Day 1 |
Aug 22, 2011

Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Svalbard Archipelago

By Peter W. Damisch – Historian, General Naturalist, Cartographer and Polar Bear Guard

Co-ordinates: 78o 14’ N, 015o 30’ E
Weather: Overcast by relatively warm
Air Temperature: 5o C / 41 o F
Pressure: 1010 HPa
Wind: 35 km / hour

Early this morning, the Silver Explorer cruised slowly into Isfjorden or ‘Ice Fjord’, a name applied by an English walrus hunter from the early 1600s. Interestingly enough the name has been retained for over four centuries and describes a beautiful location surrounded by ice, snow and glacier-capped mountains. Near the head of this Norwegian fjord is another, smaller indentation called Adventfjorden. This is the position of Longyearbyen, which is the capital of Svalbard as well as the most northerly settlement of more than 1,000 people anywhere in the world. In fact it had a population of 2,007 during the most recent 2010 census and this includes students at its highly acclaimed university that specializes in Arctic research.

Once again we had come to the only sad part of any Silversea cruise, the departure of so many new friends that have been met during the past voyage. We had such a great time with spectacular weather and even more dramatic sightings of polar bears, walrus and tens of thousands of sea birds. We had also circumnavigated Nordaustland as well as Spitsbergen and made such a unique and unusual landing on Kvitoya. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to our new friends.

As per Silversea’s great policy of continuing to polish our skills, the Expedition Team spent what little time we had available after guest departure at the shooting range outside of town. Here we can continue to practice with the high-powered rifles that four of us carry ashore as our last line of defense against a potential polar bear encounter. This practice with live ammunition allows us to review a number of scenarios and potential firing positions. Naturally, our primary protection is to keep a good lookout from both ship, Zodiac and shoreside operations, along with an armed outer perimeter. If a bear is sighted, we evacuate any landing site without question, a process covered by both staff with rifles as well as flare guns and flare pens. Thus, in over 40 years of experience, I have been fortunate enough to have never fired my weapon at any bear.

Soon we were back in the van that carries us down the mountain from the firing range back to the Silver Explorer. Along the way we have an excellent view of the bay, overlooking the airport. Interestingly enough, we also pass the exterior opening of the Global Seed Vault. This is an international project that is currently in the process of collecting seeds from all locations around the world as a repository of plant genetic material. Everything is stored in specially designed vaults that are contained in permafrost, which moderates the potential temperature swings as well as reduces the requirements of cooling / ‘air conditioning’.

The Captain and Expedition Leader made an excellent decision to leave earlier than usual in the afternoon to give us a few more hours of time to explore this fascinating area of the High Arctic.
After a short and easy checkout procedure, and a sounding of the ship’s horn, the Silver Explorer slowly eased away from the dock. From the outer decks I could see the small community of Longyearbyen that has been in existence for just over 100 years. If one looked closely they could also see old, now abandoned towers dotting the hillside, something like a chairlift for a ski lodge. However, they were actually used in the past to transport coal down from mines towards the sea. The equipment is no longer in use and you can see the vegetation slowly recovering, a process that takes quite a bit of time in this cold environment.

Next up was the standard Safety and Lifeboat Drill, which is an international requirement. In this case Silversea not only has our guests don their lifejackets for training, but we also practiced walking out on deck such that everyone has the opportunity to see the short path to our lifeboats.

This comprehensive Safety Brief was immediately followed up by a Zodiac Brief by our Expedition Leader. This important presentation covers the fundamentals of operating safely with the trusty and strong rubber boats that can take us to such exotic locations ashore and cruise where no other ship could go. They are the lifeboat of our unique expedition experience.

It seems like a lot to cover on just the first day of our voyage, yet there is a method to the madness as we are now fully prepared to conduct Zodiac operations first thing tomorrow morning and make full use of our time in this ultimately remote and perfectly beautiful location at the top of the world.