|Saturday 20 June: In the early hours, I doze in my cabin, trying to acclimatise to the midnight sun and listening to the comforting hum of mv Professor Molchanovs engines pushing us at 11 knots ever northwards towards the pack-ice. I will not see darkness again until I am back in Oslo in 10 days time.
In the radio room, the Russian operator monitors the clatter of incoming telexes, faxes, weather forecasts and ice reports. Printers produce hard copy of satellite-generated noise from another world. We round the bight and suddenly the cacophony ceases.
I check my mobile no signal and realise that without satellite communications we will be alone; cruising, diving, probing the ice, exploring the tundra. No one knows what lies ahead but we all have our private hopes, and fears. I have joined the 55-berth former Russian research vessel Professor Molchanov for an Arctic diving expedition. For the first time, tourist divers can join the select few (perhaps 150 divers worldwide) who have dived at 80N. To add to the kudos, many of our sites have never been dived.
There are 15 of these fortunate pioneer divers on board, 25 non-divers, a crew of 20 Russians, and six expedition/diving professionals. The expedition crew are young, enthusiastic and have enviable Arctic experience. Passengers range in age from 40 to 60 although most divers are at the lower end of the scale and come from all over the world: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA and the UK (including three BSAC members).
En route from Oslo to Longyearbyen, capital of Spitsbergen (or Svalbard as it is known in Norway, the parent country) we compare notes about excess baggage nightmares. But the real talk is about the ice. With 10 minutes to go before we land, majestic ice peaks tell us that spring is late. There is a loose expedition programme, but the ice will decide how far north we go.
Longyearbyen is an unimpressive collection of 150 modern huts surrounded by crenellated glacial valleys and the remains of coal-mining lifts built from Russian driftwood.
The Professor Molchanov is the larger of only two boats in the port. Built in 1983, home port Murmansk, she is an ice-strengthened vessel 71m long, 13m wide, 2140 tonnes. She draws 4.5m. Converted for tourism in 1991, she is operated by the Dutch company Oceanwide Expeditions.
The ship seems ideal comfortable though not luxurious cabins, nutritious though not gourmet food. An open-ship policy allows passengers to visit the bridge at any time.
After breakfast, we take a 15-minute walk into the town, which is named after the American Longyear, one of many foreigners who have tried to capitalise on the substantial mineral resources of Spitsbergen.
At 78N, north of the magnetic pole, the town has all the trappings of burgeoning tourism a kit shop, a supermarket, even a forlorn stuffed polar bear on sale for US$3000.
Here birds nest in harmony with people, knowing that their chief predator (the Arctic fox) is shy of habitation. Reindeer mope around the streets. Our guides carry guns even urban polar bears can attack without notice. We return to the boat for lunch and essential briefings.
Dutch expedition leader Rinie Van Meurs has 10 years experience in the Arctic and Antarctic, having worked his passage from potato peeler to accomplished wildlife photographer and guide. After consultation with the divemaster, Captain Yvgeniy and the ice, he makes a decision.
We try to go north as soon as possible to give you the best chance of seeing polar bear, pack-ice and walrus, he declares. Clearly his knowledge will make or mar the expedition.
Goran Ehlme, our Swedish divemaster, is similarly confident. I know what to look for in the Arctic and where to look for it. The constant ice movement affects sealife, begins one of his many dive briefings in the bar.
After distributing fearsome liability disclaimer forms, Goran explains the parameters of the ice-diving programme. We will make at least one dive a day, leaving time to join the non-diving land excursions. We do not allow no-limit ice diving. The dives will vary from shallow ice dives, say 10m, to shore diving to a max of 20m.
Goran continues: Ice diving in the Arctic is no more dangerous than normal scuba diving if you stick to one important rule safety first. Sensation-seekers should stay at home. We have no deco chamber, although we do have oxygen and a doctor; this is a true expedition.
Because of polar bears, excursion leaders and divemasters are armed at all times so stay with the group. Polar bears can run 100m in nine seconds, are great swimmers and can attack at any time without warning. Point taken, Goran!
The divers operate independently from the 300sqm aft deck and travel to the dive site by Zodiac. We start with a shallow check dive to get the feel of it. We are warned not to dive near high icebergs above 2m they can fall without warning, which can be fatal.
