21 Feb Cruising the Svalbard Archipelago
Cruising the Svalbard Archipelago
Mikaela Price – Marketing Assistant – Arctic Travel Centre
To me, the idea of visiting the Arctic was an entirely foreign concept up until one year ago. Before then, I had imagined uninhabited and desolate lands with ice chocked waters surrounding them, making them entirely inaccessible. What greeted me in the Arctic Summer of 2019, in the Svalbard Archipelago, was something magnificently different. People did, in fact, inhabit these lands for the means of research and there was a myriad of animals, with incredible adaptations to the climate that they live in roaming the mountainous terrain and exploring the icy waters. To my surprise, the Arctic was indeed a sanctuary for life.
Flowering Purple Saxifrage
My exploration started in Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard which also happens to be the northernmost capital city in the world at 78°N. Of the fluctuating 2000 residents here, there is a mix of scientists, tourism workers and service personnel. Life can be tough at the top of the world. There is the experience of a true endless summer (albeit it without the beach weather) with the sun not falling below the horizon during the summer months. This also means that the region is subjected to what would feel like a never-ending winter where the land is plunged into darkness for almost 4 months of the year. This complete darkness also provides the backdrop for the incredible northern lights to take to the sky to put on a show.
After a quick visit to the Longyearbyen museum to learn about the types of animals that we could encounter on our journey and the incredible explorers whom paved the way for us, it was time to explore the town. There are many local stores for souvenirs and information about Svalbard, along with many restaurants and cafes and even what claims to be the northernmost skate ramp.
By the afternoon, the time had come to board our ship, the Silver Cloud. Once everything and everyone was accounted for it was time to start sailing into the unknown – at least for the guests, the captain and crew had been to the region many times before making them extremely knowledgeable when it came to what was instore for us. What greeted me my first morning waking up on the ship was like nothing I had ever seen before – often I find that my mind tries to compare new places to those that I’ve seen before but my memory bank turned up blank when it came to my new surrounds. The ice capped mountains and icy waters were astounding – I was officially blown away by the Arctic.
The talk on the ship mainly referred to that of when and where we were likely to spot the king of the North – the Polar Bear. Of course, seeing one was high on my list of Arctic priorities however I did not let it deter me from the excitement of all of the other wildlife that we could possibly see. I think excitement got the better of me one day in the dining room as I frantically waved and shouted to my travelling companion that there was a Narwhal on the horizon. Thankfully, I hadn’t attracted the eyes of those around me as when we approached it, the rare and mysterious Narwhal turned out to be merely a piece of driftwood….
A huddle of Walrus on Poolepynten
Throughout the 10 day voyage we spotted a myriad of wildlife. Svalbard Reindeer were common to see, along with walrus’ who made an entertaining collection of sounds, a pod of blue whales from the hull of the ship and minke whales from the restaurant. There was also enough bird life to keep the most avid twitcher happy with Ivory gulls, red phalarope or even the rare Steller’s eider duck. Two birds that I certainly didn’t get sick of spotting was the snow bunting, the only songbird of the region whose call was a welcomed sound to the otherwise silence of the Arctic and of course, the clown of the sea, the puffin. In the Gjesvaerstappan Islands, we were treated to an estimated one million of them in the seas and dotted across the skies. Other people on our boat were lucky enough to spot Arctic foxes, however with their nimble abilities we just missed out every time.
Svalbard Reindeer with an Arctic Tern
Snow Bunting, courtesy of Silversea
It was on Day 5 that the star of the show finally made an appearance, the majestic king of the north (in this case it happened to be a queen), a female polar bear. Someone from the expedition team managed to spot the bear over 15 kilometres away and carefully visually tracked her until she was in a spot that we could observe her without imposing on her habitat. We loaded into the zodiacs and I watched in awe, with a few tears in my eyes at the fact that we were lucky enough to be spotting a polar bear in their natural habitat. Although it was disappointing only spotting the one, I think it made it all the more special and proved how rare and mysterious that they really are.
As an avid green thumb, my favourite thing about the Arctic and something that was totally unexpected was the incredible flora that was able to thrive in such harsh conditions. From the incredible colourful lichen which provides a delicious snack for reindeer to the aesthetically pleasing flowering moss campion which was a pleasure to touch. All of the trees in Svalbard seldom grow more than a few cm so I had my eyes glued to the ground at each stop (possibly why I missed spotting the Arctic Fox). I was completely bewildered to the fact that there was even fungi growing in the Arctic!! The most impressive vegetation of all was that of the vertical gardens at the 14th of July Glacier, which is powered by the birds which bred above them (natural fertiliser) and produced an incredible flourishing garden.
The incredible eco-system that thrives in the Arctic Summer and braves the Arctic Winter is one that has to be seen to be believed and there are many operators and ships which can offer you in-depth voyages to Svalbard and the surrounding islands.
EXPERIENCE SVALBARD FOR YOURSELF
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