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Rediscovering the Arctic: Iceland to Svalbard

Arctic / History / Iceland / Svalbard / Wildlife

Swoop Specialist John recently returned to the Arctic for the first time in four years. Northern Finland had been John’s home for 13 years, but this time he was travelling as a tourist, not going home. He shares his experience of visiting one of his favourite regions and sailing far, far north.

Landing in the Arctic felt cathartic: the cold chill on my face and the fresh smell of ice burn my nostrils. The cold, ice and snow are so familiar, in fact they’ve been tattooed into my memory after over a decade living in Finland. I was very much looking forward to my adventure.

My voyage departed from Reykjavik, Iceland. It’s a small, very modern city which had everything I needed for a great stay. A stone’s throw from the city, you’ll find geysers erupting and natural world wonders colliding; they don’t call it the land of fire and ice for nothing.

My route north, on-board the Sea Spirit, would take me via the very little visited Island of Jan Mayen and then onto the polar bears and glaciers of Svalbard. Sailing west out of Reykjavik and following the Icelandic coast north along its fjords, I have no idea why, but I was surprised at the beauty. Perhaps I expected Svalbard to be the main event, perhaps numerous visits to Iceland previously meant that I felt I had seen all there was to see. After all, on previous journeys I had circled the entire island.

Sailing along the coast of Iceland was a joy – whale watching from the deck of the Sea Spirit, and cruising alongside lush green cliffs, where millions of birds were nesting. Quickly, I recognised the natural wealth of Iceland, especially seeing it from the different angle which the vessel provided.

After several stops in Iceland, we sailed two days north to a small island, a mere speck on the map, called Jan Mayen. I am absolutely delighted at any opportunity I get to touch land that few others ever have set foot on before, so I was very excited to visit Jan Mayen. Sailing towards the island reminded me of approaching the South Shetlands in Antarctica. It feels like it holds secrets. The island was shrouded in moody low hanging grey clouds and I could almost believe dinosaurs lived there – who would know if they did? Perhaps the ten scientists who live on the island.

I managed a few hours’ paddling in a kayak, along the shoreline of Jan Mayen. Kayaking is one of the really great things to do in places like this. Talking about it makes the hairs on my arms prickle, it’s that exciting! Being dive-bombed by puffins was fantastic and knowing that I was probably one of fewer than 50 people in 2016 to kayak at the island made me feel very lucky. As we sailed away from Jan Mayen, its ancient volcano peered tentatively from the cloud, blue sky pushed its way through the grey, and then the sun sparkled. Jan Mayen’s pointy peaked volcano showed itself to us.

Arriving a day and a half later into Svalbard, we were met by dramatic mountains towering from what had moments earlier felt like an empty sea. The Sea Spirit positioned itself ready for our first landing, and polar bears were on the tips of everyone’s tongues… Dare we wish to see one? With more polar bears than people on this chilly island, we could at least hope.

Landings were a mix of historical sights, wildlife watching and glacier cruising. There were also a lot of hiking options available. Unlike in Antarctica, where the penguins often get in the way of a good walk, Svalbard really lends itself to exploration on foot. Our expedition crew would hop off the vessel with their guns slung over their shoulders and head out far onto the horizon, setting a safe perimeter for us to walk freely within. Safety was always a key factor: polar bears are ever present.

I felt a real sense of history on many of my landings, seeing the old wooden cabins, whale bones and abandoned settlements. My expedition team had a story for each landing, always intriguing and enthralling, with larger than life characters: wives that had gone crazy in the winter darkness, husbands that had tried to mine in the ice. Some of the stories made me feel like I was home again, back in Finland in the forests, fishing or chopping wood. I could imagine the lives of these people.

My voyage was 12 days long and a real success. A pod of beluga whales swam past on one zodiac cruise, 100 or so of them. On another cruise, part of a glacier crashed into the sea creating huge waves and rainbows as the sun cut through the mist. A beach of whale bones and, of course, all of the history… but no polar bears. Did it matter, or is it an excuse to go back? The honest answer is no one needs an excuse to go to Svalbard, because it’s amazing, and the people that live in Longyearbyen will remind you of that in the world’s most northern pub.

Svalbard reminded me of why I lived in the Scandinavian Arctic for so long. Taking off from the most northern airport in the world, I almost felt like some sort of recovering addict. Looking down at the disappearing snow below, and flying over the endless sea I had crossed just a week earlier, I thought out loud: I will be back there soon.