Wild Norway & Svalbard

2015 Wild Norway & Svalbard Field Report

Mark Brazil|August 13, 2015|Field Report

Monday, June 1, 2015 - Bergen, Norway / Embark Sea Adventurer: A gray, rainy morning failed to dampen our spirits as we gathered for our tour of Norway’s attractive and historic second city. This took us past the leaning gabled buildings and narrow alleyways of Bryggen, the old, Hanseatic, part of town, and on to Troldhaugen, the charming summer home of composer Edvard Grieg from 1885 to 1907. Here, in the turf-roofed Troldsdal concert hall, we were treated to a lovely recital of some of Greig’s work by the renowned pianist Knut Christian Jansson.

Following lunch back at our hotel in the center of Bergen, we set out for the city’s historic harbor where the Sea Adventurer awaited us, ready to begin our Wild Norway and Svalbard adventure. A brass band welcomed us with rousing tunes as we arrived at our ship. Sailing out through the maze of narrow channels, the clouds parted and the sun shone upon the wooded hills around us. We were underway!

Tuesday, June 2 - Geiranger Fjord / Geiranger: We began today with the story of the remarkable life and achievements of Nansen—The Greatest Norwegian, a great tale, told by T.H. Baughman. Emerging from the lounge, we found ourselves deep within the fjord network that would lead us to Geiranger Fjord. As we sailed deeper into narrower fjords with high snowcapped mountains towering above us, we marveled at the little farmhouses perched precariously on narrow and apparently inaccessible ledges high on the near-vertical fjord walls, and at the beautiful thin ribbons of waterfalls that cascaded hundreds of feet from hanging valleys down to sea level. This was Norway’s fjordland at its best.

We enjoyed a blustery barbeque lunch on the back deck, before a particularly powerful gust of wind forced most of us to beat a retreat to the dining room. Arriving at the head of Geiranger Fjord, we landed by Zodiac at the small village of Geiranger, bustling with passengers arriving from several large cruise ships. Our ship seemed tiny next to these behemoths, and we all agreed we much preferred our little Sea Adventurer. Buses weaved us higher and higher up almost continuous hairpin bends on the road leading out of Geiranger, first above the treeline, and then above the snowline with continually changing and spectacular views of the fjord below us. Walls of snow over 15 feet high lined the road, as we made our first stop at a frozen lake 3,380 feet above sea level at Djupvasshytta where snow was still falling and a cold wind blowing. Ahead of us, snow blocked the road; we returned the way we had come, stopping at an overlook with stunning views down Geiranger Fjord, perhaps the most famous fjord in the world.

We continued down and through the village, rising up more steep hairpin bends of the Eagle’s Way, back to the snowy mountains where we had just been and along the fjord to the Seven Sisters Waterfall. Later that evening, as we sailed back along Geiranger Fjord, our captain skillfully maneuvered the ship to give us superb close-up views of this 820-foot-high cascade.

Wednesday, June 3 - Halten: This morning, Jim Fox explained the fascinating history of The Norwegian Language and gave us a brief lesson in the many ways to say ‘thanks’. Later, in his beautifully illustrated presentation, our ornithologist, Mark Brazil, answered the question posed in his title, What Does it Mean to be a Seabird?

Following lunch, we boarded our Zodiacs for a landing at the lovely little red and white village of Halten, within the low, rounded granite and gneiss islands of the Froan Nature and Landscape Reserve. We were the first cruise ship to visit since 1982! Extensive breakwaters were testimony of the importance of this former fishing settlement which once housed over a thousand fishermen, a cannery, school, and hospital. Evidence of earlier times was explained to us by our archaeologist, Mary McLeod, who showed us a compass rose, perhaps dating from between 1100 and 1400 ad, carved into the bedrock of the island and the only one of its kind in Norway.

Returning to the ship, we donned our finery for the captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner hosted by Captain Joachim Saterskog.

Thursday, June 4 - Sanna / Lovund / Melfjorden: An early wake-up call from Expedition Leader, Russ Evans, arose us from our slumbers to see the spectacular rock towers of the tiny island of Sanna in the Traena Archipelago, our landing site this morning. Hikes with our expedition staff took us to Kirkehelleren, a huge cave on the mountainside, with a record of occupation stretching back 6,000 years to the Stone Age, and through a gap between the towers where we saw huge white-tailed sea eagles soaring in the air.

After lunch on board, we landed on the nearby island of Lovund in search of the elusive puffin. Guided by local schoolchildren keen to practice their perfect English, we hiked to a viewpoint which gave us great views across to Sanna, the surrounding islands, and distant views of puffins flying out of their burrows on the slopes above us.

