Exploring Svalbard on Board the M/V Kinfish

Will Bolsover

05 Jun 2018

NWS MD Will Bolsover embarks on his first foray to this frozen archipelago

Pre Trip

Well, what can I say, this has been two years in the making…

I first met Kinfish (then known as Ixplorer) online. She was beautiful, an old search-and-rescue and survey vessel. Two years later, she has changed hands a couple of times and has now been renovated fit for purpose: the purpose of exploring the Arctic North.

Three days in Longyearbyen is probably more than enough for anyone. An old coal mining town located at 78 degrees north and one of the most remote towns in the world. Fascinating yet depressing, exciting yet boring, beautiful yet ugly. The days are spent making last-minute preparations to the ship in anticipation of the imminent arrival of our clients…

Day 0

The NWS flag is flying, the cabins are ready and the crew are nervous with excitement. Just eight clients (plus me!) on this departure, a nice easy number to start with as the crew get into their rhythm and the expedition leaders find their pace. Setting off, we leave Longyearbyen behind and make our way along the jagged coastline and into the frozen north. The first few hours we set ourselves straight with safety briefings and orientation, followed by welcome drinks and a delicious dinner of fish and a glass of white wine.

To settle the nerves and to get our first taste of this Arctic clime, we climb into the zodiacs and cruise the shoreline. Our first sightings include two frisky Arctic foxes still in their beautiful white polar coats trotting the coastline, sniffing the air and letting out excited yelps as they go on their way. Returning to the ship, a few "winter warmers" are supped and then bed for all. Not that you would know it, as we are exposed to 24 hours of sunlight in this Arctic wilderness, never letting up, fooling the mind and lulling the body into a false sense of security.

Day 1

A bumpy night as we make our way north, but not as bumpy as it might have been. The cosy Kinfish is kitted out better than most small vessels, with a huge tank that acts as a stabiliser for those bumpier crossings. Do not underestimate this asset to the ship as it really does make a huge difference, even in the calmer waters of the Svalbard Archipelago.

Our first foray of the day sees us out in the zodiacs again, on what can only be described as a stunning polar morning. Blue skies, drifting ice, ice-blue glaciers and errant icebergs floating by as we cruise around the bay, tracking the deep footprints of polar bears along the shoreline in hopeful anticipation of what may be round the next corner. For now, however, the bears have eluded us.

A lazy lunch, once again rustled up by the chef of the Arctic, Christer. Then back out in the boats to wander along the shores, slowly sneaking up on a haul-out of walruses. Three lazy individuals bask on the shore while their (mildly livelier) friend dips in and out of the offshore waves on the search for clams and more. A quick zodiac cruise across the bay brings us to harbour seals porpoising playfully in the wake of our zodiacs, heads like periscopes popping up and disappearing just as quickly. We are obviously one of the first ships back through this area this season, as their curiosity is unmistakable.

Dinner is served. Clients relax. But Svalbard and its wildlife does not. Polar bears have been spotted. Back into the zodiacs! It’s now midnight, but this is one of the advantages of the Kinfish: she is yours to run as you want. Meal times are flexible, the crew is amenable, fun and friendly, and you hop in and out of the zodiacs at your (or the expedition leaders’!) pleasure. Cruising along the shoreline, we round a small headland to find a mother and what must be a two-year-old old cub sleeping in the snowy shade. We stay for a while as we watch the cub slowly rise, wander over to her mother and start nursing. A rare and amazing sight as they slowly curl up together and settle back to sleep.

We push back deeper into the fjord and cruise the fast ice that hangs off the encroaching glacier… We are treated to another Arctic fox, mischievously running along the shoreline in search of a quick snack or something to play with. We follow the fox for a while as he makes his way along the shoreline and slowly zig-zags up a mossy cliff-face, either back home to his den or in search of an unsuspecting bird nest. We leave him in peace and decide to follow the polar bears’ example and curl up in bed back on the Kinfish. It’s 2am.