Also, a free-flowing frozen regulator is only a problem if you panic. You can still breathe through it practise at the end of the check dive so you can do it for real. The risk is greater at depth because of the increased air flow.
Look for advance warning signs ice particles in the mouth, breathing echo. Treat your equipment gently. Keep it in the cabin overnight and dont over-breathe.
The Arctic is definitely not the place to learn diving, continues Goran. If any of you are unsure of your abilities, tell me now. An uneasy silence and a certain amount of shifting in seats pervades the group. We will soon discover who has fibbed about the required experience: a minimum of 20 drysuit dives in water colder than 2C.
In the late afternoon, we leave Longyearbyen on a night passage and our first taste of the ice. Somewhere in the night the Tannoy crackles into life and Rinie announces excitedly: Walrus on the port bow!
Passengers scramble from cabins with an arsenal of cameras, long lenses, monopods and binoculars. We spend a captivating 40 minutes observing a family of up to 10 walruses cavorting noisily on the surface. By now we know what lies ahead very little sleep and lots of excitement.
Sunday 21 June: Morning finds us at Fugelhuken, which has the northernmost colony of harbour seals in the world. The Gulf Stream, which warms the south-west of Spitsbergen, attracts beluga whales, seals, narwhals and polar bears to the floe edge, accessible by RIB.
At breakfast, most divers are looking apprehensive. It is a gloomy and overcast 5C, water 0C. We wonder if the polar-bear gun is really there to force divers into the water. We consider hijacking the boat and heading for warmer waters.
Fifteen divers and kit load into two of the RIBs and head for a cliff at Prins Karls Forland, a location used in BBC TVs Life in the Freezer to show Arctic foxes in a feeding frenzy as fledglings race from nest to sea.
We dive shallow (7.9m, 41 minutes) from the rocky shore, coming to terms with the big chill. This is a kelp forest few fish, but sightings of ghost shrimp, lumpsucker, scorpionfish, nudibranchs, comb jellyfish and isopods.
Later, we take the RIBs to go snorkelling with seals, while the non-divers make a land excursion to see Arctic foxes, reindeer, eider ducks, barnacle geese, pink-footed geese and Brunnichs guillemots on the cliffs.
During lunch, the ship moves to Engelsbukta (English Bay); Zodiacs patrol the edge of the glacier to look for wildlife; kittiwakes and more reindeer are spotted.
Monday 22 June: The longest day. At todays dive briefing just seven divers appear, possibly due to the lure of the worlds most northerly post office and souvenir shop at Ny Alesund or perhaps because its bloody cold.
This is another pioneer dive, at Kongsfjorden, but here glacial sediment ruins the viz, which will deteriorate as summer advances.
A deep wall (Krosfjorden) with lots of sealife and better viz is a real buzz on the next dive, particularly when I take an intimate look at the incident pit. Everything happens at once: a diver knocks off one of my fins, my mask floods due to an incipient beard and my drysuit hose free-flows (sand in valve), threatening to rocket me to the surface.
My Swiss diving buddy Renee is an instructor and as cool as ice, calmly addressing one problem at a time. At 23m, water temperature -1C, with massive sudden air demand, this is a likely time for my regulator to free-flow, but it doesnt.
A few heart-pumping moments later the situation is stabilised and we continue the dive, somewhat shaken. Miraculously we both still have our cameras.
After dinner, the sky clears for the first time and everyone goes on deck to drink in the scenery ice, mountains and big sky in a 12C heatwave. Three miles away, a 12m yacht, one of the few other vessels we are to see, is dwarfed by a glacier. This is the magic of Spitsbergen, calmer and more accessible than the Antarctic, less crowded, more time on the ice.
At dinner, when the briefing began with the words: Ladies, gentlemen and divers, I had wondered how the divers and non-divers would mix on a trip the itinerary of which was principally set up for tundra naturalists. But now, under the midnight sun, the ice is truly broken.
We all glow with bonhomie and the knowledge that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The only thing free-flowing is the beer.
