The day before we had been in Longyearbyen before boarding MS Spitsbergen late in the afternoon. This day, before we arrived in Ny Alesund, then we had cruised North up the Eastern shore of Svalbard.
From the Ship’s Expedition log – 24.06.2022
Kongsfjord – Ny Alesund
In the early morning we sailed off towards Ny-Ålesund. Our first morning on board was easy going with a second round of jacket and boot hand out, as well as our introduction to the science center by our scientist Iva. We heard about photography basics from our photographer Jan as well as we learned about the whaling history on Svalbard from our historian Sandra.
Later on we were alongside at the research town of Ny- Ålesund and we learned about Amundsen’s and Nobile’s flight over the North Pole in 1926.
Day 6: Friday 24th June 2022 At sea then Ny Alesund
MS Spitsbergen had left the dock, outside Longyearbyen, sometime overnight when the wind had dropped. The departure being so gentle that we hadn’t noticed that the ship was even moving.
Just as for dinner we had a set time for breakfast and this was in the main restaurant. Or, perhaps I should say the only restaurant! The breakfast buffet was well up to Hurtigruten’s Coastal Voyage standards and was simply excellent. I tried an omelette from the cook making ones to order. After I had watched the care and attention to detail that went into making each omelette I was sold! After our first breakfast this custom-made omelette became my breakfast staple every morning.
Morning onboard MS Spitsbergen
The Captain gave a welcome talk at and then we had a mandatory AECO lecture on behaviour in the Arctic regions.
This was the first time that we had had to try and watch any of the TV screens in the lounge. This was not easy as there were no screens immediately behind the speaker and the ones scattered around were blocked by guests.
The AECO cartoon did cover all the more obvious concerns and a few less obvious ones, including taking photos of people that you might meet and even more important not taking photographs through the windows of buildings as you passed by.
And the final talk detailed how landings would be organised. We then we put back on all our layers of clothes and went out on the deck.
Afternoon on MS Spitsbergen
Lunch was the first time that we could just turn up and joined the queue for a table. I had a salad helped by lots of dried meat and washed down by at least one beer!
Then we were back outside watching the coast pass by and looking for whales. The crew had hooked up hosepipes and were washing the ship down. I can only think that the black dust had come from the time spent on the coal dock and the high winds whipping up all the coal deposits.
This is our cabin wall now with cards and important information about the expedition.
Lecture on Whaling around Svalbard
After 4 pm we went to our first lecture. This was always about Svalbard. In 1596 William Barentz had discovered the islands and had written in his diary about everything that he had found. Unfortunately, he had used the same description as that was used in later times about Grytviken in South Georgia. He had described that there was so many whales that it would’ve been possible to walk across the bay on their backs.
In 1612 whaling had began. The so-called “Right whale”, the Bell Head white, was the whaler’s dream whale to hunt. It was slow moving and could be chased using rowing boats. When cornered and killed, it even stayed afloat and could be towed back to a beach for “processing.“
The Bowhead whale is the only baleen that lives in the Arctic. It’s adaptation includes not having a dorsal fin. The whalers decimated all these whales close to the shore and then their whaling then had to move further and further away from the island. At one time there were dozens of land-based whaling station’s managed by a variety of nationalities. The whaling was so lucrative that often nations would station warships to guard their whalers and protect their whaling rights.
Whaling around Svalbard was a very dangerous occupation. No secret was made about this to anyone who had signed up. This would’ve been reinforced by the inclusion of coffins in the whaling ship’s cargo when leaving ports in Europe.
Whaling eventually slowed and finally came to a stop 150 to 180 years ago. But by then the damage was done. Now there are only about 100 Bowhead white whales in the surrounding waters. The population growth is hampered by the time that these will come to maturity, at least over 25 years, and they have a solitary nature. They often do travel alone or in very small pods of up to 6 whales (referencewellfacts.org)
The buildings that were left behind by the whalers were cannibalised by trappers of miners. This was needed as Svalbard has no trees. The wood that was left behind was used by the many groups that followed the whalers.
Hundreds of years ago the permafrost on the island was just below the surface. This made burials very difficult and the coffin to were not buried very deep. Over time animals dug them up or just as bad the permafrost pushed them to the surface. Often then trappers or miners would use the wood for fires.
Later in the expedition we would visit a large graveyard of whalers and even some individual graves. The Governor of Svalbard has made these all protected as historical places of interest.