Day 2

Late night means a later morning, although Svalbard never lets you rest for long. There is something ethereal about the late-night sun and 24 hours of sunlight. Tired from the day’s excursions, your mind still won’t rest… you want to know what’s round the next corner… and the good thing is with the Kinfish, those small corners are more accessible than most. Throughout the day we cruise the fast ice, hug glaciers, and plough through icy obstacles that get in our way. Walruses drift past on ice floes, hot chocolates come and go, and Svalbard works her magic. The evening comes as we slowly edge our way through the fast ice, carving our own snowy path towards the table-top mountains in the distance that glow golden-white in the midnight sun. A perfect peace as the glassy water slowly disappears and a ship-shaped cut-out appears in our icy path behind. Standing out on the bow, this is the difference: the difference between real-world travel and jumping aboard a cruise ship. How many times do you get to stand alone, looking out over the frozen beyond, with towering peaks in the snowy distance and not a soul in sight. It’s 1am again but this frozen wilderness proves addictive for yet another late night under the midnight sun.

Day 3

For those that were unable to stay to the late-night hours, they wake to our ship encircled in ice. Snowy mountains in the distance and a polar bear mother and cubs a mile or so off our port side. Not a bad way to enjoy your morning coffee.

We take our fill of our polar friends and then manoeuvre the ship back out of the ice and along the icy rim to where we nudge our way gently inwards once more, grinding to a halt. The gangway comes down and six or so intrepid souls edge gingerly out onto the ice in their wellies and warmers to set foot on the snowy surrounds. It’s hard to describe the feeling as we make our way out onto the icy surface, Shackleton-esque in our wild surrounds but safe in the knowledge that the Kinfish is close to hand. Life rarely throws up things we don’t expect these days, but these last 12 hours or so are pure adventure. Whilst the surrounds are without doubt jaw-droppingly beautiful, it’s the fact that we experience this just as our little band of nine modern-day explorers. No big ship, no big group, in fact not another ship or another soul in sight. The way it should be.

Making our way back on board we set sail once more, deeper into the Hinlopen Strait, onwards into the icy south. We are bordered by the pack ice not far north and fast ice to the south, prime polar bear territory; we wait in anticipation for what our adventure will tempt us with next…

Days 4 & 5

THE days. We continue making our way along the frosty coastline throughout the night to drop anchor in a sheltered bay with fast ice locked into the surrounding snowy backdrop. A short attempted landing on the ice proves fruitless, so we change tact and make our way for a small island only a few miles long. A chilly wind encourages us to zip, lock and load so no wisp of air can break through the Michelin man layers. A relaxing walk taking in the sparse, desert-like flora and fauna: mosses, grasses, the chalky remains of an Arctic fox, legless shells of unlucky crabs, an old cartridge from 1922 shot either in anger or in play. Old fossils tell a story of this Arctic wilderness that we will never fully know.

Returning to the ship, the looming threat of a polar plunge becomes reality. In and out, make it quick. It hurts but it works. That’s both polar oceans done now. Tick.

A slow sail north to a remote island, home to one of the largest walrus populations in Svalbard, also lends itself to a spot of fishing from the aft deck. The local fish (cod) population makes for easy prey so we catch and release, the challenge in the moment not the result. Walrus are our spectators, moving closer with curiosity, heads dipping in and out of the icy waters, tusks piercing the glassy ocean.

The adventure continues, pushing further west, slowly heading back in the direction we came, we reach our previous polar bear haunt to find… the mum and cub, this time happily on the shoreline, gnawing at a whale jawbone that we had spotted before. They carry on regardless, oblivious to our presence. What a treat. It’s 1 in the morning, the midnight sun is up, we are the only ones there. That’s what this is all about.

Day 6

Don’t expect to sleep in Svalbard. You are either out on deck searching for wildlife, eating, drinking, exploring or learning. We have sailed on again through the night aiming for another walrus hideout. We disembark, quickly this time due to choppy waters and a biting icy wind. We walk the shore, amongst wave-worn timber from Siberia, whale bones that have seen better days, and walrus pods lazing in the morning sun, wriggling, worming their way into the best sunny spot. While we sit watching, we realise we are not the only ones. A lone walrus slowly approaches us from the water, dipping in and out, playing in the waves, curious at the small group of colourfully clad strangers. His friends laze the morning away, some blushing in the summer sun, while the mountains, snow-draped, set the perfect backdrop to this walrus wallow, an almost secret sun beach for our Arctic beach boys.

The afternoon encroaches and so too does the end of our journey. We push up through Ilsfjord to park for one last time in the ice, a peaceful afternoon set to a backdrop of glaciers, fast ice and snowy peaks.

As with any expedition, the evening is spent regaling one another with stories of the last week or so. The Captain joins us for dinner, glasses clink, and food is served!

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