Arctic Cruise Adventure: Norway, Greenland and Iceland (2016)
Aug 2 – 16, 2016
A&K’s 2016 Arctic Cruise Adventure: Norway, Greenland & Iceland departed on August 2, and we will be providing daily cruise updates on the blog. Check back often under A&K’s Trip Logs.
After leaving the Bristol Hotel in Oslo City Center early in the morning, departing for the airport and the start of our Arctic Adventure, we board our charter flight to Longyearbyen, the capital of the Svalbard archipelago.
By midday, we had arrived at our destination and were met by our friendly A&K representatives. It was soon evident that we had left the warmth of Oslo far behind and were thankful for the extra layers that we had packed in our carry-ons (our main luggage had been collected earlier and taken directly to ‘Le Boreal’).
We were free to roam the small and diverse town, stopping first for lunch at the modern cultural house (the equivalent of the town hall). We continued to the impressive Svalbard Science Park, where we visited the fascinating Svalbard Museum. Inside, an impressive array of displays shared the history of Longyearbyen, founded by John Munro Longyear in 1906. As well as exploring the coal mining history of the area, the museum also looked at the role hunters and trappers played in Svalbard’s history as well as their impact on the archipelago’s wildlife. The town also had a number of shops with a wide range of souvenirs. Home to around 2,000 people from a large number of countries, Longyearbyen is a unique settlement, not only for its history, but also for a sense of what it’s like to live in a diverse community on a remote Arctic archipelago.
We boarded the coaches for a ride past the numerous dog yards at the outskirts of the settlement and to the town boundary, where we could pose for photographs in front of the famous polar bear warning signs. We then drove towards the small port and, by late afternoon, were excited to board the stunning ‘Le Boreal’. After being welcomed by the Captain at the gangway we were shown to our cabins and then able to enjoy afternoon in the bar. Our luggage, parkas and boots were already waiting for us in our cabins, distributed by the expedition staff whilst we had been enjoying the sights of Longyearbyen.
Before setting sail, we participated in a life-boat drill which was shortly followed by an introduction to ‘Le Boreal’, and the A&K Expedition Staff with our cruise Directors Sally Escanilla and Sarah Moine, and our expedition leader Aaron Russ. Dinner was served as we sailed away from Longyearbyen in both restaurants – La Licorne and La Boussole – which provided stunning views to match the fabulous menu. Most retired shortly after dinner, ready to rest for a full day of Arctic adventure the next morning.
During the night, ‘Le Boreal’ travelled 125 nautical miles (145 miles) to the scenic fjord-system of Kongsfjorden. Shortly after finishing our breakfast, we arrived at the small research settlement of Ny-Ålesund. The town is one of the world’s most northernmost continuously inhabited settlements; however it is only a research town and does not constitute a complete community.
Ny-Ålesund dates back to 1917, when the Kings Bay Company) based on the Norwegian mainland) decided to attempt coal mining at the site. Conditions to do so were so severe that there were 71 fatalities between 1945 and 1962, which subsequently led to the mine’s closure in 1963, and ultimately attributed to the fall of the incumbent Norwegian Prime Minister. The town’s population left after the 1962 accident, but the Kings Bay Company survived in order to manage the current multi-national research town.
The town played a significant role in polar exploration by air. The famous Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, whose bust can be found in the town center, was involved in two major expeditions that attempted to reach the North Pole from Ny-Ålesund. His first attempt with two aircraft in 1925 was unsuccessful, and he and his crew only just made it back to Ny-Ålesund alive. The second, attempt one year later in 1926, with the airship ‘Norge’ was a success and was the first confirmed sighting of the North Pole, where a Norwegian, American and Italian flag were dropped. It was also the first trans-Arctic voyage, reaching Teller, Alaska, 70 hours after departing. The story of these voyages and the subsequent ‘Italia’ expedition where evident in the newly renovated museum and at the talk given at the airship mast on the outskirts of the settlement. The short walk to the mast also offered spectacular views of the fjord and the numerous expansive tidewater glaciers at the head of Kongsfjord. The town shop and post office also provided our last opportunity for some souvenirs and to send some postcards until we reach Greenland.
Following lunch, we landed at Fjortende Julibreen (14th of July Glacier), in exceptionally beautiful and warm sunshine, and were able to walk along the beach and up onto the edge of the glacier itself. This provided a magnificent view across the entire glacier front! Those that chose to hike to the top were soon surprised that they were completely comfortable in just one layer! We were all able to witness a number of calving events as ice fell into the bay and made audible noises. Our resident ornithologist also enthusiastically pointed to a number of seabirds along the bird-cliffs, known as the ‘hanging gardens’.
