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Rodney's Ramblings: Svalbard – The Norwegian High Arctic

Rodney Gascoyne experiences days without sunset above the Arctic Circle.

The archipelago of Svalbard, with its largest island Spitzbergen, is well above the Arctic Circle at almost 80 degrees North, but thanks to the Gulf Stream, has open waters for much of the year. I have just spent an amazing three weeks travelling there on the cruise ship mv Minerva, visiting the Norwegian mainland on the way up and down, for most of that time, with sunny and almost warm weather, relatively speaking. The UK was experiencing a heat wave for 19 days straight at the time and the same system seemed to be feeding us too. At one point in the far north, we had an afternoon temperature of 55F.

We set out from Portsmouth with three towns to visit upcoast, the last being Tromsø, having crossed over the Arctic Circle just below Bodø, where the weather changed for the better. Anyone who has visited Norway will know the tidy, friendly people you will meet there. We had tours ashore in the mornings and continued our passage after lunch, together with a series of educational lectures to keep us up to snuff on the relevant topics to make the most of what we experienced, including the local fauna and flora.

The next two days were straight north sailing, with a sail by midway up to view Bear Island (Bjørnøya), a nature reserve for the protection of its wildlife and habitat, including the waters surrounding the remote island for 12 nautical miles. By this time we were having sightings of whales and other sea mammals en route and many seabirds around the island. This included minki, a few humpbacks and some pilot whales.

Our first landfall on Spitzbergen was the main town of Longyearbyen, a past coal mining centre and a permanent settlement for a few thousand souls all year round. Activity is much higher in the summer when researchers and others arrive with the sun and melting ice. For about three months they have no daylight at all, followed each end by a blue half light period, before the period of months when they experience the midnight sun, as it never drops below the horizon in the high summertime.

During our visit of four days and our trip to and from Tromsø, we too did not see a sunset. We toured the sights and the local museum, and saw warning signs that any who venture beyond the town limits should be aware and alert for polar bears. Going out further required guns or an armed guide. The bears do occasionally come too close to town and need to be removed for everyone's safety. There is a regular air connection here with Tromsø and Oslo.

Next we visited an international research station at Ny-Ålesund, in a fjord further north. Here we walked around the site and buildings mostly populated only during the summer. There were many signs of bird life from the many migrants, including the Arctic Terns that were nesting and dive bombing passers by, as they lay their eggs on any piece of stony ground. We saw reindeer grazing close by and other signs of the local life on a sunny afternoon. It was a cheerful and busy place and wonderful to visit.

Our next stop was to be in Magdalena Fjord, our farthest point north, but first the ship went about 100 miles west in search of the edge of the pack ice, extending down from the polar ice sheet. We found it at about midnight in bright sunshine, and nosed our way into the outer edges, with ice growlers and bergy bites for as far as the eye could see. It was an amazing view and yet still above freezing at the time.

The Fjord is uninhabited but visited by researchers and tourists in the summer, together with its five or more glaciers, one of which still comes down to the sea and stretched out hundreds of meters from the shoreline. We lowered our zodiac boats while at anchor and either went to a walk ashore on a sand spit, or drove up to the end of the Fjord, very close to the glacier edge on the water, among the bergy bits. Again, the cloudless skies and bright sunshine made this a vary rare opportunity for us all. There were armed guides ashore to keep a lookout for polar bears, that had been recently sighted there, but we saw none. We did see flocks of the local birds and a few reindeer on the snow covered, surrounding mountains.

Our last call on the Island, before our return back south, was to Barentsburg, a Russian coal mining site with up to 500 men to maintain operations. We toured the old 1930s era settlement and were entertained with songs and dances from some of the workers. It all looked like a throwback to the years of the cold war.

With the weather still holding, we visited the Lofoten Islands, including the remarkable Troll Fjord, before stopping in Leknes, and then onward to the lower mainland and finally, Bergen, where the weather was also very unusually hot and sunny, with an afternoon temperature of 66F, while we tourned the city and museums in coaches. This too was a magnificent end to a very memorable voyage, with such rare weather, sun and temperatures all round. I had originally been sceptical at going so far north so early in the summer.


Ship encounters with pack ice, past and present – By Rodney Gascoyne

I have told of my trip last month to Svalbard in the High Arctic. It reminded me of a description by my Great Great Great Uncle, of his experience in the Southern Ocean en route to the Horn, 1864.

Extract from Thomas Alcock’s Diary, February 1864, about part of his Voyage under sail from Sydney, NSW, to London , non-stop, in 90 Days:

Mo 8/2 A stronger wind this morning and we are going along better 196 Miles roast mutton & Irish stew at Dinner

Tu 9/2 We shall long recollect Shrove Tuesday in 1864 for at the first glims of daylight we were found to be running into a vast mass of Ice and where at the same time almost surrounded there was just sufficient of an opening to put the Ship about and runout round it , when we were clear it was found to be an immence field of Ice at least 20 miles in all manner of shapes on the other side was an immence mass we could just disern we where four hours sailing past it without seeing a break it must have been at least 30 miles in addition to the pack ice we passed large bergs in immence Nos. till 8.30 pm when the Ship was hove too till morning.

We 10/2 Made sail at daylight with Icebergs on all sides we continued passing them all day and steering in between them as we came up to them in the afternoon they got much thinner and we seemed to have got past them all about 7 pm a strong wind blown all day. The Capt. was up last night and as been on the deck and lookout all day

Th 11/2 A very strong wind but no Ice this morning we were Forty hours amongs the Icebergs no one on board and there are those who have been going to sea for 40 years ever saw anything at all approaching the immence quantity of ice we have encountered

Fr 12/2 We are driving along with a strong wind and have had two rolling nights we now hope to be at the Horn in four days, it is very wet and cold on deck

Sa 13/2 Another bad day on deck but going along well

Su 14/2 A fine day and not so much wind, it is not so cold as it as been in fact it is very beautiful weather for where we are it being but 350 miles to the Horn

Mo 15/2 Beautifully fine and Sunshine day with a nice breeze, sighted a French Frigate we expect to round Cape Horn tomorrow

Tu 16/2 Up at 5 am to see a group of small Rocky islands detached from the main land about 40 miles.
About 9 am we sighted Cape Horn which is a chain of Mountains

We 17/2 A nice fine day with a light wind untill afternoon when a good breeze set in, it is warmer than it was yesterday

Th 18/2 Fine day but the wind is decreasing untill it was almost calm in the afternoon, we all very anxiously watch the wind now the "La Hogue" as got her nose towards home sighted two ships, both distant

For full content of diary and details of the family and ship, see here:-

The data is exactly as written by him, including spellings and terms as used and has not been 'corrected' in any way (i.e. 'as' often used for 'has'). Latitude and Longitude etc. were given for earlier days and mileage is given in most periods. All available data has been included here. Punctuation is scarce but new lines, shown by extra spaces, may often substitute.


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