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Arctic Cruise Adventure: July 27, 2018 - August 10, 2018
Friday, July 27: Arrive is Oslo
The journey begins! Under blue skies, our party gathered in the bustling Norwegian capital of Oslo, from which some of the greatest polar expeditions in history have begun. After enjoying a relaxing breakfast at the hotel, those of us eager to explore this charming city set off on guided tours, while others enjoyed a day exploring the city on their own. Many pay a visit to the Fram museum, where they marvel at the construction of this extraordinarily preserved ship. The first vessel ever built to freeze directly into the polar ice pack, Fram carried the fabled explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen to success on their own polar expeditions. The accomplishments and discoveries of these brave men, and others of their era, are part of the reason we can travel so confidently in these remote regions today.
In the evening we were formally welcomed by A&K staff over cocktails and hors d’ouvres, getting a chance to meet our shipmates and excitedly discuss the adventure ahead.
Saturday, July 28: Longyearbyen
An early start allowed our charter flights from Oslo to touch down in fog-wreathed Svalbard shortly after noon. The sun was high overhead, and at 80º latitude, we did not see a proper night sky for the remainder of our trip. As our elegant ship 'Le Boreal' prepared for departure, we were provided a glimpse into daily life at Longyearbyen, and paid a visit to the city’s museum, where local guides told us about life in this far-off outpost of civilization.
In the evening we boarded the magnificent 'Le Boreal', where we were greeted by Captain Etienne Garcia and the ship’s officers. Over a glass of champagne we situated ourselves with this state-of-the-art expedition ship and took a few moments to rest in our luxury staterooms. After checking in and conducting the mandatory abandon ship drill, we heard a few words from our Expedition Director Suzana and Expedition Leader Brent. They briefly discussed our plan for the upcoming few days as we scoured the Svalbard archipelago for wildlife. After a long day of travel, we were finally at the top of the world, and after our first dinner aboard the ship, the lines were cast free and our expedition headed north.
Sunday, July 29: Svalbard Islands
After leaving Longyearbyen, 'Le Boreal' continued to head north along the coast of Spitsbergen. We sailed quietly under the midnight sun, and shortly after breakfast, we arrived in the small colony of Ny-Ålesund. This eclectic village is often considered the northernmost permanent settlement on the planet, and we were invited to explore its streets, visiting its museum, post office and gift shop. A few hours in Ny-Ålesund was more than enough time to get a sense of its historical significance. A few buildings date back to the early 1900s when optimistic coal companies attempted to set up large mines in the area. After several years, however, harsh conditions had claimed dozens of lives and the settlement slowly shifted its focus to research. The simple, colorful huts that scatter the shoreline now house scientists from around the globe who seek to better understand the Arctic environment, though life here appears unglamorous by most counts, the work of the hardy folks in Ny-Ålesund is critical in developing our understanding of the changing Arctic.
As we wandered the streets of Ny-Ålesund, many of us were drawn to a tall, steel structure on the outskirts of town, which at first resembled a small radio tower. Our guides Russ revealed this odd tower to be an important relic from the ‘golden age’ of Arctic exploration; an old docking platform for airships! In the mid-1920’s, famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen launched two expeditions from this tower in an attempt to cross over the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole. While the first trip was unsuccessful, his second attempt a year later was a resounding success; Amundsen reached Alaska a mere 70 hours after departure, his crew becoming the first to traverse the Arctic by air.
We bid farewell to our last glimpse of civilization for the next week and headed even further North. After a few hours of cruising the foggy coasts of Spitsbergen, we arrived at the mouth of a small bay with a looming glacier face in the distance. This is Fjortende Julibreen—Fourteenth of July Glacier, named by French explorers after Bastille Day. While 'Le Boreal' dropped anchor in the mouth of the bay, we prepared to explore the area. After a short zodiac ride through floating patches of brash ice, we arrived at our first landing site. Strolling along the shores of this rugged coast gave us our first glimpse into arctic life. Reindeer browsed for lichen on verdant green hills, while several thousand black-legged kittiwakes whirled overhead along rocky cliffs. To our delight, we were treated to a small zodiac cruise, where we encountered even more of the Arctic’s abundant wildlife; some of us were afforded close encounters with colorful Atlantic puffins and elegant Brünnich’s guillemot. Others quietly approached a large bearded seal resting upon an ice floe and were treated to spectacular views. In the early evening, a group of beluga were spotted, and as we return to the ship and sail out the Krossfjord, hundreds of ivory -colored whales were seen surrounding the ship, searching for food in the icy straits of Svalbard.