During dinner this evening, glasses were raised as we crossed the Arctic Circle, and soon afterwards we enjoyed a Zodiac cruise in the beautiful and remote Melfjorden with its smoothed and glacially polished rock shoreline. We marveled at the height of the treeline here above the Arctic Circle, due to the influence of the Gulf Stream.

Friday, June 5 - Kjerringøy / Reine, Lofoten Islands: We landed by Zodiac on a beautiful white beach at the old fishing settlement  and trading post of Kjerringøy, whose timber buildings are now preserved as a museum. An excellent audiovisual presentation introduced us to the history of this prosperous 19th-century fishing village and its people, before we toured the well-preserved buildings, tasted freshly-baked flatbread, and watched skilled ropemakers at work.

Returning to the Sea Adventurer, Mary described to us the World of the Vikings in whose homeland we are traveling, before we arrived in the scenic little town of Reine on Moskenesøy, the southernmost island of the craggy Lofoten Islands. Some of us explored the town and its packed racks of drying cod, while others kayaked in the fjord and had a close encounter with a pod of orca.

Saturday, June 6 - Nusfjord: The beauty of the narrow little harbor at Nusfjord took our breath away as we arrived by Zodiac this sunny, calm morning. Boarding our buses, we set off through mountains and along lovely shorelines, through deep tunnels and across bridges, as we crossed from Flakstadøya to Vestvågøya en route to the Lofotr Viking Museum. We enjoyed a glass of mead in the atmospheric and smoke-filled great hall of a reconstructed Viking longhouse, once home to a wealthy chieftain, and gazed at the wonderful artifacts from the site in the exhibition hall.

We continued on past tall mountains and white sand beaches to rejoin the Sea Adventurer anchored off the small port of Henningsvaer on Austvågøya; our visit to Lofoten had taken us across all five main islands of the group.

After lunch, T.H. gave another great presentation, this time the story of Roald Amundsen: Man of Both Poles, as we sailed for Trollfjord. The sides of this small, but perfectly formed, narrow fjord rose steeply above us to jagged snowcovered mountains.

Sunday, June 7 - Tromsø: Today began with our arrival by Zodiac at Sommarøy for the start of a scenic drive through mountains and along fjord coasts to Tromsø, the largest city in northern Norway. At the stunning Tromsdalen Church, known as the Arctic Cathedral and designed by Jan Inge Hovig in 1965, we were fortunate to hear the massive organ play as we admired the colorful, 75-foot-high stained glass window, The Return of Christ, designed by Victor Sparre. Nearby, a short cable-car ride took us up to the ridge of Mount Storsteinen with a spectacular view of the Arctic Cathedral far below, and across the city and its fjords.

Visits to two of the city’s museums followed; the Tromsø Museum with its fine exhibitions about the Saami and archaeology of northern Norway; and the Polar Museum, packed with fascinating exhibits on hunting and Arctic exploration, highlighting the expeditions of Nansen and Amundsen, which both began in Tromsø.

As we sailed, Carmen Field described the importance of some of the marine organisms we take for granted, including phytoplankton, in High Sea Drifters: The Plankton of the Arctic Waters.

Monday, June 8 - Skarsvaag / North Cape: The fittest among us landed early at the foot of North Cape, ready for a thousand-foot climb to the tundra plateau above and a hike to the visitor center at the northernmost point of Europe. There we were joined by the remainder of our shipmates who had arrived by bus from the nearby port of Skarsvaag. The drive gave us a view of the bleak Arctic tundra plateau here at 71º North, and of reindeer grazing on the low vegetation. A photo stop at a Saami camp allowed us to see the bright, traditional costumes worn by these northern people.

Returning to Skarsvaag, we were shown the huge king crabs being harvested here; introduced into the Arctic waters of Siberia, these animals have now spread west into Norwegian waters.

As we sailed north out into the Barents Sea this afternoon, Jim explained the evolution of the Viking longship and our geologist, Tom Sharpe, described the rocks we have seen on our trip so far, in his presentation on the geology of Norway. We were also treated to a close sighting of a group of fin whales, the second largest whale in the world.

Tuesday, June 9 - Bear Island: This morning we had our first glimpse of remote Bear Island and as we approached, fulmars and kittiwakes flew around us. With our ship anchored in the sheltered bay of Sørhamna, we set out in Zodiacs for our landing site in the nearby bay of Kvalrossbukta. A whaling station operated here between 1905 and 1908, and littered around were the remains of machinery and scattered bones of whale and walrus.

