Hamburg to Longyearbyen | 16 Days | Voyage 7914
I will be taking this voyage on Silversea's new Prince Albert 2, an expedition vessel made for ice-class voyages in the Arctic and Antarctic. This ships holds just about 100 passengers yet has three dining venues, a theater, humidor (for cigars) and a wine & cognac room.
The ship has beautiful stateroom and even suites, gourmet food and onboard enrichment lecturers. But the focus is on the destinations where the captain is given free reign to choose his itinerary and given day merely depending on where the wildlife action is.
We are taking the vessek from Hamburg to the island of Svalbard, high above the Arctic Circle demarkation and even above the 80th lattitude. (90 is the North pole). This is farther north than Prudhoe Bay Alaska, which is at the top of the state.
That is the end of our voyage, however. It starts in the Scottish isles and then explores the Norwegian Fjords. Once we arrive in Svalbard we have just a few days to see the sites. For the rest of the summer, however, this ship will mostly spend the entire summer in Svalbard with notning but 7-day of unscripted wildlife watching. Amazingly, most of these summer voyages are already 95% sold out.
But if you like what you read here about the ship and out experiences then there are still openings. We will also be reporting the small-ship Silversea experience itself. Here is our itinerary:
Departure date: June 1, 2009 from Hamburg, Germany;
1. Day at Sea;
2. Newcastle, UK;
3. Aberdeen, Scotland;
4. Fair Isle, Shetland Islands, UK; Mousa, Shetland Islands, UK;
5. Lerwick, Shetland Islands, UK ; Isle of Noss, Shetland Islands, UK;
6. Day at Sea;
7. Trondheim, Norway;
8. Cruise & Explore Norwegian Fjords, Norway;
9. Lofoten Islands, Norway;
10. Andoya Islands, Norway;
11. Magaroya Island, Norway;
12. Skarsvag (Nordkapp), Norway;
13. Bear Island, Norway;
14. Hornsund, Norway;
15, 16. Cruise & Explore Svalbard, Norway (2 Days)
Paul, I hope you have a wonderful cruise. This itinerary is fantastic. We made it to Spitsbergen two years ago and even got a little certificate for crossing 80 degrees north. Hopefully, you will get a quick flight out of Longyearbyen as there is practically nothing to do there. I am looking forward to your reports.
We boarded the ship and were very pleased to see our suite has two distinct rooms, a bedroom and a living room. Each room has a large French Balcony which means the doors open and you have a good 12-inch clearance to step out upon.
Of course, all we wanted to do was go to sleep but it was too close to dinner to settle in. I was afraid I would never wake up.
Sailing out of Hamburg was wonderful. The River Elbe is dotted with beautiful houses and life in northern Atlantic Germany. The weather was beautiful at about 80 degrees. We went to our first Prince Albert dinner. We were not overwhelmed with the service but wewere feeling just a little cranky having not had any sleep for almost 30 hours.
Anyway – Day 2 was a crossing from Hamburg to the U.K. The crossing was rough. This is small vessel at only 6000 tons, and while she rode well for her size, this is the North Sea, famous for being one of the roughest spots on Earth. My wife was ill from the beginning but she did not whine much. I got ill in the wee hours of the second day, well after dionner of the first.
We gave our butler and room service a fair amount of work, starting mostly with fruit and crackers, but as we got closer that turned in to broth, then a salad then finally club sandwiches and cheesecake.
Day 3 we have just docked in Newcastle, England.
I feel 100% right now that we are docked, it is only 7:25 but I always love the way that England looks in the early morning light. No place comes alive quite the way Britain does in the early morning hours. We have a beautiful room service breakfast with hot coffee in front of us. The tugs are pulling us to our berth.
All shore excursions aree included on this voyage and today we have a full day tour to the castle in Newcastle, and a city tour. I am looking forward to this and so happy to be feeling better.
(this may be a little discombobulated but I just woke up)
Our tour yesterday was beautiful. We first visited Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. This castle was built in the 12-century as a Norman keep, which means it was a fortress for Norman knights to avoid the pillaging hordes. Being northern England, the grounds were impeccable. The castle itself was not completely original, but it had many authentic design aspects and magnificent museum displays from all periods of British history.
The most interesting thing about the northern regions of the English Channel is the tides. The North Sea is incredibly shallow, which imbues the tides with an incredible divergence in depth. We also visited another castle called Lindisfarne, which is upon a tidal island of the same name. A “tidal island” means it is only accessible when the tide is out – but it is an isolated island at sea when the tide is in. It is cut off from land twice each day by the tide.
