“Am I going to get any sleep onboard this ship?” I grinned as I asked my on board guide Heiko, he laughed as he replied ‘Not if you want to see more somersaulting whales’.
It was the third time that night already that I’d raced out of my cabin in my PJ’s to freeze out on deck, desperately hoping I hadn't missed any whale action. The last time I was still clutching my tooth brush in my hand. With my eyes still straining to adapt from the darkness of my cabin to the 24 hour sunlight outside, I frantically scanned the glass flat sea. “Where is it?!” I demanded, he didn’t even need to respond, because at that moment, I saw a very large tail smack the water not too far away and quickly disappear into the depths of the arctic ocean. I released my breath briefly producing a cloud in front of my face in the cool air. My excitement soon turned to frustration as I impatiently waited for the next sighting. It was unjustified however, as it was no more than a minutes wait until the next shiny black hump appeared in the calm waters.
I'll always remember when Sir David Attenborough stumbled on his words in blue planet when he spotted his first blue whale. I was so amazed by the grace of such a huge creature I simply had no words. The blue whale is the largest animal ever to have lived on earth. In the Northern Hemisphere blue whales are 24–28 meters long, can weigh up to 200 tonnes and produce a distinctive, high blow that can be up to 12 metres tall. Blue whales were taken to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling and they remain endangered.Protected world wide since 1966, the global population size is not known, but it is thought that there are somewhere near 6,000 animals in our seas.
Many more shiny tails and spines of the group of Blue whales followed, now easy to spot against the golden midnight sun. I would not get much sleep on this ship, for I was either shivering semi dressed on deck or lying in bed worrying about what I was missing. ‘Bloody Whales’ I frequently thought to myself, ‘Why can’t they go to sleep too?” When I finally gave in and went to bed, I slept in my clothes ready to run.
I was on board H/S Norstjerenen, translated to ‘Northern Star’ in English, of the renowned Hurtigurten fleet. The ship would be dropping us off at our remote starting point in front of Lilliehöök glacier on the 79th Parallel in Svalbard, arctic Norway. For now we could enjoy 3 days of cruising, delicious fresh 3 course meals, a bed and warm shower until all our comforts were removed on expedition.
On our first evening we visited Barentsberg, a Russian mining settlement only 55km from the main town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard. Although Svalbard is under Norwegian sovereignty, the unique Svalbard Treaty of 1920 allows citizens of signatory countries equal rights to exploit natural resources. Barentsberg is a little Russian town in Norway. The approximate 300 people who live and work there are 80 per cent Ukrainian and 20 per cent Russian. The population of the settlement has been steadily decreasing in the recent years. Many buildings are not inhabited, and some are left to decay. They have their own embassy, school, sport centre and port. The economy is centred around coal mining and tourism. Barentsberg is totally reliant on Russia for food and any other supplies, the internet only arrived earlier this year. It seemed like an empty town with far too many buildings for the number of people here, evidence of its symmetrical decline with the world wide coal industry.
We could also enjoy the landings via zodiacs. One of our first stops was at the iconic Magdalena fjord. The post card perfect natural harbour was first discovered by Dutchman William Barents in 1596. The English explorer and whaler Robert Fotherby entered the fjord in 1614, claiming it for King James I of England. The English subsequently established a whaling station here which was later taken over by the Dutch. The remains of four blubber furnaces remain on the beach from 1620-1640 as well as a graveyard containing about 130 graves dating from the 17th to the late 18th century. Life here was desperate, many didn’t make it home but good money could be made from whaling. There are no trees on Svalbard, and therefore no wood except what washed up on the beaches. All whalers had to bring their own coffins with them.
We sailed up to Moffin Island passing the 80th parallel. From the windy ship deck we could see a colony of Walrus. Despite the wind and rain and being a significant distance away from them I could still smell them and hear them grunt at each other. It was rather amusing to watch! They are huge creatures which can weigh as much as 2,000kg.
After 3 days on board I was ready to leave the ship. I was feeling sluggish having eaten too much good food and not having had any exercise. My last night on the ship was on open sea and I couldn't sleep due to a combination of excitement and the rough sea. I had to brush my teeth sat on the floor as I couldn't remain standing and struggled to stay sat on the toilet. In bed, my body slid up and down with each wave. Firstly, my head hit the wall, and then as the boat corrected itself gravity pulled me down until my feet touched the opposite end. Then my alarm went off.
On the morning of our departure, the skies were grey, the rain poured and the wind whipped up tiny fragments of ice in the air that grazed my cheeks. The rain was so heavyand wind so strong I could feel my eyelashes blowing around and I couldn't see a thing in front of me. We left the comforts of the ship via zodiac and the 3 of us were dropped off on a muddy beach. Shivering cold and wet we quickly set up a tent to sit out the worst of the bad weather. If this is what it’s going to be like for the rest of the trip, it’s going to be really tough and miserable I thought to myself. Part 2 of the Kayaking expedition to follow next week.