One of Those Days
Some days just don’t get off to a good start. Today was one of them. Our vessel, m/v Plancius, had spent the night sailing toward Phippsøya, one of the famous Seven Islands forming the northernmost segment of the Svalbard archipelago. The recent weather had been great, spectacular even, as though purposefully showcasing some of the best sights of our voyage: the vibrantly colored houses of Ny Ålesund, the silhouetted blue whale in Woodfjord, and our haunting Hinlopen Straight passage through shards of crackling sea ice. Maybe all this good meteorological luck had set our expectations a little too high. Maybe that’s why we were so disappointed when the luck ran out.
Cue the Arctic Weather
We woke to an oppressive fog so thick you couldn’t even, as the saying goes, cut it with a knife – unless you wanted to blunt your knife. The voice of our expedition leader, Christian, informed us over the intercom that visibility was too poor for a safe landing at Phippsøya. A resounding moan of deflation echoed throughout the ship. We shuffled into the dining room for a bitter breakfast, hoping the mist would break though certain that it wouldn’t.
Until it did: The assistant EL, Sandra, announced that Zodiacs were being prepped and that we would soon be off. Still, we were skeptical. The fog we’d seen that morning looked like some kind of supernatural force, the cost of so much Hallmark-card-like weather. Our debt was known, and the fog had come to settle accounts.
Striking Svalbard Gold
Our apprehension vanished, however, as we approached Phippsøya in the Zodiacs and right away saw a group of five dozing walruses. But then the real goldmine appeared, the most coveted sight of any Svalbard cruise: farther up the beach, lazing in the sand, soaking up the sunlight that had just started into the sky, lay a hulking yellow shape – a polar bear! The majestic animal was resting, probably after an exhausting day on the hunt, and apparently had no intention of harassing the walruses quite yet. We got closer to it in the Zodiacs, so close that our guide, Gérard, was able to spot the white tag on its ear, a clear sign that scientists were studying the creature.
Further Fortune in the Seven Islands
We left the bear to rest and departed for Martensøya, a small neighboring island, where we interrupted a herd of diving walruses at mealtime. Their curious gray-brown heads poked out of the water to regard us with maximum disdain, unamused by our noisy interruption, after which they returned to more pressing matters: food, the top priority in the Arctic habitat.
We proceeded past the feasting herd, finally landing on Martensøya. The clouds, continuing to lift, revealed an almost lunar landscape of lichen-stained stones. We roamed the area in reverent wonder, trying not to feel too embarrassed that only hours earlier we had been absolutely convinced we’d still be on the ship by now – jittery with coffee refills, though lulled to sleep by our fifth game of canasta.
A New Lesson from the Arctic
Today started out as “one of those days.” It ended up as something entirely different. This unpredictability, we now know, is to be expected from the Arctic. Out here, nature dictates the terms, and conditions can change in the blink of an eye. This is part of what draws us to these wild edges of the world.
People don’t embark on polar voyages to work on their tan, after all, and they don’t go to the Arctic simply to rest. They go on Arctic cruises to follow in the footsteps of the great explorers, to break through fog both literal and figurative, to take chances. Today Christian and his team took a chance. In doing so, they gave us one of the most memorable days of our voyage, and that is a lesson we’ll take with us long after we’ve gone back home.