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Day 8 - July 31, 2009 - Hilopenstrait

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: 78°37.3’N, 023°14’E
Weather: Bright sunlight, calm seas
Air Temperature: 8C
Wind: 5 knots

I was woken up this morning by bright sunlight through my window – it was a beautiful morning and we were still cruising through the sea ice. The Captain opened the fore-deck again so that we could gather outside and feel like we were nearly right on top of the ice as we sailed through. At times the ice was so thick that we could barely move, but then a crack would open up and we would push the two halves apart and keep on going.

There wasn’t much marine life to see, only a few seals spotted early in the morning, but the real highlight of the morning was the incredible scenery. The sea ice formed a white mosaic on the dark blue sea and looked a lot like a massive jigsaw puzzle.

This was our second day sailing through the ice in Hinlopenstretet (Hinlopenstrait) that separates the main island of Spitsbergen from the northern island called Nordaustland (the second largest island in the Svalbard archipelago). The strait is approximately 100 kilometers long and at the narrowest point is only 9 kilometers wide. What makes this portion of the trip one of my favourite places are the surrounding landscapes of large, low-lying mountain plateaus with an abundance of glaciers and snow fields.

At one point we came across a very large iceberg that towered above us. The Captain, in his usual form of true ‘expedition cruising’, changed course and steered the ship closer to this magnificent ice sculpture so that we could all get better photographs.

We continued sailing all morning and by lunchtime we were out of the thick ice, and the Captain, who had not slept all night, was finally able to get some sleep. This Captain, and all of his officers, really went the ‘extra mile’ to make this cruise a memory of a lifetime. Everything was just so perfect – even the Hotel Department provided an extra bonus of serving us hot soup and drinks outside on all the observation decks!

After lunch, David Munro, our Guest Lecturer from the Prince Albert Foundation, gave a lecture all about the exploration and exploitation of early explorers to this Svalbard region. He highlighted his talk with old photos and accounts from several expeditions, including those by Prince Albert I in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

At 3pm, the Zodiac deck lowered all the Zodiacs and the Expedition Team offered a Zodiac tour in amongst the sea ice. I love this activity - especially on a day like today with the bright and relatively warm sunlight.

This was really a chance just to get out into the thick of it and simply take in the beauty that the Arctic has to offer.

As a final surprise of the day, I told guests in my Zodiac that there was another Zodiac that had run out of fuel and needed our assistance. But, in reality, it was a Zodiac set up by the Hotel Department that was serving champagne and chocolate treats to toast the first ever Prince Albert II circumnavigation of Spitsbergen!! Everyone was pleasantly surprised and delighted with this little celebration.

As soon as the Zodiac tours were over, Robin West, our Expedition Leader, announced that anyone who wanted to take the ‘Polar Plunge’ into the cold Arctic waters could come to the side-gate and jump into the water. More than 20 guests showed up, climbed into the zodiac that was tied alongside the ship, put on the safety harness and rope and jumped into the freezing cold waters! I could hear the shrieks from The Theatre on Deck 6 as I was preparing Recap & Briefing. Everyone had a fun time – whether they were actually participating in the plunge or simply cheering on the others.

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