The island is also known as “The Holy Island” for the priory once occupied by a Saint Cuthbert who is said to have had a mystical connection to the indigenous wild animals, and whose bones refused to wither even after he was buried. There is a small but thriving village on the Holy Island. The castle of Lindisfarne looks out over the North Sea where one can see several small and rocky islands that remain mostly hidden at high tide but reveal themselves dramatically at low tide. In fact, much of the history of the island revolves around salvaging ships that were laid up on these rocky deathtraps just below the waterline. The entire castle is surrounded by thousands of sheep grazing in the grassy rolling hills below.
It was a full day that left us exhausted. I have never heard a quieter bus as no one spoke a word on the ride back to our ship.
Now to the ship. As I mentioned, Prince Albert 2 is a small expeditionary ship but with the wonderful addition of luxury at the same time. But at a mere 6000-tons, this is not the vessel you want to be on when traversing the North Sea. In fact, most of our fellow passengers we talked to were seasick on our first day at sea as we crossed from Hamburg to Newcastle, England. This includes myself. I vomited at least once during that night although otherwise I did not feel all that bad.
Last night the ship was calm and the scenery was spectacular as we sailed down the River Tyne away from Newcastle. But the moment we crossed the river outlet into the North Sea the ship started pitching like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz. This was in the middle of dinner. My wife does not tolerate high seas well at all.
Now here is my complaint about Silversea. To be specific, as a cruise reviewer I rarely use a personal incident that could happen to anyone at any time on almost any ship to draw a conclusion about a cruise line. But this particular complaint has now happened twice and I feel it is now a legitimate complaint I must have about Silversea.
The captain knew we would be facing very rough seas. The young lady who came rushing to my wife’s aid in the dining room told us so. Of course the captain knew what the sea conditions would be – they always know what they are about to face when they set a course. But the captain did not warn us passengers of what laid ahead. He let us sail into seas that tossed the ship so much we could barely walk down the halls with no pre-warning at all.
The problem is that it was too late to take the medication one needs to avoid getting seasick. For the second night in a row my wife paid homage to the porcelain alter of nausea for several hours. Being seasick is not fun, I know because the worst experience I ever had being seasick was also on a different Silversea ship, and the captain then had done exactly the same thing! He sailed out of the Kiel Canal into a raging North Sea with no warning to tell passengers that Armageddon was about to hit. As we instantly transitioned from calm seas to roller coaster conditions I was so sick I wanted to die. If you have been there you know what I mean.
That is how my wife felt last night, for the second night in a row. It isn’t fun and it isn’t funny. I think a captain has a responsibility to warn the guests of impending rough seas so they have enough time to get the proper medication in their systems.
We were eating dinner when things suddenly started falling to the floor and waiters started crabwalking. Knowing my wife would soon be ill the maitre’ d fetched a tablet of Meclazine, but it was not the kind we have in the cabin that melts under your tongue, it was a tablet to swallow. She insisted that my wife should eat a lot of food and drink the tablet down with a coke.
That may work for the maitre’ d, but that is not my experience. My experience is that neither food nor pills will digest when you are already nauseated. In fact, I have personally purged entire tablets of Meclazine along with a meal I had taken some eight hours earlier.
Long story short, today we are anchored at Aberdeen, Scotland. There is a tour to what is supposed to be a beautiful castle but it is now 9:00 a.m. and we are not on it. My wife slept until 9:30 with a seasickness/Meclazine hangover. She tells me she was sick all night long and feels like she was punched in the stomach. On top of that, we are now experiencing a crew lifeboat drill and the ship does not have any way to turn off announcements coming into the cabin.
I have the same medicinal hangover, except I did not get seasick because I used the type of medication that melts under your tongue. Mine didn’t need to compete with a full meal for processing, plus under the tongue doses tend to work faster so my seasickness never got started.
We love our stateroom and the staff has been very kind to us, but so far the voyage has been too rough for us. Is it the cruise line’s fault when seas get too rough? Of course not. But one should know that a ship of this size is going to have a great deal of motion in high sea conditions.
Personally, I tolerated the high seas about as well as possible although I do not like the “day after” feeling of a full dose of Meclazine. But I have to think about my wife. No one wants to be subjected to that kind of seasickness night after night.
Keeping in mind this is an expedition ship sailing through the North Sea I suppose one should expect it to roll or pitch a great deal, and it is. We are sailing directly into the swells and so it is once again a bit like a roller coaster. We had to take our Meclazine again tonight, but this time I convinced my wife to take it before we sailed, and to use our own type which melts under your tongue rather than swallowing. So far so good, although she seems to have a hard time admitting that I could be right about anything.
