From Oxford to Arctic with Roly Pitts
Having returned to a rather hot Oxford after 12 days of exploring Arctic islands on a century-old historic schooner, I decided to pen a few thoughts.
I’d nursed the idea of an Arctic trip for several years, but my decision to finally go on a Svalbard voyage was very much prompted by my concerns about global warming. I realised that if I didn’t go soon, it might be too late to see polar bears. I was already aware that the ice sheet had retreated, and I had a superficial knowledge of what this would mean for the landscape and wildlife.
I was also aware that I would not be visiting a zoo in the Arctic: nothing was guaranteed. In fact, I didn't have very big hopes of seeing a polar bear at all. But I knew that regardless of what I did or didn’t see, it would still be an enjoyable trip.
I booked to sail on Oceanwide’s Noorderlicht vessel via Aqua-Firma, a travel company that has always given me good advice for my wildlife adventures around the world. They know me well and recommended Noorderlicht because it’s small, meaning fewer fellow travelers aboard. Also, I knew a smaller ship could more easily explore fjords, and I rather liked the idea of traditional sailing. I had been on many diving trips on boats, but only one of them had sails, and the sails were never used during that trip.
Noorderlicht ended up being an excellent choice. And the trip didn’t just live up to expectations, it exceeded them. The crew were friendly, cheerful, hardworking, and efficient, and the boat ran like clockwork. Routes were plotted, destinations reached, and people ferried between ship and shore safely and efficiently.
We had a crew of just five people, every one of them mucked in at mealtimes, fetching, carrying, preparing the tables, and clearing away debris. Full marks to Andy the cook, who produced copious quantities of food from a tiny kitchen. There was a lot of variety and the food was always tasty, and on many days a huge cake would miraculously appear around mid-afternoon.
During my voyage, no attention was paid to the fact that I’d spent five months this year trying to shed blubber from my waistline. Were it not for the long walks our expedition guide Phil took us on, I would be starting my diet all over again!
Andy’s brawn proved useful when the sails needed to be hoisted. They fairly flew up the masts when he threw his full weight into hauling up the ropes, making my efforts look feeble by comparison.
I chose Noorderlicht because I wanted to explore the Arctic on foot, to get close to all the wildlife and landscapes there. I especially wanted to see some of the birds, such as little auks. We clambered up really close to a colony at Magdalenefjord and had fantastic views of them.
We also visited other bird cliffs, where we had great views of Brünnich’s guillemots, black guillemots, puffins, and kittiwakes. We had particularly close-up views of reindeer, Arctic foxes, and walruses. One time we even saw a lone king eider, so my birding targets were all ticked. I’m happy to have snapped good photos of each of the 26 species of bird that I saw.
The flowers too were colourful and interesting, and I was able to capture many photos of them as well. We saw two polar bears at Danskøya feeding on some old whale blubber. What really made the trip special, though, was our guide Phil’s depth of knowledge and his enthusiasm for the landscape, wildlife, and history of the Arctic.
Phil took us on some wonderful walks, each one very different. Despite the fact that our group had mixed walking abilities, we managed to cross some tricky terrain and scale hills with fantastic views over the glaciers. We visited historical sights and had the history explained to us in detail. We got up close and personal with glaciers and learned many things about their features.
But it didn’t stop there. We also had several presentations and films in the evenings. Sadly, the Swiss cheese where my brain once was hasn’t retain all the knowledge Phil imparted, but I still came away with a feeling that I had experienced the Arctic (its kindly summer face), seen its wildlife, and learned a lot about its history.
I have been very fortunate with the different and interesting places I’ve been able to visit, but I can happily say that this Arctic trip was right up with the best of them.