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Category Archives: Svalbard
While Patrick is pushing his way through the frozen sea in Svalbard, I am sweating in The Gambia, both from the heat and the unfamiliar brain activity. I am working for two months again on my research, trying to tie up loose ends and publish some manuscripts. This sounds easy enough, but remember, I am in Africa. Alone. On a small sailboat. Without electricity. But with a dog … and as if this were not enough, it just gets unbearably hot during the middle of the day. Try thinking about an analysis you don’t really understand when the sweat is slowly running into your eyes …
Well, but one’s got to earn a living somehow (at least sometimes), so I’ve decided to take the bull by the horns. I bought a motorbike and rented a small room with a desk, a bed and, heavens, electricity! Sort of, anyway. Apparently, there’s just not enough electricity available for everybody in The Gambia, so every now and then, it’s just gone. Sometimes for half a day, sometimes longer, but there’s hardly a day without a power cut. Luckily there are a few restaurants nearby who run diesel generators to charge my laptop when the power is out again, but tss …
Of course I cannot leave Widdershins, our sailboat, unattended for too long. So, in the morning I try to get up real early, to avoid the worst of the heat, pack the laptop, a few other things and the dog in my backpack, row ashore and ride into work. Yup, the dog comes along. I’m not sure what the locals make of me – a toubab (white person), a woman (!), on a motorbike, with a big leather jacket on in the heat and a little dog-head peeking out of the backpack. It probably just confirms for them that most toubabs are a little bit strange, if not plain crazy.
But anyway, I ride the 20 km into work, first over sandy dirt roads (getting better at that), then through murderous Gambian traffic. I dodge around donkey carts, try to avoid temperamental taxis, do my best not to overrun unpredictable pedestrians and cyclists riding on the wrong side of the road, and by the time I get to my room I usually need a drink. Or two.
But the place I’m staying at is really nice and quiet, a big compound with lots of shady trees, dozens of old cars, three grumpy dogs (it took a while, but now Sparrow finally gets along with them) and friendly people. Heinz, the owner, runs (amongst other things) an NGO that builds schools and health centres. The whole thing is financed through car rallies from Germany to The Gambia. Check it out on: www.dbo-online.com!
So, every day I try to get my work done (progress is slow, gah), and sometimes I stay for the night, just to avoid the journey. But at least every second night I spend on the boat, making sure everything is fine there as well. All in all not too bad, but I can’t wait until Patrick comes back and life becomes a little bit easier and less lonely again!
While Leonie is sweating in the tropical heat of Africa I have winged my way to the other side of the world. In a mere three days I jetted back to the starting point for our big adventure of twelve months on the high seas and am now cruising past the jagged ice-capped coastline of Svalbard. It’s surreal to think that our yacht is moored in a tropical estuary surroundedby mangroves and cheeky monkeys while I cruise amidst icebergs, seals and polar bears in the arctic island of Svalbard on a 100m meter ship!
I’m up in the arctic for 2 months earning some cash as a naturalist on an expedition cruise ship and sharing yarns about our travels in the Arctic with passengers from all over the world. Meanwhile Leonie is getting stuck into some serious science writing research articles on the epigenetics of small alpine flowers. We are worlds apart both physically and in our day to day life at the moment but we are both dreaming of the next eighteen months that lie before us.
We have huge challenges ahead in the management of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project on the Gambia river but it is a challenge that fills us both with a sense of excitement, adventure and privilege. Here we have a chance to do some really meaningful work that has the potential to do some real good – both for the wildlife of the region and for the local people. Exciting times ahead!
Meanwhile it seems like we have both stepped into a surreal holding pattern with day to day tasks that are a far cry from the last 12 months of drifting free on the wide ocean. It certainly helps us to put our lives in perspective. It’s great here in the Arctic but I can’t wait to step aboard Widdershins and get into the swing of our new life with the chimps!
It’s just the two of us now that we said our final heart wrenching goodbyes to our smallest crew member. Shy is now happily making his home among his litter mates at the Greendog kennel, and by all accounts he is having a great time and fitting in well. I hope his time with us helped him to turn into the playful and inquisitive puppy that he became in the weeks we had him aboard.
As for the two of us – we have now bid our final farewell to Svalbard and all the friendly and helpful people that helped us on our way. 24hrs ago we saw the mountains of this arctic outpost dissolve into a mist, and our own horizon shrink into a small section of frothing white waves and blustery wind within a big misty ocean. In a way it is a little lonely out here away from everything but it’s great to be on the move again and there are always the fulmars circling the boat to keep us company on the long watches. It will take us over a week to cross the North Atlantic so it will be some time until we can post images again, but keep posted for text updates …and wish us fair winds!
