30 June 2008

We did some great sailing!! For the first time since we rigged the new booms and sails we made a speed of 9,5 knots, along the seven-glacier-coast. We were out on deck the whole evening to watch Noorderlicht going. But sailing is just one of the excitements of this trip...

Friday, 27th June

Today it was time for some history: we visited Amsterdamoya (Amsterdam Island), where we found the remnants of Dutch blubber ovens. Smeerenburg, which you could say is Dutch for "Blubber City", was a thriving place where Dutch and other whalers caught whales and cooked their fat into oil in the first half of the 17th century. Being Dutch myself, I am rather fascinated by these Dutch activities in and around Spitsbergen. It is a pity there is so little left to see; you really need to put your imagination at work. When we were there, the weather was quite bad: low hanging clouds, a lot of wind, very cold, and some snow now and again. When we put our minds to it, it wasn't hard to paint the picture in our heads. We could actually see these men pull in the whales, and feed their blubber to the ovens in stormy and harsh weather conditions.
Of course, these men had to deal with more than just harsh weather - being hauled under water by a resisting whale, painful death by scurvy, and last but not least, polar bears sloping along into town in seach for food. Life at Smeerenburg certainly was not a picnic and we saw it all before our eyes.
And that is when it happens. Reality and imagination get mixed up and it becomes hard to distinguish between them. And so, when someone cried out "polar bears!!!!" we didn't believe them. Sure, we had heard about the dangers of an actual meeting with a polar bear, but we all know that only happens in books and movies. While sailing around Spitsbergen, the bears are on the land or ice, and you are always on the ship, at a safe distance. Isn't that right......?? Well, no. In this case three bears, a mother with two cubs, were actually on the same bit of land as us, and approaching rapidly. Ever seen a polar bear stroll? I can assure you, what looks like a stroll, is in fact a pretty fast pace. We figured there was about 400 meters between us when we first spotted them. Urged by our guide, who didn't really feel like having to use his rifle, we quickly moved back to the beach where we could be picked up by the Zodiac. Every time we looked back we could see the bears closing in on us. The Zodiac could only take half of us back to the ship at a time, and so the rest of us stayed behind on the beach, watching the bears come closer and closer. They were circling us, and were watching us as much as we were watching them. We decided that meant they were just as curious as we were, and had no plans to attack, but nontheless, the return of the Zodiac was very welcome. By then the distance between us was no more than 250 meters.
Back in the safety of the ship we had a great time watching the family enter the water and swim across the fjord. A great sight: three heads in a perfect line. On the other shore they resumed their stroll, and we had a great story to tell back home.

Liesbeth Oskamp

18June 2008

Third group already, of which the author of the story below is part of. Sunshine made place for wind, lots of wind, coming from the north and bringing an incredible amount of pack ice with it. Due to all this ice, we couldn't make it further than Smeerenburg (were we saw a polar bear). Heading south now in some unexpected swell which wiped some kitchenware off the tables... Next destination: Bellsund.
From Noorderlicht, 17 June, 2008: Lilliehookfjorden

Our Arctic dreams have become a dazzling and unforgetable reality thanks to the skills and care of Captain Gert, 1st mate Barbara and 2nd mate Jeroen. We had high hopes as we boarded Noorderlicht, and have come to find each day surpassing the previous as our wonder and appreciation of North Spitsbergen grows. At each stop we make with hopes for sighting of a certain bird, walrus, fox, isbjorn - there it is and, unbelievably, even more. Our outward smiles reflect deep inner satisfation and awe.

Stately Noorderlicht takes us steadily and bravely through icy passages as she has done for 100 years. We thrill at the wind in our hair, majical peaks all around. We are mesmerized by northern textures and landforms, water as ice, as sea, the infinite variance of light. And always the warm galley filled with the aromas of Menthe's remarkable meals greets us after each outing. All have grown used to the movement of the ship and look forward to sweet and ancient dreams as the rhythmic sway rocks us to sleep in the arctic night.

Thank you Mother Earth, Grandmother Sea, Noorderlicht companions.

Holly Wenger & Friends


9 June 2008

Sunshine, no wind and a lot of animals are the keywords for the trip we are making now. Pieter and Trudy, who join our second nord-west trip, have written down their experience.

Spitsbergen Noorderlicht 31-05-2008 / 11-06-2008

From 4 o'clock on saturday afternoon we arrive on the Noorderlicht. All together we have 10 Dutch, 5 German, 3 English and 1 Australian on board, together with the Dutch crew (4) and the Danish guide.
It took some time to know all the names, but we could get along very well with all 24 during the 11 day trip on this sailing ship without sails ;-) Boom and some sails were broken in the storm. Captain Gert didn't like this, but now we had to do everything on the engine. Special mentioning our cook Menthe, who deserves a michelin star for his three course meals everyday and good lunches and breakfasts.

Everyday we did walks with our guide Christian who protected us from polar bears (he carried the rifle at least!). Because of the deep snow it was sometimes difficult but also great fun sliding down the hill. Some of us made very deep holes (more then knee deep) and had to be dug out.
Also on the "short" walks, which sometimes took us 5 hours (!), we had wonderful views that made you feel you were at the end of the world.

Most of the time we had good weather. Especially in the north we had a lot of sun. We made it as far as 80 degrees north thanks to Barbara (and Gert) and celebrated this with Berenburg. On our way we saw lots of snowy mountains, glaciers and many (sea)birds. Alltogether 22 species including Ivory gull, puffins, ptarmigan, long tailed skua and arctic skua.
And of course the seals (who you can hear "singing" at night in your bunkbed), 3 polar bears (a mother and her 1 year old cub and 1 in his natural habitat, the packice), belugas (a group of about 30), walrus (60 in 2 groups at Poolepynten and several others elsewhere), minke whale. On land we saw the reindeers and arctic foxes.

The whole trip we never saw another boat or other people except during our visits to Ny Alesund and Barentsburg.
Everyone in our group enjoyed and was enthusiastic about the trip, the friendly, informal crew (not to forget Jeroen our zodiac captain), and we were very lucky with the weather and the animals we saw. Sometimes there was something broken (i.e. no warm water) but everything was fixed by the crew in no time.
The whaling history made the Dutch on board decide to raise the Dutch flag again on Smeerenburg while singing the Dutch anthem (of which some had forgotten the words ...)

A wonderful experience, worthwhile doing again, but then perhaps as the snow has melted and all the flowers are there.
Thanks to the crew, our guide and the other travellers on this trip.

Pieter Slim and Trudy Bontje
(thanks to Adam for the English corrections)