“Last summer I boarded a Russian former oceanographic vessel for an unusual voyage from Aberdeen through the outlying Scottish Islands to Jan Mayen and finally to Spitsbergen, at 78 degrees North in the Arctic Circle. Though not luxurious, the ship was clean and comfortable with attractive cabins, cosy bar, convivial dining room and a great open-air observation deck which enabled far-reaching views of the North Atlantic and its numerous sea birds, concentrations of whales and rugged windswept islands.
With a great sense of anticipation, the engines started and we slid smoothly out of harbour into the North Sea, tipping our hats to the lighthouse en route. Our first shore landing, by rigid inflatable Zodiac, was in a tranquil bay at Hoy, where glorious white sandy beaches greeted us and the mewing of nesting sea birds on the high cliffs above competed only with the sound of the crashing waves. We had a glorious three hour walk to the far side of the island to marvel at the 137m rock stack affectionately known as ‘The Old Man of Hoy’.
Continuing north we landed at Thorshavn, the capital of Strom Island in The Faroes where we strolled about the old town – brightly painted houses of shocking yellow, cobalt blue and rust-red scattered about the harbour, with unusual peat and grass roofs of muted green. We watched the ships coming in and out and unwound to the music of halyards flapping in the wind while enjoying a chilled beer on the quay. All too soon we were off again, but, as the sun barely sets at this time of the year, we took a magical Zodiac trip close along the cliffs where fulmars and puffins nesting shoulder to shoulder squawked and flapped to get the best nesting sites. When I next looked at my watch – having ventured up a picturesque sandy fjord and visited a tiny grass roofed church – it was 11.30pm!
Two days’ sail north of the Faroes is Jan Mayen Island – an extraordinary windswept place of volcanic sandy beaches, gigantic boulders and weird rock formations dominated by the majestic 2,277m high Beerenburg Volcano. Here, 18th and 19th century European explorers mounted dangerous expeditions to claim these new and exciting territories and the whaling and hunting rights to go with them. An all-day walk found us at the remains of the 19th century Austrian hut. One could easily imagine the exhausted sailors coming ashore to set up their remote bases, relieved to make dry land after endless tough days at sea.
Leaving the beach, which was littered with driftwood and whale bones, we watched humpback whales feeding just off the point – one could never tire of seeing those gigantic tail fins sliding graciously into the dark waters of the Norwegian Sea.
Our final destination was Spitsbergen, the very essence of Arctic wilderness. I rose exceedingly early to be on deck as we slid into Hornsund, a glorious deep fjord. The reflections of the majestic snow peaks glimmered on the icy waters and the only sound was the mewing of kittiwakes and the crunching of keel against iceberg. Barely had we entered the sound when we spotted a lone polar bear enjoying an early morning meal on a piece of floating ice. Nothing quite prepares one for the sheer mass and power of this creature and the penetrating stare of his coal black eyes, as he nonchalantly looked about him before easing into the water and swimming unhurriedly away. Later we made an unforgettable shore landing and strolled among glorious purple saxifrage, orange lichen and boulder-strewn mossy turf to explore the bird cliffs, frenetic with noise. Our ship had a ghostly aura as she lay quietly in the bay, snow, blue sky and thin layers of drifting mist all around”.