A pint of beer and an enormous serving of ribs is just the thing to relax after a busy few days of Arctic diving. Swimming five transects of 50 meters may not sound like hard work but when you throw in freezing water, leaking dry-suits, biting winds and dense forests of seaweed the business is definitely hard work! Just imagine yourself at 15 meters underwater … the chill begins to seep in through the suit after 10 minutes and the water seeps in much faster through the tear on my suit. Imagine yourself floating over a canopy of waving fronds of algae, each frond reaching two meters in length and entwined in a dense forest with the other fond that carpet the sea floor to a depth of two meters. Below this jungle is the sea floor that you need to swim along happily counting every single fish and moving crustacean or snail or anything else of interest really. So of course you dive headfirst into the waving mass of brown algae, tie off your transect line, untangle your camera, untangle your legs, untangle your camera again, try and find where your dive computer is, untangle your dive computer … and off you go … nose down, legs up and furiously scribbling notes with a pencil that insists on making an escape to some desk where people use such tools more sensibly.
It is probably a rather comic site for the fulmars and other birds watching curiously from the surface. I can picture them gazing down at the wildly flailing fins protruding from the jungle of kelp while bubbles burst to the surface in panicked gasps. The dark depths of the kelp forest would briefly be illuminated by a burst of flash followed in rapid succession by several others while the aquatic photographer attempts to photograph a tiny fish flitting through the fronds. “Queer creatures these humans” they must mutter to themselves!
Actually, apart from the various challenges of diving here in Svalbard, the past few days have been really fun, and we feel privileged to see a side of Svalbard hidden from many. The tough moments are more than balanced by the moments of sheer serenity when you float weightlessly over the surface gazing at seascapes rarely glimpsed. It is not like diving in the tropics here – the diversity is actually pretty low – but the closer you look the more you see. Soon what appears as a barren seafloor is bustling with life. Anemones wave in the current alongside colourful sponges, and the rocks crawl with hermit crabs, spider crabs and the occasional small fish. Overhead flocks of birds look on with interest and the occasional seal dashes past with barely a glimpse at these strange intruders into their domain. Well worth a slight chill and the condemnation of the anxiously waiting dog who views the whole game with disdain.
The last few days have seen us (alright, mainly Patrick) bent over the motor and welding convoluted steel parts in an attempt to repair the broken mounting brackets of our motor – a result of us catching a rope in the propeller. Being in the high Arctic (still in Longyearbyen, Svalbard) only makes things more complicated, but people here are extremely helpful and inevitably the locals went far out of their way to fulfill our bizarre requests for strange parts. Yesterday we finally succeeded in fixing the motor and are now ready to head off for a few days diving in Isfjorden, before we resupply and head towards Greenland.
While this is all good news, it seems that the days with our puppy dog are coming to an end. Unfortunately he only very recently got his vaccination against rabies, and it seems to be pretty much impossible to import a dog from Svalbard (rabies realm) into any other countries on our way without him being at least micro-chipped. This in turn requires a blood test (results take about a month) conducted by a veterinarian who only visits Svalbard twice a year … by the time we had all the papers ready we’d be well and truly stuck in the winter ice! While we’re both really struggling with the idea of giving our little monster away, we’re also very proud of him – during the last few weeks he’s changed from a dog who shied away from any human interaction to a curious, cheeky little rascal loved by every tourist (ooh, so fluffy, so soft, and the eyes, the eyes! Photo, yes? Bellissimo!). There will be no problem finding a loving home for him here – many of the locals have already begged to have him (some have threatened to steal him!), but for two in the blue it will be a very sad parting.
So the next few days will be our last with the little Shy Monster (getting rapidly less little) and also our last moments in the spectacular scenery of Svalbard. However we are excited to spend some more time underwater now and get to know the marine life of the far north – stand by for more photos of the aquatic arctic!
Just a handful of days ago we were walking amidst he remains of the blubber ovens of Smeerenburg – the remnants of the industrial effort to harvest the whales of the Arctic that began in the 16th century. We were lucky enough to see whales feeding in the fjords of the north, however the reality is that the first efforts to harvest whales in these waters resulted in the virtual decimation of the whale stocks of the region. The bow-head whales that originally brought the whalers are almost absent from these waters and the large baleen whales like the blue whales we saw in Woodfjorden soon followed the plight of their cousins when industrialisation proved faster and better equipped whale chasing vessels.
