Day 3 |
Aug 14, 2010

  Smeerenburg, Amsterdamøya / Virgohamna, Danskøya    

By Chris Srigley, General Naturalist/Bear Guard



Co-ordinates: 79˚40’N, 11˚00’E
Weather: Overcast

With the our late ending to activities yesterday, the Prince Albert II seemed a very quiet place as I made my way to the Bridge for my usual early morning polar bear scout. Finishing up at midnight had taken its toll on the guests and crew alike.

With our day planned, Captain Aleksander Golubev anchored the Prince Albert II in between Amsterdamøya and Danskøya, two islands in the northwest portion of the Svalbard archipelago. Both rich in the history of the region we are travelling in.

First, at 0830 we would board the Zodiacs and make our way to Amsterdamøya and the landing, Smeerenburg (Blubber Town). Located on the southeastern cape of the island it was the location of a shore-based Dutch whaling station formed in 1617. History tells us that in its busiest times there may have been 1000 – 1200 workers based here each summer during the whaling season.

With little evidence remaining of this once busy location it takes the skill of a knowledgeable historian to recreate the scene from so long ago. By no coincidence of course, in Colleen Batey and Christian Walter, we have onboard with us two such knowledgeable historians. Taking small groups with them both, Colleen and Christian walked amongst the once burning remains of the blubber ovens and scattered structural remnants bringing to life the hardships endured by those men of the early whaling days.

Returning to the Prince Albert II just after 1100, Christian Walter quickly set up in The Theatre to give his talk on the early exploration and attempts of reaching the North Pole by air. Tying in directly with our afternoon’s destination on Danskøya Island, Virgohamna.

Named after the vessel S/S Virgo of the Swedish Arctic explorer S.A. Andrée, this location was the launching point for several attempts at the North Pole. Andrée came here in 1896 and built his balloon hangar before starting his expedition in 1897.

A very sensitive location in Svalbard, we must gain special permission and follow strict rules while visiting Virgohamna. Like our morning landing, Virgohamna is rich in history. However unlike this morning, there are many remains (although not standing structures) that the government would like to protect so future generations are able to visit and appreciate.

By 1730 all of our guests had visited the site and enjoyed another insightful tour with Colleen and Christian as they brought 1897 back to life. Returning to the Prince Albert II, all were back on board just after 1800 as the anchor was heaved and the bow pointed north for the following day’s activities.

Gathering in The Theatre for a Recap & Briefing, our Expedition Leader Robin West took to the stage to talk about tomorrow’s activities. However, before he could do that, he had something else to brief everyone on. As we were heaving anchor, a ship called the Quest was making its way to Amsterdamøya. As our ships passed, a conversation started and it turned out that they had just been in Holmiabukta, a bay some eight miles away, and had encountered six polar bears! With this, our plans were changed, dinner was moved forward and preparations began for an evening Zodiac tour to see what we could find.

Dropping the Zodiacs, we loaded in quick succession and were off. Rounding the corner into the bay, we found two bears swimming off shore, two adolescent bears sitting onshore and a female cub with her first year cub sitting up high on the hill.

Why so many bears in such a small area? Here, through the winter, there had been the carcass of a fin whale frozen into the sea ice. With such an abundance of food available these normally solitary animals had been congregating, feasting on the whale’s remains. While nothing but bones were showing above the water, it was evident that below the surface there was meat to be found.

As we watched, one of the bears in the water began doing duck dives and surfacing with great chucks of whale meat. As he emerged the two younger bears quickly rushed to the water’s edge trying to grab it from him. With some moaning and growling from below, the mother and her cub quickly woke up and made a straight line down from their perch to join in on the feast.

As polar bear sightings go, it doesn’t get much better than this – six polar bears within a 900 square-foot-area snarling, feeding, swimming and diving! It was a most impressive sight worthy of documentary footage.

Returning to the Prince Albert II with smiles on their faces, our guests were sure to enjoy a busy evening of laughter and chatter in the Panorama Lounge as they wound down from another spectacular day in Svalbard, one of the greatest places to travel.