August / September 14

14 th August 2014 Noorderlicht - Svalbard - a love affair!

 Arriving in Longyearbyen we are all excited about our 14 day expedition around Svalbard on the Noorderlicht. Some of the group have already been on the Noorderlicht and know her captain Ted. Will the journey be as wonderful as it was in 1998 and in 2012? Waiting for our luggage we immediately find Chris, standing there with the bright orange Noorderlicht life buoy. He will be our guide during the following two weeks. The luggage is quickly loaded into the truck, we get on the bus and after a short ride we recognize the beautiful red schooner in the small harbor of Longyearbyen.  A warm welcome with a very friendly crew serving tea, coffee and cookies makes us feel right at home. In the cozy deck house, Kees and Dirk teach us all the rules about safety on board while Ted, the captain is starting the engine - off we go! From now on, the Noorderlicht will be our home. There is hardly time to unpack, already the bell is ringing, meaning there is something interesting to see outside. Armed with cameras, binoculars and warm windbreakers we stand at the reeling, spotting the first wales! Simultaneously a wonderful smell from the kitchen tickles our nose - dinner is ready! After a few glasses of red wine and a delicious desert Chris shows us on the map where we are heading: Bellsund is our first far away destination. We will travel during "the night", long working hours for the crew! None of us feels like going to bed, the sun is still shining - and it will stay this way…. The next morning, before breakfast, the bell is ringing again - Chris just spotted a polar bear on the shore, reindeer are feeding on the sparse vegetation. Again cameras and binoculars are taken outside."Where is the polar bear? can you see it? And the reindeer???" After e rich breakfast with fresh bread, ham, cheese, eggs, cereals etc. we are able to concentrate on Chris` instructions to get in and out of the zodiac. Dressed with warm jackets, gloves and watertight rubber  boots we are ready for our first expedition ashore. Does everybody have the life west on? Twenty-one persons - Kees has to make the zodiac ride from the Noorderlicht to the shore tree times! Everybody has arrived safely and we are taught how to behave during our land expeditions: "stay together, a polar bear showing up is possible anywhere in Svalbard. Don`t step on wood, whale bones ore any historic remnants - this is an open air museum, while enjoying nature we also have to respect it!  The stage is set. Quickly we realize, that Chris is a walking encyclopedia. We learn about the West-Spitsbergen current causing a relatively mild local climate in the Bellsund. The Arctic fox loves the eggs of Puffins, Common guillemots etc., In summer, Polar bears are plundering the nests of tundra breeders, then migrate back across the glaciers to the east coast. Research has been done in the Recherché fjord and many other places. Trappers have been here, and the first wintering of Europeans in Spitsbergen probably was in the Recherché fjord. Also the geological details are fascinating despite all its difficult expressions.  Coming back to the Noorderlicht, the tables are set, Saskia, the cook, has prepared delicious soup and salad for us. While we are enjoying lunch in the warm deck house, the Noorderlicht brings us on to the next destination, the entrance of Van Mijenfjorden where a colony of  Brünich`s guillemots  is supposed to be breeding on a steep cliff. We are hoping to see the chicks being ready to jump. After lunch everybody is out on deck, fascinated by the beautiful scenery of mountains, clouds, water, and Northern fulmars gliding around the Noorderlicht. Time is flying by and the following days take us to the Hornsund with a visit of the Polish Research Station where, among other projects, the sounds of whales are investigated.  Again the crew is challenged: Captain Ted, Dirk and Kees are bringing us safely to our next destination. The wind is great, sails are hoisted - everybody on deck - help is needed! What a wonderful feeling to glide silently through the water, no engine, the wind drives the Noorderlicht forward at a speed of 7 knots! Throughout the trip Saskia, the cook is finding all kinds of delicatessen hidden in the hull of the Noorderlicht. What an incredible talent she has, cooking for 25 persons 3 meals a day - yes, three meals and oven fresh bread every morning. For her, every meal to be prepared is a surprise - she does not know what and where the food is on board, she arrived only one day ahead of us. Nevertheless, she is spoiling us every day with the most delicious meals. Warm tea and coffee pots after coming "home" from an expedition and the cookie box are warming us up  and make us feel cozy and at home.   