Adventures in the Land of Blubber and Ice
Monday, July 6, 2015
Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer quietly made her way along the smooth-as-glass expanse of the Barents Sea this morning, as we sailed en-route to Magdalenafjorden in arctic Svalbard. With the exception of the temperature, which hovers around 1°C (34°F) and the slate-grey colour of the ocean, you could mistake this for the Caribbean. Rarely have I ever seen such an absolute flat calm.
Polar Regions are, by and large, misunderstood. It’s hard for people to grasp that Antarctica in December is actually warmer than many North American cities are at that time, thanks to the fact that December-January is actually summertime in the southernmost continent. So, while Toronto and New York struggle through with blizzards and ice storms, you might need to unzip your jacket as you walk among the penguins in Neko Harbour.
The same misconception holds true for the Arctic – it’s actually not as cold as you might think, though it is substantially colder than most places at this time. Still, temperatures hover just above freezing which, with the right clothing, isn’t a problem at all.
We had a relaxed morning of scenic cruising onboard this morning, with our entry into Magdalenafjorden slated for 10:00 a.m. Most guests took advantage of this opportunity to sleep in, and to that end, breakfast was rescheduled to be later than normal, running in The Restaurant from 8:00 until 10:00 this morning. Of course, you could also elect to do room service breakfast, which seemed to be a popular option judging by the number breakfast order cards I saw placed outside suite doors last night.
Silver Explorer entered Magdalenafjorden slowly as her red-jacketed guests searched for wildlife in the sea and on-shore. Everyone seems to be on the lookout for the increasingly-elusive Polar Bear, for which I’d like to offer a bit of cautionary advice: don’t book a cruise based on the expectation of seeing wildlife. It’s up to the polar bears if they want to be seen, not Silversea. Guests continually ask when we will be seeing the polar bears, as if they’ve got a daytimer that says: 10:05am – be on shore for Silver Explorer guests.
Interestingly, polar bears used to be a preferred source of food for early arctic explorers. The staple of the early explorer’s diet was pemmican – a sub-par beef jerky that author Bill Streever notes in his 2010 book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, was akin to dried-out Spam interlaced with berries and bits of bone. Sometimes, hot water would be added to the tin so the pemmican could be choked back quickly, like a bouillon. It’s no wonder explorer’s preferred fresh meat, even if it had to be eaten frozen.
We didn’t see polar bears in Magdalenafjorden. What we did see, though, was some increasingly spectacular scenery enhanced by the great weather conditions that created a brooding atmosphere, with low-hanging clouds draped over the mountain ranges and banishing the omnipresent sun from the sky.
Magdalenafjorden is cut straight into the coast, running for a distance of about 10 kilometres and spanning three kilometres wide. Whalers used to use this sheltered inlet, known as Trinityhamna, frequently in the 17th century to escape bad weather. Despite its high latitude, the small bay is accessible year round, and rarely ices up.
To give guests an even better viewpoint, the open bow area on Deck 4 was opened up to guests. Normally inaccessible to guests due to the presence of mooring lines and anchor winches, the crew of the Silver Explorer will open the bow up whenever scenic cruising conditions allow for it. This gives guests an unprecedented amount of open space. In total, guests can enjoy fresh-air views from the entire length of Deck 6, a small viewing platform all the way forward on Deck 7, an aft viewing area on Deck 7 above The Outdoor Grill, and a small open deck space just aft of the Panorama Lounge on Deck 5. Plus the bow viewing area on Deck 4, when available.
This afternoon, we went ashore at a place called Smeerenburg – literally, Blubber City. While it exists as a barren and lonely gravel spit today, from 1614 to 1655 Smeerenburg was a whaling outpost with around 200 inhabitants.
While its heyday was in the 1600’s, it’s likely that the whaling station remained at least partially active until the 1800’s, when whaling gradually began to fall out of favor and demand thanks to the discovery of petroleum products.
Today, nothing is left of the original structures except for several rock cairns that mark the locations of Smeerenburg’s deceased residents that are buried on the island. Walking over to them is forbidden. Walking around them is forbidden. Rule of thumb: stay put with your Expedition guide on Smeerenburg. The thing’s a minefield of places you can’t go, things you can’t touch, and stuff you’re going to get in trouble for without realizing it.
We did get to view a small cluster of male walruses though, which was great fun. I also learned that walruses have a very pronounced social hierarchy. Males with the longest tusks get the females (size matters, kids), and a male that breaks part of his tusk off during a fight will immediately drop down in social standing. That means: no more sexy female walruses, and a less desirable sleeping place on the outside of the pack, exposed to the elements. We saw one such walrus with a chipped tusk; hard not to feel sorry for the guy.
Back on the ship, I returned to my suite to change for the evening and attend the daily Expedition Briefing and Recap that is held nightly in the Theatre on Deck 6.
I’m a bit of a creature of habit: I stand in the same spot each night, on the starboard side of the theatre. I prefer standing because I find in the evenings I’m so tired from the day that sitting down lulls me into sleepytime.
Not only do I stand in the same spot, but I also order the same drink each evening: a single beer. So, you could call me predictable. Still, imagine my amazement tonight when I came to “my spot” to find a pint of beer – just for me – already placed out by the fabulous Emilio, who covered the top with a small Silversea napkin to reserve it for me.
Personally, I think that’s one of the coolest things I’ve had done for me on any Silversea cruise, and I told Emilio so. “Not to worry, Mr. Saunders,” he said. “I will have it there every day waiting for you.”
It’s that kind of thing – anticipating what guests are going to do before even they have realized it – that makes the service on Silversea so special. Lots of lines talk about it; few do it. Silversea is the delightful exception.
Another nice touch: the wait staff in the dining room provide me with a “No Nuts” menu each evening that lists which items I can have, and notes those that are off limits to me because of my nut allergy. I’m always on-guard with my allergies when I travel, but I truly feel well looked-after whenever I sail on Silversea.
It’s worth noting that the dining room isn’t your only option for dinner. Even here in the Arctic, Silversea offers their signature Hot Rocks Dining experience at the Outdoor Grill on Deck 6 – and it’s actually well-attended, with a few tables of hearty souls going every night. With your Silversea polar expedition jacket on and a warm wool blanket over top of you, the experience is actually quite enjoyable. The guests I have spoken to who have done it thus far absolutely rave about it, so I’m going to go out and brave the cold myself in the coming days to do it.
If you’ve never done it before, Silversea’s Hot Rocks dining offers you the ability to dine out under the stars – or, in this case, under the Midnight Sun – while you cook your own meats or fish on top of a superheated slab of volcanic rock. You can choose from a variety of meats and seafood, which come along with your choice of salad, sides, and dessert. Hot Rocks dining still offers up the best apple pie I’ve ever had.
I’ve done this fantastic alternate dinner venue on every Silversea cruise I’ve taken – so no doubt I will have to make time for it on this voyage.
It’s nice to be surrounded by such nice guests and crew on this journey. The more I see of the Arctic, the more it strikes me as a sad and lonely place. That’s not a bad thing – in fact, the Arctic is one of the most incredible journeys I have made. But more than a few seafarers and explorers have found themselves at the Arctic’s mercy over the intervening decades. Those who made it out discovered the Arctic had the power to cripple even the heartiest man and woman.
To those who spent days, weeks or even months wandering the frozen tundra and playing chicken with the pack ice, there was the startling revelation that Mother Nature wasn’t all that benevolent.