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Report from the Field: Norwegian Fjords to Spitsbergen
Published on Thursday, July 16, 2009
We came from many different corners of the globe—France, Switzerland, Ireland, Sweden, Britain, and the U.S.—to arrive in Bergen, Norway. Clear skies and warm, sunny weather greeted us as we set out to explore the quaint, medieval wharf neighborhood of Bryggen, a World Heritage Site.
Founded in 1070 A.D. it became the capital of Norway during the 12th and 13th centuries. Today the town has grown to be the second largest in Norway with a population of 250,000. Many of us explored the bustling quay-side fish market, photographed the many statues and monuments, and marveled at the picturesque wooden gable houses that date back to the time of the Hanseatic League. After lunch we boarded buses for Troldsal, a sod-roofed concert hall, where we listened to music by the famous 19th-century composer, Edvard Grieg. Grieg was often inspired by the rich cultural heritage of his beloved homeland and occasionally incorporated Norwegian folk songs into his compositions.
Arriving at our ship the Clipper Adventurer, we settled into our cabins which would be our home for the next two weeks. Sailing from the harbor, we could appreciate the beautiful setting of Bergen, nestled between seven mountains and the sea and sheltered from the Atlantic storms of the North Sea by a myriad of islands. We were excited by the prospect of the adventures that lay ahead of us in the realm of polar bears and walrus, Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago.
We awoke to another stunning day as we cruised the Norwegian fjords towards Geiranger some 50 or 60 miles or so from the coast. Mirror-like waters framed by spectacular steep cliffs were punctuated by low-lying grassy slopes. We wondered in amazement at the small villages and towns we passed, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, but in reality served by mountain tunnels and regular inter-fjord ferries. We also paused for a photo-op by the torrential waters of the Seven Sisters waterfalls.
Following a superb barbeque lunch on deck we disembarked for our tour of the Geiranger area. Sinuous roads rose at improbable angles as we headed to the viewpoint at Flydalsjuvet Gorge, which overlooks a small hamlet. We continued onward and upward to the summit of Mount Dalsnibba and another magnificent panoramic view. Returning to the village of Geiranger we continued along the fjord, taking the so-called Eagle’s Road to a viewpoint which afforded excellent views of our ship and the waterfalls beyond.
Our visit to Runde Island, with its high, towering cliff facing the Atlantic Ocean, was a memorable one. We had been told of its wealth of seabirds, but few of us were prepared for the quantities of birds which were estimated to be at about a half million pairs. Huge congregations of comical tuxedoed Atlantic puffins and razorbills, swarms of dainty kittiwakes, regal Northern gannets, and shags make the rugged cliffs their summertime home. A memorable highlight was no less than eleven white-tailed sea eagles in the air, simultaneously performing their mating displays, tumbling and somersaulting high overhead. The eagle is Europe’s largest and most impressive raptor, a truly majestic species which, in recent years, has rebounded in numbers after years of persecution.
Our afternoon at sea afforded an opportunity for a series of lectures, setting the scene for the coming days. Peter Harrison delighted his audience with Puffins and Their Allies, Colleen Batey provided an introduction to the Vikings in Scandinavia, and Mike Lemonick began the debate Is Climate Change Really Something to Worry About?
This memorable day concluded with a welcome cocktail party and dinner hosted by Captain Gunnar Roos.
The day began with a lecture by John Buchanan, Geology of Norway: Subduction leads to Orogeny, providing an introduction to the building blocks of the landscape all around us. This was followed by Rick Price presenting The Northern Marine Mammals and Other Large Beasts.
Our destination for the day was the island of Vega in Nordland. Ours was the first cruise ship to ever visit the island! Today’s main stop was the settlement of Nes, the focus of the UNESCO World Heritage designation for this archipelago of over 6,500 islands and islets. The wording of the UNESCO designation is significant—
“the Vega archipelago reflects the way generations of fishermen/farmers have, over the past 1,500 years, maintained a sustainable living in an inhospitable seascape near the Arctic Circle, based on the now unique practice of eider down harvesting, and it also celebrates the contribution made by women to the eider down process.”
