Skarsvåg / Nordkapp

2019 Wild Norway & Svalbard Field Report

Tom Sharpe|June 28, 2019|Field Report

Sunday, May 19, 2019
Bergen, Norway / Embark Ocean Adventurer

Unusually for Bergen, it was a dry, warm and sunny weekend when we arrived here to begin our travels in Wild Norway and Svalbard. Bergen experiences only five rain-free days a year and this was exceptional weather which was being enjoyed to the full by the locals, especially as this was also the Norwegian National Day holiday weekend. We set out on foot early this morning, for a tour of the old wharf-side district of Bryggen with its picturesque and higgledy-piggledy medieval wooden houses, their colorful gables lit up by today’s bright sunshine. Next, we boarded coaches which took us to Troldhaugen, the home of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg for over twenty years. The hut where he did much of his work still stands on the lakeside at the foot of the garden. We were treated to an excellent piano recital of some of Grieg’s music before we went to lunch. All too soon, it was time to return to Bergen where our home for the next two weeks, the Ocean Adventurer awaited us. Once settled in our cabins, our Expedition Leader John Yersin introduced us to his team of Zodiac drivers and lecturers who would be accompanying us on our journey over the next two weeks.

Monday, May 20
Geirangerfjord

Our Expedition Leader woke us this morning and encouraged us to rise with the news that we were entering the long fjord leading to Geiranger and that the views were ‘simply stunning.’ And he was right! Vertical cliffs rose straight out of the still waters of the fjord and up to high snow-covered mountains beneath a deep blue sky. We took in these views over breakfast and then moved into the lounge for the first presentation of our lecture program from historian T.H. Baughman who regaled us with the story of the remarkable life of the ‘greatest Norwegian,’ Fritjof Nansen.

Geirangerfjord is the innermost arm of the long and sinuous Storfjorden and situated about 45 miles from the coast. So, by the end of T.H.’s talk we were entering this spectacular waterway, a World Heritage Site since 2005. Over a glass of Norwegian gløgg, we sailed past long thin veils of waterfalls tumbling over the cliffs from the melting snow on the mountains above as we approached the head of the fjord and the settlement of Geiranger and its cascade of white water tumbling through the town. Once anchored and ashore, we ventured out on a variety of excursions. The fittest among us hiked a steep trail to an abandoned farm at Skageflå high above the fjord, affording us some wonderful views. Some took an easier, boardwalk and stepped (330 of them!) trail in Geiranger and visited the Norwegian Fjord Centre, while others boarded coaches which took them high above Geirangerfjord to some stunning viewpoints of classic fjord coastal scenery.

By late afternoon we had all returned from our adventures and as Ocean Adventurer negotiated her way back through the fjords to the coast, we donned our finest and prepared for the captain’s welcome reception and dinner, hosted by the Master of the Ocean Adventurer, Yury Gododnik. 

Tuesday, May 21
Runde

By this morning our ship was anchored near the small island of Runde, not far from the entrance to the fjord complex in which we had sailed yesterday. This allowed our birders to set out early for a Zodiac cruise below the seabird cliffs for which Runde is renowned. Puffins were their primary target species today and in this they were successful, spotting some of the island’s 100,000 breeding pairs, so they returned to the ship a happy bunch. While these early risers caught up with breakfast, the rest of us disembarked by Zodiac to land in the attractive small harbor on Runde where our first port of call was the island’s new Environmental Center. Here, local ornithologist Alv Ottar told us about his work on the white-tailed sea eagle before we divided into our various hiking groups.

Some set out on a steep hike in search of views and more birds while others opted for a more leisurely morning, a stroll to the rocky shore in search of seaweeds with local foragers. Back in the center, we enjoyed sampling their dried seaweeds and were amazed at the variety of flavors from the different species, before we moved on to the Norwegian cakes and a welcome cup of coffee.

Once back on board, as we sailed north we were informed and entertained by lectures from two of our expedition staff. Ornithologist Jim Wilson described the birds we will see as we sail along the coast of Norway and geologist Tom Sharpe told us about how the rocks of mountainous Norway were formed and how ice had carved the deeply indented fjord coastline.

Wednesday, May 22
Husøy / Sanna

Continuing on our way north this morning, our day began with marine biologist Madalena Patacho’s presentation on cod and its importance to the maritime nations of the Atlantic, especially Norway. She was followed by T.H. who told us of the life and adventures of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, man of both poles.