Aberdeen was cool. We skipped the shore excursions so I walked into town. Good old U.K., every shop I walked was playing the kind of music I like the best on the “Muzak” system, guitar oriented pop music like “All Right Now” by “free” and the theme song from the show “Friends.”
Tomorrow we are in two very remote Scottish Shetland Islands: Fair Isle and Mousa. The former is 3.5 by 1.5 miles. The latter is tiny. They are some 200 miles north of the Scottish mainland where we were today, and there are definitely more sheep than people there. Friday night we will spend docked in a small town called Lerwick.
We will have our first skiff experiences tomorrow. A skiff is a rubber expedition boat. We will be in search of seals porpoises and possibly even orca and minke whales. There are some ancient buildings dated from the early Viking era called the Clickimin Broch first occupied during the early Bronze era.
I will say that this small ship has excellent TV. I already mentioned that we have the latest movies such as Valkerie, Gran Torino and Taken all free on our television. We also have Fox news but only CNN International instead of the U.S. version.
I have to say, this is a small ship, and there are only 60+ passengers onboard. I believe the captain may have heard the story about us being upset that we were not adequately warned to take our seasickness medication last night. Tonight he came on the intercom tonight and advised “those who are sensitive to high seas” to have either a shot of cognac or to take their usual seasickness medications.
So sorry the voyage has been marred by mal de mer. My first voyage, transatlantic between New York and Southampton at the age of 19, I was ill for days. But after that never got seasick again.
Like Drake's Passage (between Antarctica and South America), you can count on the North Sea being rough. Anyone who is prone to seasickness should plan on using the patch until you are out of the area.
This is my most important post yet. Do you know how it is to feel stupid when missing a concept that was staring you in the face? That is myself, today. I do have a legitimate excuse of having a very sick wife and truly not feeling 100% myself. I would say I felt about 50%. But here it is….
This is an expedition vessel. The name Silversea had me fooled. I have never been on a vessel exactly like this, to be honest with you, although I have been on many cruises. The closest I came was American Safari last year, but that was different in that the cruise started and ended in the same inland waterways, the Inside Passage of Alaska. This cruise is crossing major bodies of known rough seas.
Today we are anchored just off the tiny island of Fair Isle, Scotland, and this is what you need to know before you take this vessel.
The purpose of Prince Albert 2 is to be in nature. This means you won’t be making any scheduled stops for the purpose of shopping or municipal sightseeing. This morning, anchored off the small island of Fair Isle, the wind is 70 kilometers per hour and the swells are now about 10 feet. They were only about two feet when they let the hikers off.
Fair Isle is a small island in the middle of nowhere, literally about 200 miles from any major landmass and only about five square miles. We are here for bird watching, according to the Daily Chronicle. In other words, this ship is meant for youthful nature lovers who can stand rolling seas all night long and still be up at 8:00 a.m. to board a Zodiac and make a wet landing for bird watching.
There are talks given by the expedition leaders, and they are the only chance you get to find out what you are supposed to be doing the next day. The talks are NOT repeated on the televisions although it seems to me that they certainly should be as there is a channel called “expeditions” on the extensive television system. It only has the same text as the shore excursion brochure.
Sadly, we have missed the talks given by the expedition leaders, because we really were not feeling well. I went to last night’s and sat for as long as I could in a room that was about 55 degrees and had the air conditioning blowing. I had to leave when I literally started shivering. I have heard we are not the only ones missing the talks.
The Daily Chronicle, which tells you what the next day’s schedule will be (it pretty much changes daily as they have to adapt to nature) does not get to the room until 9:00 pm. It takes a few days to even realize that aside from the lectures this is your only chance to find out what is scheduled for the next day. The pre-cruise information about where the ship will go is completely vague about times of arrival and departure.
So, yesterday a staff member told us we were departing the ship for the tour at 9:00 am, but he was wrong. I was sleeping through our high seas voyage from 8:00 to 2:00 am on Bonine. When I got up to make out the coffee card at 2:15 am for a 7:00 wakeup I still didn’t know the Chronicle actually said an 8:00 departure.
We missed the tour, but actually we did happy we did. It was freezing cold outside and the seas were dismal for skiffs. We both had horrid Meclazine (Bonine) hangovers.
