It was great waking up to a clear day in Hornsund, our first anchorage on Spitsbergen after our ocean passage from Tromso. We were anchored just off the Polish research station so got kitted up for another hike ashore. Heinz led as he had the gun in case of bears. The rest of us were supposed to stay in a small group but soon straggled out as some were photographing the flora whilst the others were on the lookout for fauna. Both were rewarded. The fauna consisted of a very silly group of reindeer. Their curiosity made them approach us quite closely, then with a startled look as though they had just seen us, they would turn tail and run away.
The reindeer’s diet is all vegetation. It’s lush in spring and early summer but later in the seasons they have to exist by scraping moss and lichens off the rocks. This of course, grinds down their teeth until eventually they are unable to feed and starve to death. What an existence.
We were warmly welcomed by the research scientists and given coffee and cake and a tour of the facilities, the highlight being the beautiful dogs they kept as bear alarms. The bitch had recently had puppies which they took by snowmobile to Longyearbyen to sell. I think it was quite a wrench for them to let the puppies go. Amongst the group was a psychologist who was doing her PhD on the effects of isolation and the long dark winter on her fellow scientists. That must be a bit of a worry for them. Back to the boat for lunch then a change of anchorage.
The small fiord we anchored in still had fast ice on the shore so it was out with the binoculars and the camera. First someone spotted a few reindeer on the nearby slopes, then a few seals appeared on the ice and last but by no means least, not one but two polar bears. They were quite a way away but still made for some great camera shots. What a way to start our exploration of this fascinating land. The bears were there because there were still seals on the ice. Bears have an incredible sense of smell and sniff out the newborn seal pups in their little lairs under the ice. Once one is on the nasal radar, the bear pounds down with front paws, breaks through the ice and snaffles its prey. One small seal will feed a bear for about a week. The baby seals have a very high fat content so contribute significantly to the fattening up of the bears so that they can survive through the summer months.
We stayed in this snug anchorage for the night but had to up anchor and move a bit in the middle of the night when ice broke away from the shore and encircled the boat. That is why we always do anchor watches through the night unless we are on a mooring or attached to a dock.
We set sail about 11 am for the long haul to Longyearbyen. It was 12 relatively calm miles to the entrance to the fiord where we were met with 30 knots and more of head wind and bouncy seas. There weren’t many willing to take a turn at the helm so a few of us, Heinz, Michael, Mark and myself took it in turns. I probably did more than my share as I just love it out there with the wind and the waves. It was a dull day, low cloud and cold. As we edged around the coastline we headed more to the north east and the wind became more favourable and we speeded up to over 8 knots at times. We had 80 miles to cover so it was 2 am before we finally anchored in Bellsund fiord in a snug little anchorage called Van Keulenhamma. It had a rocky shoreline so not much to be seen other than one reindeer so we all headed for bed.
It was nearly 11 am before we emerged the next morning but a hike was arranged for 11.30. Quick breakfast and off in the dinghy. There wasn’t too much of interest on the shore except for what looked like a helicopter rescue from a tourist ship just off the entrance to the fiord. It was a great walk all the same. We headed off around 13.30 and despite a forecast of fresh westerlies it was almost flat calm so we motored around the coast to Isfjorden into another snug anchorage called Trygghamna.
The next day dawned (if it can when the sun never sets) on the most beautiful day, clear skies and stunning mountains and glaciers as far as the eye can see. There isn’t much snow down to the water in this anchorage and not much likelihood of polar bears, so after breakfast we headed ashore in search of Arctic foxes. Out at the headland there is a massive rock face where myriads of puffins, guillemots, little auks and arctic terns build their nests. The foxes generally patrol the foot of the rock face to feed on the unfortunate fledgelings that fall to the ground on their maiden flight. As we approached we could hear the bird calls and see the swarms of birds all around the rock face, but alas, no foxes. On the way there we came across the gruesome sight of an exposed grave, pushed up by the permafrost. Just the head, neck and shoulders were exposed, with some of the teeth in mint condition. Someone had put a ring of stones around the head. We left well alone, but Heinz reported it to the Sysselmannen (Town Manager) in Longyearbyen and it was the first he had heard of it.
I managed to get some close up photographs of the new spring growth, including polar willow, moss campion, snow buttercup, whitlow grass and a lot of purple and yellow saxifrages. These are all low growing, ground hugging plants. The moss campion is the most interesting as it only ever flowers on the south facing side, hence can be used as a navigational aid if you happen to be lost on the tundra.
There were a couple of cruise boats in the fiord and one of them disgorged a load of passengers, all in identical yellow jackets. At least they were a good distance away from us.
Some of our group hitched a ride back in the dinghy but a few of us opted to walk back along the beach. We were rewarded with two seals which took a keen interest in us from the sea and made for some more great photos. This was the longest hike we had done so far, around 12 ks in total. About 2 ks from the end of the hike, Karinne appeared in the dinghy with a surprise picnic for us, sandwiches and flasks of hot drinks on the beach. It was very timely as we had been on the go for about 5 hours and it is surprisingly dehydrating.
Here we are at Latitude 77` N, only 780 miles from the North Pole. It has been a mild winter so not so much ice formed which may account for the relative dearth of wild life. In 2011 there was a strong north Easterly wind which blew the ice down the east coast, around the south of Spitsbergen, up the east coast and into Isfjord, completely blocking it off. No vessels could get in or out for days. Cruise ships had to head back with their existing passengers and new passengers who had flown in had to fly out again as all the hotels were full to capacity. You can never predict what is going to happen in these latitudes.
Our last full day of the trip started with wet snow but by around 11am it had eased and we up anchored and motored around to the adjoining fiord, Ymerbukta (Bukta means bay). Here Heinz motored right up near to the face of the glacier. The air spilling off it was noticeably colder. We ended up about 1.75ks further inland than the last charted position of the face of the glacier. This was not the first time we had done this on this trip, but the third time. The big question is, is this a natural phenomenon or cycle, or is the shrinking of the ice aided by global warming.
Karel was on station at the bow with a boathook to fend off bergy bits. There was a lot of camera activity going on. Then Heinz motored quietly up to a larger iceberg, stopping only when the bobstay hit the ice, startling everyone. After playing around in this fiord for a while we headed off in search of walruses and seals. None to be seen, even in their guaranteed favourite location! The weather is still clear and calm as we head to our destination port of Longyearbyen. When we arrive in the harbour there is no room on the dock and the visitors’ mooring is taken so we have to anchor. Michael and Karinne produce another fabulous dinner and out came the wine and beer. We were all fairly abstemious, one small glass each and off to bed (with anchor watches).
Around the breakfast table the next day, Heinz asked everyone for their view of the voyage. All were really enthusiastic and had enjoyed it enormously despite seasickness early on. Everyone had found their sea legs by the time we reached Bear Island and we had seen things that far exceeded our expectations. Another highly successful voyage on the Anne Margaretha had come to end.
Heinz found a spot on the town wharf and all guests disembarked with much exchanging of addresses and hopes to meet again somewhere in the world and probably on Anne Margaretha.
We were re-joining the ship in a couple of days and meanwhile were staying in an apartment of the Svalbard lodge. Great excitement when we got to our rooms, a washing machine in the bathroom! There followed a couple of days of catching up on laundry and sleep, exploring the town and buying some waterproof over-trousers that were comfortable for hiking, as our sailing trousers were too heavy and cumbersome. We were really looking forward to the next voyage from Longyearbyen to Moffen Island in the north, about as far north that a vessel that is not an icebreaker can go, 80`N, 10` from the North Pole or 600 miles. Anyone for a long hike?