The old wooden building housing the eider museum was located at the water’s edge and our guide lovingly explained the process of the down harvest and the symbiotic relationship between man and bird. The World Heritage Centre itself, housed temporarily in a modern building provided a focus of information and nearby fishermen’s cottages or Rorbu helped retain the ancient appeal of the settlement.
At the start of Recap we raised a toast to the Arctic Circle which we would cross in the middle of the coming night, 66 degrees and 33 minutes N.
Vedøya and Kjerringøy, Lofoten Islands
Today began with an early morning Zodiac cruise around Vedøya at the southern tip of the Lofoten Islands. Cold but dry, we hugged the steep coastal perimeter and were accompanied on the journey by sea eagles, kittiwakes, and guillemots. The cruise was very atmospheric with low rock stacks appearing and disappearing in the swirling mists.
Back onboard with warm drinks in hand, Colleen gave the second of her presentations, entitled The Cultural Footprint of the Vikings. Our late afternoon arrival at the ancient trading center of Kjerringøy was just magical, drawing the Zodiacs onto a sandy beach amidst 18th-century warehouse buildings, the frontage dominated by a large, white merchant’s house. An excellent introductory video presentation expanded our understanding of this place, a major fishing station (which focused on both dried and salted cod) whose continued development was ensured by the formidable Anna Elisabeth Ellingsen Zahl who died in 1879. Some of the original woollen floor coverings, highly prized as trading goods, lined the walls and were almost contemporary in their designs. Today the settlement is a living museum and demonstrations of the making of both fish cakes and flat bread were enjoyable, and even the outdoor washboard laundry activity brought smiles to all faces!
Reine, Stamsund, and Trollfjord
Glorious sunshine and crystal clear air welcomed our second day in the Lofoten Islands. Towering jagged peaks surrounded our first stop in Reine, a center of the stockfish industry. Large expanses of wooden fish-drying racks were everywhere; the fish are caught from January to March and dried out in the salty air for a couple of months. The bulk of the fish is then exported to Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The Lofoten Islands continue to produce a large portion of Norway’s fish industry, as they have for the last 1,000 years.
Onboard once more we made our way north along the Lofoten chain to Stamsund, where we journeyed across the island to Borg, the largest Viking-age house in the world at some 272 feet in length. A rich farm, with contacts throughout Europe and Southern Scandinavia, this may have been the home of a rich chieftain who traded with the Sami further north for reindeer skins. The reconstructed house is a museum interpreting the artifacts recovered through the excavations which began in the mid-1980s. The smallest and most captivating items were the small gold foils, less than a fingernail in size which depict a loving couple and may have been fertility tokens.
Tim Baughman’s lecture on Amundsen: Man of Both Poles rounded off the afternoon as we sailed towards our final destination of the day—Trollfjord. After dinner we entered this spectacularly narrow fjord where the captain skillfully turned our vessel on a dime at the inner end of the fjord.
With a population of about 64,000, Tromsøe is the largest town in northern Norway. Until the opening of the bridge in 1960 everything had to be ferried across from the mainland. With three herring oil factories, Norway’s largest shrimp processing plant, and four large fish filleting factories, the fishing industry is by far the most important industry in Tromsøe. It is also a university town and houses the country’s northernmost brewery—Mack—famous for its Arctic Ale.
Our tour took us to many highlights of the city including an invigorating ride up the cable car to the top of the Storsteinen at 1,378 feet. Our eagle’s vantage point clearly confirmed that Tromsøe was indeed an island. We also visited the modern Tromsdal Church, opened in 1965, with its magnificent angular shape and stunning stained glass windows, it is more commonly referred to as the Arctic Cathedral.
Two major museums provided insight into different aspects of this northern cultural capital. The Troms Folk Museum—taking its name from the local region—described the culture and lifestyles of the Sami people, formerly referred to as Laplanders. The Polar Museum, on the other hand, detailed life aboard the ships that plied Arctic seas in search of seals, whales, and plain old exploration. Roald Amundsen, famed explorer of both the north and the south polar areas including the first expedition to reach the South Pole, featured quite prominently in the museum. Indeed Tromsøe is the only city that has two prominent statues dedicated to this great polar hero.