And this brings up another point. Be prepared that this is an expedition ship that does not use tenders. It either docks or it uses Zodiac skiffs, which are rubber airboats where passengers sit on the sides. This means you might (are about 99% guaranteed) to get wet getting on and off the ship when it does not dock. It may be just a splash, but they also have what are called “wet landings” where you might have to step in the water before you can get ashore. It won’t be much water, maybe a few inches, but you will need rubber boots, some of which can be provided by the ship, but not if you are an unusual size.
We now realize that they recommend that you BUY rubber boots before you arrive. They also recommend that you have “wet pants,” which are waterproof overpants to keep your regular pants dry. The shipboard orientation information they send you will recommend that you buy these items and bring them with you. But I now think it should have been separate fluorescent orange flyer included with your tickets, because it is vital information and I admit I skimmed over it. Why? Because this is Silversea and I expected to be able to just arrive the way I usually do, without any prior concerns. I was wrong, this is an expedition ship and I was thrown a curveball, but that is why we write articles about ships, so YOU will be better prepared than I was – hopefully.
Okay, I admit I am a bit cranky. In truth, this trip would be entirely different if it wasn’t for the rough seas. I would be making it to all the lectures and I would have been prepared for the early landing. It isn’t anyone’s fault that the seas are very rough and this is just a 6,000-ton ship.
Now we have the guests back onboard. The 10 foot swells made re-boarding very tenuous, but now one died, as one person said. That was followed by five hours at sea – through those swells and winds. More Bonine and four hours in bed and now we are finally docked overnight in Lerwick, Shetland Islands of Scotland. We went out to buy our overpants, but the entire town closes at 5:00 pm. The only way we can buy them is to miss part of our morning tour tomorrow, but we want to be prepared for future excursions, so we must.
Tomorrow afternoon we leave on what will be about 30 hours at sea. This is no joke, this ship rocks a lot, especially in high winds and rough seas. I mean the kind of rocking where drawers and doors open and shut on their own and the horizon completely disappears when looking out the window. We then will land in Trondheim, Norway, which we are very hopeful will be the beginning of almost a week of pleasant seas as we explore the Norwegian Fjords and northern islands. Fingers are crossed.
Lerwick, Shetland Islands – Next 6
The sun is bright this morning, the wind has died down and it is warmer. Hopefully, the North Sea will be far calmer when we start to cross over to Trondheim later tonight. Today we had a tour of the Shetland Islands, visiting a Broch, which is an ancient building first built about 2000 years ago. We took pictures of the dramatic countryside, and had to beg the tour leader to let us off the bus to get pictures of Shetland ponies. Yes, we felt the condescension of the local tour guide, telling us we will now be late for the museum but that is OK because we have the pictures of our ponies in our cameras.
We are now headed for the second half of today, which is the isle of Noss. The weather has turned beautiful and so we will be going out in skiffs today to see the wildlife. According to the literature the main attraction today will be birds. These islands are said to be a “Mecca” for birders as there are more species here than almost any other singular place in the world. Our literature says we will see gannets, puffins, guillemots, shags, kittiwakes, razorbills, fulmars and great skuas. I am sure that sentence means a lot more to a “birder” than it does to me, but we live life to learn, right?
The good news? We have our gloves and rain-pants, my wife was easliy able to purchase them in Lerwick. The ship will be able to provide us with rubber boots.
The seas are MUCH calmer today – can you tell we feel better?
Things are looking up. We had a day at sea yesterday through the North Sea once again and on to Trondheim, Norway. The weather is beautiful and we had a nice and warm visit in Trondheim today. The city sits upon a long inlet and so the seas calmed down about midnight.
I went to bed about 11:15 and the sun was still above the horizon. I pulled the shades and got myself calmed down as much as possible so I could have a regular night’s sleep. We arrived in Trondheim and left for our tour at 9:30.
Now, here is something you need to know about this ship. You need an adventurous spirit. When you are on this ship you are compelled to become like one of the crew. If you do not, you may miss half of what happens. For example, as mentioned, the only way to find out about tours is to attend the lectures by the expeditionary team.
In the daily schedule, which comes the night before, the two tours were scheduled for 9:00 and 9:30. However, on the television (which we have now been told is the only other way to know what is happening with tours if you miss the expedition lectures) the tours were listed at 9:00 and 10:30.
This morning, when the tour times were announced on the PA the times for the two tours (option 1 and option 2) were reversed. In other words, there is a lot of “playing it by ear” on this ship. And there is nothing wrong with that! They do it for several reasons, but most of all they do it to make the ride more comfortable for everyone (the captain may slow down if the seas are rough, for example), or they may find a way to give you more time in port.
In any case, as stated, this is a small ship and crew and management are like one. You are encouraged to get involved and stay informed. As Conrad told me vehemently at dinner the other night – “This is an expedition ship, not a cruise ship,” and they run it as such. You are part of the team on this ship.
