Norway: Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen is a small coal-mining town on Spitsbergen Island, in Norway's Svalbard archipelago. This Arctic town is known for its views of the Northern Lights and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which is a secure backup facility for the world's crop diversity. Live bears can occasionally be seen in the area. The North Pole Expeditions Museum recounts early efforts to reach the pole by air. The scenery is spellbinding, and the islands offer you the chance to enjoy experiences that few other destinations can offer.

­čÖé Remote! Wild!

­čÖü Remote! Wild!

WEDNESDAY 22 June 2022:

Up at 7am – took forever to clear Customs as bags were oversized so we queued twice more despite being Business Class and despite that we should have gone straight to the queue-less oversize area – arrrgh! Then we had to unpack all our cameras! Then we went to wrong lounge! LOL! Barely made boarding and then not on window seats but aisle….grrrrr… this should have given us a premonition of what was to come…. Managed to snap a pic after asking lady at window to lean back – pity as a fairly clear day and think the views would have been great to see.

Quite fun on arrival as there is a life size polar bear and instructions for life in Longyearbyen – carrying a gun at all times when out of City limits etc.

We were collected by Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions who we had booked the kayaking and camping expedition through and who kindly dropped Nessy at Base Camp Hotel.

We then needed over to the head office to get our paperwork and equipment for our kayaking and camping overnight trip. We sorted out a boil in the bag lunch as ravenous! Paul knocked over entire shelving – hilarious! Got ourselves kitted out in dry suits. Loaded the vehicles and made sure that the weapon was loaded and ready for use in case of hungry polar bears!

Our first attempt at launching our kayaks was thwarted by a very angry and defensive Arctic tern! You have to hold your hands up as they only attack the highest point! Arctic terns are the ultimate long distance migrants – summer visitors to the UK and winter visitors to the Antarctic. The flying abilities of Arctic terns are amongst the most astonishing of any birds. They have a length of a little over 30cm (a foot), a wingspan of less than a meter (about two and a half feet) and a weight of around 100g. Despite this, they have been measured at flying up 90,000 km (nearly 56,000 miles) a year. This has recently be proven by attaching trackers onto birds and is around twice the previously thought distance. The reason is that the birds follow the prevailing wind patterns that carry them along rather than taking the most direct routes.

We launched a few hundred metres up the coast. The sea was calm and as we were properly dressed the temperature was comfortable.

There were trillions of different shaped and coloured minute jellyfish covering the entire ocean. It really was very peaceful. Saw kittywake gulls, guillemots and puffins (!) and reindeer and two arctic foxes on shore.

The winds were predicted to pick up over night so we did not want to risk being unable to kayak out from where we camped so hopped in the vehicle and drove a bit further to a remote spot where we set up camp. Spotted another arctic fox. They are such interesting animals. They well adapted to living in cold environments, and is best known for its thick, warm fur that is also used as camouflage white in winter with the snow and mottled grey to blend in with the rocky tundra in summer. Like a cat’s, the fox’s thick tail aids its balance but is especially useful as warm cover in cold weather. They have thick fur on their paws, which allows them to walk on both snow and ice.

Paul photographed a breeding pair of rock ptarmigans.

The flora was very pretty …

The reindeer were very curious and kept coming closer to inspect what we were up to.

We had curious reindeer coming to take a closer look and a ptarmigan. Tony saw another arctic fox too.

Kassia made a delicious chilli con carne – yum! Pudding followed.

By the time we had eaten it was past 11pm so we decided how to divvy up the two hour polar bear watches.

THURSDAY, 23 June 22

Paul on at 2am and I was on 4am and Tony at 6am. When it got to my turn it was incredibly windy and cold so had to keep walking while watching. We were all fast asleep when at about 8.15am we heard a loud snap – the tent had gone! We decided to abandon ship and hiking plans as it was horrendous!

Spotted another handsome reindeer on the way back.

We went back to head office and collected our gear and were dropped at Base Camp Hotel and checked in – very rustic and charming – loved the style!

Breakfast was over so we headed to a cafe for some food. Seems to be a popular meeting point. Had some hot berry juice.

Walked around Longyearbyen centre to explore and bought a Christmas decoration and some bits and bobs.

Apparently there are many South East Asians who love to buy and keep plants while living here so this little nursery was a thriving business!

We bumped into Tony and Nessy who said that they had received an e-mail from Georgia at Exodus to say that our ship would be delayed. I then saw that I had a missed call from Paul G. I called him straight back – DISASTER! The newly refurbed ship, Polar Explorer had not passed a final inspection and we would not be departing the next day as planned – in fact, the departure date was up in the air! (Finally departed on 2nd July). This was terrible news as we could not extend our leave by such a long period and Longyearbyen is a pretty expensive part of the world! I called several other Polar specialist companies and a wonderful lady called Lucy from Polar Routes was incredibly helpful and provided an option for the same departure date, less days, not as rustic or a photographic specialist trip as we had booked BUT significantly cheaper and available! There were two cabins with balconies available so we snapped them up with relief. An added bonus was the significant discount for booking last minute! Hoorah! We then took Covid tests to make sure that we were all A for OK…all negative…. however, we still had to try to get official PCR tests to show on arrival on the boat but in the end there were no options available so they said that they would test us on arrival on the ship. We had numerous drinks in the hotel bar, met Boris who was Paul’s co-expedition leader and then enjoyed dinner and a bit of a laugh before going to bed with a mix of emotions.

FRIDAY, 24 June 2022

We were up for breakfast at 8am – delicious Eggs Benedict.

Paul and I decided to do a walk to see the eider duck colony on the outskirts of town next to the dog sledding farm. It was super windy! This place really does have the feel of a frontier town!

The eider ducks were unbelievably tame and unperturbed by our presence. Too cute sitting on their eggs with the down surrounding them and some chicks already swimming – a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

There were also geese.

We walked a bit further to the Danger – Polar Bear ! Sign Very cool.

I had just been wondering out loud how the sled dogs maintain their fitness throughout the year when they came racing past on wheels!

Next stop was lunch and then the Museum which was very well done.

Our taxi then came to collect us for our transfer to our Ponant Cruise on the L’Austral.

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