July 18, 2013 – Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjorden
Posted on July 24th, 2013
We reached the settlement of Ny Ålesund in the morning. Much smaller than Longyearbyen and originally a mining town, Ny Ålesund is now a multi-national scientific research base. After breakfast, ‘LeBoreal’ docked at the pier, where we disembarked to explore the town.
Polar bear (Ursus maritimos) sightings in Svalbard and here in Ny Ålesund are not uncommon, so every precaution was taken to ensure our safety while taking care to respect the bear and his environment. Dubbed the King of the North, this fearless bear is comfortable exploring every aspect of the Arctic environment, even moseying right through the villages. This explained why many of the residents here carried weapons as a matter of course, and why our staff were posted around the perimeter.
There was much to see and it was a very pleasant day for walking. We explored a small museum had many exhibits focused on the mining industry, which came to an abrupt end after a disastrous methane explosion in 1963. An adjoining visitor center had images of local features. There was also post office and gift shop further along the town’s main, and only, road. The former asserted that it was the northernmost post office in the world (this might be disputed as Eureka, Canada, also has a post office; the Ny Ålesund one is undoubtedly the most northern one in Europe however).
The town’s coal mining history was revealed in the older buildings with their brick chimneys as well as an abundance of old 61 cm railway track. We also saw one remaining steam engine and a line of coal wagons near the pier. High on a nearby peak was an upper atmospheric observatory connected by a telepherique system. Arrays of magnetic and other geophysical instruments were in the vicinity.
To the east were the nesting territories of Arctic Terns (Sterna paridisaea), small but feisty birds known for vigorously defending their eggs and chicks by aerial attack on the head of anyone regarded as a threat (we steered clear). Occasionally a small group of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) flew past and geese were common in the area.
We met at the center of Ny Ålesund to begin a tour of the historic site, stopping at the bust of Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) who led expeditions by aircraft from here to the central Arctic in 1925 and 1926. After a brief introduction, we walked along a former railway line and headed to Amundsen’s air-ship mast. The mast was built in 1926 and in the spring of that year served as the point of departure for the airship Norge, which made the earliest flight across the Arctic Ocean to arrive in Teller, Alaska. During this flight, the first sighting of the North Pole was made by the 14 men aboard. Two of them, Amundsen and Oscar Wisting, had previously seen the South Pole on December 14, 1911, thus, they became the first persons to see both geographic poles. Shortly before noon, we observed the landing and takoff of a modern Dash-7 aircraft on a nearby runway.
Ny Ålesund is situated in the spectacular Kongsfjorden (King’s Fjord) system surrounded by magnificent mountainous and glacial scenery. We boarded ‘Le Boreal,’ and enjoyed lunch as our ship moved farther up the fjord in calm, brilliantly clear weather. For a few thrilling moments, we spotted humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) and Sei (Balaenoptera borealis) Sei whales on the way, but they did not oblige by lingering.
We made our next landing at Blomster Øy (Blomster Island). Our bear guardians reminded us what to do in the event a polar bear was sighted and also established a perimeter of safety. There was much to discover on the island, with flowering vegetation in the tundra, animal tracks, glaciers and other surrounding geological features. In fact, the geology included a surprisingly large variety of rocks, erratically formed en route here from the glaciers where they originated. One glacier in its current position occasionally calved with the sound of ‘Arctic thunder.’ The former extent of the glacier was clearly marked by ‘scars’ on the fjord shores, where the time between its retreat and the present was insufficient for the newly exposed areas to become vegetated and to weather to darker colors.
In the course of the afternoon, we spotted a polar bear in the far distance on the main land. The bear moved along the shore and occasionally entered the sea. We hoped for another sighting that might allow for a closer look.
This evening Captain Patrick Marchesseau invited everyone to a cocktail party and dinner. The first was held in the lecture Theater where the Captain introduced himself and some of the principal officers not on watch at that time. What followed was a delicious banquet, abundant refreshment and excited conversation around the days ahead.