Tomorrow we have another conflicting schedule. One schedule says “cruising the Norwegian fjords” while the other says “day at sea.” We can see we have some time in the open sea before we get to the area of the fjords, but as we are sailing at night we hope to be in fjord land by morning. Once again, playing with the schedule we are leaving at 8:00 pm instead of the scheduled 6:30.
All we care about right now are calm seas. The weather worked against us and this is the North Sea. I admit we spent 24 hours in our cabin yesterday as we traversed from the Shetland Islands to Norway. That is the northern North Sea, close to the Norwegian Sea, and it got better the closer to Norway we got.
Wishing YOU calm seas, we continue on our expedition north to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. Good sailing!
I wish I could let you feel the relief we feel now that we are out of the North Sea. The sea is literally like glass today. We are cruising up the coast of Norway and I believe later in the day we will be sailing into Norwegian Fjords. Right now we are passing beautiful islands and some very tall and snowy mountains on our starborad, but that is the other side from where I am writing this.
I just wanted to get an update online to tell you how much better we feel. NOW we are ready for the Silversea Expedition experience. This is a wonderful vessel, I just know I would not take it through the North Sea again. Also, please don’t think I blame the vessel. It is small but we also hit bad weather, something like 90 kilometer winds. That will make any ship shiver and shake.
I hope to upload some pictures today, and later on I hope to get great pictures of Norwegian fjords.
Yesterday was by far the most exciting day on this cruise yet. I truly feels a like a completely different cruise starting with two days ago. Since we have crossed the North Sea we have had seas like glass.
Yesterday as we crossed the threshold of the Arctic Circle we had a celebration on board. We were taking a group picture of ourselves at the globe-like statue on a nearby island that connotes the line where the Arctic Circle starts and just as we were all looking at it a minke whale started breaching just off our ship. He was close enough for several people to get pictures. Unfortunately, I was holding my video at the time, and he is on my video, but too far off to the side to show you.
We spent the day outdoors, in sun shining 60-degree (14 C) weather, eating lunch on the back deck and toasting ourselves with champagne and special shooters made of Curacao and whipped cream to look like an ice berg in the ocean.
The day ended with two lectures from the excellent expedition team onboard, including Robin Aiello, who is a very accomplished marine biologist. She told us far more than we ever learned about whales on our trip to Alaska although that trip qualifies as one of our top cruise experiences ever as well. Silversea is known for getting the best lecturers no matter where they take you.
Today we are at small island in northern Norway where we will see a discovered original Viking village. Later we will be cruising through a well-known Norwegian Fjord. One thing we have discovered is that the Norwegians have a different definition of fjord than the rest of the world. To them, any land raked by glaciers and subsequently showing exposed granite and filled with seawater is a fjord. To us, the word connotes an inlet with just one entrance and a dead end. It usually means steep walls and deep water.
Tomorrow the really good stuff starts as well reach our first spot where whales are known to habituate, including sperm whales, some of the world’s largest (Blue are the largest, but sperm whales are close). Hence the question “why do they call them sperm whales?” I don’t know, but I will ask Robin.
We will also take a trip tomorrow where we hope to see a heard of reindeer. The weather is sunny and warm for the Arctic circle – almost 60 degrees. It’s a good day, and we deserve it.
This is interesting I have never been on this type of cruise. I love whale watching and nature. But I'm not sure about those rough seas. I have never been seasick, however, I have never been in seas that rough. I'm glad the seas improved and you can enjoy your cruise.
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Paul, I am enjoying your report. We are considering sailing the Prince Albert II next summer to check out Svalbard and Bear Island to see the Polar Bears. Will be interested to hear your upcoming reports.
Marc... it is early in the season and it is important to note that I am on something of a repositioning cruise to arrive at Svalbard, hence we only have 2 full days there (and 1 at bear island on the way).
The regular Svalbard cruises fly directly to the island and you spend seven days with no definite scheduke, nothing but watching for wildlife. I also hope we get to see the polar bears and whales, but I am sure the chances are much better on the regular cruises. Either way, I will let you know.
Unfortunately, rough weather was hitting the island of Andoya when we attempted to sight whales there. The ship was scheduled to reach the island at 5:00 am and many of us put our names on a list to get a wakeup call if any whales were sighted, but the call never came.
The problem with choppy water us that is makes whitecaps which makes spotting any wildlife extremely hard. Of course, you can see whales when they spout, which is fairly often, if you are looking the right direction at the time.