Once aboard we celebrated the start of our voyage with the Captain, Etienne Garcia’s welcome cocktail party and gala dinner. First gathering in the theatre, where the captain introduced himself and the principal officers of the ship, before sitting down in the main restaurant to a delicious banquet.
During the night ‘Le Boreal’ made good speed across calm seas and by breakfast we were arriving at the northernmost island group of the Svalbard archipelago, the Sjuøyane or the ‘Seven Islands’ (although there are in fact actually nine islands within the group). As we had breakfast the staff went out on scout Zodiacs and located a good landing site on Phippsøya, named after Constantine Phipps, who led a Royal Naval expedition attempting to reach the North Pole in 1773 but was stuck by ice around the Sjuøyane. The infamous Lord Horatio Nelson was also a member of this expedition, and rumour has it that he attempted to kill a polar bear in hand-to-hand combat here during that expedition.
After an adventurous Zodiac ride to the bay we could see a herd of walrus were hauled-out further along the beach from the landing site. On arrival we were gathered together and briefed on how to behave to avoid scaring the walrus into the ocean and were able to walk to close distance before observing and photographing these gigantic seals. They were very vocal and a few individuals moved between the group and the water, providing fabulous scenes. We even occasionally caught glimpses of a yearling calve that was in the middle of the group, which often raised its head out of curiosity. The landing also allowed us to have a quick glimpse into an old and miniscule wooden hut. In provided a fascinating insight into what life would have been like for the hunters and trappers using such buildings for months at a time.
Following lunch Richard Harker presented his talk on ‘Arctic Photography 1: Taking Charge’, which provided all the essential knowledge required to make the most out of whatever camera you had to capture the experience of being in the Arctic. Soon after this we the first area of sea ice began to loom out of the fog as ‘Le Boreal’ continued on a north-easterly course. Next to speak was our resident ornithologist, Patricia Silva, with her lecture ‘All about Auks’. This provided an insight into the different species within this fascinating family of seabirds known as ‘the penguins of the North’, building our excitement to observe these animals on the water and for a hopeful visit to one of their breeding colonies.
Just before dinner we gathered together in the main lounge for our daily expedition recap and briefing. Our naturalist, Brent Houston, discussed the reasons for why driftwood and garbage was found on the beach in the morning and how tourism in Svalbard has helped significantly to clean the remote archipelago of man-made detritus. Sabina Leader Mense gave us more information on the walrus that we saw on the beach, answering our questions, and Mats Forsberg showed some engrossing photos of an experience he had with a walrus that ate a smaller seal before Arran detailed the next day’s plan.
Following dinner ‘Le Boreal’ reached the main Arctic pack ice and continued to cruise along its edge as the expedition staff and bridge team continually scanned ice for polar bears. It was not long until one was spotted on the ice, however it was incredibly hard to spot because it was often swimming away from the ship in between ice floes and thus not very visible. Although, when it did emerge we were able to see that it was a rather buttery yellow compared to the white of the sea ice and it gave us some good training to continue the search for more bears.
In the early hours of the morning, we awoke to the voice of our energetic and enthusiastic Captain Garcia, whom with great delight announced yet another polar bear. Once on deck we were able to see a large, healthy bear gently swimming between small ice floes. After observing the bear for a short time we left it in peace to continue on its way and ‘Le Boreal’ set a course for one of the most remote and desolate islands of the archipelago – Storyøya.
Whilst most of us were just finishing our breakfasts the scout boats returned with news that polar bears had been spotted ashore and all Zodiacs were launched. Only a short distance needed to be covered before encountering one of these polar bears on the shore. It spent the majority of the time sleeping. However, some of us were fortunate to see it walking along the shore a short distance, whilst being attacked by Arctic Terns as it strayed in towards their territory. The cruise also offered beautiful views of this rugged landscape and sightings of the Arctic Terns fishing and a few Common Eider ducks on the beach.
After settling back on-board ‘Le Boreal’ our marine mammal specialist, Sabina Leader Mense, gave an educational talk on the various marine mammal species that are present in the Arctic. This provided an insight into their unique evolutionary adaptations that make them so suitable for such a harsh environment, along with a number of other quirky facts.
