July 2, 2022
Somewhere up on the Northwest corner was Indre Norskoya.
Gloomy skies and intermittent rain reflected what went down here 400 years ago. Political and commercial chaos threatened the whale population because of a bunch of enterprising explorers who wanted to make a name for themselves. So, 1600s, Dutchman William Barentz (hence Barents Sea) discovered Svalbard by chance on his way to explore the Northern Passage in the China seas, although disputable.
Back then, whale trading flourished and just when the Europeans thought they struck gold, human nature kicked in and things fell apart. As a result, the whales avoided the coast and traders abandoned these islands and left traces of the whaling industry for fact-finding humans hundreds of years later to argue over who did what. A whale carcass floating ashore wasn’t exactly a mood booster. At that instant, a seal poked its head out of the dense and choppy water, so the camera shutters turned to the seal. Suddenly what looked like ivory was gliding in and out of the water. A walrus! Spirits lifted once again.
Naturally, we drifted towards it, taking in the serene and rainy landscape, snow covered mountains in sight. I tucked my vulnerable digital camera away, a little flustered with how I packed willy nilly for a Polar Adventure. The guide’s walkie talkie buzzed relentlessly with animal call alerts, other zodiacs were zooming past us. What was going on?
A big white bear. We wrapped up the walrus photo shoot and joined the wacky race towards the island. He lifted the bow to an almost 45 degrees angle and revved it up. It continued to rain, frigid wind gusts struck our faces, our frozen behinds bumping around as we hit the swells. We stopped across the island, a rigmarole of camera lenses pointing at one polar bear foraging around the island. We watched in admiration, taking turns with other zodiacs and that included zodiacs from another ship. We lucked out and stopped to face the edge of the island just when the bear decided to go for a swim. Meanwhile, someone spotted a purple sandpiper. Waa? The birds looked like specks in the distance. We were close but not close enough for my aging eyes and camera specs. It was worth risking my precious camera in the rain to take a couple of blurry and out of focus photos.
Amid the Polar Bear sighting festivities, I couldn’t help thinking about those dudes boiling whale blubber in the 1600s? After lunch, we hit the swells to Smeerenburg.
Our first shore landing was at aka Blubber Town on the island of Amsterdam. We were regaled with folktales about this absolutely deserted 20km fjord and guided to a pile of rocks that was once used as an oven to burn whale blubber. Cheaper to burn it in the Arctic said the European whale hunters/business men. We hung around the hypothetical oven for 20 minutes, freezing our A’s off, waiting for the other group to wrap up the walrus photoshoot. Oh, did I mention the super sized walruses lounging all over each other at the other end of “town”? Looking straight ahead, the scenery was ridiculous. I couldn’t get over the view of the snow melting off the mountain, a wonderful contrast to the color of the sea.
It was our turn! We quietly approached the walruses. Finally we stopped a few hundred meters away, so close we were able to catch a whiff of walrusness and effortlessly characterize them sans instruments. Impressive tusks, varying skin color influenced by body temps. They were huddled together, occasionally one would grunt abruptly and wake up the snoozy others. The ones hanging out in the water used their tusks to haul their bodies out (really funny) and join the cuddle. It was really special to watch, primarily because it wasn’t a zoo production.
We wrapped up the day with a recap of the day. Photos of the polar bear we sighted were all over the screens. WOW. Up close, sharp and defined. We could see its urine marks under the tail which implied it was a female. This one was hungry, foraged for eggs and kelp, ran out of luck, was harassed by Arctic Turns and swam to not sure where. Ah, females….so next time you’re having a bad day, think of this polar bear.
As for the walruses, it was a mishmash of bickering and love but still all over each other. A display of what social creatures they are. Pretty much most people except I don’t socialize this way….evidently.