We got our first taste of Svalbard back in 2018 when Dirona was in Tromso, Norway and we flew to Longyearbyen for three nights. We really enjoyed the raw beauty of Svalbard, and wanted to see more. Our North Pole itinerary aboard Le Commandant Charcot didn’t include spending time in Svalbard, however, as we’d be heading directly to the North Pole, and from there to Iceland. We were thrilled then, when the crew announced during our trip south from the pole that we’d be spending a few days along the coast of Svalbard. As with our trip to Antarctica, the actual itinerary is quite fluid. The main goal of this trip was, of course, to reach the North Pole. But once that was achieved with time to spare, other destinations were added.
Our first stop was at the island of Kvitoya, the easternmost land in Norway. Except for a small barren section at the southeast tip, the small island is completely covered in icefields, and is where the three members of Andree’s Arctic expedition perished in an attempt to reach the North Pole by hot-air balloon in 1897.
With strong winds and significant chop, the ride was quite wet and the island looked particularly inhospitable. But we enjoyed getting out in the zodiacs, the glaciers were beautiful, and we even spotted a polar bear in the distance.
The following day we landed at Viagattbogen along the eastern side of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. There we enjoyed a walk ashore by the glacier Viagattbreen, our first time on real land since departing Svalbard nine days earlier. The scenery was stark and wild, just as we remembered Svalbard.
While the landscape appears bleak, we saw many signs of flora and fauna while we were there, plus many animal bones. The land itself was covered in deep and winding channels carrying water to the sea. When the brief summer season arrives in the Arctic, the rapidly-melting winter snow carved these channels and creates conical piles of sand and stone. A small group went on an organized hike well up the hills beyond. We’re scheduled to do a similar hike when we reach Greenland.
That afternoon, we made another zodiac excursion off the island of Ardneset, home to a large colony of walruses. Nearby was the remains of a whale carcass that had been picked fairly clean by polar bears, birds, foxes and other animals. The afternoon was so foggy that we could hardly see the ship as we returned, and the bridge looked wild with lights ablaze.
The morning of our last day in Svalbard was our turn for a kayak trip off the glacier complex Lilliehookbreen, one of the largest in Svalbard, along the west coast of Spitsbergen. We’d kayaked in polar waters in Antarctica, but only for about a half-hour. This excursion would be for two hours, and we were given full drysuits and undergarments to wear to keep us warm. We added footwarmers that we’d brought, and these kept our feet quite toasty. We had a fabulous time and loved being out for so long and getting a chance to really explore and take in the glacier. The day was beautiful and the scenery was amazing, reminiscent of Antarctica.
That afternoon, we made our final stop in Svalbard at the research town of Ny-Alesund. At 79° north, Ny-Alesund is the most northerly community in the world. Originally established as a mining town in 1916 that closed in 1962, it now is a center for Arctic research, with 12 research stations representing 10 different countries. While we were there, the government-sponsored ship Nordstjernen had brought a group of Norwegians who had grown up in Ny-Alesund to visit their old home.
Ny-Alesund also is notable for being the launch point the airship Norge on Roald Amundsen’s successful expedition to become the first to reach the North Pole. The mooring mast that Norge was docked to still stands, and a statue in town honors the famous Norwegian polar explorer, both pictured below. The town’s small but excellent museum details the history of mining, exploration and science at Ny-Alesund.