Part of the group headed to Summarøy Island which was a truly memorable journey through lofty mountain passes, beside mountain lakes, and eventually to the wild Atlantic Ocean. The birders were well pleased with such species as bluethroats and willow ptarmigan and the walkers wandered through spellbinding meadows of wildflowers that spread a colorful carpet from the shoreline to the top of the surrounding hills.
Before returning to the ship for our late afternoon departure, many of us took advantage of some free time to seek out souvenir shops and join the locals for a cup of coffee or a glass of frothing Arctic Ale.
The afternoon was completed by a lecture on How the Media Covers Climate Change by Mike Lemonick.
Gjesvaer and North Cape
Our morning excursion began with a Zodiac landing at the pretty village of Gjesvaer where we boarded our buses for the journey to North Cape (Nord Kapp). Arctic vegetation and herds of reindeer—including new calves and the distinctive albino stock—dominated the stark scenery. A brief call at a roadside camp, with obliging and photogenic Sami, provided insight into the costume and some of the customs of these nomadic reindeer herders, representatives of one of the six families on this northern island of Magerøy. A video presentation of the area throughout the seasons provided wonderful and evocative photographic images and haunting music to set the scene. Impressive modern sculptures in bronze brought together a project uniting the World’s children. However, no visit could be complete without the obligatory photographs of the great orb at the most northern point of this 1,000 foot cliff-top on the designated “most northerly” promontory, although the true north point lies on the adjacent headland to the west!
As we departed Gjesvaer, a multitude of birds: puffins, murres, fulmars, and kittiwakes accompanied us and above them all, on motionless wings, drifted a lone white-tailed sea eagle. Gannets, the north Atlantic’s largest indigenous seabird, were drifting by, their stark black and white plumage gleaming in the bright northern sunlight.
Later in the afternoon we were treated to a lecture by Peter entitled A Baker’s Dozen which refreshed our memories of 13 of the most common birds we see in our gardens and beyond.
The evening was rounded off with a recap and a mandatory briefing on polar bear safety and guidelines for our upcoming visit to Svalbard. A short presentation by Rick on Arctic photography was added to the program by popular request after dinner.
An early wake up call brought us all to the decks to watch humpback whales feeding. Magnificent views of black and white flukes—each as individual as a fingerprint—rewarded our early start. Then it was into the Zodiacs for a lengthy cruise around the impressive high cliffs, sedimentary rocks raised from the ocean floor and distinguishable from the geology of mainland Norway.
Though the towering cliffs were fog shrouded, our Zodiacs provided the perfect platform to observe the countless numbers of seabirds which swirled above us. Atlantic puffins and black guillemots formed dense rafts on the sea, whilst overhead, tens of thousands of thick-billed murres and little auks streamed back and forth from their nests. Our little flotilla hugged the coastline, shooting through rock arches on tidal surges and passing close to mighty sea stacks with huge concentrations of birds on all ledges.
Back to the ship for a warming lunch before our afternoon landing in Russian Bay. We were so lucky to spend time around the coast of Bear Island, but to make a landing was special indeed. We divided into groups and explored the higher reaches of the hillsides, overlooking nesting glaucous gulls and stepping between clumps of brilliant pink sea campion, lush pin-cushions of purple mountain saxifrage, isolated Svalbard poppies with a distinctive creamy coloring, star-like stamens, and patches of common scurvygrass. Part of the group explored a deserted whaling station with its rotting wooden buildings, metal tripots, winches, and whale bones.
An exciting expedition day was rounded off with a cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions and Princeton Journeys.
The excited wake up call told of the first sighting of polar bear, so no delays dashing to the deck this morning! We headed straight into the Zodiacs and in the shallow coastal waters, we were able to sedately follow a large male bear as it made its way northwards along the shoreline, taking to the water where land was lacking. A symbol of the Arctic, this awe-inspiring predator kept to the coast for nearly two miles, giving us an opportunity to appreciate the size and power necessary to earn a place at the top of the food chain.
