few more turned up and we all rushed out to see them. We had finished our main course by then and the staff kindly brought the dessert up to the lounge so we could continue watching.
Day 9 – Sunday 1 August
This was another beautiful morning and we were in Isfjorden. The ship dropped anchor next to Alkhornet, a famous bird mountain covered in kittiwakes and guillemots. The vegetation was lush and there were lots of grazing reindeer, including several young. Karen, the botanist, was our guide and she was looking for a particular plant, the Svalbard saxifrage, which is both endemic and rare. This is a good place for flowers and we found and identified many different species before eventually finding the one Karen was looking for.
There were plenty of reindeer about and we had good views. During the morning the weather changed and by the end of the walk it was raining quite heavily.
In the afternoon we were in Templefjord and landed at a site called Fredheim where there was a trapper cabin built by the same trapper who built Texas Bar. This one was called Villa Freidheim and was his more permanent residence with two storeys, although still not large.
This was our last landing and some people, including my cabin mate Jean, were brave enough to do the polar plunge. Back on the ship, we gathered for a summary of the journey with photos and videos. We toasted the captain with a glass of champagne, thanked all the guides and, during dinner, we were introduced to all the rest of the crew members and showed our appreciation in the usual way.
Day 10 – Monday 2 August
By the time we woke up in the morning we had reached Longyearbyen again. The journey was over and we left the ship, giving our thanks and saying farewell to the guides. We had a few hours to spend before our flight back to Oslo so we went into the town. Some of us went for coffee and, while we were sitting outside the café, a huge flock of barnacle geese came waddling down the street and making a lot of noise. When they reached us, they spread out and settled down to graze. It was quite a sight.
We arrived back in Oslo quite late and had dinner at the hotel. The rest of the group were flying out very early the next morning and we said our goodbyes in the foyer. I then had a leisurely breakfast and went to catch my train to see my family.
It was a fascinating holiday, but very different to Antarctica. There was much less in the way of wildlife but lots of wonderful flowers. I had worried I might not see a polar bear but we saw several. Unfortunately, there were few whales and no arctic foxes. Roy was an excellent guide as usual and my fellow travellers, several of whom I knew from previous holidays, were great company.