Monday, 23 July 2012

Outwitting the Wind

 The weather became turbulent as we sailed back past Meifjord and entered the north coast of Norway. We had to leave Bårdfjord on Seiland Island as sudden westerly winds tried to shepherd us towards the rocky beach. We were glad we’d kept our rope reels - purchased in 2006 from Martin and Anke (“Just Do It”) in Valdivia Chile. They have been unused since our travels South, North, South and North again in Patagonia. These 100m ropes roll out quite easily when anchored on the solar arch. They hold the boat in place when strong wind changes loosen the anchor’s grip or when a narrow anchoring compass would allow the required length of chain to carry the boat onto rocks. In Patagonia, convenient trees usually offered themselves up as cleats. In Norway, iron T-stakes were hammered in years ago by long-gone mariners and can still be used as tie-ups.
Larry attaches final rope

We chose to hole up in Indre Pollen - a beautiful little spot shallow enough to lay down our anchor, girdled about by wind-defeating high mountains and with nearby beautiful flower-topped islets. We knew we’d be safe once we installed the reels and got the lines ashore. Our inbound passage was attended by a ewe and her lambs. After that, we relaxed and enjoyed a welcome visit from Rune (and former Opportune-ist Cecilie) who appeared on a fast-moving R.I.B. on Saturday evening. During the outbound leg we were out-sailed by a gorgeous sea eagle high above us.
Indre Pollen islet with flowers
Rune and Cec arrive ... 

... and leave on R.I.B.
After dinner last night, we snuck out while the wind rested and travelled all night to get here to Skjervøy at 0530 this morning (much helped by the Midnight Sun). The wind will  come back in strength later today, but it can’t get at us here at the dock – ha ha! - we’ll be able to buy some provisions and get our laundry cleaned. When it next relaxes its vigilance, we’ll hurry along to meet up with “Opportune” and its crew on a repeat visit to the Lofoten Islands.

Approach to Skjervøy   

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Leaving Svalbard

As we leave Longyearbyen, we wanted to post five of our favourite glacier photos!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A few Arctic Birds

Notes and photos by Linda Thom

Northern Fulmar
Many of Svalbard’s birds have graced our patch of blue (or grey). On leaving Miefjord and turning past the last isle of Northern Norway, I looked for a Fulmar, aka ‘the Albatross of the North’. This graceful offshore flyer is a little bigger than a Kittiwake Gull but makes the latter look like a laggard in the air. Several times on our trip we saw Arctic Skuas (also called Jaegers) harass a gull in an aerial battle in the hopes the gull would regurgitate its catch. The Skuas never bothered a Fulmar. Sitting on the water a Northern Fulmar resembles a gull in profile but is medium brown on the back and wings and has a breathing tube on top of the bill like an albatross. Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas have dark brown heads, backs, wings and tails with a lighter underside and distinctive brown ‘necklace’. They are somewhat larger than their gull targets.

Skua chasing Gull
The Arctic Tern may be the most famous of all Arctic avians. These slightly built silvery birds with black caps and red bills fly 25,000 miles from here to the Antarctic and back each year. They are also remarkable in that they can hover like a hummingbird and may do so continually as they search for prey close to shore. They are also feisty, as Don can attest: they will dive bomb the top of a person’s head if that person wanders anywhere near their nest. They will also dive bomb a polar bear’s nose with lacerating effect and have been known to drive bears from nesting areas (!).

Imagine our delight as we witnessed white and black birds as plump as chickens accompanied by their brown mates feeding along the shoreline: Eiders, whose ancestors supplied the stuffing of Grandma’s down quilts.

Female Common Eider
After getting used to smaller birds I was amazed one day to hear, then see, what at first seemed to be a Canada Goose but was in fact a Barnacle Goose. It appeared to be smaller but otherwise similar in proportion, voice and coloration. The two are easily distinguished by the head markings. The Barnacle has notably more white on the face than just the wide chin strap of the Canada. The Barnacle geese are just hatching their goslings now. These youngsters have a hard time surviving the predation of gulls, skuas, foxes and polar bears. We learned from a biologist that bears will not only raid nests, which we observed, but nab goslings from underneath while swimming.

