Panorama of Tunabreen

Svalbard 2008

Svalbard is a group of islands far North from Norway, between about 78 and 80 degrees latitude. It is often called Spitzbergen, even though this is really only the name of the largest island. Together with four friends I spent two weeks there in June 2008. We spent one week on a ship and one week on land.
This report is also availabe in German

The ship called Grigoriy Mikheev was built in the 70th by the former Sowjet Union. It served Arctic research together with its sister ship and two similar ships. Nowadays, Russia offers all four ships for charter trips.

The Grigoriy Mikheev

The Gregoriy Mikhef is ice-capable, but it is not an ice-breaker. As a result, it can drive through ice so long as it is possible to shift ice-floats to the side. However, if it reaches a closed ice field, then the ship has to turn around. That's what happened to us. Strong Northerly winds had pushed pack ice towards Svalbard. And as a result, we had to turn around close to 80 degrees of latitude.

Driving through the ice At the edge of the pack-ice
A seagull, a whale, and two walrus at the edge of the pack-ice (picture by Gunther Herrmann) Walrus (Picture by Gunther Herrmann)
An ice float stuck to the bow of the ship

Thus, we mainly shipped along the Western coast of Svalbard. We had therefore already given up hope to see a large walrus colony - famous for that is Baffin Island, which we couldn't reach because of the pack-ice. But then our luck turned. And we saw a colony of some 60 walrus in Poolpynten on Prins Karls Forland.

A colony of some 60 walrus
A colony of some 60 walrus (picture by Gunther Herrmann)
A walrus making its way up the land from the water (picture by  Gunther Herrmann)
A walrus playing in the water (picture by Paul Ashton) A walrus playing in the water (picture by Judi Parnell)

We went diving at various spots during the trip on the ship. The diving equipment was stored in the zodiac during the entire week. Only the diving suits were brought inside for drying. When we went diving, the zodiac including the diving equipment was first lifted into the water using a crane. Afterwards, we leasurely walked down the gangway and stepped into the zodiac. The hard part was putting on the diving equipment in the tight space of the zodiac while wearing dry-suits.

The zodiac with the diving equipment in icy rain (picture by Gunther Herrmann) The zodiac with the dive guide inside is lifted into the water (picture by Birgit Jaenicke)

One ice-dive was included in the trip. Such ice-dives are not without their risks, as the ice-floats can shift quickly due to strong winds. An area free of ice may be completely covered by ice half an hour later.

Ice seen from underwater (picture by Linda Ashmore) Ice seen from underwater (picture by Grace Keast)
Ice seen from underwater (picture by Franco Banfi) Driving through the ice-floats after the dive (picture by Franco Banfi)
Driving through the ice-floats after the dive (picture by Franco Banfi)

The Arctic is a region poor in nutrition. Above water it is dominated by ice and rocks. And plants and larger animals are only encountered occationally. In comparison, life underwater is abundant, but cold and poor nutrition also limits growth there. Down to a depth of 12 meters the landscape is dominated by kelp. Below that rocks dominate the landscape.

Kelp (picture by Linda Ashmore) Typical underwater landscape below 12 meters with many crab, snails and see anemones (picture by Marco Oudshoorn)
Typical underwater landscape below 12 meters with many crab, snails and see anemones (picture by Shaowen Li) Sea anemone (picture by Marco Oudshoorn)

Everywhere one can find sea anemone (even below kelp). Crabs and snails cover the ground. In Tauchprojekt one can find much useful information on the fauna of the sea of North Europe.

Snail (picture by Marion Haarsma) Crab (picture by Linda Ashmore) Sea life unknown to me (picture by Linda Ashmore)
Large crab (picture by Marion Haarsma) Large crab (picture by Marco Oudshoorn)

Only occasionally does one encounter larger fish.

Scorpion fish (picture by Grace Keast) Scorpion fish (picture by Shaowen Li)

Plankton in all kinds of forms floats in the water.

Plankton - a snail (picture by Linda Ashmore) Plankton (picture by Marion Haarsma)
Plankton in zeppelin form (picture by Linda Ashmore)

The water is very cold with often only 0 degrees Celcius. Even with a dry suit it is getting very cold latest after 40 minutes at the tips of the finger. And for that reason, people are very euphoric while driving back to the ship with the zodiac.

Back on the zodiac (picture by Birgit Jaenicke) Group picture with Francoise, our dive guide. At this diving site he was allowed to dive (picture by Franco Banfi)

Ringed seals feel very happy on the ice. These seals form the main food for polar bears. For that reason, they are usually very shy. But apparently, some still like to be photographed.

A ringed seal (picture by  Paul Ashton) A ringed seal (picture by Judi Parnell)

Once upon a time, many whales roamed the sea around Svalbard. Over centuries these were systematically slaughtered. And the sorry remains of these slaughters can still be seen today.

The bones of belugas, and the remains of a whaling boat in Alhstrandodden (picture by Birgit Jaenicke) The skulls of belugas in Alhstrandodden (picture by Birgit Jaenicke)

Nevertheless, we were able to see whales on occasions.

A mink whale (picture by Gunther Herrmann)

Ever so often one comes across old trapper huts, that are frequently still in use today.

A trapper hut in Skansbukta, Billefjorden Rocks with small Arctic vegetation in Skansbukta, Billefjorden

But it's glaciers that form the landscape of Svalbard most of all. Sometimes we saw them from close-by.

