Our first full day exploring the High Arctic couldn’t have started in a better way; after sailing south throughout the night, National Geographic Endurance arrived to Hornsund, the southernmost fjord on the west side of Spitsbergen Island. As we were gathering in the lounge shortly after breakfast to attend some important briefings, beluga whales were spotted. Briefings forgotten for the moment, we watched not one but two different groups of the unique cetacean. With their characteristic white adult color, belugas are an arctic icon. We spent a long time watching as they swam very close to the ice- and snow-covered shoreline. Many gray colored youngsters were part of the group of perhaps 20 or more individuals. What a mesmerizing sight!

After attending the postponed briefings and conducting a bio-security cleaning of all of our gear, we enjoyed a delicious lunch and learned about smartphone photography. Then we went ashore at Gnalodden, the site of a large cliff full of nesting birds located on the northern shore of Hornsund. We could easily hear the noise of the thousands of black-legged kittiwakes sitting in their nests or flying around, and the abundance of fertilization caused by the droppings of so many birds provided the perfect conditions for plant growth. Purple saxifrages covered the whole hillside, and we enjoyed walking around and admiring the colorful landscape. We had the chance to visit an old trappers’ cabin and learned a bit about that part of Svalbard’s history. Extremely hardy and resourceful men and women used to spend several dark winter months in extremely cold, difficult, and lonely conditions as they trapped and hunted. Two of these people used the very same cabin we visited. Wanny Woldstad was notorious for being the first known female trapper in Svalbard, and Ivar Ruud was one of the last polar bear hunters before the species got protection from the Norwegian government in 1973. A few people continue the tradition today, spending time trapping and hunting during the cold, dark months.

Such a great day couldn’t come to an end without a grand finale and today was no exception. We enjoyed watching a big group of humpback whales after dinner. The whales were having their own dinner, and they regaled us with lots of great photo opportunities. Some of them approached the ship very closely. What a great day in Svalbard!

Photo caption and photographer: Arctic landscape. Photo by Carlos Navarro