Barnacle Goose
Ubiquitous in these environs are Guillemots. We observed two versions: 1) black with white wing patches and bellies, highlighted by red legs and feet; and 2) a slightly larger bird, again black, but with white bars near the tail, white undersides, black legs and feet. Both species frequently fly in small groups, often in line astern. They appear to glitter in the sun as their rapidly beating black wings make their white bellies seem to flash on and off.
Arctic Tern

An even more rapid wing beater is the beloved Puffin which resembles a miniature black and white football with wings and a very round, colourful head. Amazingly for their size and plumpness, Guillemots and Puffins can easily pass a boat moving at 25 knots. A last note about Puffins: they are camera shy and almost always dive just as you are about to press the shutter!

Saturday, 7 July 2012


Anders and Fred

We meet people in our travels and often make short but highly meaningful connections. In this way we met two amazing people in the course of their professional life up here in Svalbard. Fred Lamo and Anders Vess Thingnes were hired by The Sysselman Office (Governer of Svalbard) for a variety of tasks over the short period of summer. There are three teams of “Field Inspectors” - each composed of a Biologist and a member of the Politi (police). They fulfill a number of regulatory obligations including making sure permits are in order, count and evaluate birds and other wildlife and check on archeological remains on the island. Brought together arbitrarily, they’d never met before. Each one’s outstanding qualifications and life experience contributed to make them a viable team.

Fred wearing Gold
We learned a great deal in our shared meetings and meals. They each made a warm bond with Linda – not just because of her wonderful zest for life and for sharing of herself and her gold medal but also because of the respect and sacrifices she’s made to travel in the Arctic and learn as much as she can. Anders described the mating displays of the Arctic tern – Linda proceeded to take the most amazing photos of the male wooing his chosen female.

Financing his MA in Biology took Anders to Greenland over four summers. His eye for spotting wildlife and birds at great distances and his amazing fitness level (attested to by his skiing over the Brooks Range in Alaska during a time-off from his studies) seem to be characteristics of many young Norwegians. Fred held Linda’s gold medal appreciatively. He’d already won significant awards and been an Olympic prospect for Norway in his road racing event when he became injured. He is a magnificent shot and in this capacity trains the Norwegian Special Services. It was our good fortune to meet him as he was supposed to go to Afghanistan - luckily his Tour was cancelled.

When we mentioned Rune Somby, Anders knew him both as a skier and as a biologist. Rune taught Anders biology class how to identify which predator had killed reindeer (15 of them – all with different marks of predation!) Amazingly, the golden eagle can take credit for many reindeer kills.

Traversay (L) and Vision in South Georgia
We mentioned two young Norwegians we were impressed with away down in South Georgia (we were there in January 2008). While we were cautiously debouching our dinghy and cruising on our super-safe steel craft, they were bombing around various headlands in kayaks, scaling peaks, lassoing and butchering reindeer to have fresh  venison aboard the  Kiwi-registered S/V “Vision” and making a Norwegian TV presentation about their Antarctic - South Georgia trip. Anders knew their names – Audun Hetland and Reidar Gregersen – and we heard that both are now married. It was no surprise that one is now gaining a PhD in Psychology in Extreme Sports.

Bear a bit too close
Bear with Flare
So these connections between the generations carry us along our voyage and enrich our lives – we greatly admire the commitment and knowledge of these dedicated Norwegians and feel so fortunate to have spent the time with them.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Ytre Norskøya

Reclining Bear
Outer Norway Island certainly describes the northernmost point we have reached to date in our Svalbard travels.

What a day!

A glimpse out the window in the early hours revealed a large polar bear [aren't they all large?] ambling through the very ruins we had walked around the afternoon before. The glimpse was brief and, from our anchorage, far away but we managed to snap off a few fuzzy pictures. ... it turned out to be only a preview!

We headed out of Virgohamna to explore a bit to the north and east. On being presented with the option of staying inshore to see yet another tidewater glacier or, alternatively, heading out around the outermost seemingly uninteresting island, Mary Anne chose the latter. "It's calm today; we may not get the chance again."

