Day 8 |
Jul 13, 2010

Smeerenburg (Amsterdamøya) and Sallyhamna, Svalbard, Norway

By Christian Walter, Historian

Co-ordinates: 79° 48’ 48” N, 11° 29’ 20” E at 1 p.m.
Weather: overcast, fresh, turning to rain and cold
Air Temperature: 6,9°C
Pressure: 1010hpa
Wind: 47-58 kmh

During the night we had rounded the northern part of Northwest Spitsbergen, and were coming towards Amsterdamøya via the Smeerenburgfjord at 8 a.m.

While enjoying a tea, croissant and orange juice in the Observation Lounge, we noticed another ship at anchor just off the southeastern tip of the island. And not just a ship, but some people ashore! While Captain Golubev maneuvered the Prince Albert II into position and our anchor was dropped, the early morning visitors of Smeerenburg left the shore, headed back to their ship and steamed off towards Sallyhamna.

Our scout boats took our bear-guides Lasse, Chris and Karolina ashore to secure the perimeter, and the landing-site was set up not too far from the former Amsterdam whaling houses and blubber ovens. Therefore the name ‘Smeerenburg’ = Dutch for ‘blubber town’.

Both Colleen and I took groups of roughly 20 guests each for a walk through the former Dutch whaling station. A little monument showed the set-up of the seven different Dutch towns involved in the whaling between 1615 and 1655. Although some authors have suggested that up to 20,000 people might have lived here, and that the town had taverns, shops, and all the conveniences a normal town in Holland would have had, archaeological work done in the late 20th century showed a maximum figure of 2-300 Dutch having spent the arctic summer up this far north.

Very little remains of the former settlement, as the timber left behind was used by visitors of the 17th and 18th century to repair ships or build cabins. But with some imagination you could sense the hardship endured whaling in the early years, or having to spend a winter protecting your company with insufficient clothing and food.

When the second group came ashore, the weather turned a bit wetter and colder, but still the walk was repeated. Eventually fog started setting in, and Lasse asked the other bear-guides to slowly return, keeping an eye for a bear trying to take advantage of the fog for cover. Having endured the rain and cold for an hour, you wondered what it must have been like to work up here for two to three months.

During lunch, Captain Golubev took the Prince Albert II to an area some 13 miles away, and dropped anchor (the one o’clock coordinates are mentioned above). Unfortunately, the wind and currents would have made disembarkation a very bumpy and unpleasant experience; therefore it was decided to relocate some 8 more miles to a more sheltered spot northeast of Holmiabukta.

It was still windy, but certainly better than before. We started at 3 p.m. with the Zodiac-cruise for the first group. As soon as the guests had entered the Zodiac, Christian Everts, my driver, told them “This will be a wet ride; you will get wet. Please, protect your cameras.” And a wet ride it was! Zigzagging our way into the calmer bay of Holmiabukta, we got a glimpse of polar bears lying in between the rocks, sleeping.

Apparently the bears had been feeding on a whale carcass during the morning and needed to digest the food. Five bears were seen, among them a mother and her cub. Two of the bears eventually left the steep slope where they had been resting for lower and flatter ground, but otherwise they seemed to enjoy just sleeping.

The Zodiac cruise included a short visit to the glacier at the end of the bay, and once we had boarded the Prince Albert II again, the hotel department had set up hot chocolate to help us warm up.

Our last day of expedition calls in the wilderness of Svalbard was coming to an end, and we could look back at the very interesting and rarely visited places we had seen.

Recap & Briefing was at 6:45 p.m. and Robin Aiello put up a slide of Karolina and me next to or inside one of the blue bins used to store the Zodiac-vests. As we had been close to a whale carcass, Robin showed a mock interview related to a dead whale in Australia; Juan Carlos spoke about Permafrost; Sue showed pictures she had taken of polar bears during the last 48 hours, and a documentary by her husband showing how polar bears swim (fascinating footage); I talked about the different mining-towns in Svalbard and encouraged the ones who did not have claustrophobia to experience the conditions under which the miners had to work by crawling through the mini-exhibit at the Svalbard museum tomorrow. EL Robin West presented the plan for Longyearbyen: going alongside by about 8 a.m. and the possibility to walk into “town” (20 minutes), or taking the shuttle-bus (10 minutes).

Dinner was, as was to be expected, another culinary experience. Those eager to send off mail from Longyearbyen retired early to write postcards, others decided to taste one of the different cocktails or whiskies in the Panorama Lounge.