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Aug 25 - West of Svalbard

Monday the 25th of August 2008

Noon Position: Lat.: 78.55 N, Long.: 007.20 E
Location: West of Svalbard
Total Distance Travelled: 3403 NM
Air Temperature: 6.1 Degrees Celsius
Sea Temperature: 4.8 Degrees Celsius

At the end of last week we had just left the ice behind. Now we turned east into Kongsfjorden, a beautiful fjord cut deep into the Western side of Spitsbergen. Our destination was the research station Ny-Ålesund. We were planning to pick up the rest of the BBC Newsnight team, but it turned out that that the flights that day had been cancelled due to bad weather and they were still in Longyearbyen. I was very lucky myself because I had been invited to stay for a few days in Ny-Ålesund and have a look at their medical facilities. So I was put ashore in a small boat while the JCR continued down Kongsfjorden. For this reason this edition of the diary will be more of a travel log than a ship’s diary.

Ny-Ålesund is nowadays a research station and one of the most northernmost permanent settlements in the world (78.55 N, 11.56 E). In case these numbers don’t mean anything to you: It is in comparison further north (at 78.55degrees) than for example the most southerly of the permanent British research stations in Antarctic lies to the south (Halley, 75.35 S)!

01 - Ny-Aesund as seen from the pier
01 - Ny-Aesund as seen from the pier


It is a unique setting for a research station, because at the moment 11 different countries have their own stations, but the Norwegians provide the central facilities. So one can walk through the very Scandinavian looking village and be surprised by 2 big stone lions to both sides of the door of the Chinese station or a good luck charm in the window of the Indian station. With scientists from so many different places and backgrounds it is a fascinating place with a very nice community.

The surroundings of the station are stunning. I counted no fewer than 15 glaciers visible from the station!

02 - Landscape at Ny-Alesund
02 - Landscape at Ny-Alesund


But it is not only a research station, but also a place of historical interest, which gives it more character. It was founded as a mining settlement in 1916, but it was never very successful, so mining operations ceased in 1929 and were only picked up again after the Second World War. In the early years anyone could stake out a claim of land and mark it with a handwritten board, plus an old tin containing more detailed description about the claim and how the owner could be reached! There is a small museum, where a few of these claim signs are on exhibition, together with many old photographs depicting the life in Ny-Ålesund at the time.

Ny Ålesund’s claim to fame is that in 1925 the explorer Roald Amundsen, who had beaten Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole, set out from Ny-Ålesund on his first attempt to fly to the North Pole. The attempt failed and Amundsen and his crew only just made it back alive. In 1926 he tried again, this time not with airplanes but with the airship Norge and was successful. The mast, to which the Norge had been tied before the start of the journey, still stands.

03 - Amundsen's mast for the airship Norge
03 - Amundsen's mast for the airship Norge


In the middle of the village is a memorial for Roald Amundsen, who disappeared two years after the Norge expedition while on a rescue mission for his Italian Fellow explorer Umberto Nobile. This memorial is much photographed but I personally prefer the original stone commemorating the first attempt to fly to the North Pole in 1925. It is placed on a small ridge outside the village and therefore out of reach for most tourists coming to Ny-Ålesund.

04 - Stone commemorating Amundsen's first attempt to fly to the North Pole
04 - Stone commemorating Amundsen's first attempt to fly to the North Pole


Mining was taken up again after the Second World War, but ceased after a number of tragic accidents, the last one in 1962, which claimed 21 lives. Several years later the first research activities began, but only in the 1990ies Ny-Ålesund became the fully-fledged international research station it is today.

The British station is operated by NERC (National Environmental Research Council), of which BAS is a component. Which was why I was not surprised to meet people there I knew although I had never been to this part of the world before. The station manager Nick Cox gave me a very friendly welcome. While both of us were shown around the medical facilities at Ny-Ålesund we came across this ancient straight jacket, which must originate from the mining days and is kept as an antique. We could not resist having Nick try it on… It was actually the first time I had seen one and I am very glad that this kind of thing is not part of medical practice any more!

05 - NERC Station Manager Nick Cox in the Ny-Alesund surgery. I can assure you that he is just modelling the use of the antique straight jacket and does not normally require one!
05 - NERC Station Manager Nick Cox in the Ny-Alesund surgery. I can assure you that he is just modelling the use of the antique straight jacket and does not normally require one!


Fortunately the BBC News Night team arrived safely the following day and one of the Norwegian boats gave them a lift to join the JCR. They were eager to get going to make up for the missing day.

In the village one can see plenty of wildlife living in or around the settlement. There are reindeer, which frequently wander into the village. They are a lot stubbier than their Scandinavian counterparts. Barnacle geese nest and moult around the small lake close by and Arctic foxes live literally in the village and are a delight to watch. (Living at a research station they need to contribute their part to the science, so they are tagged to make it easier to identify them.)

06 - Arctic fox, blue, resting after having dug up and eaten something that looked disgusting me but no doubt was delicious for a fox.
06 - Arctic fox, blue, resting after having dug up and eaten something that looked disgusting me but no doubt was delicious for a fox.


While I stayed at Ny-Ålesund science work continued on the JCR, with Mags calibrating her acoustic systems, which mainly meant that the ship had to stay very still in one spot for 12 hours, making for a beautiful sight in Kongsfjorden.

07 - JCR in Kongsfjorden
07 - JCR in Kongsfjorden


When I got back onto the ship it was the last day of the science cruise JR 210 and all the labs were packed up already! The occasion was celebrated by a very nice buffet dinner, speeches were given and presents exchanged. As it is tradition the scientists had prepared a picture for the JCR with photos from the cruise and all the names of the participants on it, which was given to the captain. Many of these commemorative plaques from previous cruises decorate the ship’s corridors.

08 - JCR 210 plaque
08 - JCR 210 plaque


A member of the science team called ‘Bow Thruster’, who is apparently a well-known feature at SAMS made an appearance with a fantastic poem about the cruise. Unfortunately Mr. Bow Thruster is very camera shy, so I can only provide a picture of the ship’s officers listening to his poem:

09 - Ships officers listening to the poem, photo by Laila Sadler
09 - Ships officers listening to the poem, photo by Laila Sadler


The next morning saw us arriving in Longyearbyen to change science personnel. We were very sorry to see them go, as they have been a very good crowd. I am told that the cruise was a scientific success too, even though we did not get quite as far north as originally planned.

10 - Waving good-bye form the quay side
10 - Waving good-bye form the quay side


Unloading some equipment and loading new things for the next cruise, JR 211, took up the next few days. For a few hours the deck look very tidy before new machines were put onto the ship. In several groups the new scientists arrived on the ship and we finally set out again.

The aim of JR211 is to investigate gas hydrates (methane) on the seabed. The scientists are mainly geophysicists of the National Oceanographic centre in Southampton. As we have only just started the cruise there will be more information about this cruise on the next diary.

11 - Leaving Longyearbyen
11 - Leaving Longyearbyen


Petra
Pictures by Laila Sadler and myself