Following lunch, our second enrichment lecture of the day was given by geologist Jason Hicks. This talk presented a number of geological principles in a simple manner and then used these to explain the birth of the Atlantic Ocean, including the huge implications this had on Greenland and Iceland.
After Jason’s talk ‘Le Boreal’ began to approach the majestic ice cliffs of Austfonna that enter straight into the ocean for 170 km. The ice cap itself covers an area of around 8492 sq km and is forms one of the largest glacial system in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. The white ice cliffs themselves provide an other-worldly experience and represent one of the most unique coastlines to have the rare opportunity to cruise along. To aid in the capturing of this landscape on camera our photo coach Richard Harker made himself available for an informal Q&A session and camera clinic in the Main Lounge prior to our recap and Briefing. Our naturalist David Burton started the recap describing a glaciological project he worked on which involved the Austfonna ice cap and outlined how it has advanced and retreated in the last 20,000 years. Bob Burton then gave the incredible story of Andrée and his air balloon attempt to reach the North Pole. This unsurprisingly ended in failure and a tragic ending to Nils Strindberg’s marriage plans. This was followed by tomorrows briefing from our expedition leader Aaron Russ.
After another fabulous dinner in both of ‘Le Boreal’s’ restaurants our on-board musician, Mike Stevens, showed his short film ‘A Walk in My Dream’. This was about his rise as a harmonica playing and how that lead to impassioned and compelling experiences with the indigenous communities in Arctic Canada and the development of this into the charity that he founded, called ArcCan Circle. The aim of which is to bring musical instruments, recording equipment and artists into these communities. As this finished showing in the Main Lounge the sun appeared through the Arctic fog and illuminated all the bergy bits that have calved from Austfonna on the perfectly calm sea, providing a serene beauty to reflect on our days so far.
This morning we arrived in a remote fjord on the western coast of Nordaustlandert named Wahlenbergfjorden, after the famous Swedish botanist. As soon as we had finished breakfast we were able to go ashore for a short walk on one of the small islands at the mouth of the fjord. Despite being small and seemingly barren the island was awash with birdlife, including Arctic Tern, Arctic Skua (Jaeger), Purple Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Common Eider Ducks. We were also fortunate enough to observe a Polar Bear on the neighboring island, thus being provided with a unique opportunity to view a bear from land. On our way back to the comforts of ‘Le Boreal’ our Zodiac drivers cruised by the other island on order for us to have an even closer sight of the bear.
As the ship repositioned we enjoyed another fabulous lunch before arriving at our next destination, Alkefjellet or also known as Mount Guillemot. The unique geology of these steep coastal cliffs, with a volcanic intrusion, provides a perfect location for thousands of nesting seabirds. The majority of these are the beautiful and charismatic Brünnich’s Guillemot, which number over 60,000 breeding pairs. After approximately 34 days of incubation the single chick hatches and before being fully-fledged makes a daring jump into the ocean below. We were fortunate enough to have timed our visit perfectly and actually observe some of these chicks make the plunge as we cruised along the base of the cliffs! However, there were also a number of Glaucous Gulls, the top avian predator on Svalbard, predating on these chicks and many of us saw these being fed to their large grey chicks. Black-legged Kittiwake and Black Guillemot were also seen nesting in other ecological niches along the cliff-face. In addition, a number of Arctic Fox were seen patrolling along the base of the bird cliffs.
Whilst the other group were aboard ‘Le Boreal’ they were able to enjoy Michelle Malan’s lecture, which explored the adaptations that plants need to survive in extreme environments like the dry, cold arctic tundra. Leaf characteristics such as succulence, hairiness and size all contribute to conserving water in the dry arctic summer, whilst the cushion-like shape of the plants helps protect them from the cold wind, like penguins huddling on the opposite side of the world.
Prior to another lovely dinner in both restaurants we had our expedition recap and briefing. Our photographer Richard Harker started off with a short talk on ‘Iphoneography’, followed by Patricia Silva reviewing what we had seen at Alkefjellet and Dennis Mense enlightened us on the lifeforms we saw beneath the waves and the implications of ocean acidification. After dinner the ‘Paris C Show’ dancers gave a fantastic performance in the Main Lounge before there was an announcement that Blue Whales had been spotted surrounding the ship. The Captain skillfully navigated ‘Le Boreal’ close to these huge leviathans, the largest animal to have ever lived, providing a marvelous spectacle. Many of us then said our final goodbyes to the north coast of Svalbard, seen of by a single Atlantic Puffin, as we started our sea passage to East Greenland.
