It’s 4:30AM and I’ve just finished my last watch before we head offshore and slowly sail away from the main Svalbard archipelago toward Bjornoya (Bear Island), about 180 nautical miles away. We made the decision to head out after dinner and after consulting the weather and wind maps. Conditions aren’t ideal, with some fairly strong headwinds coming our way soon. But there are no storms a-brewing, either. So it seems like as good a time as any to start making our way back toward mainland Norway. I’m ready to start heading south at this point. I think we all are. Everyone misses being in touch with our loved ones back on the mainland and is ready for some creature comforts (Showers! Fresh fruit and veg!) and warmer climes, too. But as with all departures there’s a dose of wistfulness. It feels like the end of era.
The days and nights have finally started to take on some recognizable definition this past week. When I started tonight’s watch at 2AM it was definitely dusky, the sun must’ve been below the fogged-in horizon because it was as dark as I’ve seen it since we arrived in Svalbard in mid-July. But by the time I woke Jon up at 4AM to relieve my watch the sky was blushed again with sunrise, the flat ocean almost effervescent in the reflection of our wake. There was also a thin layer of frost on the sprayhood, and when we winched Andreas up the mast to fix the weather vane it was slick with ice. It seems like it happened almost overnight, but the daylight that felt like it would never end – endless summer and the midnight sun – is definitely on its way out in these parts now.
Since crossing though the Heleysundet a few days ago it’s been markedly colder, too. I’m layering two wool sweaters under my bumblebee-yellow sailing overalls and jacket when I’m up on deck, and the cold is biting through my wool socks and Gore-tex and leather boots.
We even met the ice again on the west side of Edgeøya island, big bergs and flat floes clustered around the western entrance to the Freemansundet. That had us navigating and even pushing with the poles again in a manner now familiar from our foray up to the pack ice.
And we spent the loveliest sunny evening of all anchored at Kapp Lee in front of an octagonal-shaped trapper’s hut called the “carousel.” The location is right alongside a lively walrus haulout on the beach with about 50 or so of the animals snorting, belching and merrily dispersing other bodily noises. From a distance, carrying across the water to the boat, their little symphony sounds like frogs croaking in a rainforest. But up close there’s no mistaking the sounds as those of walruses and walruses alone. Dani made some high-quality audio recordings that we hope to post on the blog when we’re back in business with high-speed internet soon. They make quite a racket.
I could sit there and watch the animals for hours as they jostle for prime position among their buddies, occasionally getting all bent out of shape due to some unseen action of another and flaring up and puffing up their chests with indignation to toss out a tusk or two.
But the spectacle was even more enjoyable on this evening when we were treated to our first sunset in a long time – a proper one that melted Caribbean-like over the sea and flat-topped mountains, but with a foreground of floating icebergs that made it all the more remarkable. It was one of those moments where you want to push a button and freeze the feeling and scenery forever because no camera or memory could conjure it again exactly as it was. I really wanted to stay there and sleep in the hut in a bed that doesn’t rock like a cradle. I’ve been craving just one night’s sleep on land in these cozy and historical structures, with a fire blazing through the night and the potential for polar bears to be roaming just outside (like they were back in Virgohamna). But conditions looked good for sailing south. And with our diesel supply dwindling and still a long way to go, we needed to take advantage of the good wind and weather window while we had it.
By the next evening we had arrived at another walrus haulout at Andreetangen to the southeast, home to another hut built by the well-known Norwegian trapper Henry Rudi back in 1946. The beach was littered with skulls, vertebrae and other assorted walrus bones from the days, not so long ago, when the animals were slaughtered right in this same spot. Life and death across the decades splayed across the moon-like rocks and sand, just meters apart. And the air reeked like a mix of wet dog and half-digested shellfish from the colony – this time with females and a few calves in the entourage – lolling about at the haulout right at the water’s edge.
Walruses – “ballerinas under the water” as a filmmaker I met in Longyearbyen described them (and as opposite as possible from that on land) – live mainly on shellfish like clams and scallops, which they dive quite deep for. They need access to rich feeding grounds that don’t freeze over during the winter months. And this was apparently a good feasting ground as the water around where we anchored was boiling with walruses that kept our dinghy at a distance on more than one attempt we made to get to back to Barba.
The guestbook at the hut was full of interesting entries from researchers and sailors, including remarks by BBC film crews who’d visited on several occasions and recounted seeing polar bears emerge from dens with their cubs. But perhaps the simplest entry, from a Polish visitor on a research boat that passed through just a few days ago, put it best. “Christian was here listening to walruses fart,” was written neatly in pencil.
And I think I can say on behalf of the Barba crew that we all feel privileged to have been among those ranks.
Featured photo: Barba and the walrus colony at Kapp Lee on Edgeøya, one of the most beautiful and icy anchorages of the expedition. By Daniel Hug.