Two glaciers next to each other, Konsvegen Glacier The Konsvegen Glacier seen from the bridge
The The blue ice of a glacier seen from close-by, Konsvegen Glacier (picture by Linda Ashmore)

... And sometimes we saw them fro the distance, for example in the light of the midnight sun.

Glacier in the midnight sun
Glacier in the midnight sun
Glacier in the midnight sun

At the place where a glacier flows into the sea, areas of ice-floats may form in front, perfect for seals to rest on. And where there are seals, there are polar bears. Thus, we also got to see polar bears (from a safe distance) near the end of our trip.

Tunabreen Glacier with ice fields in front
Two polar bears on the hunt for seals, Tunabreen Glacier (picture by Gunther Herrmann) A polar bear, Tunabreen Glacier (picture by Daniel Segal)

Towards the end of our trip on board the ship a large party was celebrated. For that purpose, the captain anchored the ship in a protected bay under a perfect, blue sky. But it was cold nevertheless, even if one would not believe it when looking at some of the costumes that some of the crew wore as part of the show.

The big final party - enjoying the food (picture by Gunther Herrmann) The big final party - dance by a Russian beauty (picture by Tessa Sinclair)
Our small group in the wind protected but still cold bay, Recherchfjorden (picture by Gunther Herrmann) Our small group in the wind protected but still cold bay, Recherchfjorden

From Svalbard it is only 1000 km to the North Pole. And thus it is not surprising that Svalbard was base for many polar expeditions. Especially the town of Ny-Alesund was used by many expeditions as a base. For example, for the controversial airship expedition to the North Pole by Norge and Amundsen.

Ny-Alesund - most of the buildings are research stations by various countrie
The historic railway of Ny-Alesund, that was used for transport of materials from the mines to the port
The mast used as anchor for the airship for the flight tot he North Pole The mast used as anchor for the airship for the flight tot he North Pole

The "capital" of Svalbard is Longyearbyen. Because of tourism, but also thanks to the university did the town grow a lot during the last decade. Now about 3000 people live there.

Approaching Longyearbyen Longyearbyen seen from the air
The university of Longyearbyen

It was in Longyearbyen that an American named Longyear opened the first coal mine of Svalbard, and this gave the village its name. Remains of the mining can be seen everywhere in the town. However, nowadays all mines near Longyearbyen except one are closed. And the still active mine only produces enough coal for the town itself.

Relay station of the cable car, which carried the coal from the mines to the harbor (picture by Gunther Herrmann)
Entrance to a mine above Longyearbyen Entrance to a mine above Longyearbyen

The town lies in the "Adventsfjord" and is locked in on two sides by table mountains. Hiking up provides a nice picture of the town.

View up the valley of Longyearbyen. One can see an abandoned mine on the side of the mountain. In the background is the so-called The 'Chair of Friendship'. In the background one can see Adventfjord

But not only such a short hike is worthwhile. At the end of the valley are two glaciers separated by the so-called Sarcophagus. A full-day hike up one glacier and down the Longyearbyen glacier with a lunch break on the Sarcophagus was a great experience. And the beer in the evening tasted especially good.

The hike up to the 'Sarcophagus' The hike up to the 'Sarcophagus' - snow-shoes and a gun (because of polar bears) are required (picture by Gunther Herrmann)
Picnic on the 'Sarcophagus' and registration in the mountain book (picture by Birgit Jaenicke)
Group photo on the 'Sarcophagus'
Descend via the Longyearbyen glacier
Descend via the Longyearbyen glacier
Descend via the Longyearbyen glacier
And after the hike the beer tastes great (picture by Birgit Jaenicke)

Also worthwhile was the kayak tour to the shore opposite Longyearbyen in the Adventsfjord. Everything was well organized with a comfortable picnic place already prepared.

Arrival with the kayak on the shore opposite Longyearbyen in the Adventsfjord - dry-suits and water-cover protect while on the water Picnic at a well-prepared place in Hiorthhamn - the abundant drift wood is used for the camp fire (picture by Birgit Jaenicke)

There as well one can find an abandoned mine. And when it went bankrupt (like so many others as well), everything had to be left behind.

Houses of the abandoned mine - the house of the mine overseer is located up the hill A heavy train stuck in the half-frozen ground turned out to be useless
An old truck slowly rotting away (picture by Birgit Jaenicke) An engine still in its original box - at the time of its arrival the mine had gone bankrupt. In the background one can see the loading station of the mine (picture by Birgit Jaenicke)

Finally, the experienced guide explained us a lot about the flora of Svalbard. And thanks to him we became finally aware of the trees of Svalbard: The Arctic willow.

A tree in Svalbard: the Arctic willow

Furthermore, we had enough time left for a day-trip to the Russian settlement of Barentsburg. But before we reached Barentsburg, we passed by some glaciers.

A small glacier with clearly visible moraine in Islfjorden
The author in front of a glacier in Islfjorden

At the time of our visit only a few people lived in Barentsburg. The reason was a fire in the mine that same spring. In order to extinguish this fire, sea water had to be pumped into the mine. And at the time it was still uncertain whether the mine would be reopened at all. Thus, the city felt like a museum.

The Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg
An orthodox church built in 1996 after a very bad airplane accident (picture by Birgit Jaenicke) Group picture on the way back from Barentsburg

The trip back from Barentsburg to Longyearbyen passed along beautiful rocks.

Table mountains in Islfjorden
Rocks populated with birds in Islfjorden Rocks populated with birds in Islfjorden
A house of Longyearbyen in front of the mountains

And after one last, short "night" with the midnight sun we had to leave Svalbard.

Longyearbyen in the midnight sun