Day 6 |
Jun 18, 2012

Jan Mayen Island 

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

Co-ordinates: S 71º54'47", W 05º38'49"
Weather: Sunny with scattered clouds
Air Temperature: 2ºC
Pressure: 1013 hPa
Wind: 25 knots

Today was a day where I felt very, very lucky to be on board the Silver Explorer. There are not many opportunities in life to visit one of the most remote yet inhabited islands in the world. In this case Jan Mayen Island slowly appeared out of the mists and fogs on the horizon. For a short while I thought that perhaps we would have a ‘typical’ day at this remote location that tends to be overcast on about 90% of the days of the year. However, by the time the Expedition Team began to descend the pilot ladder into a Zodiac to go ashore and scout the location as we always do, the sun and blue skies were just beginning to appear.

Jan Mayen is an active volcanic island between Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard, which is well exposed to the open ocean. As anyone might expect, there are no port facilities or sheltered harbour. Thus we have to have good weather and calm seas to ensure a safe landing and today we did get lucky to have all the right conditions.

Shortly after landing on a beautiful black sand volcanic beach, the Station Commander came down to greet us. The Government of Norway has maintained a meteorological and research station here since the 1920s. They only receive 4 – 6 aircraft flights per year along with 1 supply ship. Thus the 18 people stationed at this remote spot in the Greenland Sea were quite happy to see some new faces! In addition, their supply ship had recently departed after its annual delivery but had forgotten to deliver milk. The next aircraft flight will not occur for two months until August, and thus the Silver Explorer donated milk as a thank you for their hospitality.

I had the privilege to guide the first group of guests up from the sandy landing site to the weather station and living facilities. We chatted just a bit about the history of the island as well as the tall and craggy volcanic cliffs that line the left side of our path. Winters here are quite long this far north of the Arctic Circle. Nevertheless I was able to point out Sandwort, Polar Willow and Purple Saxifrage flowers, which were just beginning to burst through the ground in this brief period of summer.

Once again the Station Commander met us outside the building complex and provided a wonderful overview of their mission and description of daily operations. Next we all had the opportunity to take off our boots, go inside and see what it would be like to live here for one year! Like all of the Expedition Team, I had been to Jan Mayen before but it is always great fun to speak with these people who are working at the top of the world.

Next I moved along the road to station myself at one of our optional walk points. Just like other landing spots, we try to offer a variety of opportunities to our guests. In this case, some opted to climb up the side of one volcanic hill. Stefan and Juan, our onboard geologists had been there before me. A safe path had been identified and marked with red flag poles that we had brought ashore. I can tell you that the climb is challenging but the view from the top is spectacular.

Later on in the morning I was down on the other optional hiking path that was available for our guests. In this case there is a gravel road extending 3 km from the station down to the seldom-used airport. It too provides some great scenery along with some quite humorous signs, which were the subject of many, many photographs.

However, the best was yet to come. The highest point on the island is Mount Beerenburg at the north end. Despite our unusual sunshine on the lower portion of the island, the glacier-capped mountain peak is almost always shrouded in fog … but not today. Everyone had the very rare and wonderful chance to see this magnificent snow-covered peak rising so sharply out of the far North Atlantic. The sight was absolutely stunning.

Unfortunately and all too soon it was time to travel back down to our landing beach, board our trusty Zodiacs and return to the Silver Explorer. However we weren’t quite done with Jan Mayen as the Captain slowly cruised along the east coast as we headed North to Svalbard, our next destination to the even further north.

After lunch I attended presentations by Stefan Kredal, one of our Geologists and Robin Aiello, our onboard Marine Biologist. Stefan spoke about the fascinating subject of plate tectonics, something that affects the entire world. Of course the volcanic Jan Mayen was a perfect backdrop for a discussion about the huge crustal plates that move across the surface of the Earth and where volcanoes can often be found at boundaries and fault lines.

Robin’s topic was equally great as she spoke about how fish adapt to life in Arctic waters. It was great to learn how life has evolved to live and thrive in such cold environments. Even keeping water in the tissues from freezing is a key part of survival.

Last up before dinner, Robin West, our Expedition Leader, along with many of the Expedition Team, including myself, conducted a Recap & Briefing. This is a standard event to review plans for tomorrow as well cover certain topics in more detail. I briefly spoke about the probable discovery of Jan Mayen in the 6th century followed by the heavy exploitation of whales and walrus in the 17th century.

We had had a fantastic day and are looking forward to the opportunity to view even newer and more northerly lands in Svalbard.