Bjørnsund, 5/17/2022, National Geographic Endurance
National Geographic Endurance
Happy National Day in Norway! Among Norwegians, the day is referred to simply as “Syttende Mai” (17th of May) or Grunnlovsdagen (The Constitution Day). Declaring Norway an independent nation, the Constitution was signed on May 17, 1814 in Eidsvoll, Norway. Erlend Folstad, the only Norwegian onboard National Geographic Endurance, gave a presentation this morning about the history of Norway and its path to independence.
This afternoon, we stopped at a small and truly remarkable fishing town called Bjørnsund (a recommendation by Erlend). The fishing community had a population of between 500 and 600 residents just after World War II. As part of the mass exodus of people leaving rural Norway in the 1960s, the town was totally abandoned by the early 1970s. In recent decades, folks have returned to the island, reclaiming abandoned houses as their summer homes.
In Zodiacs, we cruised the incredibly calm harbor with its massive sea walls that ward off 50-foot winter seas. A few early summer visitors spoke with us as they waved Norwegian flags patriotically. The town’s namesake bear was at the end of the harbor, posing for photos and overlooking the town. What a beautiful little “fishing turned summer home” community, and we felt totally privileged to visit it!
Michael Nolan was born in Bitburg, Germany to an Air Force family stationed there. His first experience of the ocean came at age 12, when he learned to snorkel in the Italian Mediterranean. At age 17 he moved to Tucson, Arizona and became a PADI SCUB...
It’s hard to believe that our amazing journey together is coming to an end. Today’s expedition in Bamsebu in Bellsund treaded an oddly comfortable line between the utterly foreign wilds of the High Arctic, and the now familiar embrace of a landscape we have fallen in love with. The wind was brisk, but explorers of all interests set out to absorb the scenery with new flames of intrigue, ignited by our two weeks of exploration. Discarded reindeer antlers, whalebones left behind from human activities of the past, old ships, ancient fossils, lichens, mosses, fresh buds of spring plants: we were surrounded by a plethora of curios set amongst stunning scenery and snow topped mountains. As we took time to talk about what we had seen in the morning during our afternoon “recap,” we were interrupted by a radio call from our captain. The folks on the bridge had spotted something white and fluffy on the ice ahead! Our time in Svalbard concluded, stunningly, with one last solitary polar bear ambling along the last remaining fast ice of the season. How lucky we have been on this incredible expedition!
We spent most of today in Kongsfjorden, the northernmost fjord on the eastern side of Spitsbergen. The weather was warm and calm, and we had landings in both the morning and afternoon. In the morning, we landed in Signehamna Bay. Rolling hills on the landing site allowed staff to set a broad perimeter controlled by a few polar bear guards. Guests had the opportunity to hike individually or in groups in any direction within this perimeter. It was a truly High Arctic landscape with ice- and snow-covered mountaintops in all directions. Most of the vegetation was moss and lichen cover with a few species of flowering plants typically no higher than one cm. The snow patches scattered around these hills were rapidly melting, creating thousands of little streams. After lunch, we moved to another beautiful location within the eastern branch of the same fiord system, close to the Fourteenth of July Glacier. Here guests had three options: hiking (strenuous or moderate) or Zodiac cruising along the glacial edge. The strenuous hike was to the top of a mountain ridge about 400-500 m above the water level. The moderate hike was along a shoreline below a magnificent cliff where several reindeers were foraging. A black-footed kittiwake colony occupied another part of the cliff. Close to the landing site, guests observed a rare Arctic fox den in a snowbank. These dens are not rare because Arctic foxes rarely dig dens in snow; rather, the dens are ephemeral and can only be observed for short periods in the spring. Swimming along the shore, walruses presented another attraction for the enjoyment of guests on the moderate hike.
Today we experienced Svalbard at its absolute finest. The day started with National Geographic Endurance positioned just off the magnificent seabird nesting cliffs named Alkefjellet, or Auk Mountain. These stunning cliffs, composed mostly of dolerite, serve as home to over 100,000 breeding pairs of Brünich’s guillemots, tens of thousands of kittiwakes, and several other nesting seabird species. Brünich’s guillemots, a slightly less charismatic relative of the puffin, lined nearly every available narrow ledge. This is where they will lay their single precious egg and raise their chick. The activity around the cliffs and in the waters nearby paints a slightly overwhelming and chaotic scene. We were graced with perfect weather, which afforded us the rare opportunity to get a close glimpse of this magnificent scene from our Zodiacs. With favorable weather and a promising sea ice forecast, our expedition leader and captain planned for us to press north so that we will ultimately be the first vessel of the season to successfully transit the entire coast of Eastern Spitsbergen, rounding the top of the island to the west, and back into the ice-free waters of Western Spitsbergen. The time spent accomplishing this will not be idle by any stretch. We spend a significant amount of time scanning the waters of Svalbard for wildlife. In particular, we are looking for the Great White Wanderer, Isbjorn, Nanuk…the polar bear. The efforts of our quest paid off shortly before dinner. Just as evening recap was underway, a call from the bridge alerted us to the presence of three bears–a female and her two yearling cubs–traveling over the dense sea ice. We watched them make their way from floe to floe. With her well-fed cubs in tow, the mother chose the route, smelled the air, and marched on with purpose. The day wasn’t nearly over yet. During a performance of The Endurance Crew Show after dinner, yet another hail from the bridge came over the radio. This time, another female bear was spotted with her single cub. These two were in the middle of their dinner, a walrus the mother had recently dispatched. This is no small feat, even for much larger male bears. We observed the mother and cub from a reasonable distance so as not to disturb them. After getting a primal glimpse into the lives of these very special animals, we left them to their meal. The evening proceeded as planned with a wonderful, lively crew show as our incredibly capable vessel plowed her way through dense bands of sea ice. All in all, the day was pure magic and pure Svalbard.