Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago located north of the Arctic Circle, east of Greenland and about eight hundred miles south of the North Pole. The official discovery in 1596 was by the Dutch, who called it Spitsbergen meaning Pointed Mountains. In addition to the Dutch, the English, Russians, and Norwegians established whaling, hunting, and mining industries, followed by polar expeditions and scientific research. As a result of the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty originally signed by nine nations, the archipelago was made Norwegian territory and renamed Svalbard, Norse for Cold Edge. I wanted to go while there still are ice and polar bears.
In Longyearbyen, the largest town with a population of 2,040, Juliet and I board the Ocean Nova, a small ship welcoming seventy passengers, for an eleven day expedition partially circumnavigating the group of islands that comprise Svalbard. Located from approximately 76° to 80° N latitude and because it is almost the summer solstice, we have twenty-four hours of daylight.
It is cold and snowy here. Back home in Oakland, it is 80 degrees and sunny. I keep asking myself why I come to these frozen climates when I don’t like the cold!
What I see on day one is the answer: a huge cream-colored polar bear stretched out in the snow, blissfully cooling himself, rear legs and big brown paws splayed out behind him.
Two great brown walruses cuddling up on the ice and another two hundred cuddling up on the sand.
A pod of snow white beluga whales, maybe thirty of them, feeding and diving just off the edge of the ice. Bright orange and yellow-beaked puffins skittering low across the water. Fulmars (members of the Albatross family) gliding on air currents alongside the ship, details of their wings and eyes so clear. Massive glaciers sliding down to the fjords, sun slipping through heavy cloud cover, glistening on the water.
We hike through deep crunchy snow on an island where marble was quarried (unsuccessfully, we’re told) in the early twentieth century and see remnants of the mining paraphernalia and basic dwellings of the miners.
We zodiac along the faces of several towering glaciers and ride over the crackling brash ice below, which has been swept together by the wind, creating quite a visual and aural riot.
A polar bear is sighted at least a mile away and we go out on deck hoping that he will come toward the ship which is locked in an ice floe. Slowly, he makes his way across the vast expanse of white, stopping to look and sniff the air as if wondering what this large obstacle in front of him could be.Photo courtesy of Juliet Nellis
It is fascinating to watch his approach through binoculars and finally to photograph him as he gets nearer.
On another hike through heavy wet snow, some of us sink in hip deep. We see Arctic foxes shedding their white winter coats for darker summer coats and looking rather tatty in the transition. What looks like a male ptarmigan sitting quietly on the tundra like a giant cotton ball turns out to be a fox still in its winter whites curled up with its tail in front of its face. A single grey reindeer is feeding on whatever he can find on the dry rocky earth. Alas, these critters are shy and too far away to be photographed.
On nearly every hike, we traverse different terrain: glacial moraine, glacial ice, snow, and mud—often very steep, boggy, or both. We trek to a Little Auk colony of fifty thousand breeding pairs of birds. They fly in loops, shrieking until the foxes looking to eat their eggs go away.
When not out on the zodiacs or exploring on foot, we are treated to a curriculum of history, geology, glaciology, ornithology, and marine biology by the knowledgeable and entertaining guides. Toward the end of the voyage, they give us a quiz to find out just how much we’ve been paying attention!
The scenery everywhere is splendid and yet the future based on recent observed changes is dire. The amount of sea ice is rapidly decreasing. The extent of it in April 2019 was the lowest ever recorded. Thick old sea ice is diminishing, and complete loss is now expected between 2035 and 2040. Glaciers have retreated dramatically. The implications of these changes is of great consequence not only environmentally, but also politically, socially, economically, and existentially. While there are many climatic conditions humans can’t control, we can control the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Studies show that human-caused release of CO2 is far greater than that caused by natural phenomena such as volcanoes and is the most significant cause of climatic degradation. We have the ability. We just have to have the will.
The temperature varies from -2 to 0 degrees Celsius, which isn’t ridiculously cold until the wind chill is factored in. The wind typically blows anywhere from 10-30 knots, making for fairly frigid circumstances as far as I’m concerned. I use hand warmers in my mittens and toe warmers on my socks. The problem is that I can’t take photos in mittens and when I remove them to do just that, I can no longer feel my fingers, likewise making it difficult to photograph. My toes have been so cold that it’s taken me more than 30 minutes on the exercise bike at a good clip before they begin to thaw out.
Sea ice forms on the surface of the ocean.
