Circle the Arctic 2015

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SPITSBURGEN a.k.a SVALBARD ISLANDS, inside the Arctic Circle
June 22-25, 2015

JUNE 22. We started the cruise from the City of Longyearbyen − population 2,000 people. A coal mining town (there is still an operating mine) and now a launch point for, among other things, cruises such as ours. It also had whaling activity 150 years ago. We saw our first reindeer in town, which is quaint in the extreme − a modern trading post, similar to Ushuaia (but smaller) in that it is a gateway to the Pole. We went on a bus "tour" of the area (maybe a mile square). The guide was a Master Degree student from South Africa via Germany and the bus driver was a laid back local guy who periodically piped up to offer some real local color.

The town, and the Svalbard Islands, are managed by Norway. People who go outside the city limits typically carry a rifle to protect themselves against polar bears. However, if you shoot a polar bear, even in self defense, you have to go through what was described as a very lengthy, detailed investigation by the authorities on all the circumstances of the shooting since polar bears are highly protected. That investigation is really tough in order to make people very careful about where they wander and very careful to think about whether or not they really do need to shoot the polar bear.

I have never boarded a Zodiac at the start of a cruise. The traditional way of boarding a Zodiac is probably the worst way for me to step down on anything − it's a moving target that is not solid. But, the tour started out with a Zodiac ride to the ship instead of boarding via a gangway (we were bumped from the only dock Longyearbyen at the last minute by a much larger cruise ship). No chance to decide whether you wanted to tour off the ship on a Zodiac, just whether you went on the cruise at all. So, I boarded the Zodiac.

Most hotels have closets that are the approximate size of our cabin on this ship. When Carol first decided she wanted to go on this tour (July of last year), the ship listed in the brochure was described as an "all-suite" ship. That meant one with 120 suites. Sometime this spring, we think, they changed the ship to one having a handful of suites. Carol was then told that we hadn't signed up early enough but would be put on a waiting list for a suite. I had several intense discussions with the management of the tour company about "Bait and Switch". They offered us a credit on another trip − not likely − and finally, our deposit back. Carol wanted to go even if we couldn't get a suite. (Carol's comment to that account: I told Peter I was perfectly willing to cancel the trip- -and I absolutely was- -but he said he didn't believe me. Haaarumph.)

The bathroom, toilet, sink, and shower is the size of the one I had some 60 years ago when Diana and I had a 32 x 10 trailer. In this cabin, the toilet pedestal is in the shower. We have twin beds but at least they are not at right angles to one another. And there is, what a miracle, a small writing desk. The closets in this cabin shall not be discussed.

On the other hand, the food on board is quite good, spirits are high, and except for the laundry list of warnings that we were given in mandatory-attendance briefings last night and this morning about all sorts of things − including unruly polar bears- - things are surprisingly good. The crew's polar bear warning is amusing to me. We are cautioned that, although seeing a polar bear is one of the draws of the cruise, they also make it clear that seeing one is a rarity − apparently unless they are attacking you as food.

The scenery is magnificent. Like none I have seen anywhere. Black mountain outcroppings striated with snow and ice. In between the black and white are glaciers. Breathtaking. The chief difficulty is similar to what is experienced on many cruises: there are points at which the scenery, beautiful as it is, all begins to look the same.

JUNE 23. Today we went on our first official Zodiac cruise. We stayed on the Zodiac for the whole time and cruised around a fjord. We saw walruses and seals. Cold, but not bitter cold. Partially cloudy with patches of blue sky.

Wouldn't you know it. No sooner had I written that we were not going to see polar bears, we got word that one had been spotted. This came after the crew had put away all the Zodiacs from an earlier outing and the ship had sailed for about a half hour. People put on their various layers of clothes again and went back to the Zodiac launch deck. The Expedition Team was right. They had made a real find: a mother bear and her cub. Carol got some great shots (I stayed back on the boat). At dinner they called everyone to the decks see a pod of Beluga whales just off the bow.

June 24. Today we are much farther north. There was supposed to be a tundra walk today. There was too much ice at the Zodiac landing site so everyone went on a Zodiac ride to chase more polar bears. They saw one walking across a rocky area and then next saw it lying down on the sea ice apparently waiting for a seal to come up through the ice for air.

In the afternoon was a Zodiac trip to a 3-mile wide glacier/ice shelf. There was the possibility of seeing a chunk of ice fall off but because of sea ice between them and the glacier the Zodiacs couldn't get close enough to see much of anything.

I stayed in the cabin and worked on the photos.

Before dinner, people were asked if they wanted to "take the Polar Plunge". Several said yes. As far as I know there was no drinking beforehand. Carol went in symbolically. She threw her swimsuit in. While Carol didn't get a Polar Plunge certificate, one was issued to "Carol's Swimsuit".

Dinner was a barbeque on the aft deck. Really fun. Good food. Beautiful views. The captain had found a sheltered fjord and the weather was surprisingly comfortable, but of course cold enough to keep wine cold. At 10 p.m. the Captain announced that there was a party on the Bridge because the ship had reached latitude 80 degrees north. When I asked why this latitude was so important, I was told that few people had ever gotten this close to the North Pole. I figured that few people had gotten as close to the North Pole as the place the ship launched from, so I stayed in bed. Carol went to the party.

June 25. The last day of the cruise started with the ship not having reached the destination they had hoped to and so they sailed on to the second point for the first Zodiac trip of the day. The purpose of this Zodiac excursion was to allow everyone to actually walk on land, in this case, tundra. There was a herd of reindeer and a rookery with many hundreds of circling, noisy birds plus some pretty impressive climbing in boots and soft earth.

There was a second Zodiac trip soon after the first one got back. This one was a walk on a long flat beach to see a group of very lazy walruses. I stayed home and did the computer work again. As a reward to staying on the ship I was able to get on the Internet for a whole two minutes. Just enough time to see that I had emails but not enough to read them.

We had another marvelous dinner (the food has been uniformly great every meal) causing everyone to have gained weight even after the strenuous activity. Tomorrow fairly early we're on our way to Iceland.

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