While passing the outer shore of this outer island, Linda sighted a bear. We brought the boat to a stop and eased her inshore as far as we dared in order to get a better view. Thus for over an hour we were entertained with swimming, climbing, sniffing, rolling in the snow, examining driftwood and a myriad of other "bear behaviors" exhibited by this intelligent, powerful and intensely curious creature.

During this long pause off the island, Mary Anne got seriously busy with the camera so we could give you a look at our day.

We can't get much further north, but every mile of our northing was rewarded today in exceptional measure!

Swimming Bear

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Yes, we're still moving north!

We have experienced very gentle weather - no real surprise with calms being typical of the high arctic in July.

From Ny London, we moved on to Magdalenafjord for a night. On arrival, we were blessed with the sight of another collection of walrus frolicking about in the water. Our very secure anchorage was off a 17th century cemetery where over 100 British whalers rest in peace not far from three beautiful glaciers. Scurvy - the terror of sailors until the 18th century did them in!

We now find ourselves at Virgohamna, an anchorage with indifferent shelter but a fascinating history. This is the furthest north accessible and relatively sheltered harbor. In the 17th century it hosted Dutch whalers [in the summer anyway - scurvy defeated those who wished to winter over]. At the close of the 19th century and early 20th century, Andree and Wellman based the earliest aerial attempts on the North Pole here. The shore is scattered with iron filings, acid jars [to make hydrogen] along with collapsed dirigible hangars. None of the attempts were successful and lives were lost trying, but for a short time this remote spot was on the front pages of the world's newspapers.

Nonetheless, life goes on here. In the absence of ice pans, a large collection of seals lounge on small rocks, ever alert to the need to swim quickly away from any approaching bear.

Even our shore excursion had to be alert to the same possibility. Linda was first ashore with her rifle to stand guard while we hauled the dingy up the beach. Along with cameras, we had flare pistols and air horns. Shore excursions are not made if any bears are sighted but, in case one appears, it is important to have lots of non-lethal means of discouraging a bear. The rifle is only a last resort with bear killings being investigated as thoroughly as murders in other jurisdictions.

Alas, we have seen seals, reindeer, walrus and whales but the white bears, though reputed to be nearby, still elude us.

At 7/4/2012 18:55 (utc) our position was 79°43.40'N 010°54.82'E

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Canada Day Walrus

Photo and story by Linda Thom

Overnight the ghost of Lauren Harris conjured up an iconic Arctic scene which we viewed on waking - snow-mantled mountains with not a cloud in the sky! Larry hoisted a large Canadian flag in place of the normal sized one and we were off to look for walrus up Forlandsund at Poolepynten on Prins Karls Forland. The latter is a long mountainous island paralleling the coast from Isfjord to Kongsfjord providing not only an inside passage but fabulous views. We were indeed blessed with a rare sunny day as Svalbard is very often blanketed with low overcast.

As advertized, at Poolepynt there were a dozen magnificent walrus basking on the sunny sand: many with tusks heavenward, some lazily scratching their tummies. Others, it was easy to imagine, might be snoring. As we approached, those on the 'qui vive' raised up to have a look as we took pictures.

In the evening we motored up Kongsfjord and Larry gingerly nosed us in amongst bits of ice toward the glacier opposite Ny Alesund. It's the most Northerly town on the planet barring military installations such as Alert. The Blomstrandhamna glacier is much diminished compared to its extent when Don and I visited in 1973. Being amongst the bits of ice sounded as if we were floating in a bowl of Rice Krispies, with the popping and crackling sound they made, punctuated with the occasional rumble or pistol crack from the mother glacier.

At last we settled down in a little cove named Ny London where the British tried and failed to establish a marble quarry.

This blog is coming to you courtesy of some lo-bandwidth shortwave radio wizardry in the absence of internet access. We are lucky to be able to send you one small picture with a greatly reduced number of pixels.

At 7/2/2012 10:04 (utc) our position was << <<79°09.24'N 010°58.71'E>> >>