We returned to the ship for a hearty breakfast and a lecture on The Sea Bear, by Mats Forsberg. The brilliant blue skies and warm sun allowed another superb barbeque on the rear deck of the ship, white table cloths, snowy mountain tops, good conversation, and excellent food were a perfect punctuation in the day.
This afternoon a two-site landing provided interest for all: massive cliffs with enormous bird colonies and high waterfall, supplemented by a second sighting of polar bears, this time at the very top of the bird cliffs. A mother and her one year old cub, stunningly profiled in white against the blue sky and curious to see who had arrived on their beach well below. The second landing nearby was an eroding glacier, one of many in the vicinity. Despite its stony and dirty, rotting snout, this gave us the chance to walk onto the glacier beyond, yet one more rarely achieved ambition for many!
Freemansundet and Cape Lee
Having crossed Storfjørden overnight, we awoke to the icy waters of Freemansundet, lying between the small islands of Barentsøya and Edgeøya. The eager search for polar bears and walrus was undertaken by many and seals were seen by most. Sightings of distant cream blobs were greeted with excitement, and the captain brought us closer to one lazy bear, intent on maintaining a low profile, while other bears were sighted amongst the snow drifts a distance away.
Despite the bitter cold, hovering around freezing (and then compounded by the wind chill) we made a landing at Cape Lee (Kapp Lee) on Edgeøya, where a tundra walk revealed delightful clumps of Arctic blooms and eventually brought us to a hunter’s camp where two walrus were hauled out nearby. This was a photographer’s delight and we all had clear views of the massive tusks so highly prized by modern and ancient hunters alike.
We sailed southwards overnight, around the southern point of Spitsbergen to the western shores of the main island. Following a fascinating morning lecture by Rick on the Biology of the Marine Mammals, we arrived in the Hornsund fjord area, which is dominated by glaciers. Our plans changed to an impromptu Zodiac cruise after a polar bear was sighted en route to our landing spot. The bear walked with purpose along the beach edge, resting as required and eventually beginning a climb upwards. Nibbling grass along the way, it progressed up the slope until it became clear by the actions of an Arctic fox that it was getting too close for comfort to the fox’s den under a rock overhang. The vixen circled the bear and nipped at its heels, desperately trying to divert its attention away from the den. We all watched from a safe distance below, captivated by the struggle between the huge bear and the tiny fox, our own wildlife documentary unfolding before our eyes.
Our earliest wake up call yet was tempered by balmy temperatures and glistening snow capped peaks. Time ashore focused on walking over the tundra to the magnificent, towering falls which gave this place its name. Huge colonies of birds, predominantly little auks, provided a constant noise and throngs of birds passed overhead. The parasitic jaegers on the tundra below were gallantly defending their nests from all comers, from reindeer and passengers alike!
Once back onboard, Shirley Metz delighted us all with her inspirational talk on A Journey to the South Pole, delivered in such a self-effacing manner that we all felt humbled.
In the glorious sunshine, we embarked on our afternoon landing on Prins Karls Forland (Island). Zodiacs ferried passengers to a gathering spot on the sandy beach and as a large group we followed our naturalists, Peter, Mats, and Rick. Our aim? To sneak up on a haul-out of about 30 walrus spotted at the end of the island. We proved that 80+ people can indeed move as an orchestrated group and in almost total silence. We stopped within dozens of meters of the group where large males, smaller females, and juveniles lay basking in the sunshine. Several were curious enough to swim off the shore to come in close enough to have a good look at us as we admired their great bulk and sparkling tusks, bright against the brown hides. This was a special encounter for everyone, a truly memorable engagement with nature on its own terms.
Once back onboard we prepared for the captain’s farewell cocktail party, held on the aft deck amongst the glaciers of St. John’s Fjord in brilliant sunshine. It was at this point we reached our most northerly latitude of 78 degrees 38 minutes and 22 seconds N.
Longyearbyen / Oslo
The end of our journey brought us into Longyearbyen where we had a brief tour of the area and the wonderful modern Svalbard Museum, before boarding our privately-chartered flight to Oslo.