Arctic Day 7

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Day 7 - June 22, 2013 - Hinlopenstretet, Svalbard

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian, General Naturalist, Cartographer, Master Mariner

Co-ordinates: 79º 31' N, 019º 27' E
Weather: Overcast with occasional thin fog
Air Temperature: 2ºC
Pressure: 1008 hPa
Wind: 10 knots


This morning we received a continuing series of good news. The fog, which had enveloped us yesterday, had dissipated in the early hours, allowing us much better visibility. Fortunately, the sea ice began to thin out a bit on this first, full voyage within beautiful Svalbard. Both of these improved conditions allowed us to transit at reasonable speed towards the Northern end of Hinlopen Strait, which separates the largest island of Spitsbergen from the remainder of this remote archipelago.

All of us on the Expedition Staff wanted to go North so we can experience the fantastic bird cliffs at Alkefjellet. This is exactly what we had the opportunity to do during an early morning zodiac cruise. Imagine tall, vertical cliffs jutting strait up from a frozen sea. Dark, igneous dolerite rock wonderfully intruded into lighter sedimentary limestone and marble. Now populate these amazing cliffs with at least 60,000 pairs of breeding Brunich’s Guillemot’s. Nests literally occupy every possible square centimeter. The sky soon became darkened with a countless number of flying creatures wheeling over our heads. The sound, sights and the overall experience were simply stunning.

In my zodiac, we had a chance to discuss the fabulous life cycle of these animals as well as the many behavioural decisions they must make each year in order to produce their offspring. We also had the chance to observe predator Glaucous gulls as well as a pair of Barnacle Geese.

Patches of algae dotted snow in addition to a series of tumbling waterfalls gave us a chance to discuss the wide variety of geology within the area and how those features affect the wildlife. When I was younger, I never wanted to come home for dinner when outside playing and that was exactly the same feeling I had when we reluctantly had to come back to the Silver Explorer.

Of course we offer a full spectrum of activities throughout the day. Within ½ hour of returning onboard, I found myself in front of a full theatre of people who came to learn a little bit more about one of my personal heroes, Fridtjof Nansen. Today, he is often unknown outside of Norway but led such a fascinating dynamic life. Just some of his accomplishments include being a world record holder in skating, first crossing of Greenland, achieving closest approach to North Pole, inventing many items in use today, leading the Norwegian independence movement and being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in saving millions of refugees after World War I. He was truly a renaissance man.

Just after one of our excellent International themed lunches, that highlighted the great foods of Russia, we conducted our daily Recap & Briefing. This session gives the Expedition Leader the opportunity to discuss events planned for the next 24 hours as well as having the Expedition Team review some key items. Kara started with some humorous thoughts on the convergent evolutionary comparisons between Guillemots, which are found only in the Northern Regions, and Penguins, which are only found down South. Luciano followed up with a more detailed look at the breeding and nesting behaviours within the family of Thick Billed Murre’s, which includes our friend, the Guillemots. Next Robin took us underwater to review the beautiful marine life, which included ‘Sea Angels’ that we saw teeming in the water at the base of the cliffs. Finally Ray gave us a brief, one-day glimpse into the professional video that he is producing to document our voyage.

During the early afternoon our Captain manoeuvred Silver Explorer West across the very wide Hinlopen Strait but with a bit of ice and some fog which somewhat slowed our progress. However, soon enough our intended destination, Brasvellbreen, appeared later in the afternoon. This magnificent section of glacial ice cliffs is 170 km long and is the longest such feature in the Northern Hemisphere of this planet.

However, closer inspection yielded potentially disappointing news. The glacier front had been unusually active and the large amount brash ice, growlers and icebergs would prevent the ship from approaching as closely as we would like. However, the Silver Explorer is also one of Silversea’s Expedition ships and thus flexibility is a foundation of our operation. If we can’t get the ship close enough then we’ll just launch our smaller and more manoeuvrable zodiacs and go exploring amongst the ice. That’s exactly what we did to give our guests an almost unique, up close and personal view of calved off glacial ice as well as those towering glacial ice cliffs. There may have been a bit of rain but the views were magnificent, including a few waterfalls tumbling over the lip of the glacier into the sea. We could not have asked for a better ending to the day.

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