Monday, 23 August 2010

Arctic Adventure - 10

Tuesday 10th August 2010

My Arctic pictures are here.

We anchored off the flat spit of land known as Smeerenburg (Dutch for 'Blubbertown'. This was a whaling station used by a number of Dutch companies in the 17th century. During this period, whales were hauled ashore, hacked to pieces and the blubber was heated in huge open pans to release the oil. Baleen plates (the filters through which whales filter sea water to extract the plankton) were valuable to provide 'whalebone' used in ladies' corsetry.

Very little of the original station remains - a few timber building foundations and indications of the boiling pans. Boiling pans survive from other sites but there is none at Smeerenburg. Conservation is very strict in Svalbard - anything man-made over 50 years old is a 'Cultural Artefact' and must be left alone.

Whilst Colleen was relating more of the history of the site, one of the Bear Guards approached shouting 'Everybody back to the boats!' and we were shepherded back to the landing site where Victoria and Colleen were trying to get people into lifejackets and into Zodiacs.My Zodiac cruised to where the Bear Guards were carefully watching to offer them a lift, but they suggested that we continued to where they'd spotted a Polar Bear to observe it from the safety of the Zodiac.

We travelled about half a mile before spotting a bear walking across the rocky hillside towards the place we'd just left. The other Zodiacs joined us and we slowly retraced our route, keeping pace with the bear. The bear, in a very sure-footed manner, was plodding across the rocky hillside at a constant 4 to 5 miles an hour. They can keep this up indefinitely when stalking prey but have a burst speed up to 40 miles an hour when going for the kill. The bear was clearly aware of our presence but continued his plodding, descending the hillside to the shore and then continuing along the rocky beach. It was a remarkable experience to be able to observe the animal for half a mile or so from the safety of the Zodiacs and it gave a slight understanding of how inexorable the animal can be in pursuit of food.

More later ...