Thursday, 5 August 2010

Arctic Adventure - 4

Wednesday 4th August 2010

My Arctic pictures are here.

I went for breakfast around 7.30 a.m. as we continued north towards Bear Island. and was surprised to find most people were taking a late breakfast after the exertions of the previous day. I was eventually joined by a nice American couple and we chatted for a while before I returned to my cabin to do some computer work.

At 9.45 a.m. we were all to attend the Mandatory AECO Briefing in the Theatre. AECO (normally pronounced 'eye-ee-co' is the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators and it seeks to ensure responsible, environmentally-friendly and safe tourism in the Arctic. AECO was set up in 2003 and has 11 members operating a total of 16 vessels. The offices are inbLongtearbyen (where this cruise will end). For more information, goto

The Briefing was interrupted by news that whales had been sighted ahead of the ship and we were invited to go out on deck. I saw spouting and a mother and calf breaking the surface a number of times as the captain sailed in circles to try to keep us near the action. Although it was sunny, there was a bit of a wind so, at the earliest opportunity, I went to my cabin for a parka and my camera. By this time, they'd opened the doors to the foredeck which houses the anchor winch so I spent some time there. Over the next half hour, we had a number of brief sightings of the original or perhaps other whales. A tail displayed out of the water indicated a diving whale, after which there were no further sightings so the ship resumed course for Bear Island and the public address summoned us back to the Theatre to complete the briefing.

After the AECO Briefing, there was a description of the afternoon Zodiac trip we were to take to study the cliffs at Bear Island. We then returned to our cabins to await the summons, deck by deck, to reception for distribution of rubber boots to those that required them. The whale watching had put us a little behind schedule - most of the passengers returned to the Theatre for an illustrated talk entitled 'Scandinavia in the Viking Age' given by Collen but some passengers prepared for lunch. After the lecture, I took a late lunch at a table with an American couple I'd met the previous day and three Americans I'd not met before. All the checked luggage belonging to these three had gone missing en-route so they'd had to spend a day in Oslo shopping for a complete new wardrobe at the airline's expense.

Around 2.0 p.m, we anchored off Sorhamna on the south-eastern corner of Bear Island where we could see sheer cliffs rising up to 400 metres above sea level. As usual, Zodiacs were put in the water to check conditions and the amount of swell precluded any tentative plans to make a landing on this nature reserve.

I run out of superlatives to describe the Zodiac trips. If yesterday's was 'mesmerising' Bear Island is perhaps 'spiritual'. The Zodiac puts you close to nature in a very special way. Charging over the wave crests is plain good fun and demonstrates the awesome power of the sea. Drifting close inshore shows the grandeur and sheer scale of the cliffs, whilst allowing the family life of the thousands of nesting birds to be studied at close quarters without distressing them. We went inside a cave a little way - we went through a tunnel. I was at the front of the Zodiac and caught a good soaking as a wave rebounded at the entrance to the tunnel. The driver was most apologetkic but I regarded it as part of the experience. We looked at the wreck of a Russian freezer ship which was abandoned against the cliff face a year previously. since then hull plates had been ripped away, revealing the framing and the hull had completely broken in two.

But what I found most moving was watching thousands of birds, of various species, filling the air, many flying at low level and close to the Zodiac. Those flying in more or less the same direction as the Zodiac stayed in view for some seconds. It's the closest experience to 'flying with birds' I've had.

After around 90 minutes at sea, we returned to 'Prince Albert II'. A warm bath soon restored me, in time for Victoria's lecture in the Theatre on the History of Svalbard. By this time, Bear Island was slipping astern as the ship headed north once again for the islands of the Svalbard Archipelago.

Around 7.00 p.m., everybody was invited to a 'Welcome Cocktail Party' in the Theatre where the Ukrainian Captain Alexander Golubev introduced his officers. Then, at 7.30 p.m. it was two decks down to the 'Captain's Welcome Dinner' in the Restaurant. I had been formally invited to the Captain's Table (a proper R.S.V.P. invitation the day before) where I joined a young Italian couple on their honeymoon, an older couple from Sydney and the history lecturer Victoria. We enjoyed a splendid meal with lots of wide-ranging conversation.

At any time, we may lose the satellite computer connection so I may be rudely silenced!