Expedition Voyage in Svalbard
Updated: Mar 2
By William Gray
It only takes a brief tutorial and a few blistered palms to get us underway. As the tawny sails bloom overhead, the Noorderlicht cants dramatically and begins to sing with the wind – rigging chiming against twin steel masts; canvas thrumming and the Arctic Ocean bursting white beneath her bowsprit. Slowly, Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital, falls astern – the cluster of brightly-coloured wooden houses shrinking to Lego blocks against a dramatic meringue-whip of mountains.
“We want to go north,” explains Jan Belger, the guide onboard the 50m schooner (with its crew of five) that 17 of us have joined for an 11-day sailing trip along the coast of Spitsbergen – the largest of Svalbard’s islands. “But how far we get will depend on the pack ice.” Throughout winter and much of spring, the seas around Svalbard freeze over. It’s only around mid June, with 24hr daylight and temperatures creeping to 5 degrees C, that such a voyage could even be contemplated.
Despite being squashed by converging lines of longitude and barely clinging to the top of a world map, Svalbard is served by scheduled flights from Norway. This remote mountainous archipelago (about the area of the Republic of Ireland) is the most accessible high arctic region in the world. We could have been forgiven for thinking that we were sailing into total wilderness, a frigid no-man’s land. But ever since the discovery of Svalbard in 1596 by Willem Barents, the archipelago has been doggedly exploited for its natural resources.
From the sublime to the soulless, we sail into Barentsburg, a Russian coal mining community 25 nautical miles west of Longyearbyen. Squatting on a soiled hillside of soot and rusting machinery, Barentsburg shatters my pure illusion of the arctic. “I like to bring tourists here,” says Jan, nodding towards the spewing chimneys and the conveyor belts shrieking like a tormented wind. “It’s part of arctic life.” On the wharf two miners usher us to curio stalls scattered with sets of Russian dolls, metal badges of Lenin and framed notes of the Norwegian rouble which Norway no longer allows them to use. Around 700 men work here on two-year contracts worth US$5,000. There are also 200 women and six children, but pregnant women are sent home to Russia – otherwise their offspring could claim Norwegian citizenship.
The mining community is a self-contained arctic life capsule. There are 400 pigs and six cows, plus a greenhouse with tomatoes and cucumbers. Oksara, a local guide, leads us around the farm, a sports complex and the Pomor Museum, named after the original Russians who began settling the area as early as the 16th century. Nearby is an imposing statue. “Lenin is, Lenin was, Lenin always will be,” Oksara murmurs as we skid through coal-stained slush beneath the figure’s raptor-gaze.
The coal at Barentsburg might last another few decades, but little thought was given to the sustainability of some of Svalbard’s other natural resources. Bowhead whales, for example, were eradicated by Dutch, British and German whalers during the 17th and 18th centuries. Walruses were also slaughtered for their tusks, hides and oil, but thanks to a strict conservation programme which now protects over half the area of Svalbard, their numbers are recovering. Ironically, it was the crew of a ‘scientific’ whaling ship in Longyearbyen that had given Jan a tip-off as to the whereabouts of a new walrus haul-out.
It is midnight on our second day when the Noorderlicht drops anchor off the spindly island of Prins Karls Forland. Jan checks the whalers’ co-ordinates, then scans the shingle beach for signs of life. Soon, we are being shuttled ashore in small groups using the ship’s zodiac. Jan accompanies the first landing party, a large shotgun slung over his shoulder. “I don’t want to scare you,” he says, “but on land we’re part of the food chain.” Polar bears can weigh 500kg and sprint at over 40km/h. They’re cunning, curious and, if given the chance, would like to eat you. Accidents have happened, explains Jan, which is why it’s against the law for anyone to venture into the wilds unarmed.
“Walruses can be unpredictable, too,” Jan whispers as he leads us slowly to what appears to be a heap of smooth brown boulders. It’s only when one twitches and lifts a wrinkled, moustached face above the aggregation that we freeze. There must be over 100 of them – all males according to Jan – lounging about the pebbles snoring, belching and breaking wind like a crowd of obese, semi-conscious students after a pub-crawl and curry. Gradually, we stalk to within 20m of them, close enough to smell them; to hear their stomachs rumbling and to see the light of the midnight sun shimmering on their tusks.
Early the next morning, hugging the jagged shoreline of Spitsbergen, we continue north. The soft light of night flares into another vivid arctic day – a gas-flame sky; the sea dancing with diamonds. Drifting into Magdalena Fjord we tease and tug the pristine reflections of mountains before mooring near the site of an old whaling station. And then, like distant voices in a dream, we begin to hear them – siren calls, whispering and pulsing through the steel hull of the Noorderlicht – the sound of beluga whales singing.
The following day there is a tense silence onboard. Ted, the skipper (always a man of few words) is hunched behind the wheel, a black fur-trapper hat wedged above ice-chip eyes; his thin lips grinding the stub of a roll-up. Somewhere, close ahead, lies the permanent pack ice. Already Ted has nudged a large free-floating chunk – the Noorderlicht shivering from the impact, staining the ice blood-red from paint scraped from her hull.
