Category Archives: Bjørnøya

Bear Island behind, bears beside

After a long passage from Bjørnøya in stormy seas we approached the grey coastline of Sørkapp in Southern Svalbard accompanied by a pod of white-beaked dolphins. These beautiful beasts kept pace with us for a while before leaping out of the water and disappearing and leaving us with the majesty of the rocky shore on the horizon. Ahead of us was a bank of grey cloud pierced by the occasional jagged peak and a sloping plateau of rock and ice merging with the mist to the east.  As we slowly drew near the grey pall dissolved revealing a stark landscape of ice and rock – glaciers clung to the valleys and the black rock seemed crushed and crumbling beneath the weight of ice and weather.

Sørkapp however, is a long way from the nearest safe anchorage. Thus these weary sailors gritted their teeth and sailed on looking forward to a respite from the constant round of four hour watches which is the lot of short-handed sailors on ocean passages. Eventually we dropped the anchor in Isbjørnbukta on the north of Hornsund and prepared to drop ourselves into bed for some slumber … except for the special problems of anchoring in the Arctic. A glacier tumbled to the sea just around the corner, and in the process of that tumble, various bergy bits and ice were released into the fjord and were attempting to make an escape to the open ocean. The only thing standing in the way: Widdershins, our yacht. Thus our planned nights repose was somewhat broken by hourly anchor watches and the occasional jaunt up to the deck to poke at the jagged ice to push it from our hull.

When we finally raised our weary heads from the bed we prepared to follow our plans of getting straight to Lonyearbyen (a 26 hour sail away) to get all the bureaucratic necessities out of the way. Except, that as we were preparing to set sail a crackle came across the radio and amidst the static we heard a few snippets about a polar bear and Hornsund. Following a couple of radio calls from our end to get further details we scrapped the plans for Svalbard’s version of civilisation and headed into the heart of the fjord to seek the bears.

Within a few hours of starting our first day in Svalbard we were sitting aboard our trusty tender Brad and powering off towards a small drift of fast-ice which apparently harbored the apex of the local food-chain, that apex being rather above the occasional grubby adventurer. Teetering upon our little inflatable boat we rounded the corner of a small bay to find ourselves face to face with not one, but two polar bears.

The bears were sitting on either end of the last patch of ice in the fjord and were hungrily watching the bearded seals and ringed seals lounging on the ice … I have an inkling that the seals are rather hard to catch and it did occur to me that a couple of soft white explorers might be an easy catch – especially since we currently had no rifle, this being the major reason for our planned first stop in Lonyearbyen. Thus we were a little nervous as we looked into the eyes of these powerful predators. However, it seemed that several days at sea had left a rather unappealing odor around us and the bears seemed content to watch us with an occasional yawn and perhaps a slight wrinkling of the nose. Jokes aside, this was the first polar bear either of us had ever seen in the wild and there is something awe inspiring, slightly scary and magic about sitting amidst the wilderness of the ice and watching these bears.

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Midsummer in Bjørnøya

After exploring the southern parts of Bjørnøya, we raised our sails and made our way around the wild, rocky shore to the north of the island to visit the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. Despite the wind howling through the rigging and big waves crashing on the rocks all around us we decided to put down the anchor and left Widdershins, our yacht, alone and quite exposed to the elements, while we went ashore at Herwighamna. The welcome at the station was very warm, and after spending so many days without showers and proper heating we felt quite out of place in the cozy, warm living room, being served coffee and cake and shopping for souvenirs. And of course we also hadn’t paid any attention to the date and were quite surprised to hear that it was the 23rd of June, Midsummer, the longest day of the year.

To celebrate this appropriately the crew of the station (seven men, two women) had completely demolished their old garage and put together a huge bonfire. The roaring fire was accompanied by a lovely, very Arctic barbecue, beer and cake. What a nice way to say goodbye to the bear island!

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Exploring Bjørnøya

Wow! What a day! We awoke in the remote anchorage of Sørhamna on the south western corner of the tiny island of Bjørnøya, in the middle of the Barents Sea. Well, actually we awoke rather late. We were exhausted after a long crossing with constant four hour watch rotations, and also suffered a fitful night’s sleep. The island is in fact known to possess no all-weather safe anchorages. The weather wasn’t exactly bad, but constant gusts of wind coming down the cliff and a rather sharp rolling swell are not conducive to a goodnights sleep, no matter how exhausted you are, especially when you feel compelled to brave the arctic winds several times just to make absolutely certain that the anchor is holding and we are not being blown to Russia.

Then again waking up at ten o’clock in a spectacular anchorage and scoffing a healthy serving of bacon and eggs is not so bad at all! And first order of the day was definitely to go exploring. So out comes our trusty inflatable boat “Brad” and off we zoom to explore the jagged coast of our bay; complete with caves, arches, and waterfalls plunging off the one hundred meter high cliffs only to be dashed away by the winds before ever reaching the sea. And let’s not forget the birds! Every flat(ish) space on the cliffs around us was occupied by nesting birds: fulmars (our constant companions of the crossing), guillemots (several species), kittiwakes and several other bird species all peered at us from their eyries and flocked around us as we buzzed around the bay.

Next stop was Kvalrossbukta just to the north were we are now sitting out a gale blowing down off the rocky mountains were we strolled this evening. The bay here was once the site of a fairly serious whaling operation, but the winds howling through the rigging now have done their work over the hundred odd years since occupation, and little now remains of this fleeting human presence. Much more impressive was the life all around that struggled on despite the seemingly inhospitable conditions. Flowers of several hues cling to the rocky slopes, scurvy grass adds a dash of green and the sheltered slopes spring beneath your feet as you bounce across the dry moss beds.

A fantastic day in a very remote, barren but beautiful rock that is teeming with birdlife.

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My first passage

After more than 80 hours of sailing and over 260 nautical miles we finally made it to Bjørnøya, a rugged, surreal rocky island between the European continent and Svalbard, our northernmost destination. For me this first passage was quite the experience – of course I spent the first day leaning over the railings feeding fish and looking green. Poor Patrick had to sail all by himself until my stomach and legs decided that a rolling ship is an acceptable place to be. After that routine soon settled in – either 4 hours on the watch, keeping the sails in position and the ship on course, or trying to catch some sleep despite constant healing and rocking of the ship and strange rattling and gurgling sounds all around you. But after my mind had finally settled in, I started to notice all the small wonders around me. The faithful fulmars which kept us company for the whole journey, the curious kittiwakes circling the windex and trying to land on deck, the vicious skuas pirating food from other seabirds, and of course the whales! Pchuuuuuh, big blow just 20 metres off the ship, massive black back, and then the tail of a huge male humpback whale disappearing in the abyss of the northern seas. And after what seemed forever, we finally spotted the land we’ve been striving towards: huge, vertical cliffs, rocky pillars, slopes covered in snow, and buzzing birds all around us. Bjørnøya!

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The roar of the bear

The seas have been kind with only moderate swell. Unfortunately however, the Arctic island of Bjørnøya (Bear Island) is roaring out a welcome to us as we approach. Understandably the welcoming roar smells a little like cod and the bird cliffs of the island which certainly gets us excited, unfortunately the roar also includes quite a lot of wind that is now coming directly from our destination. As a result we are now proceeding towards the island crabwise – in small legs at a 45 degree angle to the wind, each leg
bringing us closer to the tantalising target that represent some well needed rest for these sailors and a chance to explore the most diverse bird cliffs in the Northern Hemisphere.

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