The need for adventure still lives in everyone and what better
way to fulfil that need than to cruise to the top of the
world. Debbie Edwards travelled by expedition ship with
Hurtigruten to the northernmost reaches of humanity, meeting
hardy people living in harsh conditions who wouldn't want to live
Imagine standing on the deck in temperatures close to 2 degrees
looking out over a vast expanse of blue ocean while enjoying a nice
hot cup of tea. Suddenly, you see a triangular shape break the
surface followed by a sleek black body which slowly
arches back under the waves. Up goes the shout "whale".
Suddenly your lone perch becomes the centre of attention as
your fellow travellers all eagerly look out for the (minke)
whale to resurface. Cameras click away as the ocean traveller
breaks the surface time and time again. Then, just as it came, it
disappears and the excited babble dies down. But you can't help
having another few looks - just in case it decides to come
A minke whale surfaces
This was the highlight of the journey for me because I had
always wanted to see a whale in its natural environment, but
it was only one small part of an exciting trip that visited
the Realm of the Polar Bear.
As I read the five-day itinerary, my excitement mounted.
The trip gratified many of my interests - travel, nature,
history and, of course, wildlife.
The trip included visits to a mining settlement, a
bird breeding cliff, research centre, museums and, of course,
fjords and glaciers. Plus the most northernly point in our journey
- Moffen Island.
After flying to Longyearben, Spitsbergen, the
first night is spent at one of two hotels. The next morning we had some free
time to look around and shop before we boarded the
ship at the pier.
This was the last season for the MS Nordstjernen which is
being replaced for the 2013 season by the more
The expedition ship MS Nordstjernen
After settling in to the cabin and enjoying the extensive
buffet lunch, the first stop was at the Russian settlement of
Svalbard is Norwegian sovereign land but this Russian "company
town" has been in existence since 1935. It grew up round the
entrance to a coal mine, which is still in use today. We were able
to enjoy a colourful folklore show put on by the inhabitants and
the knowledgeable Russian guide was enthusiastic about his
subject. A few hardy souls visited the bar and sampled
the local brew - authentic Russian vodka!
Landing at Mushamna via tender boat
We were up early the next morning to get kitted out in
lifejackets and sorted into the various language groups before
making our way via tender boats ashore to visit a bay called
Mushamna. There was a small old trapper's cabin and a more
recent and larger addition - the governor's hunting lodge with
accompanying sauna, helicopter landing site and outside loo!
The guides told us that even when visiting the loo, trappers had to
take their rifles! Could certainly make for a quick visit!
At this point it is a good time to mention safety.
Every trip ashore was accompanied by highly trained and armed
guides. We soon learned that polar bears were often seen ambling
along the beaches and it was best not to be around when they turned
up. In the first instance the guides would use flares to scare off
the bears and would only resort to killing a bear if there was no
The guides told
us that a polar bear had been spotted in a lagoon about two
kilometres away from us. Eagerly we piled back into the tenders and
whizzed round to the cove to see the magnificent animal lounging on
the beach. And just like all good subjects, he stood up, gazed at
us before settling himself back down in a more comfortable
position. Unfortunately, we could not go too close because polar
bears are fast and strong swimmers! Nobody fancied being polar bear
The afternoon started with a visit to the Monaco
glacier. As there was still ice in the water, the ship was
unable to go right up to the glacier front but the views were
breathtaking. The spectacular glacier is 38k long and about 5k
Once leaving the glacier we journeyed to Bockfjorden. Here the
fjord is bound on one side by some of the oldest mountain
formations, thrust up during tectonic plate movements. The rocks
are 1000 million years old and their craggy peaks are in stark
contrast to the younger red mountains on the other side. These were
formed from red sands thought once to be part of a vast desert.
When land masses collided some 50 million years ago, it created
a geological fault zone which has resulted in "hot spots" where
water comes to the surface. We landed on a stony beach and,
following warnings of bear safety, we clambered, scrambled and
hauled ourselves through snow and over bolders to see one of
two hot springs. The word "hot" is used loosely because the
temperature is only about 11 degrees but when the air temperature
plummets well below zero even 11 degrees is hot!
Unfortunately, due to a careless mistake by myself I
injured my knee and found it difficult to get back down the
"mountain". As I struggled to reach the beach, suddenly a strong
hand grabbed mine and a voice said: "Trust me". I turned round to
look at my saviour. Thanks to Bjarne Fosmo, who described himself
as "an old trapper", I managed to get back down to the waiting
tenders and safely on board the ship.
We then sailed to the northernmost point of our journey, Moffen
Island. As we crossed the 80th parallel we all gathered on the deck
to enjoy a small celebration with music and champagne. We were all
awarded a certificate. Then everyone dashed to the bow of the ship
to see our destination.
This funny little island just emerges from the water and is a
favourite spot for walrus to bask in the sunshine or play in the
surrounding waters. What I thought were large boulders turned out
to be the snoozing beasts!
I couldn't help wonder how many ships had inadvertently ploughed
into this lonely little place which is just about 4.5km square of
sand and gravel normally blanketed in ice and snow.
The next stop was Magdalenefjorden, which is one of the more
well-known fjords in Svalbard. Down on the beach there are the
remains of whaling, blubber ovens and a funeral site where Dutch
whalers buried their dead in the 17th and 18th
centuries. Ringed by ragged snow-clad mountains and draped
with glaciers making their inimitable way down to the sea, it was a
beautiful sight to behold.
After breakfast the next morning, we kitted up again
to make an exhilarating ride by tender to the face of
Lilliehookglacier. Here I was lucky enough to see a bearded seal
haul itself out of the water just metres away onto a small iceberg,
which then proceeded to keep a careful eye on us as we frantically
snapped away with our cameras.
Finally, having had enough of that, it gracefully slid back
under the waves.
The glacier was sparkling in the sunlight reflecting back into
the near dead-calm sea. Everyone has seen glaciers on the TV but
there is nothing like sitting in a small boat at the foot of a 25
kilometre long and eight kilometre wide sheet of ice knowing that
any moment a large chunk of it could fall away. And as for the
colours - sky blue, dark blue, dirty grey, pure white
- just breathtaking.
While back on the ship waiting for other passengers to enjoy the
same experience, I was lucky enough to see a large lump of ice
"calve" away from the face and catch it on camera. A little bit of
me felt sorry for those in the boat who experienced the subsequent
wave but they were far enough away to be completely safe - I assure
As we left the fjord we passed the bird cliff of Cadiopynten.
The ship slowed down to a dead crawl so that everyone had plenty of
time to take pictures and enjoy the sight.
The afternoon was spent at Ny-Alesund which is one of the world's northern
year-round communities. This high-tech Arctic research station is
home to scientists from at least 15 nations who run year round
experiments into the climate, flora and fauna, geology
and glacier research. This settlement boasts the most northern
post office, railway, museum and cable-car. Everyone took the
opportunity to send a postcard home.
On the return to Longyearben, after
collecting our personal belongings we were given a guided
sightseeing tour including to the Svalbard Museum. It is definitely
worth visiting because it backs up everything we saw and visited on
The trip ended with a celebratory meal at the Spitzgergen Hotel
before catching our various flights home the next day.
A guillemot takes a well-earned rest of a bit of ice, Svalbard
A glacier inches its way to the sea, Svalbard
Taking off from Longyearben airport
The five-day trip in June was through Hurtigruten
UK. There is only a short "summer" in Spitsburgen June to
August when its daylight for 24-hours and not too cold. Always bear
in mind the chill factor from the wind.
Pack well with thermal under-layers, thick sweaters, hat, gloves
and scarf. Most important is a good waterproof coat and footwear.
It is much better to wear layers than just one thick layer because
when you are walking you can overheat very quickly. Similarly, when
you are standing out on deck trying to spot wildlife, it can get
very cold. It's also a good idea to take waterproof
leggings/trousers for the trips to shore in the tenders and
traversing any snow still laying. There is nothing worse than
walking around in cold, soggy denim.
It is still customary in hotels and a lot of shops etc in
Spitsburgen to remove your shoes so its a good idea to either have
good quality thick socks or a pair of lightweight
In the Realm of the Polar Bear – This nine-day
‘In the Realm of the Polar Bear’ voyage offers a complete
circumnavigation of Spitsbergen. Prices start from £3891pp and
include seven-nights full board on MS Fram, a night pre-voyage in
Longyearbyen including breakfast and lunch, a city tour of
Longyearbyen, landings and lectures by expedition team. Based on
Flights from London to Longyearbyen via Oslo
are extra and a package including flights, taxes and transfers,
costs from £792pp.
Departure dates are 14, 21 and 28
HURTIGRUTEN – 0844 448 7601
Hurtigruten home page (available in most languages) http://www.hurtigruten.co.uk/norway/
Prices for 2013: