Thursday, 6 February 2014

Zodiac cruises, Russian settlements and a second polar plunge


Alongside a number of landings, including a fantastic glacier hike one windy morning, we also had the opportunity to go on a few zodiac cruises. These had been a highlight during our Antarctic cruise, where I had developed a love of icebergs, and I was looking forward to spending more time bobbing up and down on the sturdy inflatables.

We spent one afternoon driving alongside steep cliffs, listening to the overwhelming calls of thousands of birds perched above us. The chicks were big enough to finally leave the nests, and nervous fathers swam alongside us, coaxing their offspring into the water. Every few minutes, one chick would become brave, plummeting down from the cliff before landing with a splash. It was touching to see them locate their dads and swim away, and devastating when nearby birds of prey swooped down and caught a baby before it found the protection of its father. The cries of the adults as they searched in vain for their little ones were absolutely heartbreaking, and all those in our zodiac found ourselves calling out encouragement and guidance to chicks as they hit the water, despite knowing that it would have no effect whatsoever...

Another day, we embarked on an iceberg cruise, drifting past huge crystal blue bergs and watching water gushing as one flipped over completely just metres away from us. We peered down into the water at the vast roots of each iceberg, spotting tiny jellyfish riding the waves.

The water, of course, was incredibly cold, hovering somewhere around two degrees Celsius at its maximum along the shorelines. This didn't stop the captain from announcing the traditional 'polar plunge', however, and during one of our last landings, those of us stupid enough to brave the cold stripped down to our swimwear and dove in. As F and I had already experienced a plunge in the Antarctic, we were not planning to miss the opportunity to repeat the experience at the opposite side of the world, and were eager to join in, although a minute in the icy water reminded me what a shock to the system it was (the shot of whiskey as we dried off on the rocks helped somewhat with the pain, however).

After our time exploring the bleak but beautiful landscape and the cold waters of the Arctic, completely void of any other humans during our time on the boat, it was almost a shock to step off the ship at our final landing and be greeted by smiling faces. It had been a foul morning, the rain lashing hard as we approached Longyearbyen once more. But before we returned to the town, we were making a stop at a bizarre destination - the small town of Barentsburg, a mining settlement governed by Russia. Still extracting small amounts of coal to this day, the town is steeped in the past, with a bust of Lenin welcoming visitors upon entry. Cyrillic decoration and murals of workers indicated that we could have been in Russia itself, and it was a fascinating finish to the trip that reminded us of the fragile political balance that modern Svalbard reflects. Our local guide showed us around the main buildings before leaving us to explore the museum, and we were finally treated to a musical show, complete with traditional Russian songs and dance. It was entirely unexpected, yet strangely wonderful.


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