Our first landing for was to be at Ny Alesund. This was an easy landing as a ship would be docked at a pier.
After an early dinner we walked off the docked ship. As part of our preparations we had been given a lecture on what to expect in the town. The expedition team would be positioned around the perimeter of the settlement. An interesting part of our visit was to be the airship tower that was some way out of the settlement. This would also have a member of the team there to make sure that we were kept safe.
The road from the dock went straight into Ny Alesund.
As we walked towards the settlement we passed the first of the signs detailing where we were in Ny Alesund.
On the left was the (photogenic) narrow railing engine often seen in images of the settlement.
Further up the road was the general store and post office that had opened specially for our visit.
We walked up to the top left of our designated “safe walk “and headed off towards the airship tower. On our left were houses on the “outskirts” of Ny Alesund, with just tundra beyond.
In the open space was a statue celebrating Amundsen.
After we turned to follow the path out of the settlement, we passed the buildings used by research groups from China and South Korea.
The Koreans were having a clear out and front of their building was filled with discarded furniture and mattresses. At the end of the short road we came to a fence and the first polar bear warning sign that I’d been able to get a picture of!
We stuck to the path as we walked to the tower.
The Airship Tower at Ny Alesund
From our earlier visit to the Fram museum in Oslo, we knew a little of the background of the airship expeditions and the importance of Ny Alesund’s airship tower.
At the tower, the expedition leader give us a revealing lecture about the airship expeditions in a lot of detail. The airship, Norge, had left Ny Alesund and travelled over the North Pole to Alaska. This first airship expedition was led by Umberto Nobile who designed the airship and flew it to Svalbard from Italy.
This flight is recognised as the first fly across the polar ice cap and they may well have been the first to fly over the North Pole. Other aircraft are tried before but had not returned. Controversially the American Perry had claimed to have flown over the Pole but later members of his expedition confirmed that their records had been doctored and they had not actually flown over the pole.
After this successful flight there was a lot of controversy as Amundsen announced to the world the success of “his “expedition. Amundsen was indeed the leader but was an observer, whereas Nobile was the designer and pilot. Nobile came back with a nearly identical airship, Italia, and left Ny Alesund for a second time to overfly the North Pole. After successfully reaching the Pole, Italia turned back but crashed on ice flows to the north of Svalbard. Amundsen put his differences with Nobile aside and join the international rescue effort. Unfortunately he died when the French seaplane he was he was in crashed on its way to Svalbard from Tromso.
While we were at the tower we could hear gunshots and were told that these were from the firing range. Some of the residents of the settlement were practising their rifle skills ready for the coming Winter. From the side of the tower we saw our first reindeer that we are far away on the tundra.
Walking around Ny Alesund
After walking back to Ny Alesund, we followed the rest of the circular route around the settlement. From the road, above us we could see a research site.
We passed many plaques celebrating where buildings have been that detailed the history of the sites.
The centre of the settlement had a lot of open space. Arctic Terns were nesting quite close to the sign of the road.
At the extreme edge of the settlement we chatted to another expedition team member, Aura. We watched nesting Arctic Terns buzzing around about 50 yards up the road on the outskirts of the settlement.
As we continued our walk, the couple in front of us were suddenly buzzed by terns.
They were flying up from the rough ground to the left of the road. The “attacks“ stopped just as quickly as they had started.
Then it was our turn to walk along the same stretch of road. The couple in front of us were buzzed and the walking stick helped to keep them safe.
The tern that started buzzing me was probably agitated by all the other passengers who had passed by earlier. Linda managed to get away easily but one of the terns decided to give me special treatment and continued to buzz me way passed the nests.
I didn’t worry too much except that I didn’t have a UV filter on my lens and had to hope that the lens hood would protect it.
The walk around Ny Alesund was soon over. As we came to the road up from the dock we chatted to a couple of ladies who were just off a moored yacht. They were curious about Ms Spitsbergen and what we were doing next.
Back on MS Spitsbergen
The landing at Ny Alesund had been scheduled to last until very late evening but we timed our return so that we could get the brief on the next day’s programme. There were two landings scheduled – lots to look forward to after the briefing.
After this we had a drink from the bar and relax before heading off to our cabin.
The next day we had a rescheduled day and visited Raudfjorden and Alicehamna.