Day 8 |
Aug 29, 2011

Jan Mayen Island, Norway  

By Peter W. Damisch - Historian, General Naturalist, Cartographer & Polar Bear Guard

Co-ordinates: 70o 55’ N, 008o 42’ W
Weather: Overcast with occasional burst of sunshine
Air Temperature: 6o C / 42 o F
Pressure: 1006 HPa
Wind: 20 km / hour

Today we continue Southwest from Svalbard across the North Atlantic. Seas have been calm and smooth, thus allowing the Silver Explorer to make great speed and giving us hope that our planned beach landing this afternoon at the ultimately remote Jan Mayan Island will be possible.

As usual during a partial day at sea, the Expedition Team continues with our ongoing lecture program that is often scheduled to enhance the day’s experience by linking onboard presentations to shore-based excursions. First up was Juan, one of our geologists, who provided a comprehensive review of volcanoes titled “It’s Alive! Volcanology 101”. I simply love volcanoes and always attend Juan’s presentations, as there is always something new and interesting for me to learn. The timing of this talk was near perfect as we sighted volcanic Mount Beerenburg in the distance just before the start of the presentation. This very high, ice-covered peak on Jan Mayen Island was partially fog shrouded but did give us a glorious peak at the summit, something that does not always occur. Eruptions have occurred as recently as 1970, 1973 and 1980, adding more than 3 square kilometers to the Island.

Robin, our Expedition Leader, then gave a brief review of our special destination. Volcanic Jan Mayen is one of the least visited locations on Earth and it a great treat to be able to stop by and visit. There is no dock and thus the Silver Explorer’s fleet of trusty Zodiacs provides us with yet another chance to explore such a unique location.

However, we still had a short distance to travel before arrival and so, utilized this time for Franz, our onboard ornithologist to give a highly requested discussion regarding “Birds of the Voyage”. This colorful and well-illustrated talk covered both sea birds as well as the wonderful flying creatures that we hope to encounter at Jan Mayen and Iceland over the next few days.

Soon enough I found myself with the rest of the Expedition Team in one of the Zodiacs traveling past large rafts of northern fulmars resting on the water. We headed towards the black sand beach located within a small cove that provides some shelter. We were warmly greeted by the commander of the Norwegian weather station and two other staff members who represented the 18 people living on the island, all of whom have 6- to 12-month tours of duty.

I did observe one small situation that I found mildly amusing, something that wasn’t planned but represents the strength of the Silver Explorer’s Expedition Team. While getting set up on the landing site before guest arrival, I looked up and was able to simultaneously view our:
• geologists carefully examining volcanic pillow lava, olivine and other rock outcroppings
• botanist on his hands and knees macro photographing the local plant species
• marine biologist on the beach reviewing kelp and seaweed species
• ornithologist photographing potential bird nesting sites
• expedition leader discussing operations with the base commander
• myself as historian speaking with the base staff to learn about their lifestyle and background

Everyone was intently and independently focused on their specialty such that we could give our guests the best possible and most recent information when they came ashore.

Upon landing, guests were able to explore for hours on their own, but were also given the opportunity to visit the meteorological station, which, of course, receives very few visitors. The Station Commander provided a great overview regarding research and other activities conducted on the island.

Just outside the station was a pair of 17th-century cannons that were archeologically recovered to represent a period of intense whaling that occurred in the waters around the island but which finished almost 350 years ago.

Jan Mayen has a wondrous contrast of deep green vegetation offset on high volcanic scree and sharp outcroppings of lava. I walked down the ‘main road’ towards the (dirt) runway aircraft, just admiring the tall various colors on this small plain of land between the mountains and the sea. Along the way there is one quite humorous road sign in this remote place that must be seen to be believed. Of course there is also the traditional sign of many countries with placards pointing in so many different directions.

During this time I had a chance to chat and answer questions from many guests who were enjoying the opportunity to explore this grand spot at their own pace. In addition, the Expedition Team surveyed a route up a nearby mountain for those individuals who wanted to get a bit more exercise. Towards the end of the afternoon I too walked up the steep hillside, which had extensive moss beds on each side along with lichen-studded volcanic rocks from long ago lava flows. The view from the top was stupendous with the coastline, research station and Silver Explorer well down below.

All too soon, after many hours ashore, it was time to say our goodbyes to both the small cadre of research and weather personnel who remain behind as well as this verdant island of contrasts between the stark volcanic spires whose shapes are softened by a wild extravagance of vegetation in this high Arctic wilderness.