Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Cruise Weekly Comment: All Aboard for Svalbard

Just 600 miles from the North Pole lies the island group of Svalbard, of which Spitsbergen is the largest. Variously occupied and exploited by the Dutch, Russians and Norwegians, in 1920 it was decided that the Norwegians should administer it and the capitol, Longyearbyen, flies the Norwegian tricolour.

The archipelago was named and first mapped in 1596 by the famous Dutch explorer, Willem Barents and became a whaling station, a coal mining centre, a launching point for famous arctic expeditions and more recently, a mecca for naturalists, polar researchers and eco-tourists.

Despite Svalbard's extreme northerly location, the warm North Atlantic current keeps the surrounding seas ice-free almost year round. Temperatures average minus 16degC in winter and 6degC in summer.

During the so-called heroic age of polar exploration, men set forth to the extremities of the earth in search of all sorts of things, not the least being fame, glory and national pride.

Spitsbergen was an ideal point for 'jumping off' into the Arctic in search of the North Pole.

In 1897, the Swedish scientist and intrepid balloonist, Salomon August Andree, launched himself and two co-pilots on a journey to the North Pole from Danes Island and were never seen again. Well, not alive anyway. Their bodies, remnants of their balloon and a camera were accidentally found thirty years later on White Island in the far east of Svalbard. Andree's balloon crashed and the survivors had made it back to White Island before dying from Vitamin A poisoning (trichinosis) from eating polar bear liver.

Balloons were back on Spitsbergen in 1926 with the Italian, Umberto Nobile, along with Roald Amundsen and rich American Lincoln Ellsworth. Their voyage over the pole in the airship Norge (Norway) is the first creditable expedition to the North Pole even though many would argue that Cmdr Richard Byrd, who took off a couple of days prior with his Fokker Tri-Motor was the first. That is - if you discount both Peary and Cook!

Nobile, wounded by the fame wrested from him by Amundsen and Ellsworth, was back at Ny Ålesund again in 1928. This time his airship, suitably named "Italia", would be an all-Italian triumph. Or so he thought. Instead he crashed in poor weather and became the famous subject of the 1969 movie, "The Red Tent".

Today Svalbard is visited by tourists looking to experience one of the most remarkable and accessible Arctic locations thanks to the warming effects of the North Atlantic Current. Polar bears, reindeer, arctic foxes and countless species of birds inhabit the islands. Marine mammals are abundant and seals, walrus, narwhals, orcas, belugas, bowhead and minke whales all inhabit Spitsbergen's coastal waters.

Join one of the several expedition vessels for a cruise of between 7 and 10 days around the islands visiting the various historic sites as well as the abundant wildlife. June, July and August are the best months to visit.

Operators for Svalbard include: MyPlanet, Aurora, Quark, Adventure Associates