Sailing westward, we had a slightly later breakfast before attending Patricia Silva’s talk entitled ‘Seabirds of the Arctic’. This presented a sample of the seabird species we had seen thus far and will likely encounter during the rest of our voyage. She also shared some fascinating insight on the life history and biology of the most common Arctic species.
For those that did not feel the slight winds too much, there was ample photographic opportunities out on deck, trying capture and inspired shot of seabirds following Patricia’s talk, particularly Northern Fulmar and Atlantic Puffin. The Naturalists were also out spotting, keeping watch for any other signs of life on the surrounding waves and hot bouillon was served to those beginning to feel a chill whilst out on deck. Richard Harker, our photo coach was also out on deck to answer any questions regarding the actual photography.
Our day at sea continued with further intriguing lectures from the experienced Expedition Team. Sabina Leader Mense, our marine mammal specialist gave her talk ‘Polar Bears’, which focused on their biology and how their success is so strongly connected to sea ice conditions, which throws into question the survival of the species in the Svalbard Barents Sea population. Next to speak after lunch was our photo coach, Richard Harker, on Arctic Photo 2: Beyond the Basics’ and how to make a good photo great. This was followed by an informal workshop with a question and answer session.
We were then treated to afternoon tea accompanied with Macarons Ladurée in the Grand Salon prior to our final talk of the day, giving by our esteemed historian, Bob Burton. Titled ‘The Sad but fascinating History of Whaling’ it examined the motivations and driving force for such an industry. He then moved onto describe the various methods used and how these evolved over the centuries before briefly noting present day whaling practices and posing the question of what the future should hold for these magnificent animals of the ocean.
After our lectures, A&K Marco Polo Club members enjoyed a special cocktail party in La Licorne restaurant before joining together again for our daily recap. Michelle went through a few of the species of flora we had seen on our walks and those that we may see once we reach Greenland, David Burton then discussed the unique Treaty that the Spitsbergen archipelago is administered under, before Mats Forsberg finished with his humorous own take on who was the first to the North Pole in 1926.
Following yet another sumptuous dinner and to end a full day at sea, we were treated to a performance by our on-board musician, Mike Stevens. A star of Bluegrass music and the Grand Ole Opry his harmonica playing is unique, as he ‘Breathes in the World and Breathes out Music’, and is strongly connected to the Arctic. We are all looking forward to hearing our own attempts, and those of our fellow passengers, at recreating some of these pieces during our upcoming harmonica lessons!
A much calmer day at sea was filled with captivating lectures, but thanks to our gradual journey westwards, we were rewarded with a time change and an extra hour in bed. First to speak this morning was our geologist, Jason Hicks, with his talk entitled ‘The Greenland Time Machine’. He explained how ice sheets and glaciers across the globe respond sensitively to changes in climate, and that the current warming trend is reflected with extensive melting of the Greenland ice-sheet as well as the associated release of icebergs into the North Atlantic. Evidence for these changes in our climate is recorded in ice cores from the Greenland ice-sheet that date back over 100,000 years and even further from
From mid-morning the spectacular and spellbinding coast of northeast Greenland was visible on the horizon and ‘Le Boreal’ began to pass through isolated areas of sea ice that had drifted down the East Greenland Current from the Arctic pack ice. The naturalists, along with the photo coach, were out poolside on deck 6 watching for whales and observing the seabirds flying along with the ship prior to the start of Michelle Malan’s talk on ‘Pollination Biology 101’. However, it was not long before this was interrupted by the naturalists who had spotted two polar bears swimming in the ocean just in front of the ship. The mother and three-year-old male cub beat a hasty retreat away from the ship but provided a rare sight of bears out amongst loose drift ice 60 nautical miles from the coast. Whilst we were stopped and observing these two bears leave the area we discovered another bear curled up fast asleep on a small iceberg and got brilliant views looking down at it from the observation deck. However, our luck did not end there as another announcement declared a further three bears were spotted amongst the drift ice, consisting of a mother and two large cubs. After passing these we spotted a further large male bear swimming amongst the ice. Finally, as ‘Le Boreal’ regained our course to east Greenland we passed the mother and two cubs feeding on the carcass of a seal. This really was a truly amazing spectacle and provided magnificent photos of bears on sea ice in the sunshine.