Yesterday we visited the NordKapp, or North Cape as we would say in English. That is the northernmost point in Europe and is in Norway. It is a spectacular sight. We are now above the northern latitude known as the “tree line.” The terrain here has hardly any vegetation at all except for a spongy grass. The coast tends to have extremely high cliffs. In fact, NordKapp is a 1000 foot drop from the cliff that holds the commemorative statue almost straight down to the Barents Sea below.
In the morning we took the Zodiacs out and explored three islands close to NordKapp. We saw the puffins and other sea birds, as well as some exotic jellyfish. It was cold, to say the least. The temperature was about 40-degrees (Fahrenheit).
In the afternoon we pulled into a small bay not far from NordKapp and dropped the skiffs. It is a little bit cumbersome but this ship only uses skiffs to get passengers ashore. This includes special life preservers you have to out on. The ride to the dock was short so it isn’t a big deal, but this ship never really “tenders” to shore, it uses the skiffs all the time.
Upon leaving the skiffs we dropped our lifejackets and boarded a bus. Amazingly the weather had changed completely. It was now sunny and almost warm. We were all still dressed in our Polar jackets, hats and gloves so we had to take most things off while we rosde to the visitor’s center at NordKapp.
The center is extensive with a three-screen 3D-like movie, restaurants, gift shops, museum exhibits and the overlook from the 1000-foot high cliff. We spent two hours there and could have stayed longer.
As we were leaving we saw a lone humpback whale breaching alongside the ship. It was swimming along side of us for a few minutes and then dived. Flashing its fluke (tail) as it went down. That is one of the telltale signs it was a humpback.
This morning we are on our way to “Bear Island.” Now, that is the name of the island but we are not really expecting to see any bears today. Apparently the name is a misnomer based on one of the very first ever visitors there. The skiffs will drop again and we will boat around the island, but it appears seabirds are once again the only species on the wildlife sightseeing menu once again.
Truthfully, this cruise has been somewhat frustrating in that we have spent far more time at sea than the original itinerary led us to believe. Sailing through the Norwegian Fjords was spectacular, and so was the North Cape. But as far as seeing wildlife goes, other than birds so far it has only been a few, singular whale sightings. And we are already on day 13 of the cruise.
Now, back from the Bear Island excursion, as expected no bears, but we did see some amazing landscapes and waterfalls from the melting ice high up on the cliffs overlooking the water. We rode the Zodiac through a couple of caves, one of them fairly long. This is a spectacular island, stark, dramatic and inhospitable for human life.
We will set sail again soon. We actually have not touched land for more than about six hours in the last five days or so. We have been in Zodiacs and toured around land, but mostly it is the same stark cliffs in icy cold winds and somewhat choppy seas. We have high hopes for Svalbard, a world-famous protectorate for wildlife including walruses, seals, whales and even Polar Bears. We have three full days there.
The next scheduled cruise is simply comprised of seven days at Svalbard. Yes, there is an airport there even though it is nothing more than a small archipelago pretty much as far north as any piece of land in the entire world. We are still only at the 76 latitude today, Svalbard is over 80. 90 is the North Pole. That basically means we will be within a couple of days travel by excursion ship to the actual North Pole starting tomorrow. Only expedition ships (not tourist ships) go much further north.
Today is the day we reach our prized destination. I wish I could say it was a gold prize, but as far as wildlife spotting goes, it is safe to say I have rarely seen a more disheartened group of sailors.
We cruised north all night to be within the ice floe of small icebergs that hug the east coast of the Svalbard archipelago, main island Spitsbergen, major city Longyearbyen. Our current location is said to be the polar bear highway, according to the expedition leader during our daily update. As the day lengthened, here in the land of midnight sun, our expectations turned to hope and finally to acceptance that a polar bear sighting was not to be, not today anyway.
My talk of polar bears may be new to this cruise log so far, but it has been the sole topic of conversation onboard ever since the bear guides came aboard. These two gentlemen are hired to protect us from the marauding and bounding carnivores who see humans and nothing more than gangly and hairless seals. The two men, one Polish and the other Norwegian, will carry guns to protect us from the polar bears. These bears are not at all like black or grizzly bears, where humans have kept them as pets. And where you can often just play dead and they will not eat you. A polar bear is always considered deadly. They run faster than humans and if you shoot one you must hit the brain. A shot to the heart will only slow it down, but not fast enough to stop it from mauling you to hamburger. The law in Svalbard says everyone must carry a gun, but if you shoot a bear you might go to prison for several years. It isn’t as crazy as it sounds, the law is to protect human lives, but not to encourage frivolous sport.