Slowly, the northern tip of Spitsbergen sinks behind us, the mountains finally snuffed out by stinging sleet that plunges the temperature to –15 degrees C. But our spirits begin to soar. All eyes turn to the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the map room as it plots our progress north. At 4.47pm everyone cheers, the ship’s bell is rung and we raise glasses of steaming punch. We have reached 80 degrees north – a nautical milestone in these waters every bit as momentous as crossing the equator. But the rum punch has barely revived our frozen lips when Ted violently spins the Noorderlicht’s wheel and orders the sails lowered. A few hundred metres ahead lies the ragged edge of the pack ice, a white skin gnawed by waves, but solid and impregnable as far as the eye can see. Less than 600 miles away is the North Pole. A more desolate and lonely place to venture would be hard to imagine.
Under engine power we turn east, tracing the extent of the frozen sea. It soon becomes clear that the pack ice curves southwards, attaching itself to one of the headlands on the north coast of Spitsbergen. Ted picks up a radio transmission from a cruise ship in the area. Twice she has tried to punch her way through – and failed.
We have no choice but to turn south, retreating to Fair Haven and the Smeerenburg Fjord beyond. But the narrow inlet is a natural bottleneck for fragments of pack ice – and Ted is right to be anxious when we drop anchor that evening. In the early hours of the following morning, I am woken by the ominous grating of ice against the Noorderlicht’s hull. During the night the wind has shifted and the fjord has become a trap. Struggling from the grip of coalescing ice we thread a path to clearer sea and flee south before the freshening breeze, the waves white-ribbed before us and the jib and main sail stretched like the spread wings of a butterfly.
Twelve hours later we reach London. The rusted shell of an Englishman’s dream, this empty wooden hut and jumble of abandoned machinery is all that remains of an attempt to mine marble in the early 1900s. Walking amongst the old rail carts, wheelbarrows and boilers (‘Made in Leicester’ still visible through the rust), it’s impossible not to admire the determination and audacity that drove men to this unforgiving place in search of wealth. Only one shipload of marble was ever extracted from London. It was of such poor quality that no one ever bothered returning for more.
Nearby, at the polar research community of Ny-Ålesund are more of Svalbard’s silent memorials, including the docking mast from which Roald Amundsen launched his airship across the North Pole in 1926. Nowadays, everyone here has a serious mission, whether they’re scientists studying global warming or cruise ship passengers scuttling ashore to mail postcards from the world’s most northerly post office.
On midsummer’s day, we anchor across the fjord from Ny-Ålesund at the foot of a huge glacier; blocks of blue ice skewed along its front, like teeth in disarray. Jan leads us on a tentative hike through its crystal maze landscape, side-stepping crevasses and negotiating gullies sparkling with ice. The polar bear was probably watching us all the time. But it’s only once we’ve looped back to our landing point that we spot the creature ambling casually across pack ice below the glacier. “Ice bear!” Jan radios the Noorderlicht and almost immediately the zodiac is skimming towards us. There is nothing threatening in this individual’s behaviour, though, and we are treated to a distant but riveting view of the bear plunging half-heartedly after seals.
Some fellow passengers had based a large part of the success of their trip on sighting a polar bear and I can see the relief on Jan’s face. Over the next few days, he is content on his hands and knees peering at smaller natural wonders. As the snow recedes during summer, around 170 plant species seize the moment, transforming the tundra into a patterned plain. “There are forests here too,” explains Jan, prodding tangled carpets of polar willow which at this latitude only grows a few centimetres high.
With our senses tuning in to the subtleties of the arctic, we begin our southerly voyage back to Longyearbyen. At Fuglehuken, an austere headland at the tip of Prins Karls Forland, we land on a pebble beach strewn with pale and battered logs of Siberian pine. There are other misfits in the flotsam. Someone discovers part of an old Russian gas mask and there’s an assortment of shoes, all of them right-footed.
Nearby are two lines of shallow graves, each one a slight mound covered with rocks. Splashes of purple saxifrage bravely try to cheer the place up, but there is something interminably forlorn about the nameless cemetery. No one seems to know who these people were, but Jan reckons the graves to be centuries old. I feel an uneasy sense of them not belonging here. The freeze-thaw dynamics of the permafrost have pushed most of the graves to the surface, exhuming their wooden coffins which have been further pillaged by ice and wind. In one I notice a fragment of skull; in another a femur, gnawed at one end by an arctic fox.
These people, whoever they were, confronted the arctic and were struck down. Now, even in death, this unforgiving land was rejecting them, ridding its fragile surface of their remains. As we walk away from the graves, the wind slashing at us, squeezing tears from our eyes, our footsteps leave deep holes in the mossy mattress of the tundra. We head towards a small deserted hut used by scientists. Inside there are two bunkbeds and some tins of food. A sign on the door reads, “You are free to use this place if you need to, but please leave it as you found it.”
Wildlife Worldwide offers voyages around Spitsbergen onboard the Noorderlicht,
while Discover the World offers cruises on the Polar Star and Expedition – both capable of carrying around 100 passengers.
SAS operates flights to Longyearbyen via Oslo.
GMT+1 (GMT+2 Mar-Oct)