After a late lunch Patricia Silva talked about the pleasure of birding in the Arctic, delving into her wealth of experiences within the region and then Sabrina Leader Mense gave her talk ‘Marine Mammal Evolution’ This explored the evolutionary biology of marine mammals and demonstrated how it is an exciting and dynamic field. The first terrestrial fossil links for cetaceans and pinnipeds was just uncovered in 2007, with acheaocete whale fossils date back 55 million years ago and archaic pinnipeds to 25 million years ago. The kitchen artist Renelson Morilla also demonstrate his skill at fruit carving in the Grand Salon. Later in the afternoon Mike Stevens, our guest musician gave his much awaited ‘Big Harmonica Lesson’ in the Main Lounge for some great albeit noisy fun.
Just before dinner was served, we gathered for our expedition recap and briefing. Bob Burton started with a piece on the myth of the unicorn. Brent Houston then discussed the numerous bears that we have seen throughout our voyage. Finally, our expedition leader Aaron Russ informed us of our plans for landing on Greenland tomorrow.
The evening’s entertainment was a classical music recital with the musician Elena Korevena on piano from ‘Le Boreal’. The ship itself approached the remote Kajser Franz-Joseph Fjord system, with magnificent icebergs and dramatic landscapes all around us.
During the night ‘Le Boreal’ had continued cruising through the spectacular scenery of Kejser Franz-Joseph Fjord and shortly after breakfast we were ready to disembark for our first landing on the largest island in the world! The weather was bright sunshine and when not in the shade temperatures were exceeding 10 degrees Celsius, thus to many of our surprise we were stripping down to just one layer for our walk. Many of us were able to spot the elusive Arctic Hare and the even more elusive Muskox, albeit from a distance for the Muskox. Once up in the valley there were magnificent views back into the iceberg studded fjord which dwarfed ‘Le Boreal’ and put scale on this massive landscape. There was also fantastic colors in the geology and our botanist Michelle Malan was having a great time identifying plants for us.
Once all aboard ‘Le Boreal’, our captain steered the ship back out of the inner fjords, southeast towards the connecting Kong Oscar Fjord and we were all treated to a special Arctic BBQ lunch outside of La Boussole restaurant on deck 6 aft. Many of us took this opportunity to sit outside to enjoy the magnificent warmth of the sunshine and make the most of the breathtaking fjords and steep mountains rising straight out of them.
As our second excursion was a little later in the afternoon than normal (the distances in Northeast Greenland are enormous) Michelle Malan was able to end her talk, entitled ‘Pollination Biology 101’.
By late afternoon we were ventured out again for a landing and tundra walk on the beautiful island of Ella Ø. This time we were fortunate enough to view a muskox from a short distance (these beasts can be incredibly skittish because they are still actively hunted by the Inuit), enabling a really good look at one of these remarkable animals. A number of birds were also spotted, including Red-Throated Loons, Ravens, and most impressively the Gyrfalcon – a true Arctic species.
After our adventure, we cruised back to ‘Le Boreal’ and continued our south-easterly navigation down Kong Oscar Fjord to the eastern coast of Liverpool Land, ready for us to enter the infamous Scoresby Sound tomorrow and to visit the Greenlandic town of Ittoqqortoormit.
In the morning ‘Le Boreal’ entered Scoresbysund, the largest fjord system in the world, heading towards the small and most remote Greenland settlement of Ittoqqortoormitt. The Danish explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen founded the settlement in 1925 with goal of limiting Norwegian hunting territory on the northeast coast and alleviating overpopulation in the south-easterly settlements. During breakfast the ship positioned itself in the bay and the expedition team were ready for us to explore the town.
Again we were being spoiled by the weather and were bathed in warm and pleasant sunshine as wandered freely around Ittoqqortoormitt, meeting friendly locals and looking at from a number of viewing points that provided fabulous landscapes. We visited several sttractions, such as the museum (where one of the locals could be found in national dress), a tourist office, an arts and crafts centre, Luterhan church and a weather station. However, the highlight for many was the opportunity to see Greenland huskies, and as an extra bonus some puppies! We also had the chance to taste locally hunted Musk Ox, examine a Greenlandic kayak in the museum and check out popular local handicrafts. Our cruise director, Sally Escanilla, also provided us each with a pre-paid postcard that we could leave at the tourist office to be mailed from Greenland.
