Wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein continues to blog from the MV Vavilov on the high seas around Spitsbergen
“A journey is a person itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck
A post-breakfast Zodiac date was kept with half a million birds, Nigel is still quivering as it was an ornithological orgy for any top twitches, in prime avian real estate. Everywhere you looked this morning it was kicking off: trespass, theft, GBH, affray, turf wars, domestic violence, child abuse and tumbling off balconies, this could be describing a Saturday night in Toxteth, but the fact it is depicting an hour at the cliffs is remarkable.
There is a hovering hierarchy here: kittiwakes occupy the penthouses in this basalt basilica and the lower caste guillemots pay rent in the middle tenements, flying sorties over the teal waters before returning with bills full of cod pieces. The gulls squat menacingly all over the high rise, their rent overdue, but they claim protection in fledgling form or think nothing of going to work on an egg.
Of all the Arctic predators, perhaps the most endearing and imaginatively dressed is the fox, this morning, that vulpine monkey was thrown off our backs as a delightful scamp gambolled over the rocks and snow line with vigour and vim. Shame our on-board namesake wasn’t quite so perky this morning but great to see the roisterer back on form and in his own two tone winter coat again. He didn’t really need that wonderfully woven knitwear this afternoon as the absence of even a whisper of wind ensured the perfectly sculpted mountains and bergs were reflected in their entirety as were the seals, walrus and imperious, immaculate ivory gulls.
Play safe and follow timetables, play safe and visit post offices, play safe and worship lichen, play safe and die wondering; gamble and you at least give yourself a chance of touching the elusive grail. We have harvested a prairie-sized portion of luck with bears, but fortune is a seductive mistress, and she beckons us north. There is no pedigree this season so far above 80, these frozen pastures have no form, but we’ve got a taste for this. You all know the drill and like it. All precision optics trained on the horizon, Annie needs her rest tonight, Hadleigh needs his lucky red girl's jumper... let’s give that chart an emphatic two fingers... the ice has it!
"For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen, for scientific discovery, give me Scott, but when all hope is lost, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” – Sir Edmund Hillary
Big gamble, bold call, bold ship, everything had been bigged up with belligerent bravura and bristling bravado. Two words embody today: northern exposure. Around 5am the ship cut its engines and its content passengers slept on. For once the chart assisted us, the long arm of grown-up ice stretched south to the Seven Islands. We were back in familiar pastures, a back yard we have grown accustomed to these last eight days, a pristine parish with its congregation already converted.
The balmy, girlie sunshine of the opening days had gone, a brooding, anvil nimbus met the foreboding dark sea. The temperature struggled to get into the positive but we had ice and we had Annie... and Carina, but we knew we could have a whole day working it.
Spitsbergen’s apex predator is a bewitching, beguiling beast, frequently glimpsed in different postal districts. Ridiculously all 22 of yours have been on ice, an obscene amount of good fortune, but not all the ice has ticked the appropriate aesthetic boxes. Today it did, in spades, or should I say in hexagons, heavenly hexagons, pristine pentagons and omnipotent, oscillating octahedrons. Just to be among this icy ‘O’ level geometry lesson was something but surely placing a bear on it would be beyond us.
Step forward Carina, eschewing the bear three miles off (Annie’s optimum spotting distance) she narrowed her Teutonic chestnut eyes and picked out yet another perfectly conditioned one, one within range. Yet again the Captain treated the challenge with disdain, negotiating the ice like parking a Lexus at Homebase. It is wrong to be demanding or precious with bears, any sighting is a good one but despite its bulging belly and big bum – it’s an advance on big arrrssse – it did ‘do something’ – meandering over the cobalt ice, perfectly at home in his wintry manor. Proper weather today, did we blanch, did we hell.
What a day, what a gamble, shall we keep this luck going? Thought so, bring it on.
‘Poole named it Cross Road, because “upon the side of a hill, a mile to the westwards of the Road, I set up a Crosse, with a writing upon it, signifying the Day of my arrival first in this land, by whom I was set out, and the time of my being here.” Several days were spent in this neighbourhood, and excellent sport was enjoyed.’ – Martin Conway, No Man’s Land
Rain has lashed down across the UK these last ten days, particularly in the north-west (nothing new there) so it was appropriate that today was like a February afternoon in Greater Manchester. Like one that is, except for a coruscating 90 minutes this morning in Monaco.
There is a savage contradiction in this turquoise Eden, as when most think of Monaco they think of an entirely fake, fabricated and febrile society, known only for tax evaders, pretty-boy yachts and a silly car race. Now Vladamir’s Zodiac cutting a effortless arc across an olive surface may not compete for speed with Vettel’s Red Bull but I know which seat I would rather be in.
This was an excursion yet again almost beyond my compass... However think back: the engine cut, the distant internal artillery crump as yet another icy haemorrhage causes deep-set haematomas sending reverberating traumas right to the very ice edge. Every shade of blue is vividly represented, every dimpled azure archway perfectly formed with streamlined fortifications and creaking, jagged portcullises. The backdrop to this drama is 270 degrees of tumbling, groaning, tortured glacier, much of it as threatened by gravity as by man – what a place, a place yet again indelibly stamped onto your now burgeoning memory. Nigel told me there were some birds there as well.
If it's birds you’re after think the islands of Andoyane where terns launched relentless sorties, mobbing both skua and reindeer alike. But the ink, the headlines, the juice belongs to the fornicating Phalaropes. This steamy, saucy, sinful, shameless bird on bird action was done in front of two teams of slavering rubber protected Zodiac voyeurs. The whole pornographic panoply lasted almost eight seconds... impressive at any level.