After visiting Sundbukta and sailing further north trough the Heleysundet we meet more Reindeer a family of Arctic foxes, and a black guillemot sitting on a cliff, his red feet shining in the midnight sun. Fascinated we are listening to Chris telling us about the surge of Freemanbreen in the 1950s, blocking the Freemansundet for several years. We also get to see the difference in landscape between the eastern coast of Barentsøya and Edgeøya with its polar desert and the western coast with its tundra. Overlooking the Hochstetterbreen from Beckerfjellet is simply breathtaking. Nothing can top what we have seen and learned so far…. All wrong! Unbelievable all the birds expecting us at Alkefjellet! Approximately 60000 pairs of Brünich`s guillemots are breeding here. There is a busy, noisy come and go, birds flying out to the sea getting food for their chicks. While we are on our excursions Ted, Dirk and Kees are cleaning the ship, Saskia is climbing in the hull of the Noorderlicht to discover new "delicatessen" she can delight us with. This is all hard work and we are appreciating the wonderful hospitality very much! As we are approaching north of the Hinlopenstreet we learn about the possibility of the drift ice closing up the passage. At Sparreneset we can spot the drift ice far away at the horizon. Ted is taking the challenge, we are going to try the passage. Beautiful sunshine, freezing cold, everybody is on deck celebrating 80° North with a Jägermeister, totally fascinated by the colors and shapes of the drift ice. Polar bear!!!!! Ted immediately reacts, slows down the engine and Noorderlicht carefully approaches the Polar bear. There he is, having a great meal: a bearded seal is on his menu card, his face is still red from the blood. Every now and then he is lifting his head, licking his snout, checking out the environment. Everything seems quiet, he continues to tear the skin off the seal in order to get to the more tasteful parts of his victim.  Seagulls waiting to get their share, a strange red boat rather close, cameras clicking over and over -  all this doesn't appear to disturb him. For us, the scenery is too wonderful to be true. We have a hard time to leave the Polar bear in his unique surroundings.  Time is running, we should move ahead. Thanks to the skills of our captain Ted we are able to navigate through the three barriers of drift ice. Northeastern winds are hindering us to visit Murchinson Fjord. No problem, we all still have the extraordinary images of the Polar Bear in our minds. Once more Ted, Dirk and Kees have to work long hours until we reach the entrance of the Liefdefjorden where we are searching for Polar bears plundering the nests of eider ducks.  There are only 5 days left to explore the west coast and we have to continue to the Raudfjord, the westernmost fjord on Spitsbergen’s north coast. Due to the West - Spitsbergen current the climate in this area is rather mild. Whalers in the early 17th century left graves at Bruceneset. We are attracted more by the Raudfjordbreen. Guiding us safely around crevices and water holes on the glacier Chris takes us to a spot with a marvelous view on the glacier.  Captain Ted is constantly observing the weather conditions, we should move on. Virgohamna with its history and the wild stories of the race to the North Pole, Magdalenenfjord, Fjortende Julibreen, Kongsfjord - all fascinating destinations we would love to spend more time at.  Close to the calving ice front of Kongsbreen we hear a big growl and see a huge splash. A big junk of ice is braking off -isn`t this dangerous? Chris puts things into perspective: we are 2 km away from the calving ice front. It is getting freezing cold outside, everybody is sitting in the cozy deck house with a cup of tea or coffee, busy writing post cards. Ny Alesund and "civilization" is expecting us. Of course the cards should be sent from the northern most post office…Listening to Chris we are once more fascinated by the dramatic attempts of Amundsen and Nobile to reach the North Pole. At Poolepynten the curious walruses just take their morning bath.  Our journey is coming to an end much too fast. Crossing the Iisfjord towards Longyearbyen the bell is ringing for the last time - cameras, binoculars, everybody out on deck! Four blue whales are presenting themselves in a most spectacular way and waving us good bye. Great weather, wonderful landscape with huge glaciers, Polar bears, Arctic foxes, cliffs full of breeding guillemots and all different kinds of whales: the Noorderlicht and its crew made this fantastic experience possible.  Thank you all for your great hospitality!!!!  Noorderlicht - Svalbard - a love affair - we will be back!

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