Day 7 |
Jul 09, 2011

Torellneset, Nordaustlandet and at sea

By Uli Kunz – Oceanographer and Zodiac-Driver

Position: 79°40’ N, 18°47’ E, Hinlopenstrait
Air temperature: 1 °C, 33.8 °F
Water temperature: 4 °C, 39.2 °F
Air pressure: 1021 hPa
Wind speed: 35 km/h

In the early morning at 7 o’clock I walked on the Bridge as we came closer to the shore of Torellneset on the western side of Nordaustlandet, the second largest island in the archipelago of Svalbard. The wind was quite strong and the weather did not seem to be very cooperative today. But as we are in the High Arctic, we can't ask for sunshine every day. Expedition days sometimes need some kind of “expedition weather”.

Our Staff Captain Håkan handed out my rifle and I jumped into the Zodiacs together with the rest of the Expedition Team. We were greeted at the landing site by one of the giant animals we were intended to visit that morning: A walrus seemed to be quite curious and approached the boat but lost interest after a couple of minutes and swam towards the place where its “friends” had already hauled out onto the beach. Together with Kara I set up a perimeter near the walrus colony at a distance of approximately 30 meters, a safe distance for not scaring the seals away. There were at least 15 walrus sleeping, some lifting up their heads, some still in the water. These animals are quite easy to identify, they are the largest seal in the Arctic and have distinctive tusks in both sexes, which they use as a status symbol and occasionally for fighting polar bears.

Together with Chris and Karolina, I was in charge of watching for polar bears in the vicinity. The wind was quite strong and even though I was standing on a “beach”, I had to go for a walk every now and then to stay warm... The guests got very good views on the walrus, some animals hauled out from the water and got back in again, playing near the shore for quite a while.

After lunch, the Silver Explorer approached our next potential landing site, Vibebukta on the western edge of Brasvellbreen. This glacier is only the beginning of an ice cliff that continues for 190 kilometres! The vast majority of Nordaustlandet is covered by the third largest ice cap in the world, the Austfonna. It is a true polar desert, but a mighty sight as the ship came closer to the ice cliff. Unfortunately, very dense drift ice was floating in front of the glacier and in the bay, making a landing impossible.

We sailed along the coast and looked for polar bears from the Bridge. There were some very promising sightings, yellowish and the perfect size for a bear, but all of them turned out to be chunks of dirty ice in the far distance. Nevertheless, the view was breathtaking and the sun came out for a few hours to let us enjoy ice cruising on board the Silver Explorer.

At 5 pm, our historian Peter gave a lecture about an amazing endeavour at the end of the 19th century. The Swedish explorer Salomon Andrée tried to reach the North Pole in a balloon from Spitsbergen! The base camp for his expedition was Virgohamna on Danskøya, a place that we are hopefully going to visit within the next days. His first expedition in 1896 failed because he did not have enough hydrogen to fill the balloon with. So he launched a second one a year later and built a large balloon hanger on the north coast of Danskøya and took off on July 11, 1897, together with two of his friends, only to be never seen again. For 33 years, the fate of the three men was uncertain, but an expedition in 1930 to Kvitøya, an island East of Nordaustlandet, found the bodies and equipment of the Andrée expedition. What is even more astounding is the fact that the explorer's camera and diary could also be salvaged and the frozen negatives could still be developed, giving us the possibility to reproduce and track the last days and weeks of Andrée's expedition.

The balloon obviously crashed after only two days on the ice and the men built sledges to carry their equipment southwards. They didn't bring very warm clothes, as their original plan was to cross the Arctic in their balloon and land safely on the other side. So it is quite amazing that the three men made their way to Kvitøya and tried to build a hut for overwintering in the Arctic. It is still not clear what caused the deaths of the expedition members, but among the different reasons still debated are botulism, food or lead poisoning and scurvy. The bodies of Salomon Andrée and his men were brought back to Stockholm where they were buried during one of Sweden's greatest state funerals to honour the heroic endeavour to reach the North Pole in a balloon!

Later during the evening we had another Recap & Briefing and I talked about the amazing blue whale we had seen the day before. Kara presented interesting information about the walrus and our photographer Kristine showed a preview of her footage of that cruise. We have already been very lucky and hope that our luck is not going to end during the next days…