Once all aboard ‘Le Boreal’ set a course for Hurry Inlet, which was to be the location of our afternoon’s excursion. Shortly after lunch the expedition team were ready to receive us on the shore for a short tundra hike that provided beautiful views of Grete Gletscher (after one of the characters from Hansel and Gretel – Hans and Grete in Danish). There were also a number of flowers evident, including Moss Campion, Arctic Harebell and Arctic Bell Heather. The circuit also gave views of a small meltwater lake and across Hurry Inlet and down into the main body of Scoresbysund.
Following our excursion we had our daily expedition recap and briefing. Bob Burton commenced proceedings with some personal accounts of run-ins with muskox that he has had in his extensive Arctic travels. Our geologist, Jason Hicks, went on to describe how some of the spectacular geology of Northeast Greenland developed throughout time. Sabina Leader Mense described how in 1997 an important discovery in Northeast Greenland was made when the first complete achaecete fossil was found with an astragaus (ankle). This bone is characteristic of even-toed ungulates and settled the discussion that archaeocete whales are related to these land-based animals. Aaron Russ then gave a briefing on our final excursion plans for Greenland, deep inside Scoresbysund. Named after William Scoresby Sr. and Jr., English whalers who in 1822 were the first on record to enter the fjord system.
As the sun began to set in the evening we passed many scenic icebergs and mountains, whilst penetrating deeper into the fjord system and in towards the ice sheet.
In the night, ‘Le Boreal’ sailed deeper into the spectacular Scoresbysund down the picturesque Fønfjord. Breakfast was served earlier than usual this morning in La Bousolle restaurant to make sure that we had ample time to dine before an early landing on Rødeø, an island that appears red because of Old Red Devonian Sandstone. The island is known for the massive icebergs that float along the inner fjords before being concentrated together in shallower water around the island.
The landing provided reasonably steep tundra terrain before reaching the summit of a ridge that rewarded our exertions with spectacular views across the fjord, which was studded with icebergs of all shapes and sizes. We were able to follow this ridge along the edge of the island and in a circular route around to the landing site. There were plenty of photographic opportunities from the high points and looking down at the glaciers gave a good sense of how most of their mass is actually hidden beneath the waves.
After those who opted for an early morning leg stretch had returned to ‘Le Boreal’ there was just enough time to prepare for our next excursion, which was cruising amongst the majestic icebergs we had viewed from our landing earlier in the morning. Settled into our Zodiacs, we weaved, at a safe distance, between this huge and diverse range of icebergs. Those of us with cameras could not resist capturing the remarkable variety of subjects – icebergs of all sizes, shapes and a multitude of color. These glacial wonders, combined with the contrast of the red sandstone of Rødeø and the reflection on the water produced beautiful images.
As our naturalist drivers maneuvered around the icebergs, and we looked in marvel at huge arches in the ice, they turned the engine off and treated us all to a glass of bubbly out in the Zodiacs to celebrate our time together in the Arctic and our shared experiences of these unique and enchanting lands.
Once back on ‘Le Boreal’, and having sated our appetite, we were treated to further enrichment lectures. First our guest musician, Mike Stevens, gave part 2 of his ‘Big Harmonica Lesson’, which again created a great deal of entertainment for us all! Next up was Richard Harker, our photo coach, who discussed the many different methods to process the myriad of photos most of us had taken. Finally, after a delicious crepe party in the Grand Salon, Bob Burton presented his talk ‘A Short Arctic Summer’. This consisted of a series of highly entertaining stories from his adventures in the High Arctic, including some of the interesting biological and environmental phenomena he had witnessed whilst out and about in these all to brief sunny days.
The recap began with our ex-Royal Marine naturalist, Russ Manning, talking about war in the Arctic, and how we ourselves were probably traced by a submarine from one nation or another. Michelle Malan then presented a short slideshow on some of the plants we had seen in Greenland prior to Augustin Ullman, gave an entertaining presentation on the problem of the Ozone Hole and how humanity can occasionally come together to rectify the situation.
Following dinner, and as ‘Le Boreal’ left the relative shelter of Scoresbysund, the movie ‘The White Archer’ was played in the Main Lounge.
We awoke to slight waves as we continued our crossing of the Denmark Strait towards Iceland. As we had become accustomed, the expedition team had a full day planned of enrichment lectures and our botanist Michelle Malan kicked it off with her ‘It’s a Bog’s Life’, providing fascinating insight into the plants of this unique environment.
Mid-morning our team of naturalists were out on deck poolside with Richard Harker, the photo coach, keeping a keen eye out for wildlife. A variety of seabirds were spotted, including Atlantic Puffin and even a Common Guillemot father swimming with his small chick around 40 nautical miles from the Icelandic coast!
