17

Jun2016

Spitsbergen: an unforgettable Polar expedition

Ortelius sets off for Spitsbergen

I headed for the Amsterdam airport with my father to embark upon the largest Dutch polar expedition ever.

Excitement, nervousness and curiosity knew no bounds, as we were to enter the territory of one of the most dangerous animals: the polar bear. At Amsterdam and thereafter in Oslo, we met our fellow adventurers including three elderly men who had been on Spitsbergen for more than a year in 1968 and had carried out research that led to the preservation of the polar bears.

Land of the polar bears

Upon arrival at the airport of Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, it was clear who ruled the land: it was the polar bear. After a quick visit to the small town of Spitsbergen and the local museum dedicated to the history of whaling and the flora and fauna around Spitsbergen, it was time to step onboard the expedition-ship Ortelius that would be our home for the next 10 days.

Everyone had to adapt to a sailor’s life especially during severe weather conditions. The trip was designed as a scientific expedition with a laboratory installed on deck. The group on board were not only tourists and sponsors of the trip. It included biologists, archeologists, glacier experts, geologists, members of the media and artists. They would be informing the world about the all new findings.

Arctic and it's silence

The days on the boat started at 7:30 a.m. with a wake up call via the intercom after which we had breakfast and packed our lunch for the next landing. Each day was mapped out but always had an element of surprise.

Ice and more ice

Animals and amazing landscapes showed up unexpectedly. At midnight one day, while it was still light outside, a whale paid us a visit. It was magical! We saw polar bears, seals, pole foxes, reindeers and walruses. Then there were birds that looked very much like penguins.Biologists referred to them as kamikaze birds as they jump off cliffs as youngsters to find food thus risking their lives.

Kamikaze birds

One of our first port of call was Kaap Lee. Kaap Lee didnt dissapoint us. A truly polar welcome. We saw ice everywhere – massive chunks of white, gray and blue ice !

Sea Monsters the walruses

From a distance the island seemed to be covered with stone-like creatures. These chunks of brown mass turned out to be walruses. They did not really mind our presence as they probably considered themselves untouchable. They weighed about 900 kilograms and had large magnificient tusks. 400 years ago sailors were afraid of these monsters of the sea. They could not be killed with bullets because of the thick skin, so they used cleavers to kill a whole colony of walruses. After 400 years, their skeletons are still there on the island.

The skeletons are still there

Back on board everyone had to return their name tags to make sure that no one would have to stay at Kap Lee overnight. It nearly happened to the archeologists who decided to wander a bit longer on the island. The huge chunks of ice we had seen earlier had slowly started moving towards the island. Had they completely surrounded the island the Zodiacs would no longer be able to get the archeologists. Fortunately they were picked up just in time because the next morning, when we opened our curtains, we were awestruck by what we saw. The whole island was covered in white ice as far as we could see. The ship moving through these icebergs made a strange crushing sound.

The ship crushing the snow

Later that day we were treated to even more ice, a massive glacier that came out of nowhere and it was absolutely surreal! It seemed as if you could actually touch the walls of the glacier but in reality it was almost 500 meters away!

Glaciers, so near yet so far away

Rule of the North Pole: everything is not as it seems.

Few days later we set foot on a new landmass. It was not originally planned, but since polar bears were spotted on our planned landing ground, we decided to land here. We were told that it could very well be the case that we were the first people walking on this land!

We walked over an entire forest

This island was nothing like the islands we had seen before. It had small lakes and contained much more vegetation. It even had trees! The trees were just 2 cm tall, so we could claim to have walked over a complete forest! We decided to eat our lunch and experience the eerie silence. It was a moment with nature and her murmurs.

Bodil with her father Olav

For ten days we had no contact with the outside world. We simply lived in the present moment in isolation with our surroundings. As the sun shone for 24 hrs we lost the sense of time and it seemed that the Artic was hypnotising us with its magic.

Nature ruled over us. The experience of walking past skeletons, fossils, animals from a world so far and untouched glaciers was like reliving history.

  • Written byOlav and Bodil Hoekzema

    Olav: Dutch, over half a century young, master in computer science and business administration. Contracting & procurement manager. Lives life to enjoy and explore with his wife and daughter. Marathon runner and golfer, interested in all that relates to time.

    Bodil Hoekzema; student of Biology at University College. A keen student of science and believes in real life scientific experiences.

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