Expedition on board the superyacht “Latitude”, exploring the Norwegian Arctic
One unique family takes a trip to the Arctic regions. The Thadani family shares with us their experience on sailing through the Norwegian Arctic
After two consecutive passages through the famed Northwest Passage in 2014 and 2015, I was completely fascinated by the wonder of the arctic regions. I had only heard about the Svalbard archipelago, but the more I read and learned about it, the more I became determined to spend at least one more summer in the arctic, but this time, the Norwegian Arctic.
We boarded Latitude on July 8, 2016 in Stockholm, Sweden and after a short cruise to Copenhagen, where we picked up a couple of guests, we cruised to Bergen in the south west of Norway. From Bergen we took the rest of the month of July to cruise slowly up the west coast of Norway, exploring fjords like the Geiranger fjord and the Trollfjord, through to the Lofoten archipelago, known for its distinctive landscape with dramatic mountains leading down to sheltered bays, and up to Tromsø in Northern Norway. Tromsø is known as the cultural hub above the Arctic Circle and is a popular destination for viewing the northern lights.
After a few days in Tromsø, we set out to cross the Northern Ocean to the Svalbard archipelago, also known as Spitzbergen. On the way to Svalbard, we stopped at a small island called Bjørnøya, also known as Bear Island. Bjørnøya is a natural bird sanctuary with high cliffs where you’ll find nesting colonies of Auks, Black legged Kittwakes, Guillemots and Puffins. Bjørnøya is rarely, if ever, visited by passing ships and there are no tourist trips to Bjørnøya. We did however, find the remains of a Russian fishing boat whose crew had been partying, then got drunk and grounded their boat, which is now a permanent part of the island.
After a two-day stop in Bjørnøya, mainly due to weather, we left for Svalbard and its main city of Longyearbyen where we arrived on August 3. Longyearbyen is considered the Capital of Svalbard, and with a population of just over 2,000, is definitely the centre of activity within the archipelago. There are museums, good shopping, galleries and a good infrastructure to support tourist activities. It is quite remarkable, considering the population size. There is even a Michelin starred restaurant and a pub that is rated as having the 6th best bar in the world! The high season must see a lot of tourists.
Some weeks prior to getting there, we had made contact with Jason Roberts who is based out of Svalbard and who has worked with Sir David Attenborough for the past 30 years or so to produce documentaries like Frozen Planet, Human Planet etc. Jason was most helpful and suggested we take one of his colleagues, Einaar, a young Norwegian, with us for the trip. This was the best decision we ever made because Einaar’s knowledge of the archipelago and its wildlife was indispensable. As an added bonus, he had a delightful personality and got along with everyone on board. For anyone planning to visit the Arctic, I would highly recommend making contact with Jason Roberts Productions in Svalbard.
We had some guests who had to leave us on August 9, so we broke up the cruise plan into two parts. The first was a five-day cruise up the west coast of the archipelago and back to Longyearbyen. The second was a 17- day anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the entire archipelago, including a side trip to a very seldom visited (we were told we were the third boat to ever visit) island called Kvitøya and a short visit up to the Arctic ice pack north of 81 degrees north latitude.
The first day took us to the Krossfjord in the Northwest Spitzbergen National Park. The Krossfjord is 30 km long with various branches, spectacular scenery with numerous glaciers and many attractive excursion sites. We spent the day exploring various neighboring fjords, the Möllerfjorden, Mayerbukta and even managed to climb onto an iceberg floating in the Fjortende branch.
From the Krossfjord, we cruised to Magdalenefjord, which cuts about 10 km straight into the coast. This fjord is generally accessible year round and was popular with whalers in the 17th century. It has a bay, Trinityhamna, sheltered by the Gravneset peninsula which provides good shelter for visiting ships. In 1977 an Austrian mountaineer was killed by a polar bear in Magdalenefjord and this is where we also saw a large male polar bear, clearly resting on his journey to the north where the ice pack had receded to. We took a trip in the tender to Amsterdamøya, named after the Dutch whalers, where we saw a large group of Walrus sunning themselves.
The next stop was the Raudfjord, the first fjord eastward as you follow Spitzbergen’s north coast from the western corner. It is about 20 km long with a number of side bays with calving glaciers and shallow water. We took the tender and landed at Alichamna, where we hiked for about 14 km over very rocky terrain to the other side of the fjord where we lit a huge bonfire with driftwood before the tender came around and picked us up. Everyone slept very well that night!
On August 7, we went to Trygghamna and took the tender to Alkepynten with its spectacular 100m high cliffs, ideal for nesting bird colonies. We went there to see if we could find and photograph the arctic fox, known to linger at the base of the cliffs to catch any young Guillemots or Auks attempting their maiden flight, but who fail to make it as far as the sea!
These birds provide the last chance for the foxes to stash some food for the winter. Unfortunately, we did not see any fox on that day, although we did run into quite a few reindeer.
On the last day, before heading back to Longyearbyen to drop off some departing guests, we stopped at Pyramiden, a deserted town originally built by the Russians for a coal mining operation. When coal mining became uneconomical, they simply abandoned this town in 1998 and it now stands like a ghost town but with an operating hotel with six Russians who live there. We actually went and had a drink of Russian vodka at the bar. From Pyramiden we visited a nearby glacier where we were able to climb up and walk through the body of the glacier in a melt water channel. It is quite a unique experience as one is surrounded by an ice-blue tunnel of glacial ice. From the other side we managed to get on top of the glacier from where we got some good drone footage and photos.
After our guests left on August 9, we remained in Longyearbyen for a couple of days because the weather on the East coast of the archipelago, where we were headed, had turned nasty. In Longyearbyen we took a few walks, visited the arctic museums, did some shopping, and tried out all their restaurants.
We left Longyearbyen on August 11 at 7 pm and arrived at Bellesund at 1:30 am. Bellesund is the entrance to a fjord system with several branches extending up to 80 km inland. We went for a long hike to two hunting cabins at Camp Milar. This was our lucky day for, in addition to many reindeer and some action with two Skewers who constantly attacked us and our drone aerially, we also ran into an arctic fox mother with three cubs. We spent several hours photographing them both with our cameras and the drone.
On August 13 we cruised to Hornsund, the southernmost fjord of the Svalbard archipelago and some think, the most beautiful. It has eight large glaciers with calving fronts backed by some very impressive mountains including Horsundtind, the third highest mountain of the archipelago. The combination of peaks and glaciers provide some spectacular landscapes. We took our tender and visited glaciers at Bergerbukta, Brepollen and Storbreen and hiked to an incredible formation of rocks that can only be described as an Arctic Stonehenge. Along the way we saw more reindeer and a fox.
The next day we were planning to go to the Island of Edgeøya which has some bird nesting cliffs where polar bears have been known to climb when food is scarce, to eat the eggs and chicks from the nests. Unfortunately, the weather was bad and we would not have found a safe anchorage at Edgeøya so we skipped it and went on to Barentsøya and Dorstbukta where we did see two polar bears walking on the shore.
One of the most memorable moments of the trip was the visit to Viberbukta and the trip through all the brash ice to the massive Brassvell glacier which is a part of a glacier system consisting of 170 km of ice cliffs. It had several huge waterfalls coming off the top of the glacier making for a truly unforgetful sight.