Mark led a large group of us on a birding walk across the tundra to the clifftops and we were rewarded with sightings of snow bunting, purple sandpiper, golden plover, and great skua, while Carmen pointed out to us the mosses, grasses, and lichens of the tundra vegetation across which we walked. Our eyes were caught by patches of attractive purple mountain saxifrage, one of the few plants in flower.

After lunch, we cruised in the Zodiacs along the foot of high limestone cliffs whose ledges provided nesting sites for seabirds such as razorbills, common and think-billed murres, kittiwakes, and fulmars. Returning to the ship, Rick Price’s presentation Marine Mammals of the North Atlantic, showed us what we hoped to find in the seas around us.

Wednesday, June 10 - Hornsund, Spitsbergen: We awoke this morning to an Ice Age scene—snowy mountains and glacier-filled valleys on either side as we entered the deep embayment of Hornsund in southern Spitsbergen. We pushed through floes of this winter’s sea ice to the fast ice at the easternmost reaches of Hornsund, with spectacular views of the Storbreen and Hornbreen glaciers.

After a briefing on polar bear safety and a lecture on these Masters of the Arctic Ice from Kevin Clement, we landed near an old trapper’s hut at the foot of the high bird cliff of Gnalodden with its cacophony of kittiwakes, and explored the area on several hikes.

Later, we spent time on deck in search of polar bears as we cruised to the head of several scenic side fjords of Hornsund—Vestreburgerbukta, Austreburgerbukta, and Samarinvàgan. Afterwards, Mary spoke on the Vikings of the Arctic North, and discussed just how far these seafarers reached in their travels.

Thursday, June 11 - Northwest Spitsbergen: Blue skies and sunshine lit up the jagged peaks and glaciers of Spitsbergen’s northwest coast this morning; as we were sailing through the spectacular landscapes of Sørgattet Channel and Smeerenburgfjorden, word reached us of a polar bear sighting in Magdalenefjorden, some distance behind us. A quick handbrake turn had us steaming back the way we had come, and while retracing our route, Mark gave us an entertaining and informative session on Getting More From Your Smartphone Camera.

We set out in our Zodiacs in a light snow shower to watch a polar bear amble along the shoreline and then swim away, before we turned our attention to a pair of swimming walrus who gave us a good display of their fearsome tusks. Just as we were returning to our ship, another bear was spotted on the opposite shore of the fjord, and so we set off once again and were rewarded with some wonderful views of this majestic animal as it strode purposefully and speedily along the coast.

Next stop was the steep, rocky granite island of Fuglesangen where we scrambled ashore to a stunning view of innumerable little auks wheeling above our heads and landing at their nest sites among the snowy scree. We watched as several pairs went about the business of producing this year’s chicks.

During dinner, we sailed a short distance south to Fuglefjorden where a wonderful view of a polar bear and her two cubs huddled together on a snow slope, brought to a close another great day. 

Friday, June 12 - Liefdefjorden: Due to strong winds overnight, we awoke this morning with our ship in the sheltered waters of Bockfjorden. With wind and snow blowing outside, we retired to the lounge to listen to Tom’s presentation, Northern Exposures: The Rocks and Landscape of Svalbard, and heard of times past when Svalbard’s climate was tropical. Jim dealt with more recent history in his presentation, Norway in the Second World War as we repositioned to the Andoeyane Islands at the mouth of Liefdefjorden. Russ and the team took Zodiacs out to search for polar bears, in anticipation of a Zodiac cruise, but the poor visibility and horizontal snow did not present comfortable conditions.

Back in the lounge, we enjoyed Carmen’s lecture, Toothwalkers of the North: Svalbard’s Walrus.

Saturday, June 13 - Poolepynten: Overnight we had sailed south, and this morning was dry and clear with good views of the mountains. Our target was a gravelly point at Poolepynten on the east side of Prins Karls Forland, where we were rewarded with some wonderful views of three very curious walrus swimming just offshore. We sailed on into Isfjorden and a side fjord, Trygghamna, and enjoyed a hike up some moraines which gave us some great views of the snow and ice-covered mountains around us.

Back to our ship and a quick change for the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner, the evening was brought to a close with Rick’s slideshow of our journey.

Sunday, June 14 - Longyearbyen / Disembark / Oslo: Arriving early at Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, we disembarked the Sea Adventurer for the final time, for an exploration of this coal mining town which, despite its frontier atmosphere, has both a fine art gallery and an excellent museum. We lunched al fresco on reindeer stew at a dog sled camp, sheltered from a summer snow storm in cozy wooden huts. Eventually, it was time to head to the airport for our flight to Oslo, and after a night at the hotel, we said our farewells to our fellow travelers and set out for home or on further travels.

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