Late morning, our historian, Bob Burton presented ‘The Strange and Awful History of Scurvy’. After outlining the symptoms and result of this debilitating illness he looked at all the different methods, often somewhat comical, that had been employed to avoid scurvy. He also outlined the way scurvy had serious impacts on polar expeditions both to the Arctic and Antarctic prior to our understanding of antiscorbutics.
Following lunch, we were delighted by an announcement informing us that due to ‘Le Boreal’ making good time during the night and with the smooth waters ahead we would have enough time to make a landing on the remote Icelandic island of Grímsey. Then as we approached we were fortunate enough to cross paths with a pod of Killer Whales or Orca, which included a large male and a female with a young calf!
As we arrived at the island of Grímsey the tenders from ‘Le Boreal’ were lowered and we were able to go ashore in comfort. The weather was slightly damp and grey but along with the coastal cliffs it provided dramatic scenery for our first outing in Iceland! We were fortunate enough to see lots of Arctic Terns and Atlantic Puffins on the island, which provided yet further wildlife photo opportunities. However, we had to be patient because most of the puffins were immature and would take flight easily. We were also able to take the opportunity to cross back into the Arctic Circle, which crosses the island, on foot before heading back south again to the harbour and the comforts of ‘Le Boreal’.
Sabina Leader Mense briefly discussed the sighting of Killer Whales that were seen shortly after lunch today and how all these marine organisms depend on phytoplankton. Patricia Silva gave an overview of the Atlantic Puffins and Arctic Terns that we had the pleasure of viewing on Grímsey. Richard Harker then talked about Photoshop and it’s uses and misuses. Following this Arron Russ outlined the plans for our excursions tomorrow around Húsavík and northern Iceland.
In the evening, as the dinner service came to an end, a number of Humpback whales were spotted just off the ship in the early dusk. Those of us that abandoned the remains of our deserts were rewarded with spectacular views of their flukes as they dived down a number of times before we parted ways with these magnificent marine mammals. Later in the evening ‘The Northwest Passage – The Last Great Frontier’ was played on the big screen in the Theatre, inspiring some of us to inquire more about A&Ks trip through the whole passage in 2017.
Having arrived at Húsavik late the previous night all necessary customs formalities were conducted without a hitch and we were ready to disembark for the day’s adventures not long after breakfast.
Húsavik itself was a picturesque Icelandic fishing town with many small boats in the harbor and with green and luxuriant vegetation canvassing the surrounding slopes as well as numerous Icelandic horses and sheep dotted across the landscape. The weather was again warm and overcast, but again providing rather dramatic and forbidding atmosphere to the stark beauty of this seemingly inhospitable landscape.
Guests were offered the choice of one of three excursions. The majority chose the ‘Lake Myvatn and Dettifoss Waterfall’. Starting with a short walk to Dettifoss waterfall, the most powerful waterfall in Europe we had ample opportunities for photography as the mist bellowed up from the canyon. Back on our coaches, we travelled to the striking geothermal field of Námaskarõ. With bubbling mud pots, steam vents, Sulphur deposits, boiling springs and fumaroles – we witnessed a fantastic first-hand display of the geothermal activity prevalent across Iceland. From there, we continued our tour to the lava formations of Dimmuborgir, with its mysterious columns, arches and coves. The site is named for its legendary trolls who, after prolonged, late night parties, became petrified when the sun rose and they were too late to avoid its light. The final stop was at the shallow but expansive Lake Myvatn, and its many pseudo-craters, which provided a stunning view from where our lunch was held. On the menu was delicious Arctic Char and skyr (an Icelandic milk curd).
The other full day tour headed to Kelduhverfi, that providing spectacular views of two divergent tectonic plates that Iceland straddles. This continued on to the largest national park in Europe, Vatnajökull, with stops at the hoof-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi and the basaltic columns of Hljódaklettar. The grand finale was a short stop at Dettifoss to see the power of the glacial river that runs north from the Vatnajökull glaciers. The third option, which lasted half a day, visited The Transportation Museum at Ystafell before becoming acquainted with the unique breed of Icelandic horse, with their extra gait. This also allowed some free time to explore the small town of Húsavik.
Guests on all excursions either started or finished with visits to the award winning Húsavik Whale Museum, where we learned more about the habitat and life histories of the whales around Iceland. Galleries and displays on whaling history compared the old days to modern times, and also illustrated that whale watching today is both more acceptable and more lucrative than whale catching.