From a modern explorers perspective we have encountered very few whales, and those we did stumble across were restricted to the far north. The well-travelled west coast of Svalbard presented itself as barren of cetaceans, and when we pulled into Longyearbyen a few days ago we were resigned to the fact that our time with whales in these waters was at an end. As a result the sight that greeted us yesterday lifted our spirits immensely.
Walking down the rocky shoreline of Adventfjorden our eyes were suddenly drawn to a bright white flash standing out against the turbid water. Soon the single flash was joined by several others until the sea was filled with white backs arching gracefully from the depths. The pod of passing beluga whales must have exceeded 50 individuals in their number and comprised not only the white adults but also the mottled grey backs of juveniles shadowing the movements of their mothers.
Thus with beluga porpoising all around we returned to Widdershins with hope in our hearts regarding the wildlife of the this rocky outpost of the Arctic. A pleasant thought to buoy our spirits as we get to work on preparing Widdershins for the coming crossing of the north Atlantic on our way to Greenland. As it turns out we have a lot of work ahead of us! That small incident of a rope wrapped around a propeller we mentioned earlier has metastasized into rather a serious issue – it seems the stress on the motor fractured the support struts of our engine! Thus I will be spending the next couple of days grinding and welding new struts out of spare pieces of steel that I have managed to scavenge from the various piles of discarded industrial equipment that line the streets of Svalbard. Hopefully it is nothing that will slow us down for too long but as always there is plenty to keep us busy!
In a way our long trip from pole to pole just started today. On a sunny afternoon with light playing over the ranks of white peaks to our south and a slick open sea we gently nudged over the line marking 80°N. Considering that the reciprocal latitude in the south lies either atop the Antarctic ice sheet or beyond the Ross Ice Shelf that defied the advance of polar exploration for so long, the far north offered balmy weather. As I write we lie at anchor at the pleasant harbour of Virgohamna in Danskgattet – the starting point for several failed expeditions into the ice of the north seeking the pole; across the fjord from here is Frambukta where Amundsen anchored during his exploration of the north. So many that went before perished or were turned back by the ice that lies to the north… yet we have seen no sea ice here. Looking north from 80°N we were met by a boundless horizon that seemed to beckon us to explore just that little further towards the pole. Perhaps the same clear seas called to the early explorers but it is unlikely. The northern coast of Svalbard is experiencing extremely low sea ice this year and things here have changed since the first charts were penned. Many glaciers have retreated from the touch of the warming waters that once lapped coolly at their feet. Bays once blocked all year by fast ice now offer cosy anchorages to the many small yachts that, once rare in these forbidding waters, are now common.
For us we now begin the long journey south – first to Longyearbyen to resupply and then the long haul across the North Atlantic towards Greenland. We leave behind us a startling wilderness, albeit one that holds the scars of a long era of exploitation. In addition to the abandoned whaling stations and trappers huts that de-populated the region from much of its wildlife, the signs of modern usage are also all around us. The area buzzes with ships and frequently we stumble over accumulated litter on these remote beaches. Most worrying of all are the many discarded fishing nets that float through these waters. Silent killers, they entangle and kill birds and mammals before washing up on the beach to display the bleached bones of their grizzly cargo. Just yesterday we hauled one of these nets out of the water to find several guillemot carcasses entwined in the coarse net.
The Admiralty Pilot Guide for this area declares that:
“There were formerly large herds of reindeer, but these, along with the arctic fox and polar bear, have now been practically exterminated by trappers. Whales have left the vicinity and seals, which formerly abounded, have almost disappeared; only vast swarms of sea-fowl of various kinds remain.”
Clearly the land is starting to recover since such a bleak outlook was penned. Life is slowly returning to the north following historical exploitation – on this trip we have already met with whale and seal species that have been hard to find since the whaling fleets abandoned these waters. As we set our sails for the south we hope to focus on examples of how humans can live in balance with these wild places and how coastal communities are changing to ensure that wild-places and wild animals survive into the future. Here in Svalbard for example, most of the animals are now protected and the Governor’s Office of Svalbard is a very real presence in the region constantly checking on sailors and tourist operators to ensure that modern activities do not impact upon the natural and cultural heritage of the islands. Life in the poles is certainly precarious but it seems there is a growing commitment to retain and nurture wild places at the end of the Earth.