By lunchtime we had arrived at the scattered archipelago of Træna, close to the Arctic Circle and this afternoon we went ashore to explore two of the islands. On Husøy, our birders went off on their quest while others visited the town, with its museum on the history of these islands and the fishing industry. A short walk to a chapel on the west side of the island allowed us to see work by the Norwegian artist Carl Erek Harr as well as affording us spectacular views of the neighboring mountainous island, Sanna.

That island was the destination of our hikers today and we visited an enormous, raised former sea cave, Kjerkhelleren, with a long history of human occupation and use. Our walk continued, passing through a tunnel, to Gompen, a high point which offered wide views of Træna.

As we sailed from Træna, we gathered on the back deck for drinks and after dinner, we marked our crossing of the Arctic Circle by sounding the ship’s horn. The position of the Arctic Circle is always changing due to variations in the tilt of the earth’s axis of rotation, and today it lay at 66°33’47.6”N.

Thursday, May 23
Kjerringøy, Lofoten Islands / Røst

It was a beautiful, still morning as we took our Zodiacs in to land at the attractive little marina at Kjerringøy and walked a short distance to the old merchant’s center set on a lovely bay backed by high mountains. Now preserved as an open-air museum by the Nordland Museum, the settlement here was an important and wealthy trading center through the 19th century, buying fish from Lofoten and northern Norway to sell in Bergen and bringing food, equipment, and supplies back for sale to the fishermen. We wandered amongst the restored buildings as costumed museum staff demonstrated traditional crafts and activities such as cleaning eider down, weaving, and baking flatbreads which we were able to sample with sour cream and sugar. Meanwhile our kayakers enjoyed a different perspective on the site as they paddled gently around the bay past the trading station.

Over lunch, the Ocean Adventurer sailed west to the island of Røst, the most southwesterly of the Lofoten Islands, and in preparation for our Lofoten visits, our archaeologist Terence Christian explained to us what it meant to be going a Viking!

Soon we were anchored off the small island of Vedøy near Røst and in fine weather took to our Zodiacs for a cruise along its west coast. Guillemots, razorbills and puffins were in the water and in the skies around us, but a highlight was a group of six white-tailed sea eagles soaring and wheeling above the cliffs, at times chased by ravens and a peregrine falcon.

Friday, May 24
Reine / Stamsund / Trollfjord

Overnight, we had sailed a short distance within the Lofoten Islands to Moskenesøya and the little fishing town of Reine which sits below precipitous rocky peaks. Reine is at the heart of the Lofoten cod fishery and all around the harbor area were many thousands of cod, hanging on wooden racks to dry in the wind, a process unchanged since Viking times. We had time to wander amongst the cod racks and the turf-roofed houses before boarding coaches for a drive north across the islands.

Our drive took us over bridges and through tunnels as we traveled from Moskenesøya across Flakstadøya to Vestvågøya, with scenic stops at the little onion-domed church of Flakstad and the wide beach at Utakleiv as we headed for the Lofotr Viking Museum at Borge. Here we enjoyed a hearty lunch of lamb soup in the wonderful setting of a huge reconstructed Viking longhouse while we heard tales of Viking life. Suitably fortified, we set off for the museum’s nearby activity area where we could test our skills at archery and axe-throwing, much to the amusement of our fellow Vikings.

During our day ashore, the Ocean Adventurer repositioned to the small harbor at nearby Stamsund where we got back on board and sailed for Trollfjorden. Our time in the Lofoten Islands was brought to a fitting conclusion by an evening cruise in this spectacularly narrow fjord which slices into the east side of Austvågøya, with rugged mountains rising steeply over a thousand feet above on either side.

Saturday, May 25
Tromsø

Over breakfast this morning, our ship came alongside close to the city center of Tromsø. It was noticeably colder this morning, with more snow at lower levels on the surrounding mountains, but we were now 215 miles north of the Arctic Circle. With our local guides, we strolled the short distance to the Polar Museum which is housed in an old waterfront warehouse. Tromsø, the ‘Gateway to the Arctic’, has long been a center for Arctic exploration, adventure, and hunting and this history is reflected in the museum’s informative displays.

After lunch, we traveled a short distance by bus over the arched bridge connecting Tromsø with the mainland and hopped onto a cable car which carried us quickly up over 1,300 feet to Storsteinen. On this steep hill overlooking the city, we had a wonderful view of the setting of Tromsø and the surrounding islands and mountains.

Once back on board, Madalena introduced us to the marine mammals we may see on our Arctic travels before we gathered on deck to watch our departure from Tromsø.

Sunday, May 26
Skarsvåg / Nordkapp

This morning we took Zodiacs into the small fishing village of Skarsvåg on the north coast of Norway and boarded coaches for a short drive to Nordkapp. This took us over a quite different landscape from any we had seen so far in Norway: a wild and treeless tundra terrain with many scattered snow patches and reindeer grazing here and there. En route, we stopped at a small Sami camp where we met a family of these reindeer herders in their traditional costume.

Arriving at Nordkapp, we took in the delights of the visitor center, with its exhibits, movie, and chapel (as well as gift shop!) but the place to be was outdoors by the monument marking 71°10’21” North. Perched on a promontory atop a 1,000-foot cliff, the monument offered panoramic views of the Arctic tundra and distant cliffs to the east. To the north lay the Barents Sea and, over the horizon, Svalbard.

After lunch back on board, we gathered in the lounge for an essential and mandatory briefing on polar bear safety from our bear guide Mats Forsberg who explained how we should conduct ourselves and our operations in Svalbard and the protective measures we will be taking. Later, Jim spoke to us on the birds of Svalbard as we sailed north for Bear Island, Bjornøya. The next stage of our adventure was underway!

Monday, May 27
Bear Island (Bjørnøya)

This morning we found ourselves truly in the Arctic: a bitterly cold, gray, overcast day with strong winds whipping down off the slopes of Bjornøya whose higher tops disappeared into the cloud. Undeterred, we jumped into our Zodiacs and cruised along the high, precipitous cliffs of Bjornøya’s southeast coast which are home to many thousands of seabirds such as common guillemots and thick-billed murres as well as glaucous gulls.

After lunch, we had hoped to make a landing on Bear Island, but once our expedition team had scouted the landing site, it was clear that the sea conditions made it impossible, and so we continued on northwards to Svalbard. During the afternoon, we were treated to the wonderful sight of thousands of fulmars flying alongside our ship, barely an arm’s length away before we came inside to listen to Tom Sharpe talk about the rocks and geological history of Svalbard, and to hear historian Terence describe the grim voyages of the Arctic convoys during the Second World War.

Tuesday, May 28
Storfjorden, Svalbard / Hornsund

We were awoken bright and early this morning by our Expedition Leader with the news that we had reached the Arctic pack ice farther south than anticipated at the southern entrance to Storfjorden, the body of water separating Spitsbergen from the lower islands of Barentsøya and Edgeøya to the east. He informed us that as it was such a beautiful morning we’d shortly be going on a Zodiac cruise. And what a cruise it was! Silently sailing amongst the loose ice floes of the pack ice beneath patches of blue sky with the sun glinting on the distant snowy mountains of Spitsbergen was memorable. Guillemots, fulmars, and dovkies bobbed in the water or flew around us. Our kayakers also took the chance to paddle amongst the pack. We returned to the ship for breakfast, after which T.H. described to us the race to the North Pole and the competing claims of Peary and Cook.

With the pack ice blocking further progress north in Storfjorden, we turned and sailed south and west, rounding Sørkapp, the southern tip of Spitsbergen to explore the southwest coast of the island. By mid-afternoon we had sailed into Hornsund and were approaching the entrance to Brepollen, a wide bay backed by large glaciers and jagged mountains at the eastern end of Hornsund. Much of Brepollen was covered with fast ice, and there, along the ice edge, was our first polar bear. Having caught a seal, it was intent on its meal and we enjoyed great views through binoculars and telescopes as our bridge team carefully and quietly moved us closer. The bear’s lunch was also watched by several gulls, awaiting their chance for scraps, and amongst them, well camouflaged against the ice, was an ivory gull, much to the delight of our birders.

As we retraced our route out of Hornsund later in the afternoon, we made a stop and went ashore at the tall and precipitous gray marble cliffs of Gnålodden on the north coast of Hornsund. As well as watching the birds nesting on the cliffs, here we were able to visit an old trappers’ hut which Mats opened up for us.

Meanwhile, our kayakers had paddled along the shore at the entrance to the inlet of Burgerbukta where they spotted a walrus hauled out on an ice floe. The walrus very kindly and conveniently remained where he was so that once everyone was back on the ship, we all were able to see him, even enjoying good views from the dining room windows as we started dinner.

Wednesday, May 29
Van Mijenfjorden, Spitsbergen / Vårsolbukta

By 6:30 this morning we were deep into Van Mijenfjorden, an inner fjord off Bellsund on the west coast of Spitsbergen, and were awoken with the announcement that another polar bear had been spotted. We dressed quickly and went up on deck. It was a cold, gray morning, with light sprinkles of snow as we watched a bear walk along the edge of the fast ice. On the shore, reindeer were grazing and further along the ice edge we could see movement in the water—a pod of beluga whales. So, it was into the Zodiacs for a closer look. The polar bear had moved farther into the ice, but from our Zodiacs we had good views of these rather elusive whales and of the herd of reindeer, as well as of glaucous gulls and guillemots, and both common and king eider ducks.

We were back on board for a late breakfast and as we sailed out of Van Mijenfjorden and into Bellsund, our geologist Tom gave us a talk on the glaciers and permafrost of Svalbard. Once lunch was over, we were anchored off the spectacular bird cliffs of Vårsolbukta on the northern side of Bellsund and spent the afternoon ashore. There were few dovkies to be seen here, however, but plenty of geese, guillemots, and snow buntings, these flitting about on the mossy tundra plain in front of a couple of old trapper huts. Reindeer, too, were here, grazing on the patches of vegetation free of snow.

Thursday, May 30
Magdalenefjorden / Smeerenburg

It was under absolutely perfect conditions that we awoke this morning in beautiful Magdalenefjorden in northwest Spitsbergen. Brilliant sunshine shone down out of a blue sky onto spectacular snow-covered mountains and glaciers. We took to our Zodiacs and set out on a cruise which gave us stunning views of a large glacier, Waggonwaybreen, at the head of the fjord. Sailing around the coast into Gullybukta, an inlet on the south side of Magdalenefjorden, we were able to go ashore at a small headland. Here our expedition team had laid out a short trail through the snow to give us close views of walrus hauled out on the shore.

Over lunch we repositioned north to Smeerenburgfjorden where 18 (fool)hardy souls braved the icy waters to take the polar plunge. Here we were close to our furthest north at 79°39’32”N, just over 600 miles from the North Pole. With so much snow covering the ground, we would have seen nothing at our planned landing at the old Dutch whaling site at Smeerenburg, so we climbed back into our Zodiacs for a cruise amongst the floes of sea ice in the fjord, some occupied by hauled-out walrus or bearded seals. A surprise awaited us when we found that we too could haul out onto an ice floe. Clambering out of the Zodiac, we enjoyed the strange sensation of standing on a few feet of frozen sea water drifting across the fjord.

Friday, May 31
Sankt Jonsfjorden / Dahlbrebukta / Poolepynten, Prins Karls Forland

This morning, again under fine weather conditions, we entered Sankt Jonsfjorden where we ship cruised to the edge of the fast ice in search of wildlife before we relocated to Dhalbrebukta, the next bay to the north. There we got into our Zodiacs and cruised along the heavily crevassed front of Dahlbreen, a glacier extending down to the shore from the mountains to the east.

After lunch, we sailed across to the long, narrow mountainous island of Prins Karls Forland and landed on its east coast at the low, sandy, raised beach spit of Poolepynten. A short walk brought us to where around 50 walrus had hauled out. They were completely unfazed by our presence and we were able to get some wonderful views of these typically Arctic animals against a backdrop of the snow-covered mountains of Spitsbergen.

Returning to the ship, it was soon time to get ready for the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner after which we settled into the lounge with some seriously chocolatey desserts to enjoy Madalena’s entertaining slideshow reminding us of the many highlights our expedition.

Saturday, June 1
Longyearbyen / Oslo

A wake-up announcement earlier than expected this morning called us up to the forward decks to catch a glimpse of a blue whale which had been spotted off our bow by the bridge team. Seeing this enormous animal, the largest on our planet, was a delightful bonus on the final day of our expedition. As we came alongside at Longyearbyen, we took a leisurely brunch before we disembarked the Ocean Adventurer for a final time and boarded buses for a tour of the capital of Svalbard with local guides. At the Svalbard Museum we learned more of this Arctic archipelago’s history and wildlife and as we toured the town, we saw many signs of Longyearbyen’s coal mining history and the new use to which one former mine has been put—the Global Seed Vault, a storage facility preserving the world’s agricultural heritage within Svalbard’s permafrost. After some time to ourselves, we met for an early dinner before heading to the airport for our flight to Oslo.

As we flew south, we had time to reflect on the many wonderful sights we had experienced on our expedition from the fjords of the Norwegian coast, across the Arctic Circle and out into the Barents Sea to Svalbard, and especially on our good fortune with the weather!

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