It is transitory but can be several meters thick and become pack ice for which a ship with ice-breaker capability is required. On the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, wind patterns can cause the pack ice to become impassable and the captain constantly must monitor the tides, wind and ice so that the ship doesn’t get trapped. After all, there’s no road-service equivalent to call for a tow!
The expedition leader, a most competent and personable man, nightly informs the passengers about plans for the following day with a caveat: “weather-permitting.” And occasionally, weather does not permit.
One day in the Erebus and Terror Gulf, pack ice almost completely surrounds the ship and we don’t move for many hours.
The captain and his crew along with the expedition leader make various calculations until conditions are favorable to break through.
The following morning when the ship finally exits the ice-clogged channel,
we awaken to snowfall and the crew shoveling snow off the deck.
Soon after, the sun comes through the cloud cover warming me nicely, the landscape blindingly bright and spectacular.
The next day under calm and clear sky it is so warm that I take off all of my layers and hike (briefly) in a tank top.
Dinner is served al fresco on the sixth and seventh decks, the sun still high and the vistas commanding. Imagine having a meal outdoors in Antarctica!
I would be remiss if I did’t mention the wild ride we have through the Drake Passage on the way back to Ushuaia. It begins in the middle of the night when the ship starts rolling. I decide I should get up when I am nearly thrown out of bed by the force of a wave. It gets worse from there.
Yoga under these circumstances can only be described as interesting. My core gets quite a workout. The furniture that is not anchored slides back and forth across the floor threatening the students prone on their mats.
At lunch the drawers full of glasses and plates slide out to their extreme open position with a huge bang. The ship rolls away and back and the ocean drenches the dining room windows. I juggle the silverware to keep it from falling in my lap but am nevertheless stabbed by a dull knife on its way to the floor. I now understand why all the chairs are chained down.
I go out on the rear deck to see the sea up close. It is rollicking.
All the outdoor furniture is tied together at the stern.
Did I mention how challenging it is to walk, passengers staggering around grasping whatever is within hands reach?
When I return to my cabin everything is on the carpet: tissue boxes, magazines, bottles of lotion. All the clothing hanging on wall hooks sways, the porthole creaks, the ship shudders. Although risky, I decide to take a shower. I wedge a foot where the wall and floor meet and lean away from the curtain which seems determined to stick to me. I fear the trash can may join me at any moment. At dinner, two knives and two glasses of red wine cartwheel off the table and onto the windowsill. We are told this is a standard crossing!
Here in the Antarctic, you just never know what the weather will bring.
Western Antarctic Peninsula
Finally, the shift in wind direction arrives to clear our passage and we escape! It takes six days for the ship to be able to leave Prince Gustav Channel and the James Ross Island environment. Sea ice blocks all five possible avenues to the Antarctic Sound, the body of water that will take us to the Western Antarctic Peninsula, our overdue destination. The ship pitches and rolls through the open Sound, an all-day journey, but I am looking forward to different landscape and wildlife on the western side. On the way, we’re called to the deck to see dozens of orca, fin, and humpback whales in a krill feeding-frenzy all around the vessel. We can see no land (or ice) anywhere.
It is snowing on the first morning of our arrival on the west side. The zodiacs take us to Cuverville Island, the home of the largest Gentoo penguin colony (over 9,000 breeding pairs) in Antarctica. There to welcome us when we step on land are thousands of Gentoos as well as fur and Weddell seals, cormorants, skuas, and Antarctic terns, which we see frolicking on the rock-strewn ground, in the snow and in the water.
Also greeting us is the now-familiar pungent aroma of penguin poop. The landscape is indeed different from what we saw of the east side. The glacier-covered mountains rise precipitously from water’s edge creating canyons that dwarf our ten-passenger boats as we make our way around the island admiring the views and the leopard seal that playfully glides among the zodiacs, around and under our boat.
Later in the day, we set foot on Useful Island, so named because the expedition that discovered it found it useful for cartographic reasons. Here we see more Gentoo penguins and some Chinstrap penguins. These little guys look like they’re wearing helmets with the straps too tight under their chins.
And the amount of poop- unbelievable! It is red because the penguin diet consists largely of krill, an orange-colored crustacean. It is everywhere and, mixed with the melting snow, makes one helluva soupy mess. The guides stand by the zodiacs with scrub brushes to remove it from our boots before we sully the boats with it. And the smell follows us everywhere.