We were also fortunate enough to be part of a very special ceremony. Expedition leader, Aaron Russs, presented the museum’s curator with a check from A&K Philanthropy to continue the assistance provided for a major extension project. We ourselves, were able to benefit from previous donations by seeing the new exhibition of a Blue Whale skeleton, the largest animal ever to have lived, which was of similar size to what we saw off the coast of Svalbard! This has completed the museum’s bid to house a skeleton for every known species of marine mammal.
We were all back aboard by late afternoon and this provided us with enough time to do some whale watching of our own with Captain Etienne Garcia delaying his own Farewell Cocktail party due to fantastic views of Killer Whales and Humpback Whales right by the ship! After the cetaceans had moved on we continued the celebrations with the Farewell Party and Gala dinner before the Paris `C Show Dancers treated us to another show in the Theatre.
We awoke to some movement as ‘Le Boreal’ pushed through some moderate swell on our journey to the western coast of Iceland, heading for the picturesque Snæfellsnes Peninsula. As the seas gradually calmed the morning was spent relaxing aboard.
After returning any rental boots Jason Hicks gave the last enrichment lecture of the cruise with his talk ‘Climate Change – Ancient Records, Modern Reality’. Jason went on to share that the Earth’s geological and climatological records contain a rich story of climate change, spanning hundreds of millions of years. And, this record can help reveal many things about the scope of the challenges we face in the present.
Later in the morning, our cruise directors Sally Escanilla and Sarah Moine gave the disembarkation briefing, during which the dispositions of luggage and guests continuing on to various flights, hotels and even other destinations was explained. This was followed by a brilliant slideshow of our expedition so far and our time aboard ‘Le Boreal’, from Oslo to Húsavik. This was masterfully prepared by Richard Escanilla and our onboard musician, Mike Stevens played live music to. Finally, the ‘Le Boreal’ crew welfare fund raffle was drawn, raising over three thousand Euros for a worthy cause of these hard working souls, with Marianna Pilch from 626 being the lucky one.
We approached Grundarfjördur shortly after lunch and despite the drizzle the lush, steep green mountains and spectacular waterfalls were evident behind the small fishing town. The hills themselves showed many strata of early volcanic eruptions.
Many of us disembarked for one of three coach tours. ‘The Highlights of Snæfellsnes’ began with a stop at Djúpalónssandur beach, where a short walk with astonishing views of volcanic remains with small canyons, broken lava fields and more. Next were the basaltic columnar cliffs at Lóndrangar, that were being smashed by waves in a dramatic and somewhat mesmerizing fashion. This continued with stops at Hellnar and Arnarstapi village prior to enjoying the black lava surrounds of Búdir and a quintessential Icelandic church, built in the late 1800s.
Others of us decided to take an exciting Viking ‘sushi’ cruise to the islands of Breidarfjördur, home to a rich variety of birdlife as well as the strange, beautiful rock formations and basalt columns. It was a fantastic experience with extraordinary views of cormorants, shags, kittiwakes and many more. But the highlight of the cruise was all about the fish: the net-plough was cast overboard, shellfish delicacies were retrieved and everyone had a taste of this incredible seafood straight from the sea!
The rest of our group headed on a ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ and after a scenic coach ride were provided with a helmet and flashlight before descending into the depths of a spectacular cave system.
Back onboard ‘Le Boreal’, it was time to freshen up for our final superb dinner. Meanwhile the Captain set course for Hafnarfjördur, one of the port of Reykjavik.
In the morning, ‘Le Boreal’ docked at Hafnarfjördur port in Reykjavik. While we savored our last breakfast aboard the ship, our luggage was transferred from the corridors and loaded onto the awaiting coaches. We then relaxed as we awaited our staggered disembarkation time, enjoying a final opportunity to share some of our favorite memories with our new friends.
It had been an incredible voyage with one spell-binding landscape after another, fascinating history, and of course, magnificent wildlife. Who could forget the multitude of Polar Bears, the numerous whale species, the beaches, and even the dim unitive but beautiful flora that manages to eke out a living in these harsh environs, despite the chill?
Some of us disembarked ‘Le Boreal’ and headed straight to the airport, while others headed for the hot baths of the Blue Lagoon. However, the luckiest were those taking an extended tour from Reykjavik, with the chance to explore more of this beautiful country.