Our first evening in Svalbard was ruined by events at home.
Anyone who knows Roberta and I knows that our dogs, Toundra and Keeley, are an integral part of our lives. They accompany us wherever we go, and even our cruising schedule is affected, and limited, by the countries they can (or can’t) visit. They have their own EU Passports and have visited many countries.
This trip is highly unusual in that they aren’t with us. Instead, they are back home in our condo in Seattle being babysat by our friend, Phil. Long-time readers of my blog might recall that Phil traveled with us across the Atlantic in 2004.
Yesterday, Phil took Toundra to the vet to have a tooth pulled. To everyone’s surprise, Toundra needed SIX teeth pulled. Roberta is compulsive about brushing the dog’s teeth, but Toundra’s a Russian Toy Terrier and apparently dental issues are common for the breed. It made for a tense evening, and a long chat with the vet, but Toundra is back at home and feeling fine.
Our trip to Svalbard began early. Our flight didn’t depart from Oslo until noon, but at 3am yesterday morning Roberta said, “I can’t sleep. Do you want to read?” We were both excited about our flight north and were thinking instead of sleeping. After a couple hours of reading I said, “I think the coffee shop at the airport might open early.” (We were staying in a hotel at the airport)
At 5am we were standing inside the airport, at a Starbucks, waiting for them to open. By 5:30am we were back to our hotel room for packing. Check-in for the flight wouldn’t start until 9:30am, but we decided we wanted to be in line at 8:30am. At 7:55am the other couple we are traveling with called to ask if we were ready to go. Like us, they were eager to get going.
As the check-in line formed behind us we got our first look at who was on this trip, and realized how many travelers there are. TravelQuest, the tour operator we used was sold out long ago. I remember their saying that the trip would be limited to 200 people. The trip was apparently so popular that a second plane was chartered, and their group grew to 400 people. TravelQuest is only one of several tour operators making this trip. In aggregate there are over 2,000 people headed to Svalbard for the Eclipse.
The group standing in line could be described as “older” and “international.” That said, there was a good sampling of younger people. No one country seemed dominant. If there were any common attributes amongst the group they might be “well educated” and perhaps “higher-income.” It is not cheap to get to Svalbard.
Our charter flight to Svalbard was 100% smooth, no problems. The only rough part was that we had been warned to dress warmly, meaning we were wearing multiple layers of long underway, enormous boots, multiple layers of jackets, scarves, etc. And, our charter plane was one of those “all first class” airlines where the seats are only about 12 inches wide, and you need to fly with your knees poked into your chin. It was only a three hour flight, so .. no problem.
Speaking with people on the plane, I learned one more attribute that links most the people on this journey – most are Umbraphiles! “What is an Umbraphile?,” you might ask. Well… the rumor has it that once you have experienced an Eclipse, you are hooked. Roberta and I are rookies, and unlikely to become Umbraphiles, which I now know is someone who seeks out eclipses wherever in the world they arrive. Many of the people around us have met each other on prior viewings; in Australia, the Antarctic, China, Africa, etc. They talk about things like, “Remember that time when we took the jeep to the middle of nowhere in Russia?” They ask each other, “What is your count?” Roberta and I have never seen an Eclipse, so we are not even in the game. But, around us we hear answers like, “Five,” “Nine,” and even “Fifteen.” We are now realizing that we have encountered the Adventure Travelers version of Woodstock.
I noticed the restaurant at our hotel set up for convention type seating, so I asked a waiter where the rest of us eat. He said that the tables were for us, and that all hotels in Longyearbyen would be set up similarly. The town is overflowing with tourists and they are doing everything possible to cram us all in.
Prior to leaving “mainland” Norway, we had to clear customs. This made no sense to me, as Svalbard is also a part of Norway. I have now discovered that Svalbard is a Norwegian territory, but is also multi-national.
Here’s a bit more than you really want to know about where we are: Svalbard is an archipelago of islands that is huge. It spans about 60,000 square miles of land, most of which is a national park. The weather is hostile and cold. A third of the year is spent in round-the-clock darkness, and a third of the year in round-the clock light. More polar bears than humans live in Svalbard, and anyone who lives in Svalbard must be trained in the use of guns. It is one of the few places in the world where you might see schoolkids walking to class with a rifle slung over their shoulder. Polar Bears are rare in town, but do appear from time to time, and when they do, the result can be fatal. They may be cute, but they are quite dangerous, and tourists have been killed.
Svalbard’s ownership has been a matter of some debate over time, between Norway and Russia. In a 1920 treaty, signed in Paris, Norway was given control of Svalbard, but with rigid conditions, including that Russia and Norway each have the same commercial rights within Svalbard, and that all military activity is banned. There is coal mining in Svalbard by both Russia and Norway, although one gets the impression that neither side makes any money on the coal production, but feels it is important to keep a (frozen) toe in the water. The Russian presence has been dwindling, and even the Norwegian coal mining presence has been a matter of debate, with the coal mining being reduced and occasional discussions to eliminate it entirely. In aggregate there are only about 2,500 people on Svalbard of which about 500 are from Russia. Oil has been sought, but not found. With coal mining’s future uncertain, tourism is an important industry, and those seeking “the real thing” for arctic adventuring will find it here.
Svalbard’s most recent claim to fame has been the addition of a global seed vault in 2008. The idea is that countries around the world can store seeds of various food products, and in the event of some global catastrophe, or some event that causes some type of crop to be extinct, there would be a protected set of seeds. The vault was paid for by Norway but all countries from around the world may bank their seeds in the vault, and retrieve them at any time. There are currently seeds in the vault for over 500,000 species of plants.
It’s tough to imagine an interesting article about seeds stored in freezing conditions, in the middle of nowhere, but here’s a link to someone else’s blog entry that does a great job telling the story. This person was actually able to enter the seed vault, a very rare privilege!
And… here’s a collection of various pictures from today…
This copter is a very sad one. Earlier today, at 6:20am, Svalbard had their first polar bear attack in three years. Details are just starting to come in, but what we’ve heard is that three tourist campers about three miles out of town were injured with one now in the hospital, and the bear was shot and killed — transported to Longyearbyen by helicopter. Polar bears are a protected species on Svalbard and all shootings are investigated. The bear will be fully autopsied and the incident studied in detail.
For our hike to the Global Seed Bank we were protected by a nice young lady with a very large rifle. We spoke to a university student (yes, there is a university here!) who said that before you can attend your first class you must take gun and safety training. It was almost mentioned that the local church is probably one of the very few in the world with its own gun locker.
Nowhere is close, except the north pole. One of the local coal mines is alleged to be where Santa lives. Or so they tell all the youngsters in town. And, there are actually quite a few kids here. According to our tour guide over 500 of the 2,000 residents are under 18. She said that the local joke is that the high number of kids is related to the fact that it is dark four months of the year.
A frozen marina. Here’s a “cute” video of a polar bear eating a cruiser’s tender:
There are five doctors in Longyearbyen, but they ask that you not give birth here, and do not die here. They are not set up for it. Only long-term residents can apply to be buried here, and even then it is only after cremation. Because of the perma-frost anything buried may be pushed up by the earth later.
Tonight! Roberta and I go snowmobiling, to find the northern lights.
Tomorrow! The full solar Eclipse!
That’s it for now. Thank you!
Ken and Roberta Williams
MV Sans Souci