Svalbard National Park
Situated at 78 degrees 55 minutes north, our first stop this morning is Ny-Alesund. This is one of the world's northernmost communities. Originally a coal mining town and also the starting point for several historic attempts to reach the North Pole, Ny-Alesund is now a centre for International Arctic Research and Environmental Monitoring. Our morning starts with an extremely windy landing from a pier. After a very short walk we are in "downtown" Ny-Alesund. The FRAM's expedition team give an interesting overview of the community while we shelter from the bitter cold wind by hiding behind various wooden huts! We are then let loose on our own, and we discover a very interesting museum featuring the history of the mining era and an excellent interpretation centre focusing on the environment and natural history of Svalbard. Many of our guests also seem to find time to visit the large souvenir shop, perhaps due to the fact that this is the last place where we will see civilisation until we get back to Longyearbyen. Outside the settlement limits there may be polar bears, so our expedition team are posted around the area to stop us from straying! Each member of the expedition crew are trained for safety and equipped with flares and a rifle as a precaution. Back on board we enjoy lunch as the ship sails to our next landing site. From now on, each landing will be WET! This means we step from the Polarcirckel boats into a few inches of water, so we need waterproof boots. Time to select our rubber boots! The ship has hundreds of pairs of boots, various sizes, mostly black! Once fitted, these remain ours for the voyage. The boots are stored in the boot room (of course) on specially made racks marked with our cabin number, so we can retrieve them before we go ashore every time.
Gravneset is our next stop. Translated this means "grave headland", and it is an area surrounded by majestic mountains, tall glaciers and a beautiful fjord. The first option is a long hike from the beach over rocks and around a second headland to another bay, where there's a magnificent glacier at the end of the bay. Dawn heads off with a few guests and discovers they also hike on part of the glacier. It's very surreal climbing up absolutely clear ice thousands of years old. The ice is covered by a thin coating of moraine which is like a fine shingle. Getting up is not too bad with only a few people slipping along the way, but there are a few concerns getting back down. After spending a short while taking in the views and catching our breath, they retrace steps back to the landing point. The expedition crew are happy to lend a hand and everyone arrives back to the beach safe and sound, with a fantastic feeling of having walked on a glacier. Meanwhile, back on the beach, Richard and the rest of the party have enjoyed a leisurely if somewhat blustery walk along the beach area. The graveyard here dates from the whaling period and consists of 130 graves. The earliest grave dates back to the early 1600's. Talking about graves, some mad people decide to take a polar plunge in the sea! The water is very cold so folk dash in quickly, and run out even more quickly. The ship crew have towels and hot drinks ready. The ship's doctor was on hand. On this occasion, Richard and Dawn decided it's a better plan to lend an encouraging word of support rather than to join in.