I am delighted to introduce the following blog by a recent client who travelled with us to the glorious Arctic. Gary’s writing really brings this icy adventure to life – we hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did……. Sarah Williams.
My Arctic Holiday 2014 – by Gary West
“A few years ago, I went to Antarctica on a cruise which specialised on my passion – wildlife. I was completely overcome with the beauty of this wild, remote place, and the proliferation of wildlife there. Ever since, I have longed to see what the other end of the world offered, and this year I asked Sarah Williams of Gane and Marshall to organise a similar visit for me to Svalbard, the archipelago which lies off the northwest of Norway, about 1000 km from the north pole.
Sarah has, in the past, arranged a number of trips for me to various parts of the world, and once again she came up trumps.
I flew from London Heathrow, via Oslo, to Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitzbergen, the largest island of the group, arriving at the comfortable Spitzbergen Hotel around midnight. The term “midnight”, like the “longest day” which followed a few days later, is purely academic of course, because the sun was shining brightly for all 24 hours! Use of the words “day” and “night” and so on, refer to the clock, not the state of the sun, this far north.
Sarah had arranged for me to go on a bird-watching cruise in a small boat that day, so I had to be up after only a few hours’ sleep, but it was well worth it. Along the coast just a few miles from the town are towering cliffs which are teeming with nesting seabirds. We saw hundreds of Brunnich’s guillemots, little auks and kittiwakes, puffins, barnacle geese, glaucus gulls and great skua – not bad for a start! We also watched an arctic fox sculking on the shore below a kittiwake colony, looking for a meal. I was very excited to see some Svalbard reindeer, much to the amusement of some of my companions because, as I was informed, they are “everywhere around”. These animals, in common with most other creatures which inhabit these islands year-round, have evolved some remarkable means of coping with the cold and dearth of food in the long, dark winters, and they were very busy eating continuously to stock up for the lean days which follow the brief summer.
Next day, I was off to do some dog-sledding. What an exciting experience that was! The dog pens are situated just a few miles outside Longyearbyen, on the side of a mountain with great views of the fjord and the snow-covered mountains around. Having been briefed and kitted out with our suits, boots and gloves, we were taken further up the mountain and were introduced to our dog teams. We helped to harness the dogs to the sleds, which was quite a task because the animals are very strong and were desperate to get going, but soon we were off. There was an unusual amount of snow remaining for the time of year, which with the snowfall overnight was to our advantage, but it made the uphill trek hard work for the dogs, and the driver, who had to push the sled. On the flatter ground and downhill, however, the dogs were off like the wind, making the drive very exciting indeed. All too soon it was over and we retired to the base for a steaming cup of hot chocolate, and the opportunity to meet the cutest tiny puppies.
Later that afternoon we were taken to the docks and boarded the m/v Plancius, our home for the next week for an Arctic Cruise. The ship is fitted to carry the ship’s crew, the hotel staff, the expedition staff and 113 passengers, of which there were 20 different nationalities, but all with the common aim of experiencing the sights, sounds and feel of the Arctic. The plan was to circumnavigate the islands up the west side and round the north to the northeast corner and return, stopping off at various points to explore the area by zodiac. In the event, there was so much sea ice in the north that no ships were able to penetrate beyond the northwest corner of the island group, so the itinerary had to be adjusted; this is to be expected on this sort of cruise, and how fortuitous it proved to be in our case.
On our first evening, after the formalities of safety briefing, lifeboat drills and dinner, most of us retired to cabins for a good rest. There was a discernable rolling motion of the ship on that first evening, but by breakfast all was smooth on a calm sea, and that’s how it continued for the rest of the cruise. Our first stop was at the old mining town, now international research centre, of Ny Alesund, the northernmost settlement in the world. There is a small shop and a post office there but, more to the point for us birders, there were barnacle geese, purple sandpipers, snow buntings, long-tailed duck, eider duck, red-throated divers, nesting arctic terns, and probably more species. Next day, it was overcast and grey; we encountered extensive sea ice and had to turn back, but during a lecture, one sharp-eyed passenger spotted a polar bear lying on the ice. It turned out to be an old male and the ship was manoeuvred quite close to him to give us all the opportunity to watch him and to take many photographs. After some considerable time, he got fed up with his celebrity and lumbered off. The feeling of elation among the crew as well as the passengers was electric.
Later in the afternoon, a pair of polar bears was spotted in the far distance. The ship was parked close to the ice and, to most people’s surprise, the pair of bears trudged towards us, and after some time ended up right alongside the ship. That was almost too much excitement for one day but there was more to come. While most of us were enjoying our after-dinner coffee, there was an announcement on the PA system that walruses had been spotted, so everyone rushed up on deck, cameras at the ready. What a day! And all this was after the disappointment of not being able to progress along the northern side of the archipelago because of the ice.
Next morning, the early risers enjoying their first cups of tea in the lounge, were treated to another view of walruses on the ice, and later, the same pair of bears we had been watching the previous evening, were spotted a long way away on the ice. Again we parked up, and again the bears came over the ice towards us, but this time the female practically climbed into the ship! We were able to see (and record on camera) the bears jumping from ice-floe to ice-floe, swimming between areas of ice, shaking themselves dry, rolling on the ice and even heard the male growling. This went on for a considerable time and eventually it was decided that we should leave them in peace. This was, for most, the highlight of the cruise.
We went on for the remaining days in much the same vein – cruising in the zodiacs, walking on the land, examining the tiny arctic plants, looking for wildlife and enjoying the clear, fresh arctic air. We looked at glaciers, discussed the geology, walked on snow shoes, and listened to lectures by the impressively knowledgeable expedition staff. We saw more polar bears (including a mother with two cubs), walruses, seals, whales (including the huge blue whale – the biggest animal ever to have lived on earth), reindeer, many birds, and some lucky ones even spotted an arctic fox. It was a truly amazing experience for all of us, and when you see the experienced expedition staff enthusing about the events, you know it was something special.
Gary West 2014.”
If Gary’s exciting blog has whet your appetite for an Arctic Holiday Adventure you can view our sample itineraries here.
You may also enjoy…