When we were not out on the zodiacs, we had the opportunity to hear our historian, Bob Burton, lecture on the fascinating ‘Slow Race to the North Pole’, a riveting tale of lies, deceit and the intrepid adventures of early Arctic explorers. We ended our night aboard 'Le Boreal' with the Captain’s cocktail reception and dinner, where we got the opportunity to dine with the senior officers of the ship, including spritely Captain Garcia himself. After this whirlwind day, we returned to our staterooms exhausted but filled with anticipation for the adventure to come.
Monday, July 30: Svalbard Islands
This morning we awoke to calm seas and heavy fog; guillemots, puffins and other seabirds were shrouded in mist as they moved past the ship. In the distance, a great basalt cliff loomed eerily from the fog, and after breakfast we boarded the zodiacs to investigate this strange new landscape. As our boats approached the rugged basalt coastline of Alkefjellet, tens of thousands of small birds — Brünnich’s guillemot (or thick-billed murre) — came into view. We remained in awe as the fog continued to thin, revealing an ever-growing count of these birds, all of which were busily tending to their chicks. With only a short time remaining before their inaugural migration south, these newborn guillemots will have soon taken to the ocean, where they will have learned to fly, swim and find food under the watchful eyes of their parents.
As zodiacs wove among the jagged spires of this incredible landscape, an unexpected message was relayed over the radio. Our naturalist JD had spotted not one, but three polar bears searching for food under the bustling bird cliffs! We excitedly gathered to watch a mother bear and her two cubs as they scoured the shoreline for guillemot chicks, eggs and (surprisingly, for such a large carnivore) fresh grass. Summer is a difficult time of the year for polar bears, who must travel great distances in their pursuit of food. Though this particular mother and her cubs appeared fairly skinny, we were inspired by the way that she diligently cared for her cubs, and allowed us to approach incredibly close by zodiac without showing signs of distress. Overcome with joy at our first sightings of the great ice bear, we returned to the ship for a hearty lunch.
In the afternoon, we cruised the wide channels near Wahlenbergøya in search of more arctic wildlife. Shortly after lunch, Brent returned to the PA to announce that a group of walrus have been seen hauled out on a spit of land known as Torellneset. Walrus have historically been hunted throughout the Arctic, and these magnificent creatures were thus understandably wary of our presence as we approached by zodiac and landed closeby. Luckily, we remained quiet and respectful, and the slumbering animals barely noticed our presence. The walrus’ diet is comprised almost exclusively of shellfish, and though very few walrus have been seen actually foraging in the wild, we know they must eat a tremendous amount of food each day to survive. Both males and females have tusks, though the largest individuals in this small herd were bulls, who glanced back at us as we departed the foggy beach. After a long and exciting day in Spitsbergen, we enjoyed cocktails and dinner before turning in for the evening.
Tuesday, July 31: Svalbard Islands
The last day of July was met with a stiff breeze and grey skies rolling overhead, as ‘Le Boreal’ sailed quietly along the coasts of Svalbard. Early in the morning, our naturalists convened on the bridge to scan for more signs of wildlife, and shortly after breakfast an announcement came over the PA — another polar bear had been spotted! We rushed into our parkas and boots, boarding the zodiacs to investigate this sighting further. As our drivers carefully navigated the shallow bays and narrow channels of a small archipelago, the bear came into view. This time, it was a large male bear who had clearly been interested in the nearby colonies of arctic terns and the paddling groups of eider ducks. We watched in awe as this lumbering animal sniffed the air, clearly alert to our presence, and then lay down to rest. With a thick coat of fur atop a dense layer of blubber-like fat, polar bears are some of the most well-insulated mammals on the planet. As such, it’s very easy for them to overheat, especially as the warm summer sun beats down on the dark basalt rocks. Not wishing to disturb this bear’s rest any longer, we returned to the ship after getting some photos and adding another polar bear to our sightings list for the trip.