Tuesday 23 June: 0C. In blinding sun, the Molchanov slows to 3 knots and snakes through the ice. On the bridge, Captain Yvgeniy and the crew are locked in delicate negotiation with the floes, crushing some, pushing others out of our way. We close on Amsterdamoya and see fresh polar bear tracks and seal blood on the ice.
Tension mounts the chances of a sighting must be good. Telescopes scan the fast ice. I feel the ship judder as she joins combat with another floe. But still no bear.
Here at Smeerenburgh are the remains of a Dutch whaling station. Its crew died in the winter of 1634/5, not of cold but of scurvy. Other adventurers came to grief here in 1897 after a failed attempt to fly a balloon from the North Pole. An intact film and camera, found 30 years later, told the story.
Our own taste for adventure comes in the form of diving the ice lagoon. The RIB slides on to the ice while Goran checks the depth with a hand-held meter. Kitted up and ready to surface if we hear a polar-bear alert, Renee and I ease into the lagoon to discover the magic of a shallow ice dive.
We sit on ice ledges, descend into ice caves and fin beneath bergs, marvelling at the blues, the light and the shade, always wary that the ice, in constant movement, does not enclose us. It is remarkable how much fun you can have in just 31 minutes at 11.2m!
But the magic continues. We drop our dive gear back at the ship and go in search of walrus, finding an obliging male within 500m of the ship, chilling out on the ice. He is so relaxed we can approach within 2m, almost within tusk range, for some remarkable pictures.
My enduring memory of the walruses, apart from the pictures, is the stench. About 1000 of the world population of 250,000 live around Spitsbergen, and these are mostly males. The females and the cubs stay deeper in the ice.
Walruses consume about 30kg of clams per day, finding them in the sand with tusks, flippers and whiskers. Being able to shell a clam in three seconds leaves plenty of time to relax on the ice, where they can move only with the assistance of their tusks. Their Latin name means walking on teeth.
In the evening, our divemaster Goran Ehlme establishes his polar cred beyond any doubt with a video show of his beluga and narwhal footage from a recent expedition in the Canadian Arctic.
These pictures, to be shown on French TV, were obtained while camping for weeks on the ice with an Inuit guide and a topside photographer. The access ice-hole was in his tent. On one occasion he spent three hours in the water, surviving frozen regulators and other dramas. We are transfixed by the beauty of the images and the mournful sound of the belugas, the canaries of the ocean.
Goran, at just 33, is a world leader in polar underwater photography, and has discovered new species for science as well as being the first to see walruses fanning sand for clams. He has been head-butted by leopard seals in Antarctica and dived with a dozen types of whale. As our divemaster he inspires confidence.
The Molchanov spends most of the night fleeing the advancing pack ice in the mist.
Wednesday 24 June: I prepare to dive in a cold, misty dawn. It is 2C and breezy. Risen Island, the desired dive site, is unattainable because of the ice. The Zodiac takes us to another location 20 minutes away for a shaded shore dive, much the coldest so far shallow (8m), 41 minutes, water temperature -1.5C. I am pleased that my buddy is happy to stay shallow too.
The ship heads north again for the pack-ice. Within minutes we have a polar bear sighting. Molchanov breaks ice to get closer. The bear takes to the water across an ice bay. We follow at a respectful distance so as not to tire the bear unduly.
He climbs on to the ice and looks back, still agonisingly small in the viewfinder, before arrogantly loping out of sight across the ice.
We split into RIBs for the afternoon excursions, but the dive is aborted because of excess current. In search of a calmer site, the RIB rounds a corner of Risen Island and there, just 30m away, is a polar bear.
It is hard to say who is more surprised bear or divers. But no one is more annoyed than me at missing the close-up. I am on a different boat and hear about it only later.
Polar bears are more yellow than white, and are believed to be more marine than terrestrial. As many as 5000 live in the Spitsbergen/Frans-josefland area. They follow the breaking edge of the summer ice to hunt for seals, and are even known to attack beluga whales in the water.
Four-year-old bears, having just left their mothers, are the most dangerous to man. If they have never encountered humans, curiosity often leads to confrontation. It is said that if the polar bear doesnt get you, the paperwork, in alleging self-defence, certainly will.
Thursday 25 June: We dive to the northwest of Klovingen, at 79.52N. Some divers go for a kelp crawl, others examine nudibranchs, starfish and jellyfish. The shore group RIB was buzzed by a minke whale surfacing right behind it.
Although the water temperature is still 0C, the air at 10C makes life easier. Perhaps we are acclimatising.
The afternoon dive, again from a floe, is marred by a couple of incidents. Two divers, ignoring instructions not to touch bottom, find the ice has moved and are temporarily lost on surfacing. Another, who had struggled all week with buoyancy, has a close call with a dangerously fast ascent. Suitable bollockings are handed out at the evening briefing.
On return, the RIBs and the ship are separated in fog, providing a low-key radio-assisted adventure before regrouping. But once the ship is found and it is established that the divers are well, spirits are high. Two girls put on bikinis and sunbathe on the ice. Assistant divemaster Lars-Pedder also struts his stuff, fooling around for the camera in front of the Molchanov.
The ship has been trying to reach 80N but the ice is just too heavy, so we turn back with just six miles to go and make a night passage south to Blomstrand Island in Kongsfjord.
Friday 26 June: We visit the ruins of Camp Mansfield, yet another Spitsbergen madcap disaster. In 1911 Mansfield found large deposits of marble unusually close to the surface but, once thawed out and transported to Europe, it crumbled and became worthless.
Beautiful weather, magnificent scenery and almost tame Arctic skuas make this a memorable excursion. In the afternoon, the divers return to the wall dive to the north of 14 July glacier, followed by a bonfire on the shore.
Saturday 27 June: The day starts with a fascinating tour of the engine room. We then stroll through the purple saxifrage of Paddle Cape with herds of reindeer, fossils and a geology lecture from guide Andre.
The divers visit a small skerrig surrounded by a kelp forest with nudibranchs, comb jellyfish and sea butterflies. After finding whale bones on the beach, all passengers (ladies, gentlemen and divers) and crew get together on the dive deck for a barbecue and dance party lasting into the early hours.
Dance music blares across the calm water to the glacier, echoing off the mountains; diners eat dinner in Zodiacs; divers dance with Russian ice maidens, while the midnight sun beats down.
Sunday 28 June: The last dive, again in a kelp forest, with water a balmy 0C. Puffins buzz the Zodiac. The land excursion is equally pleasant; a stroll at Alkhornet in Isfjord. We see reindeer mobbed by skuas and a trappers hut with a newspaper dated 1932.
In the afternoon, we visit Barentsburg, a mining town sold to the Russians in 1930 by the Dutch. This depressing little enclave, in which the Russians have lost interest, is populated by 800 Ukrainians.
There is little for them to do apart from watch terns nesting on window sills, feed the 45-year-old bull on Russian hay, sell babushkas to tourists in the hope of US dollars and visit the (usually closed) museum. No wonder most of them are drunk.
We return to the ship relieved not to have been born Ukrainian.
GETTING DRYSUIT: I wore a Diamond Commercial 7.5mm neoprene drysuit that proved to be warm in all conditions. Of the main types of Arctic seal (bearded, ringed and harbour), by far the most important to divers is the neck seal. The only, occasional, leaks through this one were almost certainly due to my own rubbernecking as a photographer; in any event, the thick neoprene kept me warm..
REGULATORS : UWI Circle supplied two Poseidon Jetstream regulators that performed without problems in water down to -1.5C and were tested to a maximum depth of 23m. In these conditions, other regulators had free-flow problems. The Poseidon Jetstream, which is one of the few regulators approved for US Navy divers, could well have free-flowed during my incident on the wall dive, but it did not. I will definitely use it again for ice diving. .
FLIGHTS : British Airways, SAS and Braathens Safe let me fly with substantial excess baggage, though not everyone was so fortunate. .
FREQUENCY : The expedition runs twice a year in June and July..
COSTS : from£2,470 all-in (flights from London, each-way overnight stops in Oslo, full board on eight-day cruise, excursions and diving).
FURTHER INFORMATION : Oceanwide Expeditions, PO Box 5014, 4380 KA, Vlissingen, The Netherlands Tel: 0031 118 410410 Fax: 0031 118 418584 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
UK agents: Explorers Tours 01753 681999, Arcturus 01389 830204.
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