On August 16 we started making our way to the “White Island,” Kvitøya but on the way we decided to make a stop on the northern tip of Storøya. These two islands are the remotest points of the archipelago, of which Storøya, the smaller island is only is 40 sq km in area. We arrived at 9:30 pm and went out for a little exploration with the tender. As it turned out, it was very timely because we spotted two polar bears and one of them quite near some walrus. It was so interesting, we did not return to Latitude till after 3 am. That was the advantage of the 24-hour sun, we could do whatever we wanted, anytime we wanted. We spent an extra day in Storoya before continuing to Kvitøya. Approximately 99 per cent of Kvitøya, which is 700 sq km in area, is covered with an ice cap and there are only three very small portions that are ice-free. We made our first stop at Andréeneset, one of the ice-free points but there was too much swell and, although we saw some walrus and one dead polar bear, we moved on to the north-eastern end of the island to Kræmerpynten where we spent two days.
While at Kvitøya, we did quite a bit of hiking and exploring with the tender. There was lots of brash ice in the water and many walrus mothers with their young babies. We also saw four polar bears (two of which stalked us when we were hiking on the glacier!) and also three dead polar bears. The bears either died of hunger or perhaps from injuries sustained while trying to attack the walruses. Walrus mothers with young can be very dangerous and will attack and wound or kill polar bears. At the end of one hike when we went right up to the topof the glacier, we came down to one of the ice-free areas on Kvitøya and lit a bonfire. It was so nice and warm with a blue sky, that we decided to have a barbecue dinner by the bonfire. The chef took the dinghy to go back to Latitude to get the food and supplies and, while we were waiting for him, a big male polar bear popped up quite close to us. He apparently came out of the water on the other side where he had probably been trying to hunt for walrus or seals. He became quite curious and started to approach us, so we had to abandon our plans for the barbecue dinner. He did provide some very nice photo opportunities over the next hour or so and then we returned to Latitude, as he climbed up the glacier on almost exactly the same path that we had taken coming down. Kvitøya was clearly the highlight of the trip and we were sorry to leave it but the weather started to change and we wanted to see if we could make it up to the polar ice shelf about a hundred miles north of the top of the Svalbard archipelago.
We left Kvitøya on August 20 in dense fog and very poor visibility. It was difficult going due to the presence of a lot of ice in the water. We made it to the polar ice shelf about 20 hours later and then spent two days in the ice. It is impossible to anchor up there as the water is too deep so we developed a technique where we would simply “hitch” ourselves to a large ice floe and then drift with it. We even managed to get out onto an ice floe and take some pictures, whilst the girls hula- hooped, and two people stood guard with rifles in case of a polar bear attack!! It was quite an amazing experience.
We left the ice shelf on August 23 and cruised to the Woodfjord area and into the Liefdefjord, which is very popular with visitors because of its extraordinary natural beauty and many excursion options. After anchoring near Sørdalsbukta, we visited the Monaco glacier and, after dinner, took the tender to an extraordinary “beach” under a huge Red mountain. We made a bonfire and roasted marshmallows and watched the changing colors as the sun moved slowly from one side to the other, without ever setting. While we were sitting by the fire, an Arctic fox popped his head up over the rise but was too shy to come any closer. The smell of the food was perhaps too much for him not to at least take a look. This bonfire under the red mountain was another one of the unforgettable events of the trip!
After leaving Liefdefjord on August 24, we ran into some pretty rough seas and bad weather, so we ducked in and took shelter in the Magdalenefjord on the West coast, where we had gone on the first part of the trip. Once the weather had improved, we left and made our way to Ny Alesund, one of the settlements which is still used by research stations set up by many countries including China, Japan, India, Italy and coordinated by the Norwegian Polar Institute. Ny Alesund is the highest point of human habitation on earth and is one of the most important sites in the history of exploration of the North Pole. During the summer, about 150 scientists from different countries work there collecting data on arctic ice and wildlife. The permanent population is only 40 people who stay there all year round.
After spending a little more than a day in Ny-Ålesund, we finally made our way back to Longyearbyen, very aware that we had just accomplished what few have done before: a complete circumnavigation of the Svalbard Archipelago with a stop at the Polar Ice shelf. Latitude has now been closer to the North Pole that any other private yacht. When we stopped on the ice floe, we were 400 miles from the North Pole.
This article was first published in Yacht Style 37.