No landing today?!
Together with some 100 fellow passengers, I am aboard the vessel Ortelius on a whale safari to Fair Isle, Jan Mayen, and Svalbard.
We arrived at the island of Jan Mayen. Yes, Jan Mayen! A remote island in the north Atlantic Ocean.
Many of our passengers booked this trip because visiting Jan Mayen is a dream come true.
We are well prepared. Besides being properly dressed for the excursion, we are informed about the history and geography of the island by Oceanwide lectures from the staff members.
This is the moment, we are on the spot. We look at the beach of Walrusbukta, where the Zodiacs will take us from Ortelius. Unstable weather can be a spoilsport, but this morning all looks well.
We are ready to go!
At breakfast we pack a lunch, put on our raincoats and boots and life jackets. It will be a “wet landing” where we will be split in four groups: from far and heavy hikes to short and relaxed ones.
The ladder to descend into the Zodiacs is lowered. Each Zodiac can transport about ten people, so several trips will be necessary. Our staff requested us to give preference to the people who opted for the longest walk.
There are rumours that some people take pains to get in the Zodiacs first simply to lengthen their stay on the island. If that’s true, how unsporting…
The island looks like a colossal hairbrush: a long hilly handle with a neck at sea level. That’s the bay of Kvalrusbukta. On the other side rises a huge mountain with a volcano called Beerenberg. The top of the volcano is often shrouded in dense fog.
We are told that, due to whale hunting in the past centuries, the whales here are nearly extinct. The hunting continued on walruses and seals afterward, but nowadays hunting on all sea mammals is forbidden.
The remnants of a Dutch whaling station, although rusty and overgrown with moss, is one of our sightseeing destinations.
Jan Mayen is named after an historic Dutch whaler from the seventeenth century, but to which country does the island belong today? The Dutch once claimed ownership, but since World War II, Jan Mayen is Norwegian territory governed as part of the Svalbard archipelago.
Jan Mayen also has a weather station, and the Norwegians have the authority to stamp the passports of visitors. So we pack our passports – everybody wants a unique Jan Mayen stamp – and our credit cards, in case there are souvenirs to buy. Maybe we can also send postcards home.
Our excursion leaders have already arrived on shore to meet the Norwegians and make arrangements for the visit of the tourists.
Although the stairs to the Zodiacs are ready for us to descend, no Zodiacs appear. We see some of them sail to the coast, return, meet with a colleague in another Zodiac, then go back to the shore and stay there.
Something is wrong. But from Ortelius, it’s impossible to see what that is. With binoculars we can only see some commotion on shore.
Many hours later, in the evening, we learn what happened: The Zodiac keeled over on the beach, injuring our expedition guides. Rescue operations involved helpers from the island. While they were helping, the weather deteriorated.
Then a message from the ship radio: No landing today.
We passengers are speechless, exchanging looks of bewilderment and resignation. The delays were not very promising, so we already had bad feelings, but this announcement is a real disappointment.
The rumour machines get going. Maybe we should have offered a sum of money to one of the guides to ship us to shore, only for a few minutes, to let us cross Jan Mayen of our bucket lists.
True or not, such a rumour illustrates the mood of this moment.
The Ortelius lies at anchor at the Jan Mayen coast for the rest of the day. Thanks to the weather being clear, we get a beautiful view of the island. Beerenberg shines full in the sun, but we don’t get to go there.
Once I’m back home, I look again at the program description of the trip.
The program offers a whale safari with stops at Fair Isle and Jan Mayen. It start in Vlissingen, Netherlands, finishing in Svalbard.
After this text are the Terms and Conditions, two pages with really small letters. One of these terms is that excursions will only take place if the weather conditions allow it.
Whales? We saw several tails, but all were far away. The landing at Fair Isle was cancelled at the last moment. A separate visit to the Shetland Isle Mousa was a pleasant excursion, although not an equal replacement for the missed sights of Fair Isle.
Jan Mayen was cancelled as well, but without an alternative.
The cruise we made was the Terms and Conditions version!
Was the whole trip worthwhile? Well, it sure was. The atmosphere and care on board were excellent. The northern Atlantic Ocean was beautiful, a real holiday. Nice outings to Aberdeen and Svalbard and Longyearbyen.
But nevertheless, the wish to visit Jan Mayen, the island with its interesting history, so far from the world, has to remain on my bucket list.
Will there ever be another chance?
A response from Oceanwide Expeditions
Let us start by stating in no uncertain terms that safety has been, is, and will always be our top priority when it comes to our crew, guides, and passengers.
That said, the canceled landing described above was in response to a significant event.
After touching shore on Jan Mayen and evaluating the conditions for a safe landing, our guides were confronted with sudden dangerous sea swells that not only overturned one of our Zodiacs but also injured one of our guides.
Had help not been at hand, the situation may have been far worse. Even so, a missed outing is a sad experience for everyone.
Our company is based on showing people the polar regions. This includes showing them the beauty of the landscape, the diversity of the wildlife, and the near-limitless opportunities for adventure to be found there.
Missing the chance to do this is not just a loss for our guests, it’s a loss for us.
We don’t mean a loss of money, bookings, or good reviews. We mean the loss of our ability to put the passion of our staff and the mission of our company into practice.
But whatever our passion or mission, the polar regions are known for their highly variable conditions. Nature determines the final itinerary in these areas. We emphasize this as often as we can while trying not to hammer it home too heavily.
After all, booking and embarking on a polar cruise is supposed to be fun.
But when polar conditions make outings unsafe, as was especially true in the above scenario, we can’t simply risk it and hope for the best. All we can do is be honest, apologize for the inconvenience, and attempt alternate plans.
Regardless, we always do this with a heavier heart.
Because we love experiencing the polar regions, and we want you to love experiencing them just as much. Our goal is that every voyage be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
It was our goal when we started 25 years ago, it will be our goal over the next 25.