I heard early on that the ice chart the ship received by email just last night, and was wholly accurate at the time, just 18 hours later was near useless. The chart showed a solid sheet of ice encapsulating the east coast of the island, but when we arrived it was nothing but floe, keeping us from getting close to the shore all day long.
Some of us who opted to brave the 28-degree (F) weather outside saw a few seals lazing on passing icebergs. But there were not enough seals to attract the predators that we crave to see. We heard that the bears are all awakened from their hibernation and the weather just recently improved enough for them to be out in full seeking their dinner. So either there are just too few seals to attract them in this neighborhood, or some extremely fat and happy bears have already done their shopping and are now merely waiting for their cognac and cigars.
All was not bad, however. Pushing through the ice floe in our ice-class vessel was fun. The seas are very calm now and everywhere you look there are ice pieces ranging in size from highball ice cubes to small circus tents. The ship almost always manages to find a space between them unless they get too thick, and then we are forced to ram directly, or butt them from the side.
Tomorrow we board the skiffs once again and will make a “wet landing” upon the shore of Hornsund Fjord. The rain pants we bought for 35 Euro per pair have come in very handy for the one time we have used them so far. Tomorrow will be the first time we will need our rubber boots, which it turns out they have plenty of pairs of onboard. Good thing we didn’t also shell out for those. We have two more full days of expedition before the end of this cruise. Yes, it has been a long journey.
This is the last post and I apologize for not finishing sooner, but the truth is the last two days of this cruise were like something from another life. They left us exhausted for the 20 hour flight home.
The ship pulled into Hornsund early because a huge storm blew up from nowhere overnight. Even inside the deep inlet the seas were incredibly rough and visibility was very low. The wind was gusting up to 70 knots.
We went in the tenders , the wind was whipping up to 50 knots at sea level and the swells outside the ship were up to four feet - this was deep inside a sea inlet within the island of Spitsbergen.
It turns out we were headed towards a glacier where a polar bear was spotted the year before. When we arrived there was another bear, or more likely the same one who had become habitutated to the spot. He was at least 150 yards away, so he was just a dot except for through a telephoto lens.
The bad thing happened before this sighting. As we were waiting for tender boarding they got the German speaking group confused with the English group, and I had to stand in the corrider waiting to board a tender for literally 30 minutes (I timed it). We all had to stand and wait with our cold weather gear; jacket, hood, scarf, gloves, sunglasses inside a fully heated ship.
But during this 30 minutes not once did the guide check to see if we were dressed in waterproof gear, which turned out to be crucial. Within 30 minutes of riding the tender after boarding the skiff the driver decided to hightail it across the bay and in the process we got soaking wet. It turned out my gloves were not waterproof and neither were my shoes. They were literally soaked clear through in 26-degree weather not including the windchill of sitting in an open skiff. The girl next to me only had jeans on - no waterproof pants, and they were soaked. Two other people on my skiff were wearing regular shoes and they were also soaked.
After sighting the bear our guide was too excited to take us back to the ship. not a problem for him as he had all the waterproof clothes he needed. All together we were in that skiff for three solid hours, much longer than the 60 - 90 minutes they had said the tour would be. Keep in mind, they do make tours longer if wildlife is sighted.
We had to wait for other tenders to arrive so they could also see the bears. All along the driver knew we would be facing full sea spray sitting in the skiff trying to return to the ship because it was situated in higher swells. Sure enough, the ride back alone took 30 minutes and the last 15 were almost constant sea spray as the tender rocked over the waves. It was like being soaking wet in a large refrigerator and having someone throw bucket after bucket of ice cold water on you.
Needless to say it wasn't funny. The girl next to me, a 30 year old German, told me later she had to take a cold shower, making it progressively warmer as she warmed up. My wife had been in a different boat that went back to the ship while we were still at the glacier looking at the hardly visible bear. It took her almost 24 hours to shake her chill and even tonight she is in bed with a lingering cough.
I have to say i am disappointed in the guides for this trip. I think it was a borderline situation where any less hardy person could become seriously ill or even die. And it could have been easily avoided if the guides had checked each passenger to assure they were dressed properly before we went out, but up until that point we had always been told we would not need our rubber-proof boots unless we were going to land the skiff. They never said anything about getting soaked head to toe from the spray. The guides knew how to dress however, they just forgot to share that information with the guests.