This afternoon, we found ourselves in the visually stunning Wahlenbergfjorden. Golden evening light shone across a sea so calm that chunks of ice in the ocean appeared to be nearly levitating past the ship. The high mountain peaks on either side of ‘Le Boreal’ descend to the coast, mirroring themselves perfectly in the water below. As we approached the face of the massive tidewater glacier that carved this bay, more bears were spotted. First, a mother and two cubs could be made out walking slowly along sloping hills of the fjord. As we continued our search, another mother-cub pair was seen. Without skipping a beat, the ship’s crew and expedition team had lowered a fleet of zodiacs, and we once again took to the inflatable boats to get a closer look at these magnificent creatures. During our time away from the ship, two more bears were spotted on the shore! We approached for close looks and were treated to a stunning evening with spectacular light, glistening glaciers, and abundant wildlife. We turned in for the evening as ice floes quietly drifted past, and anticipated our final day in Svalbard.
Wednesday, August 1: Svalbard Islands
This morning, ‘Le Boreal’ quietly sailed into the narrow bay of Raudfjord, near the Northwestern corner of Spitsbergen. As we prepared to embark the zodiacs for a ride to shore, our ornithologist Patricia spotted three more polar bears! Another mother with two cubs in tow walked at an impressive speed across the sloping peaks of Raudfjord, stopping halfway up the mountainside to stop and rest with her two year-old charges. Not wanting to disturb the bear with our presence, our expedition team decided to forego a landing in favor of a beautiful cruise through the bay. After taking some time to appreciate the last polar bears of Svalbard, we turned our attention to the other fascinating sights in this remote wilderness. Raudfjord (‘red fjord’) is chiefly carved from a rust-colored sedimentary rock dating back to the Devonian period, where fossils of the first fishes can be found. As we cruised along the shore, we could see remnants of these prehistoric seabeds jutting up across the shoreline, giving the appearance of a deconstructed layer cake. We also had the chance to enjoy our first sightings of little auk, or dovekie, tiny puffin-like birds that darted to and fro across the passage. A curious bearded seal even made an appearance as he swam between the zodiacs, offering close looks at this bizarre, mustached pinniped. It was a rich way to end our time in Svalbard, and after lunch back at the ship, we picked up steam to head south, towards the isolated volcanic island of Jan Mayen.
In the afternoon, we had a chance to hear a few more talks from our expedition team as we sailed across the foggy Arctic Ocean. Our geologist, Jason Hicks, offered a talk on ‘The Birth of the Atlantic’, where we learned about the tectonic forces that led to the separation of Europe from North America, and the forming of the Atlantic Ocean. We learned that many of the rocks we had seen in Svalbard formed during this period, and remain important in advancing our understanding of continental drift.
Our marine biologist Sabina Leader Mense continued our lecture series later in the afternoon, with a talk on the Arctic Ocean’s cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). We learned that Svalbard is home to a diverse cast of marine wildlife, including the polar bear, beluga and walrus that we had already seen, as well as a number of seals and whales that are rarer. We learned to see ice as not only an environmental feature, but also as habitat for some of the seals and whales that rely on annual ice cover for survival. We left the theater in the evening with a well-rounded understanding of the lands we had been privileged enough to visit, and excited to continue our adventure as we sailed for Jan Mayen.
Thursday, August 2: At Sea
Today, 'Le Boreal' steamed swiftly to Jan Mayen, an incredibly remote volcanic island situated well above the Arctic Circle. After a week of excitement in the high arctic, we had the chance to share photos, reflect on the journey already behind us and anticipate all the adventure yet to come! Sea conditions remained relatively calm throughout the day, and between meals we are provided ample opportunities to engage with the expedition team. Patricia Silva, our ornithologist, began our day at sea with a lecture on seabirds of the arctic. We learned about how these birds, some only several inches long, manage to thrive in the cold and inhospitable conditions of the Arctic ocean, finding food by covering vast stretches of treacherous ocean and gazing down into the sea. Other birds, such as the fulmar that have become omnipresent, actually hunt by smelling the exhalation of plankton from miles away.
