Dispatches and photos from the poet of the poles, Paul Goldstein
Our regular contributor Paul Goldstein is currently sailing around Spitsbergen on the Akademic Sergey Vavilov. He'll be updating us regularly on the voyage as it makes its way through the Svalbard Peninsula.
“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
I do not want to throw too much loquacious leather tonight; best to keep some powder dry before unleashing the full adjectival armoury tomorrow night. However I will struggle, as today did not disappoint. Mother Nature is normally a capricious mistress this far north but again she smiled radiantly as mirrored seas welcomed the Zodiacs into 14th July as they unlocked more secrets from the West Coast. Primarily there was the groaning, creaking glacier. Any shell shocked veterans would have spasmed with faces of intolerable anguish at the high velocity retorts echoing from the face and the dull artillery crumps coming
from deep inside, as arterial channels haemorrhaged alarmingly to cause capacious, catastrophic calving. There were wallowing grounded bergs with puckered golf-ball exteriors and of course guillemots and glaucous gulls. The lonely razorbill was AWOL, something Tony is only just coming to terms with.
Have I missed anything... Yes those pesky, precious, precocious, pathetic, pitiful, preposterous puffins, with the sad eyes and special-needs demeanour which somehow delighted all bar one.
An Arctic BBQ that would have befitted Bondi or Brizzie was merited after the glacial hike but today I’m sure everyone also enjoyed a quiet moment to reflect not only on their immediate immaculate surroundings with sparkling distant glaciers and their shimmering sapphire offspring, but also perhaps back on the last eight days, perhaps even ruefully as the fat lady begins her final screen test.
However, we’re not done yet, the pace has not dropped since you embarked and no-one has any intention of easing off. Big day tomorrow get some sleep. Bring it on.
“In memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had
suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in his splendor, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.” – Sir Ernest Shackleton
Kennedy, Pearl Harbour; these are dates people remember, but burnished onto the memory of one hundred polar disciples is the 23rd June – can there ever have been such a remarkable day. It started fortuitously and just got better. We are mere pawns, insignificant brush strokes across an imperial glacial canvas, the players were bears and whales. Memory cards are burgeoning but the real memory is a spiritual one that will never be diminished.
The inky mist of last night dissipated and shafts of light, joyous Jacob’s Ladders pierced the gloom. Phil sauntered onto the bridge and promptly spotted a bear almost in Greenland.
This was the one, the light was perfect, the backdrop captivating, the foreground coruscating, but would the protagonist oblige. It sashayed across the ice like a smug Sevillian Senorita, pausing to contemplate its flock before bypassing the expectant throng. He pointed North to a distant island and seemed programmed to short-change. On the pack edge it paused and turned and with excruciating, honey-drip slowness meandered to his throng. This one was close now, and even threw up the hardest polar currency of all... Spume.
Sun cream factor accelerated from dark tan to factor 50 as mother nature again showed her benigness, the ephemeral, ethereal curtains parting to display more bears and whales,
belugas. If you thought the beluga of day one were special, they were mere bit-part players, this platoon of priceless precious pelagics performed perfectly in front of the ranks of precision optics. Two outnumbered minkes even crashed the cetaceous party, displaying languid dorsals against the midnight blue water.
But above all there was the sea-ice, a constant companion: heavenly hexagons, poignant pentagons and oscillating octahedrons that shimmered and intoxicated. All voyage we have talked of moments and after the morning bear’s side-show, a passenger remarked
to me that it was ‘one of the best moments of my life’ – it was a selfless, altruistic gift that kept on giving, let’s leave it there.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation... I wish to live deliberately and face only the essential facts of life, and learn what it has to teach and not, when it comes time to die, discover that I had not lived” – Henry David Thoreau
A post-breakfast Zodiac date was kept with half a million birds, Tony is still quivering as it was ornithological dining from the highest table – prime avian real estate. There is a fluttering hierarchy here: kittiwakes occupy the penthouses and the lower caste guillemots pay rent in the middle tenements. The gulls squat all over the high rise, their rent overdue, but they claim protection money in fledgling form.
Larger species attract bigger ticks and they do not come much larger than walrus. We have strained to get you on terra firma and the opportunity was seized with alacrity this afternoon.
Ian led his Gore-tex gallery to their grail, and, people lost themselves in this extraordinary
encounter. There were several generations of passengers and walrus including a huge male with more lumps, bumps and gnarly crenelations than a clumsy bee-keeper’s face. Walrus are tactile, clasped together like a grid-iron huddle or an overly attentive cell-mate at the start of a long stretch.
The Vavilov treats its passengers ashore with assiduous diligence; they count them out and back with draconian efficiency. Sadly this afternoon the same cannot be said about Zodiacs and, as I read this, Dave is currently repairing the pontoon and wiping away any latent walrus DNA. I am not sure our liability cover protects for such an encounter.
We head North again with some grown up nautical miles to chalk off before the next bear-faced objectives. Good things have already come to those who wait but permit me to end with this afternoon, for the abiding memory for me was to witness Ian’s consummate passion and concern for his subjects as he policed his wallowing beat. It is their back-yard not ours and no-one abused this – be proud of that. John Lennon once wrote about these much persecuted mammals, be thankful his drugs-addled lyrics were not a best selling epitaph.
We are well past halfway now but the fat lady won’t be reaching for her mouthwash just yet.
“Never doubt the ability of a few committed people to change the world, in fact it’s the only
thing that ever has” – Margaret Mead
Play safe, play 4-4-2 and you are unlikely ever to taste the heady polar elixir that tantalises those who venture this far North. Play 4-5-1, and gamble and you at least give yourself a chance of touching the elusive grail.
Gambles like our sea change on day three are bold plays, they court disaster yet also
this flirtation can fortune the brave. This was a power play on epic levels, seldom can there have been a day later. Let’s just revisit it again: five bears including two tiny cubs and ninety delirious Arcticians. Just remarkable and no, not normal. Remember this day, remember it on the train, tube, M25 or North Circular. Remember it when others are describing their tediously moribund holidays and remember it when you talk to your children and then their children. This was one of those moments.
It owed so much to a Captain that was adroit enough to finesse and feather his craft with grace, sensitivity and elan, a man who can turn a multi-tonned vessel like a Mini-Cooper in a Homebase car park without touching the pavement or shore. It also owes plenty to the obscene spotting skills of Mariano and Woody. Early this morning our magnificent expedition leader picked off a distant bear on a distant slope: a bear that swam like Phelps or Spitz, dived like Daley and nearly faced Louganis-like consequences. Later Mariano narrowed his crinkled Gaucho eyes, focussing his penetrating Puma pupils on an ivory blob, a blob swimming in another postal district. This was a vegetarian bear grazing on faraway flora.
Mariano saved his best till last, a hetero-sexual bear, one that hunted, fed, patrolled, cavorted and indulged, as did her cubs. Once they had finished their seafood seal-food supper they gambolled like new-borns and put on a matinee befitting of the solstice. Ursus Maritimus, this was Ursus Maximus.
The fact that all the sightings dovetailed immaculately with meals underwrites the
priceless pedigree of the day.
Today was not usual, but it was worked for, proper work: no line-managing, all day
meetings, nauseatingly patronising PowerPoint presentations or focus groups by coke-fuelled, stripy shirted consultants, just good honest graft. It paid off. In spades. What is more we still have four more days left, like it? Good, keep it on ice.
"There are two kinds of men in the world, those that stay at home and those that do not. Of the two, the latter are by far the most interesting." – Rudyard Kipling
Woody's legendary optimistic morning dulcets were augmented by a morning scene close to polar perfection. Dazzling light shafts pierced the cumulus continuing on from the spectacular late show the previous night. The bow meandered through the tortured sea ice sniffing and searching and truffling and trawling for its ultimate maritime quarry but finally had time called on its pilgrimage.
Today was a polar wake-up call, a beautiful one but a wake-up call all the same. Chart said yes, bear said no – this is how it can be up North. Critically the high points have to be juxtaposed with less dramatic days. It was also restful, Woody and I don't do restful and you will all pay for that.
As the Vavilov heads North we hope for more meteorological alchemy, yet know as we navigate a mere few hundred miles from the pole it is impossible to predict. If these sort of journeys were easy, predictable affairs, pallid programmes following sterile
Teutonic timetables, they would be fodder for the mainstream market and not for the cultured palate of true adventurers. I mentioned that penance would have to be swallowed after day one, but today was barely a punishment, we sail north with purpose and vim
with a week of thrills still in the tank, good things come to those who wait. Bring it on.
"This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere. The dew is never dry all at once, a shower is forever falling. Vapour is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and glowing, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn as the earth rolls. And for this I am forever grateful to be alive." – John Muir
More balmy, bounteous benevolence was beamed on the bow, the ocean more Riviera than Ross Sea. An early change found the ship slicing through dappled sea ice, with hardly a murmur beneath the hull. Seals masquerading as bears shimmered in the haze, it is the height of the moult and this is their favoured backyard.
After some easy Zodiac forays, Bourbonhamna was invaded by a temporary Gore-tex battalion and she delivered, in spades. Many a day, staff have spent here with horizontal rain, a cloud ceiling of ten metres and a temperature below zero, which seriously corrodes any latent charm it may possess. Today it was selfless in its gifts: terns terrorised, sandpipers seduced and then of course there was the sensational, sexy, supreme, superb Saxafrage – a heady, intoxicating triumvirate.
On day one we were lucky enough to see three cavorting belugas, today the cetaceous cadavers were far from cavorting as they decayed in their graveyard along the shoreline. Man's atonement for his whaling trespasses are perhaps over, but this was a stark reminder of what was a savage abattoir.
Enjoy your rest: you'll need it. There's 24 hours of daylight here and we intend to use every one, good night.
"A large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything." – Laurence Sterne
A wise man once said 'it's not the arriving, it's the getting there'. He was wrong, but who cares now, the lines are thrown and the bow noses purposefully south east.
Right about time you read this, the signal will flicker then die on your cell phone. There is no internet, no Twitter and no injunctions, be thankful for that. I re-iterate: you are ours now and the next ten days will be very special. There is a wealth of knowledge, experience and pedigree on board. These qualities cannot be purchased, they are earned after many hard yards at the polar coal face. All staff know how much this expedition means to you and they will be straining every sinew to maximise your time in this magical land of ice and tundra.
Schedules – that's not our dish; we will be serving an a la carte menu far from clinical guidebooks and cheesy brochures high on excitement but low on routine.
There is a certain cachet about Spitsbergen, as it is one of the few places on earth Michael Palin hasn't been to. You have all decided to do it properly, not from the balcony of some ethically bankrupt gin palace but from the sleek lines of this research vessel, good choice.
Nervous? Excited? Gagging for it... Thought so.
"The most remarkable mountains I have seen are situated near Horn Sound... Horn Mount, or Hedge-hog Mount, so called from an appearance of spines on the top when seen in some positions, takes its rise from a small tract of alpine land, on the southern side of Horn Sound." – William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions
So the drill for this expedition has been brutally broadcast, this merciless mantra etched into everyone's mainframe. The absence of schedule, the necessity to graft, the capricious nature of both wildlife and weather, the imperative of doing long hours for perhaps scant reward.
Well today blew that right out of the water, and glassy flat-calm water at that. Despite the low anvil ceiling, Mother Nature chucked most of her polar lot at us and in some style. I find it impossible to comprehend that on day one we have scored so much. After a groaning breakfast buffet, the appetite for rare food should be jaded but we were served a platter of caviar – belugas. These ivory-clad cetaceans bobbled adjacent to the pack ice before being substituted by a larger prize. As cameras bristled from both decks much in the way The Victory ran out its own canons at Trafalgar this magnificent mammal put on a show that should have commanded the matinee centre stage except it was sidelined by the ultimate polar quarry: a bear, x 2.
So often Arcticians' first bear is a sinewy vagrant plying its lonely beat down a dirty gravel shore. This was a single parent family entertaining from stage left and right, under the glacier's tumbling cobalt staircase. The mother quartered the ice shelf with the patience of Job, aware that the larder door was unlocked but frustrated not to be able to find the handle.
Despite the monochrome, people are gloating over the day with Billy Graham-like zeal. Think of the ice popping, remember the humpback's fluke dispensing torrents of glistening brine as it emerged from the depths, think of the playfulness of the cub against the savage purpose of the mother, then, most importantly remember it is only officially day one. We may have to do some penance for this fortune, but you know the words of Mr R Butler Esq 'I don't give a damn.' Welcome on board!
"If you are going to wish, wish big; it doesn't cost any more." – Ian Stirling
Sea ice is a moveable feast; not a regimented table d'hote menu. Today she served us just enough to frustrate the bow yet not enough to seduce the bears. But this critique denigrates its beauty as Gaudiesque sculptures shimmered and mosaics glinted, grouted temporarily to the midnight-blue surface. Fulmars flew sorties alongside both decks and squadrons of guillemots scythed through the gradually lifting nimbus. Larger fauna showed more reserve than yesterday, but yesterday was not normal. I mentioned that we would have to do some penance for that bonanza and if sailing through a captivating, coruscating collection of sea ice weighed down with haute cuisine is penance, I'll take it.
However I type this with a building excitement. Batteries and bodies are re-charged; whisper it quietly but some flaky flyweights may have even taken a nap today. They might need it, as tonight may be quite a soiree. The clock may well have tipped into tomorrow by the time the last Zodiac ascends on the hook. Quieter day, big night... Wake me when it's light.
More dispatches from the far north to come... In the meantime check out Paul's tales from the other end of the globe, Antarctica.