The next day the ship was in search of walrus, but when we arrived at our destination we were told it was blocked by ice. In addition, we were told the night before the ship would arrive at 9:00 and the expedition start at 9:45. Instead the ship arrived at 7:30 and at 8:00 we heard announcements coming into our rooms that if we wanted to go on a tour we needed to be ready in 40 minutes. We were just having our morning coffee when that announcement came. The voice said "we cannot reach our walruses unfortunately, so we will only be doing a little ice cruising."
My wife and I went back & forth, and finally we decided not to go. Mostly because we did not want a repeat of the day before and we had already seen plenty of ice, but aloss because the tour was called an hour earlier than it was scheduled in the program and were not ready to go.
But what we were not told until it was too late was that the moment they got off the ship they could see walrus on the shore and so the captain used the ship to clear the ice shelf and the tenders were able to get right up to them.
The people who went on the tour that day had the best experience of the entire cruise. We missed it -- after having endured the worst of the 17-day cruise. I realized the walrusses were only about five minutes from the ship. They could have made an announcement and gotten those of us who didn't go that morning out in almost no time at all. But they didn't. If you weren't on a early morning tender, which left 15 minutes before the ship was scheduled to even arrive at its destination that morning, then you missed the best sighting of the entire cruise.
That brings up one of the biggest disappointments I had with the expedition team onboard. They were not using the television system, and scheduling was meaningless onboard. The night before at 6:00 pm they had a briefing which said the ship would arrive at 9:00 and the tour would start at 9:45.
When the "Chronicle" came out for the next day, not until 11:00 pm the night before it also said the same, ship arriving at 9:00 am (approx.) it said in parentheses, and tour leaving at 9:45 (approx). The television said nothing but "Svalbard, 12:00 am to 11:59 pm."
In other words, there was no scheduling to rely upon - only spur of the moment announcements with innaccureate information about what you could see. Not to miss anything on this ship you had to be ready to go at almost any time with no notice. I don't mind getting up at 7:00 on a cruise (not my favorite thing to do), but I really appreciate being able to plan my day the night before.
Keep in mind they did not go early because they had sighted walrus. They didnt know they would until after the tour started - or we certainly would have gone. No, they left an hour early, with only 40 minutes notice, and only to go "ice cruising."
Do you know how frustrating it is to miss the best sighting of a 17-day cruise because the expedition team couldn't get the scheduling down? Not only that, but they didn't care that some of the passengers weren't on that tour, if you didn't go that morning too bad.
By the way, that wasn't the case the day before. After we endured three hours of icy torture to see the polar bear, once we got back to the ship the captain navigated the entire ship back to the very same glacier so everyone could see the bear. We got a better view of the bear from the ship than we did on the skiffs.
You couldn't rely on the briefings, you couldn't rely on the Chronicle, you couldn't rely on the TV. Communication by the staff was practically useless. In my opinion, that just isn't Silversea standard and I told the expedition leader exactly what I thought the next day.
Later that afternoon we visited an abandoned Russian coal mining town, something Conrad (expedition leader) had told us were weren't in Svalbard to see. Instead of walruses I got to see a Russian folkloric show by coal miner's daughters and one guitar player with a mullet.
Bottom line - wildlife is fickle, it doesn't go by any schedule, but those walruses and that bear didn't go anywhere after they were sighted. There was no reason for us to be subjected to 3 hours of frigid cold the first day, and there was no reaon for us to miss the walruses on the next day. The only cause was lack of planning by the expedition team and their inabilty to temper their own enthusiasm and remember that they were working for the benefit of the guests, not their own experiences.
Prince Albert II is a new effort by Silversea and the kinks are still getting worked out. Suffice it to say you can have a great experience if you are sufficiently prepared, but this means knowing how to dress BEFORE you get to the ship AND being prepared for a tour to leave at any time. Do not trust their scheduling onboard.
I really hate to knock a company I like a great deal, but in this case the ship experience is all Silversea, but the expeditions/tours are like a different company. I told them I was very unhappy with how things worked out and not too surprisingly the expedition leader was mostly just argumentative with me, accusing me of not taking the responsibility to stay informed. It was insulting, actually, when his own information had wrong times for departures AND they were not using the very tools (the TV and daily newspaper) they had to keep us informed. Not Silversea material in my opinion. Fortunately, you can learn from my experience and start this cruise knowing what I had to learn the hard way.
Also, I am sure things will get better. This was a tough cruise for the staff, the first cruise of the season in your summer destination is always a guessing game. If I had it to do over, however, I would fly directly into Svalbard for the 7-day cruise they have scheduled this week and bypass all the preliminary stops. And if you want to see regular (non-expedition wildlife) destinations, stick to the bigger Silversea ships.