Later on, between time resting and engaging with our naturalists on deck, we had the chance to hear from our expedition leader Brent Houston. Brent gave a talk on his many years of experience working among polar bears, and offered us insight into the life histories and the challenges these animals face in a changing climate. After our close encounters with bears, these animals hold a special place in our hearts, and Brent’s knowledge of bear biology and behavior further enhanced what was already a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Svalbard.
Finally, our expedition historian Bob Burton lectured on the sad but fascinating history of whaling, a topic which is particularly relevant to this region, where Norwegian and Icelandic whaling still occurs. Many of the places we have been to already were originally settled and explored by early whalers, hoping to exploit the rich waters of the Arctic Ocean. Whale hunts today are a fraction of what they once were, though in some areas of the ocean overhunting remains an issue.
We are well-fed and well-rested as we begin our approach to Jan Mayen, eager to see this impressive volcano in the morning.
Friday, August 3: Jan Mayen
Early this morning, the shadow of a mountain grew in the distance as ‘Le Boreal’ approached the impressive, isolated volcano of Jan Mayen. We gathered on deck as the glacier-capped peaks of Beerenberg loomed from the distant mist, hundreds of northern fulmar whirling about the ship as we stepped outside to appreciate the remote island. Snowy ice fields descended into streams of meltwater, flowing through cracks and holes in the black volcanic rock before pouring into the sea. Spectacular verdant fields of plants cling to the hillsides of Jan Mayen, and we observed this bizarre color palette of black, white and green as we sailed along the coast of the island. Large, rolling swells passed under the ship, and we could see the whitewash of huge surf that nearly always rings the island, making landings extremely difficult.
We watched this beautiful landscape drift back toward the horizon, as ‘Le Boreal’ sailed south. Along the way, we were treated to a rich and continuous lecture program. Our marine biologist, Sabina Leader-Mense, spoke on the evolutionary origins of the whales and seals that we have seen so far. Many of us were surprised to learn that whales share a common ancestor with hippos and other large ungulates such as cows and sheep, and share anatomical similarities with this group even today. About fifty million years ago, a small group of these animals took to the oceans, and have steadily progressed into the wide variety of whales, dolphins and porpoises we see today.
Our botanist, Kristine Westergaard, followed up on Sabina’s lecture with another fascinating evolutionary story, this time one on arctic plants. Throughout our trip, we’ve had the chance to observe some of the diminutive flora that call the arctic home. Kristine’s lecture offered us some insight into how these plants came to thrive in the arctic, and what evolutionary adaptations they’ve developed to face the harshness of arctic temperatures, winds and nutrient deficiencies.
Later on, we heard from our geologist Jason Hicks, who offered his own lecture on the natural ‘time machine’ that exists in the ice cap of Greenland. We learned that a natural record of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gasses is kept trapped in our planet’s ice caps, both in Greenland and Antarctica. It was by looking at these ice cores that scientists first noticed that atmospheric carbon levels have been on an exponential rise in recent decades, due primarily to fossil fuel emissions.
Finally, our ornithologist Patricia wraps up the evening with another beautiful look at arctic bird life. We had the chance to see some of the beautiful birds that live in the farthest reaches of the planet, and hear their stories. Patricia’s enthusiasm is contagious, and has us looking at these feathered creatures in a whole new way! After dinner, some of us take to the decks to watch some fulmar cruise along the calm seas, far from land. We are excited to get to Greenland and see what further adventures we have in store!
Saturday, August 4: Greenland
This morning, ‘Le Boreal’ steamed swiftly towards Greenland. Far off, rocky peaks loomed above a distant fog bank that stands in our way. The next few hours were spent watching ice floes and icebergs appear in the mist, and we were treated to more lectures by our knowledgeable expedition team. We had the chance to hear from our historian Bob Burton, who also happens to be a brilliant naturalist, speaking to us on life in the Arctic’s short summer. Our expedition leader Brent finished off the morning with another talk on polar bear behavior and biology.