So making up for time lost, we are offered a third zodiac cruise the same day. Having just finished a shower in hope of purging myself of the penguin poop aroma, I am not entirely up for putting on the awful-smelling outer gear yet again. I consider going to the yoga studio to do some stretching as a more attractive alternative. But wait, I think. I am in Antarctica. I can do yoga in Oakland. So I go, a very good decision as it turns out.
The evening is quiet, the sunset scarlet and tangerine, bathing the water in soft shades of pink and peach. The silence is broken by the sound of heavy breathing, plumes of mist all around the small boat. The humpbacks are lunge-feeding krill.
Their cavernous mouths open above the surface. Flippers, fins and flukes are everywhere. For an hour we are transfixed by their display of hunger and power. And then daylight gone, nature’s show at an end, we return to the ship feeling elated.
And on our final night of this outstanding voyage, before making the two day journey through the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia, I go up to the top deck after midnight to view the stars. The sky still has some brightness (is it the end of sunset or the beginning of sunrise?) and is a stunning finish to a remarkable expedition.
Eastern Antarctic Peninsula
I had right shoulder replacement surgery in October and took three months off from travel to rehab. Now, much to my delight, I’m on the road again for three-weeks in Antarctica, a slightly odd choice given my aversion to cold weather! In Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, I board the Ocean Endeavor, a 200-passenger expedition ship heading to the Antarctic Peninsula. The first hurdle is crossing the Drake Passage, 900 km of treacherous open water in the Southern Ocean. We are told it can be a terrible crossing with much sea-sickness and misery for passengers but as the expedition leader tells us, we “dodged a bullet” experiencing neither fierce winds nor rough sea but rather relatively calm conditions.
From the fine, knowledgeable, and entertaining staff, we are plied with facts about Antarctica, penguins, ice, Antarctic expeditions, and so much more. For example, there are nineteen islands that surround the seventh continent; there are eighteen varieties of penguins, not all of which are found in Antarctica; once the ship crosses the Antarctic Convergence, the temperature of the water drops four degrees Celsius with a corresponding lowering of air temperature and changes in sea life.
We arrive at Elephant Island where 28 members of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition survived until rescued five months after their ship, The Endurance, was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea. The expedition leader calls us to the deck to see dozens of Fin whales surrounding the ship. Well, most aren’t too close and we can’t see much of their bodies (unfortunate, because they are second in size only to Blue whales), but we can see lots of plumes from their blowholes!
On the same day we see a tabular iceberg called B09F, a huge perfectly flat piece of ice originally 154 km long that broke off from the Ross Ice Shelf in 1987 and has been drifting in the Southern Ocean breaking into smaller pieces and melting ever since. We are told 28 meters lie above the water surface and another 200 or so meters below. The crew are joyful to see this, having not had the opportunity previously since most expeditions do not visit the eastern Antarctic Peninsula.
We disembark the ship and travel by zodiac among the icebergs to Heroina, one of the Danger Islands, and see many of the 3,000,000 Adelie Penguins, the largest such colony in the world. The smell of penguin guano precedes our arrival. Our guide tells us only one ship per year is able to reach these islands because of adverse weather and ice.
Moving through the cold, clear ocean by zodiac, ice crunching beneath the boat, I am tickled at the sight of penguins at eye level, watching them waddle across the frozen surface and then slip effortlessly into the sea, swimming in large groups up and down in and out, then popping out again like toast, so charming and funny.
We alight from the zodiac on Paulet Island and spend time with many of the 100,000 Adelie penguins that inhabit this barren volcanic mountain. We come away with our clothes reeking of penguin poop! The zodiac takes us to a large sea ice floe (frozen sea water) where we play like children in the snow, mimicking penguin behavior.
And I have now hiked in Antarctica-twice! We zodiac over to James Ross Island and hike in the snow to a high ridge affording excellent views of the Prince Gustav Channel below, surrounded by huge ice caps and glaciers on a gorgeous sunlit day. The following day we step foot on the Antarctic continent (as distinguished from the various islands we’ve visited) at Camp Hill and hike to a viewpoint of stunning beauty, the ocean and mountains drenched in sun, the glassy water sparkling below reflecting the landscape above. On the way back to the ship, we are thrilled to see humpback whales, and leopard and crab-eater seals so close to the zodiac.
I take yoga classes each day and marvel at being in Warrior II pose while gazing at icebergs slowly passing by outside the windows. Living a city life, I am moved by the solitude in being on the only ship, among the only humans, in this vast, cold, dramatically white and wild place.