Another top day... yes... two more, fret not, the Fat Lady is still in hibernation.
“Give me this glorious ocean life, this salt-sea life, this briny, foamy life, when the sea neighs and snorts, and you breathe the very breath that the great whales respire! Let me roll around the globe, let me rock upon the sea; let me race and pant out my life, with an eternal breeze astern, and an endless sea before.” – Herman Melville (1819-1891)
I will keep this brief as powder must remain dry for tomorrow’s finale, but today’s activities cannot go undocumented. Mother Nature is normally a wicked and insidious mistress this far north but again she smiled radiantly as mirrored seas welcomed the Zodiacs into the 14th July glacier unlocking more secrets from the West Coast.
Alice rejoiced as finally the ship disgorged its personnel to terra firma. This shore is a rich fecund green, fertilised by a million kittiwake high interest deposits. There were skuas, snow buntings, Glaucous crèches, sandpipers and of course saxifrage – saucy, sexy, simpering, seductive saxifrage – thank you Annie, on deck three we talk of little else. Have I missed anything... yes those pesky, precious, precocious, pitiful, preposterous puffins, with the sad eyes and needy demeanour which somehow delighted all bar one.
Then of course there was the glacier this afternoon – with humble and yet inspiring tales of ordnance and trauma still in our heads we approached a glacial battlefield as chunks of ice the size of housing estates tumbled down the glacier – capacious, catastrophic calving resulting in raw shiny membranes behind. The weather this afternoon, well, we’re bored of that now, isn’t it always like this.
The bow noses south reminding all of our encroaching timetable, but the fat lady is still locked tight in her fast ice oubliette, we are not ready to let her out yet.
“The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending; we lay waste our powers, Little we see in nature is ours.” – William Wordsworth
Permit me first to describe today’s proceedings: I’m bored of talking about the obscene level of meteorological good fortune but Alkhornet delivered alchemy yet again. Reindeer and finally, the grim reaper of the kittiwake colonies: the Arctic fox. Any member of the fox or jackal family historically punches above their weight and these scamps clearly have the keys to the avian larder. Wake up call this morning is now a memory, but the turn of the ship and the signal bars disgracefully appearing on cell-phones are highlighting the encroaching timetable.
On day one, the first of a dozen cases of impeccable timing was realised – as a lecture finished, somehow a bear was spotted in the fog. By the time the majority had reached the starboard decks it had vanished. Disappointment was palpable, but absurdly and ridiculously it was the expedition’s Damascene moment as frankly in that light, on that dirty piece of ice, it was just not up to standard. Permit license, but this bear was embarrassed, not wishing to sully the impending astonishing record of 23 perfect bears, and slipped under the misty curtain.
The highlights are too many to document, yet they mean different things to different individuals. To some it will be the first bear, to others the nuzzling walrus, some may favour the ornithological cliffs with angry birds seen at eye level not on iPhone, some may favour the moment in the ice when the engine is cut and others the walrus or even the gift shop. Who knows maybe the personally maligned puffin may even top the charts. YOU are now the experts and ambassadors, the discerning, diligent, determined, dutiful, dignified, delightful and definitive disciples, who, when myopic friends ask ‘you went where for your holiday?’ can reply with images and stories beyond one dimensional comprehension.
Imagine, if you dare, that you had mistakenly booked onto some monstrous carbuncle of a 14-decked gin palace; every one of these highlights would have been compromised and neutered. However, all the components, be they beautiful bears, wallowing walrus, silky wake-up calls, or crackling pack ice are brushstrokes that flourish against this breathtaking canvas.
I, like all of us, am a pauper against this wilderness tapestry, an irascible, irreverent, idiotic scribe trying to bring some of it to life in ink and pen, but I short-change you, as it would take a thesaurus the size of the Monaco Glacier to do justice to this mesmerising land. But I feel for the majority of people, the bears were the picture cards, the polar epiphany for many: single bears, families of bears, old craggy bears, early bears, late bears, snow bears and bears with dirty and fat arses. Most importantly not only were they all beautifully posed on ice they were, without exception ‘doing something.’ Some were eating so voraciously that all was missing was Oliver’s languid ‘Bon Appetit.’ Then of course there is you. You didn’t arrive in Longyearben by accident.
You are the bold ones who decided Spitsbergen was your quarry for this summer, relegating more predictable destinations, the ones who have attended every presentation, made every landing, worshipping in the cathedral of ice and tundra from your steel and rubber pews.
I am not sure there will ever be an expedition like this. This charter, this pilgrimage without timetable is thankfully not everyone’s cup of tea but you have all swallowed the ethic whole and benefited accordingly. Whichever facet of the lumbering travel business you occupy, it really boils down to a simple mantra: we are in the delivery business, we may not have delivered on time, certainly not to schedule but I feel we have delivered all the same. When the venerable good Doctor Ian says it is his best ever expedition you have some idea of the currency of this last 12 days. Bear essential?
Of course. Bearly believable? Yes again. Bear faced cheek, you know the answer... At 12.52 Scott nosed his Zodiac off the beach, effortlessly slipping the Yamaha into gear, as he pulled away from the granite peninsular a tern hovered overhead then dived. There are terns in South Georgia and Antarctica too, come and visit them sometime.
We've been following Paul on his sea-bound journey on the Wanderlust website: