Today has been the most crazy-amazing day. We had a wonderful breakfast at the Bristol Thon Hotel – smoked salmon, Norwegian mini omelets, fruit/veggie power juice shots, and strong coffee. Apparently the sun did set in Oslo last night, but I slept restlessly and awoke several times to always find a little light peeking through the cracks in the curtains – a sign of how far north we were during the summer solstice. But Oslo’s latitude of 59° N had nothing on where I was headed: Longyearbyen, 78° N and the land of the 4-month long midnight sun.
On the flight up to Svalbard, I met Judy – a former home economics teacher and bird enthusiast who has made travel a priority in her life. She told me about her trips to China, India, Canada, and Norway (on a Hurtigruten). Judy also had wise travel advice about food to bring on planes (hardboiled eggs and fruit) and what to watch out for in China (pretty much everything).
Speaking of airplane food, I must take a moment to give a shout-out to Scandanavian Airlines for their amazing lunch. Smoked salmon, super creamy potato salad, brie and roquefort cheeses, fresh fruit, a warm bread roll, and a yummy strawberry yogurt parfait. Airlines in America should take a hint…
Soon after eating, we caught our first glimpse of Svalbard and it brought tears to my eyes. Just so beautiful, and like nothing I had ever seen before. I found out later that our initial stunning view was of Hornsund, where glaciers merge with other glaciers and flow into a fjord surrounded by majestic patterned mountains. I snapped a few photos out of our scratched up plane window, but it was impossible to capture the magic.
Soon we landed in Longyearbyen – the biggest (and really only) city in Svalbard with a population of about 2000. At the tiny airport we hopped on a bus to spend some time touring the city. Our delightful tour guide was a college student from Sweden who was studying Arctic Biology the University Centre in Svalbard. She has loved her time in Longyearbyen and strongly encouraged all of us to send our kids to study there. Today’s itinerary in the city was pretty packed, but I had some time to wander later in the week.
Our first stop was the Galleri Svalbard, where we saw paintings and photographs from around the archipelago, marvelled at historical maps of the region, and watched a short film showing the seasons of Svalbard. I was able to chat with a few locals, and without exception they told me that I needed to come back again in the winter. While the polar night (4 months of NO sun at all) sounds a bit oppressive to me, they reassured me that it is the best time to visit in order to take advantage of the opportunities to snowmobile, dogsled, visit ice caves, see the northern lights, and enjoy the vibrant social scene in town. Still, I think I would prefer to try the brief shoulder seasons of spring and fall, where the pink and blue light of Arctic sunrises and sunsets would be amazing to witness.
Next we visited the Svalbard Museum, which was beautiful and modern. Here we learned a bit more about the history and wildlife of the region. Outside the museum, a little girl was selling coal to tourists – a very enterprising young lady. Longyearbyen has a long history of coal-mining and is still powered by coal today.
After our tour, we were ready to embark on our expedition aboard the National Geographic Explorer. Holly, Demetria and I found our accommodations to be lovely, and the staff to be wonderfully friendly. Every staff member aboard seemed to already know us at “the teachers” and address us as such; we felt very loved and appreciated.
As we were approaching the Explorer by bus, my new plane friend Judy spied some beluga whales in Isfjorden. Thankfully, they hung around as we got settled – and our first excitement aboard ship was to watch an estimated 16 whales swim around us. What a treat! As I watched them, I was also taken in by the beautiful light and the panoramic vistas everywhere I looked – a theme throughout the trip, and something I tried to never take for granted.
After we watched the whales, we headed deeper into Isfjorden and into Tempelfjorden to get an up-close look at our first tidewater glacier: Tunabreen. I was surprised to see the gorgeous varied shades of blue in the ice and water – wow! We met a flock of Northern Fulmars, many of which were hanging out and feeding right along the glacier. We also saw kittiwakes, guillemots, and puffins.
After a lifeboat drill and the first of our excellent gourmet dinners onboard, Holly and I decided to stay up to see the midnight sun! We had perfect weather and couldn’t be sure that late-night clear conditions would happen again, and we were so excited about just being there that I don’t think we could have settled down to sleep earlier anyway. The sun was very bright and still quite high in the sky at midnight.
Eventually we headed down to our rooms, shut our porthole covers, and got a bit of sleep to prepare for the next day’s adventures.
Day 2 brainstorming for the classroom:
- Animal migration
especially birds (Red Knot, which stops in New Jersey/Delaware to eat horseshoe crab eggs) and polar bears who have been tagged and followed.
- Model the midnight sun and polar night
have students create 3D models in the classroom to explain this
how do these events affect animals? people?