NWS Alice Sets Off on Her Maiden Voyage to Svalbard

Alice Hodgson

13 Jun 2018

Our Polar Sales Support explores the arctic archipelago for the very first time

Day 1

Landing in Longyearbyen at 2am was like stepping into Narnia: snow-covered mountains and 24-hour daylight. Longyearbyen is like nowhere I’ve been before!

After what felt like a very brief sleep it was time to discover this unusual little town. Home to just over 2,000 people and the northernmost town on the planet, Longyearbyen is a special place! The museum in Longyearbyen is a great way to start your trip as it gives a good background of the history and life in Svalbard. After a little mooch round the shops and a coffee and cake stop at Rabalder Café and Bakery – an NWS favourite – it was time to board our expedition ship!

Myself, nine other guests and our two expedition leaders, Hadleigh and Mats, all board the M/S Malmö which will be our home for the next eight nights. We all quickly settle in to life on board and get chatting about what brought each of us to the Arctic.

After a few safety briefings from our expedition leaders and the crew, it was time to sit down for our first Scandinavian-themed dinner. Chef Paul (as he quickly became known) treated us to an amazing Norwegian-themed dinner which was to be accompanied by a traditional schnapps drink! After dinner the excitement of joining the trip (and most likely the food coma from Chef Paul) made us all crash and we got ourselves an early night, ready for whatever the Arctic was going to bring tomorrow.

Day 2

This morning we woke up to a view of snow-covered mountains, the calm Arctic sea and silence! During the night we covered around 130 miles so that by breakfast we had reached Amsterdam Island and Virgohavna. Today would be our first zodiac cruise and I couldn’t wait to get out there to explore! Within 10 minutes of us leaving the ship we had spotted a bunch of harbour seals lounging sleepily on rocks whilst others were playing in the sea, bobbing their heads up and down.

We continued to explore the area, but the sea got a little choppier and a strong wind was coming in. Hadleigh decided it was best to head back to the ship to have lunch and to defrost (it was good timing as I’m pretty sure I was about to experience a serious case of frostbite in my feet)!

After a couple of warming bowls of soup, it was back out on deck to see what we could spot. However spotting wildlife soon turned into a very serious ‘who could take the best bird photo’ competition; with a bottle of wine up for grabs, even our expedition leader Hadleigh got involved.

During the late afternoon Hadleigh and Mats decided they wanted us to head back out on zodiacs for another cruise to explore Hamilton Bay. We all layered up again and piled back in the zodiacs and off we went exploring. It didn’t take too long before we spotted a group of reindeer acting rather skittish and jumpy. We watched them for a little while until they ran off out of sight.

We continued cruising around the bay enjoying the incredible landscape. The number of stories and photos I had previously seen of Svalbard never prepared me for the pure beauty of the ice glaciers and the snow-covered mountains! We turned off the zodiac engine and just bobbed along on the water passing icebergs (we even managed to grab a lump of glacier ice for our drinks back on board!) while enjoying the scenery. It was so silent all you could hear was the ‘click click’ of everyone’s cameras! Then suddenly Carrie, one of my fellow travellers, shouts “fox!” and we all quickly turn in the direction she is pointing. Stood, minding its own business, was a beautiful blue-morph Arctic fox!

It was soon time for dinner, so we headed back to the ship where we shared photos from the day’s adventure. It was only our first full day in the Arctic and we have already ticked off seals, reindeer, a fox, and a bunch of birds (although there’s too many of them to remember). Some of the group headed off for an early night, whilst the rest of us took advantage of the 24-hour daylight!

Day 3

Today the Arctic greeted us with some snow! This made our first zodiac outing of the day an absolutely freezing one. However, none of us minded too much as we were in for a real treat visiting Alkefjellet (‘Bird Mountain’)! Home to over 200,000 nesting pairs of birds, the cliffs were something else; the smell, the noise and the sheer amount of birds has made this experience hard to put in to words. I’m not a huge bird fan (in fact I am absolutely terrified of them!) but seeing the hundreds of thousands of guillemots made even me stop and stare in awe!

Whilst we sat still admiring the birds and watching a few of them have a little scuffle in the water, Mats had spotted something: right in front of us was an Arctic fox! With its white fur still intact, this curious little fellow played hide and seek for quite some time. As we got closer to the fox we noticed that it was just starting to shed its white winter coat, with the brown of its summer coat just starting to come through on its legs. We stayed watching the little fox go about its business for quite some time, until it got too cold outside to bear.

We stayed on board for a few hours in the afternoon, having lunch and chatting about our awesome fox sighting, when we got the call to grab our coats and cameras. We all headed outside to the sight of three large, blubbery and very lazy walrus lounging on some floating ice. The ship stopped and we all silently watched in the hope they would make movement. Unfortunately, they were far too comfy in their icy beds to perform for us, but we still managed to get plenty of photos. Eventually we had to leave the walrus to enjoy their nap as we went back inside to enjoy our dinner.

Day 4

Breakfast was an exciting one this morning as we had been told about a polar bear sighting (finally)! We all headed up to the bridge, binoculars in hand, to catch sight of the elusive ice bear. Mats told us that he was sure it was a female bear due to the length of the neck and shape of the face. Unfortunately, she was quite far away so it was a waiting game for us. Two seals had popped their heads up and we thought we were about to witness a kill, but the bear was a little bit too slow and the seals managed to head back into the water.

After all the excitement of the bear sighting we were ready for some more action so Hadleigh and Mats headed out onto the ice to check it was safe for us to walk on. Luckily it was, so we all got geared up and went for a walk on the ice! Knowing that there was a bear out (albeit far away!) and no-one else around made the experience very special. After a significant number of photos and falling over in the slushy snow we got back on the ship. The rest of the day was spent on board the ship in the hope that the polar bear would think we were interesting enough to check out. However, this bear decided that a seal hole was way more exciting than us and our ship!

Back on board, Mats gave us a lecture on polar bears, including how he had spent five months in a tiny hut with three others whilst filming for the BBC! The rest of today was taken up helping our expedition guides keep an eye on the polar bear and before long we got the call that a male bear had turned up. Unlike the female bear, this male was interested in us and started making tracks towards the ship, so once again we all headed up to the bridge with our binoculars. After a lot of excitement, the bear had other ideas and stayed far away, checking out the seal holes as it went. Our parking spot for the night was right in the ice, ready in case the bear(s) decided to come and pay us a visit!

Day 5

I don’t think many of us slept without waking up last night, constantly thinking we were going to get the ‘polar bear’ call. However, the male had disappeared, and the female was still looking in the SAME hole as the day before, 12 hours later!

It was time to leave the bears and continue sailing. Our next stop would allow us to finally walk on land for the first time in five days. On our way we had the most exciting journey yet, sailing through thick ice on the way. The Malmö really showed what she can do and made light work of the thick ice that was in her way! Once we arrived we got to stretch our legs and have a wander along the beach, which was a nice change from the snow/ice and the ship.

After lunch, Hadleigh did a very interesting presentation on Salomon August Andrée’s failed but intrepid attempt to fly to the North Pole in a hydrogen air balloon! After a rushed dinner we had landed in Eolusneset, Sorgfjord, where Mats was pretty sure there would be walrus and much to our delight there was 15 of them!

Two were having a swim and the rest appeared to be a big and angry blob on land. We spent a long time watching the walrus, inching closer and closer to the group (with the guidance of Hadleigh and Mats). After spending a long time watching the walrus I have decided that all they do is sleep and fight each other!

Whilst on land we made the most of the fresh air and went on a little walk up the hill to some graves of whalers, marked by crosses. It was a very welcome walk and was nice to be able to stretch our legs.

On our way back to the ship we participated in ‘Clean Up Svalbard’. The beach was covered in all sorts of rubbish, mainly from fishermen’s nets! In only a short amount of a time we had a large pile of rubbish to take back to the ship. It really hit home the issues our oceans and wildlife are facing from the effects of rubbish.

Back on board, Chef Paul was waiting to serve us our dessert. The weather this evening was beautiful and very warm, so we spent some time out on deck and toasted to a great day with a shot of Swedish Akvavit.

Day 6

This morning, we headed out on a 2-hour zodiac cruise straight after breakfast in Love Fjord. The landscape was stunning, with plenty of icebergs and crystal-clear waters. We even managed to catch sight of falling ice which then made a huge iceberg rotate in the water!

Back on board we warmed up whilst watching a cooking demonstration from Chef Paul. Then before we knew it, it was time to head back out in the zodiacs for our second cruise of the day. This was another great chance for us to stretch our legs as we would be making a shore landing. This shore landing was a slightly different one as we were stopping off at the infamous ‘Texas Bar’ (the same place Mats had lived in for five months).

A few of us decided to follow Mats on a hike to get a higher view of the area we were in. The view was breathtaking, and the silence was even more amazing. However, the weather was neither – the worst we have had yet – and with the wind and sleet it was rather chilly and muddy underfoot.

Back down at the Texas Bar we huddled in to the little hut, cracked open a beer and enjoyed the scenery. Hadleigh had brought the bottle of Akvavit to the Texas Bar and some shot glasses, so we warmed up with a shot of our new favourite Swedish drink.

The evening was spent playing card games until the message spread that the captain had spotted beluga whales and their calves! Throwing our cards down and racing outside without our coats (one person didn’t even have any socks or shoes on!) we rushed over to the bow of the ship. Right in front of us were around 50 beluga whales! The Polar Team at NWS will not be surprised to hear that I could barely contain my excitement; beluga whales are my favourite species of whale and I had spoken a lot about how badly I wanted to see one whilst I was in the Arctic!

Watching these belugas and their calves while standing on the bow of the ship at 10:30pm in the sunshine was one of the most surreal travel moments I’ve had!

Day 7

Our penultimate day commenced with the usual delicious breakfast before we were off out on our first zodiac cruise of the day. The landscape in Fugløy, where we are this morning, is stunning! Surrounded by huge glaciers, bright blue icebergs and calm waters, we cruised along enjoying the peace and quiet of the Arctic.

Throughout the trip a few of us have mentioned how we really wanted to see a puffin. Much to our disappointment both of our guides had told us that it wouldn’t be very likely here in Svalbard. However, on our way back to the ship we caught sight of the infamous puffin beak and there they were bobbing in the sea: a mating pair!

After lunch there was another zodiac cruise planned, although unfortunately for us the weather had different ideas and fog had completely covered the area around us. To make up for our lack of zodiac cruise, Hadleigh gave a great presentation on beluga whales and their behaviour.

Day 8

Today is our final full day on board the M/S Malmö, and we started with an earlier breakfast so we could make the most of the day. At 8am it was back on the zodiacs to make a shore landing in Alkhornet where a group of reindeer had been spotted.

We climbed our way up from the beach where we had landed and were immediately greeted with several beautiful reindeer. In the distance, on the rocks, we then noticed an Arctic fox darting from one side to the next.

A few of us decided to join Mats on a hike up the rocks, where a muddy, slushy and snowy trek ensued. It was soon worth it though, as we were once again greeted by the fox. This time he had caught his breakfast and was making a run for it up the hill with the catch in his mouth. As we carried on we (literally) stumbled upon two reindeer, a mum and calf. Grazing away and paying no interest in us, it was such a surreal moment to be stood watching them in their natural habitat.

This afternoon it was time for some serious bear spotting! We ducked in and out of fjords, helping Hadleigh and Mats to scour the shorelines for the great ice bear from the bridge of the ship.

This evening Chef Paul gave us the biggest treat of the week: a 3-course dinner for our final night. We toasted to a great expedition and enjoyed the last few hours we had together.

My Arctic adventure had come to an end, but I will remember this snowy, icy, cold but breathtakingly beautiful place forever. Leaving Svalbard, I knew that one day I will be back!

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Comments

Kim Orlando-Reep

21/6/2018 2:09 AM

Great blog and sums up the trip very well. Outstanding unique experience and one of the last unexploited tourist destinations in the world. One of the best holidays ever! I would recommend this trip to everyone. Lots to do and see and well within anyone's capabilities. Awesome staff, knowledgeable and entertaining (especially Cook Paul) comfortable cabins - and I was very sorry when it came to an end.

Ian Bingham

14/6/2018 11:00 PM

What a great insight into this wonderful place.

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