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In 2012 I spent a number of weeks sailing the waters of Svalbard upon the SV Antigua as part of a the Arctic Circle residency. The boat which was built in 1957 in Thorne (UK) and served for many years as a fishing vessels, until it was completely re-built in the early 1990s in the Netherlands as a barkentine and equipped as a passenger ship. A barkentine has three masts with square sails on the foremast.
Here are some words from my dairy while onboard the ship.
Perspective and scale were completely changed here for me, to me the shore was 200 meters away and the glacier maybe 500 meters, but the shore was a mile and a half away and the glacier about 4 miles away. I was surprised by how much sound there was underwater, the sound of the air escaping from the icebergs was incredible it was like bring transported to another world. I spent my morning watching huge icebergs drip their water into the sea. I have never seen water move like it does around icebergs. We came across a large iceberg with different colors, pale white, light blue, dark blue and turquoise, it was the most majestic beautiful piece of ice I saw. It was different from every angle , parts of it looked like it had a meteors locked inside. My camera battery died just as we got close to it but in a way I appreciated that as I really just absorbed the ice, with my hydrophone in the water listening to it melt.
Just woke up to a huge iceberg outside my window, the sound of it scraping off the ship is terrifying and the sounds o f water dripping from it too; is an unusual boat sound. So ready for another adventure in paradise. Slept for 12 hours last night, feel so much better now. Our captain had sailed through last night to get us into this safe natural harbor called Trinity hamna, around 130 whalers were buried here 400 years ago. According to historical sources, Magdalenefjorden was first used by the English in the early days of the whaling era. They erected a land station on the headland and named the area Trinity Harbor. The station was closed in 1623, but the cemetery remained in use. It is known that the first tourists visited it in 1838, the cemetery must have been a gloomy scenery, strewn with whale and walrus bones, like eerie, white remains of enormous extinct species in a far away land. Several of the coffins had made their way through the snow, heaved up to the surface by the permafrost, half open and empty on account of polar bears. Other coffins remain untouched, covered in rocks. In 1979 Gravneset was said to look more like a campsite than a cemetery. Another clear and sunny day. The sounds of the icebergs scraping off the ship.
We started our day by spotting polar bear tracks, I got very giddy and then things got very serious. The threat from them was very real. The captain went out after the guards to inspect the tracks. I was on the first boat of artists ashore, we stopped half way in the water as the guides were making a last check if it was safe for us to land . When we landed we had to stay in a huddled group until everyone was ashore and we got our instructions as to where was safe to work. It was quiet a large space considering . When we saw some polar bear tracks or something we thought might be a polar bear , we had to say fluffy animal or suspicious looking animal/rock, we could not saw polar bear ever, unless we were sure it was a polar bear. If we said polar bear, it meant that there would be 6 guns pointed in that direction. No one wanted to shoot a polar bear and no one had since 1996 but they were a very real threat, all of our polar bear guards also had flare guns, and if one came near (which they didn't) they would first shoot the flare gun and then shoot at the snow in front of the animal.
I had land sickness yesterday the most bizarre feeling, makes you want to hug the ground and hold on in the hope that everything stops swaying. There is such a primal purity to this place. There is something so melancholy about this place, maybe its the fact that we are at a graveyard, or the death of 1000's of whales took place here.
Snow on deck, the most beautiful snow flakes I have ever seen, perfectly formed, like something I have seen under a microscope. Landing on my hand and face and tongue, felt like such a privilege to have something so beautiful and perfectly formed dissolve on my tongue and become part of me for a short while.
Myself Lukas, Nathaniel and Leah found ourselves on board chewing ginger getting cold but too sea sick to make the run to our bunks. The water is so mercurial here, so slow and heavy. I really want to make a stone circle from ice at our next stop. We have some rough sailing ahead of us first, well motoring, we are not really sailing all that much today, the winds are not in our favour. Gives a sense of what it must have been like trying to get north up here, sitting for days waiting for the winds to change. Really liking the weight of the water in my videos, so dense and mercurial, and yet has this really transparent quality to it. I keep thinking I see narwhale horns and am pondering refreezing this water i'm collecting and what kind of crystal patterns it will make. Cold and tired today. We are ahead of the swell now so that bodes well for the evening. My second bag of jellies is not as good as the first so very disappointing. Old red sand stone mountains around us, 400 million years old. In the red fjord, Svalbard was at the equator 400 million years ago. Looking forward to working on land tomorrow.
Speaking to Beau earlier about the instances of de ja vu up here and how they are mostly triggered by the light. The boat is so still and the skies are so clear. This place is full of failed expeditions and failed experimentation. I feel like I am internalising everything very delicately, it is such a pure crystalline environment we are immersed in.
Going in between Andyene (“Duck Islands”) in Liefdefjorden we found our polar bear again. Polar bear number two, or else the same polar bear again, we are sailing pas the same point and there is a bear there eating a seal. Super amazing day. The video of the ice melting through the microscope is so beautiful, i'm really happy. The swell is really bad again, it must be time for dinner soon, the two always seem to coincide.
We arrived in Ny Alesund while finishing breakfast. Ny Alesund is a former mining community, the coal was already discovered by British whalers 300 years ago, but the settlement was established in 1917 by Kings bay coal Company A/S, which had their headquarters in Alesund in Norway. Mining was discontinued in 1929 due to several minor accidents, but resumed in 1945. The following years the community had up to 200 inhabitants. Coal mining was closed down in 1963, after a major accident. From 1967 research activities took over, and Ny Alesund developed into an unique research village. I had planned to spend the day at the German/ French research centre where they studied the atmosphere. To walk into civilization on a paved harbor was an experience on it's own. We discovered yet again what being land sick means, adjusted to take the movement of the ship into our legs, it is the solid ground that suddenly starts swinging and moving. In town everyone could, for the first time in ten days, move around unguarded. If a polar bear would come, we could just open the first door we saw and jump in; in Ny Alesund every door is always open for this purpose. Later in the afternoon the rest of the group headed to the AWIPEV-station, and joined me at the red building at the end of town, to watch the daily release of a weather balloon. It's Wednesday today- a concept we totally forgot about. On Wednesdays the ozone is measured. The balloon will stay up for about an hour and a half and fall down somewhere. Most of the balloons will stay lost, somewhere, and a few are found through GPS. I spent time taking recordings and chatting to Sebastian who had been living in Spitzbergen for 11 years, three of them in Ny Alesund.
Northern lights, icebergs and polar bears, two weeks upon a tall ship in the high north, every cell in my body knows what a privilege it has been and how it has changed me. I took my sphere out today , the one I made with the glacier water and the iceberg remedy, it had a crystal of a flower inside. Felt like the perfect?place to send it back to the sea. The boat was empty everyone was ashore and I felt like I was by myself the . It was incredibly beautiful. I felt like my purpose was complete and I could go home now.
Our landing back in Longyearbyen was melancholy, my chest hurt, it was actually hard to breath. I didn't want to return at all. The place we had arrived to with such excitement looked bleak without the snow; I longed for the wilderness again, the space and ice and snow. I had had such an incredible time I was already plotting as to how to return. I feel now that this place has some how become part of me. I know I'll be back I just don't know when.