Today was a wildlife extravaganza! We began with the plan to head down to the Monacobreen Glacier to examine the crumbling glacial face there, and also hoping to spot some of the polar bears known to haunt the area. However we never made it that far because wildlife kept getting in the way! First off, we took a winding route amongst the Andøyane Islands where we quickly spotted the shaggy shape of a bear romping around the moss covered slope attended by an angry swarm of dive-bombing terns. We quickly threw out the anchor and watched cautiously from a distance as the bear ambled around the island in search of eggs before stretching out on the beach for a nap (despite the continued attack of the terns).
The bear was a female wearing a collar from the Norwegian Polar Institute who are tracking and studying the population on Svalbard. Such studies are critical as we try to determine how the bears are adapting to the rapidly changing environment of the Arctic …. While the lack of sea ice this year makes cruising in the Arctic a breeze for us, ice-dependant species like the polar bear are facing new challenges as their icy habitat diminishes.
While we watched the bear on the beach the fjord began to come to life around us. Small planktonic pteropods began to bounce around below the boat and a swarm of juvenile cod began to mill in the shallow water – soon kittiwakes were circling and we found ourselves in the midst of a feeding frenzy as birds dropped from the air on all sides only to be faced by a gang of jealous rivals each attempting to snatch the tasty morsel plucked from the depth. Offshore more birds darkened the horizon and soon we were watching minke whales lunging to the surface with water spilling out of their baleen as they gorged on the plankton below.
But the star of the day was yet to show – transfixed by the minke whales swimming barely ten meters off the bow, we almost failed to notice the towering columns of water being thrown to the heavens on the other side of the fjord. But when we did drag our eyes to the horizon we realised that we were in the presence of not just one, but two blue whales. Soon we left the minkes (one of the smallest Rorqual whales) behind for the largest animal in the world. The marbled blue surface of the blue whale back were shortly before us … the beasts were immense with the very small portion of back exposed with each blow making our yacht look like a small sailing dingy in comparison. Spending an hour with two blue whales is a privilege and a memory that will stay with us forever.
Today was outstanding – for the first time since arriving in Svalbard we were surrounded by wildlife. Too often landings up here entail less live wildlife and more focus on the history of whaling, sealing and trapping that ultimately led to the decline of so much of the polar life. Today was fantastic, but one can’t help contemplating the days when mariners had to “plow through” the throngs of whales in these waters …let’s hope with good management the whales one day return to their historic feeding grounds.
We awoke this morning in the historic anchorage of Worsleyhamna – to the north is a spit of land that is buzzing with birds including long-tailed ducks, terns, purple sandpipers, kittiwakes and glaucous gulls. All around us are the scattered islands of Liefdefjorden, each with their own colony of nesting birds and the occasional prowling polar bear (though we have only found the skull of a young cub in this fjord so far).In the far end of the fjord is our target for the day – the spectacular Manacobreen glacier which once was so much more amazing. Today the glacial front is breaking apart and bares only rudimentary similarities with the charted coastline that was first put to paper by the early explorers. Despite the diminished might of the ice we hope to spend the day cruising amidst the icebergs calved from the glacier and always with a sharp lookout for the numerous polar bears that we are assured call the area home.
And as for us? We are still having a fantastic time though the constant long watches and windy anchorages are starting to take their toll on our sleep. And talking of wind .. Much of it seems to be emanating from the rear end of our diminutive crew member Shy. Each night a blast of fetid air announces the urgent need for a walk on deck. Admittedly he is getting better, with fewer urgent calls of nature, however Leonie and I never escape without several rude awakenings during the night and a quick lap of the deck while we shiver in long-johns and bare feet. Then again, the companionship of a warm sleepy head on the lap during a long watch, and the pleasure of having a leaping dog taking such obvious joy in a walk more than makes up for the more mundane aspects of dog ownership on a yacht. Now we just have to teach him that no, the tiller of the yacht is NOT a chew toy ..
Today we slipped off the map … quite literally as it happens. The electronic charts we use for general navigation end rather abruptly at 79°50’N. Naturally this transition (from comfortably knowing our exact location to the somewhat daunting job of translating our position from radar bearings onto the paper chart) happened smack bang in the middle of some tricky navigation through the Svenskegattet. After a little nervous triple checking however, the idea of reverting to paper charts as the primary navigation aid is rather appealing – as we sail through these northern fjords it seems like we are not so far removed from the early whalers that once plied their trade here. Things have changed of course – the whales were hunted virtually to extinction so no blows brush the horizon, and the ice that made these waters perilous is conspicuously absent. But still there is a sense of adventure and exploration up here in the far north – Svalbard lies to our south, glaciers tumble down the valleys, our compass shifts listlessly at this latitude, and we both have huge grins on our faces.