We ate lunch surrounded by the magnificent scenery of Greenland’s coastline. A faint haze turned the distant mountains a soft blue, and we steamed quietly across the flat-calm surface of the sea on approach to our destination — the colorful village of Ittoqqortoormiit. We eagerly launched the zodiacs, and all boats went ashore soon-after. We were free to spend the rest of our day exploring this small community, which roughly 500 people call home. At the center of town, the local tourist office offered beautiful pieces carved from musk ox horn and reindeer antler, and the museum and a sled dog feeding are highlights as we explore, briefly getting to know the inhabitants of this High Arctic settlement. The people of Ittoqqortoormiit (it-OOK-a-TOOR-meet) still live off the area’s abundant wildlife, hunting seals, reindeer, and muskoxen, and many appreciated the chance to see what life is like for people living in such a remote settlement. Back on the ship, we exchanged stories and shared our experiences as ‘Le Boreal’ sailed deeper into the fjords of Scoresby Sund.
Sunday, August 5: Greenland
Today, we awoke to find ourselves at the extreme Northern tip of the largest fjord system in the world. Steep mountains, some several thousand feet high, sloped down into the sea around us while dozens of icebergs drifted past, some several times the size of our ship. It was a dramatic display of Greenland at its most diverse, and once again, weather permitted us to land on the rocky headland of Sydkap. Once ashore, we were excited to walk along the lush headlands at the mouth of the fjord, marveling at some of the wonders on and around the beach. Two huts near our landing site proved to be winter lodges for Ittoqqortoormiit hunters, and provided us further insight into the lives of the Greenlandic peoples. Our botanist, Kristine, was thrilled to share her knowledge of the local flora on this particular excursion, as the hills and valleys we explored were found to be brimming with spectacular plants. Dense beds of moss-campion and arctic bell-heather were punctuated by tall stands of aster and river beauty, and many of us delighted in the chance to learn more about the Arctic’s diverse habitats.
In the afternoon, ‘Le Boreal’ turned back to the South, and we sailed through dense fog banks while our expedition team diligently searched for another wild place to explore. Finally, off the dramatic coastline of the Bjornoer (‘Bear Islands’), the mist lifted to reveal a surreal landscape of glacier-carved fjords, dramatic mountain peaks, and massive tabular icebergs. We immediately dropped the zodiacs and set out to explore this remote corner of Scoresby Sund — and what an afternoon it was. Golden sunlight made these huge chunks of ice shine with an otherworldly glow, and meltwater chutes cascaded down from their summits, some hundreds of feet high. We noted an abundance of dovekie (or ‘little auk’) in the cold, nutrient-rich water — some of us even caught sight of a long-tailed skua, the gull-like predator of arctic seabirds. It had been a beautiful day exploring the vast wilderness of Scoresby Sund, and we enjoy a full meal before returning to our balconies to watch the ice drift past.
Monday, August 6: Greenland
This morning, we awoke to find the bow of ‘Le Boreal’ wedged deep into the sea ice. Our naturalists had been up for hours already, scanning the dense field of pack ice for signs of life. Far in the distance, the dark outlines of dozens of seals — ringed and bearded — could be seen. All of a sudden, our expedi-tion leader Brent exploded with excitement— far in the distance, a polar bear had raised its head. Quietly, we gathered on the outer decks to watch this beautiful creature as it curiously approached the vessel, completely in its element on the rotting and pitted ice. We watched through binoculars and camera lenses as the bear circled the ship, and wary of our presence, retreated back into the fog — all before break-fast. Inspired by this wild encounter, we decided to launch the fleet of zodiacs and explore more of this foreign seascape. We cruised past along the edge of the sea ice, formed during the winter when nearly all of Scoresby Sund freezes over. Small floes drift by containing groups of tiny dovekie, and long-tailed jaeger, arctic tern and glaucous gulls occasionally buzz overhead. Onboard the zodiacs, we toast-ed to our journey with a bottle of champagne, and returned to the ship ready to set sail towards our final destination — Iceland.
In the afternoon, our historian Bob Burton entertains us once again with a lecture entitled ‘The Terrible History of Scurvy’. Our interests piqued, we gather in the theater to hear Bob’s engaging talk on this strange and awful disease, often associated with early marine travel. Scurvy occurs when the body is deprived of vitamin C, though for most of human history this fact remained unknown, and patients suf-fered horrendous symptoms (such as old wounds reopening and bleeding gums). It is only fairly recently that mariners have been given access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and scurvy is now considered a rare and easily remedied disease. Indeed, tonight we enjoyed another beautiful meal aboard ‘Le Boreal’ be-fore retiring to our suites for the evening.
Tuesday, August 7: Cruising the Denmark Strait
Today, ‘Le Boreal’ sailed through the Denmark Strait from Greenland to Iceland, the final chapter in this unforgettable journey. Early in the morning, an announcement was made regarding the presence of whales around the ship. Despite some swell, most of us got to see the spouts of both humpback and fin whales, and Captain Etienne Garcia expertly maneuvered to allow us to spend some time with the abun-dant whales and marine birds. Soon after, a thick arctic fog shrouded the sea in mist as we made our way south, and it was the perfect time to reflect on our time in the high arctic and go through our photos. Our resident photo coach, Richard Harker, kicked off the morning with his lecture “In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams: Processing Your Images like the Master Photographers”. We learned how to properly tone, crop and edit our images to bring out the drama and color that we experienced along our journey.
Later on, our geologist Jason Hicks gave a talk entitled “Climate Change — Ancient Record, Modern Re-ality”. We learned from Jason the causes and effects of anthropogenic climate change, and the irrefuta-ble evidence showing man’s current impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the volume of misin-formation surrounding climate change in our society, Jason expertly explained the complicated science of climatology at a level we could all understand.
Our botanist Kristine finally wrapped up our lecture series with a fascinating talk on the field research that she’s participated in around the arctic. We heard incredible stories of her close encounters with polar bears (and mosquitos!), and saw some shocking images of bears breaking into field camps and de-stroying gear. Kristine’s love for all things botanical was apparent as we listened to her stories, from tracking down rare plants in the remote Icelandic wilderness to avoiding herds of temperamental muskox.
Just before dinner, we shuttled back into the theater to hear our expedition leader Brent Houston brief us on our plans in Iceland. The excitement builds as we headed toward this fabled country, and we ended the evening with a lovely piano concert featuring our resident musician Elena Koreneva.
Wednesday, August 8: Iceland’s Westfjords
We awoke to the sight of something new — dense greenery! This morning, ‘Le Boreal’ sailed through the fjords of the Hornstrandir peninsula, and we enjoyed our breakfast watching the incredible scenery of the Icelandic coast drift by. We were eager to step foot on the shores of this mid-Atlantic isle, which, after Svalbard and Greenland, we found to be lush with vegetation. White streams of waterfalls cascade from high peaks of ancient lava flows, beckoning us to the shoreline where we soon stand. Our botanist Kris-tine and geologist Jason helped point out the diversity of strange plants and rocks that cover the land-scape. Dazzling stands of purple flowers line the beach, and beautiful sculpted basalt cobbles gurgle as the light surf passed over them. This remote peninsula also offers its share of wildlife; whooper swans, common eider, Atlantic puffin and meadow pipit are just a few of the bird species we encountered as we explored the area.
After a scenic cruise through the fjords of this rarely-visited island, we pry deeper into the peninsula, touching down in Hesteyri. Originally a whaling community, there is now a small café along the shoreline, and we enjoyed a leisurely cup of rhubarb tea, rhubarb cakes and delicious crepes in the Icelandic style. Afterwards, we were encouraged to walk along the shoreline to take in some of the scenery of this place — rushing streams tumble from the high basalt cliffs down into the sea, where oystercatchers and arctic tern can all be observed in high numbers. After several days of expansive wilderness, we see today the first traces of human civilization since Ittoqqortoormiit. We returned to the ship well-fed, and enjoyed the captain’s farewell dinner while watching the dramatic coast of Iceland sail past with its misty fjords and stunning, sloping peaks.
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