‘Arctic reflections: My wondrous journey through the fjords of Greenland’

Jul 05, 2020
Zodiak trip in morning sun to the numerous icebergs - Kejser Franz Joseph Fjord. Source: Di East

As I stood sleepily on the bridge of the ice breaker Polar Pioneer in the 2am early morning sunlight surrounded by the icy waters off northern Greenland, I marvelled at this miraculous adventure that was my 60th birthday present. Twelve days earlier I was on the dock at the Icelandic port of Isafjordur looking up at the small but imposing black ship that was to be my home the for next two weeks.

This was my first cruise and my first holiday alone. Excitement competed with trepidation. Would I get along with my roommate? Would my fellow travellers be friendly? Could I keep up with the other kayakers? Would my gluten-free diet be an issue?

Polar Pioneer is operated by Australian-based Aurora Expeditions and was built as an ice-strengthened research vessel in Finland in 1982. After being refurbished in 2000 she was converted into a passenger ship for all-inclusive polar expeditions. Being small and taking only 50 passengers she can travel close to landing spots and visit places many larger ships cannot.

Finding my way to my cabin, I met Sue, my 80-year-old roomie who turned out to be a gem.

“I’m a keen photographer,” she told me. “I hope you don’t mind but I’ll need to sit up late each night uploading photos.” A girl after my own heart, she was fun to share photos with after a day of excitement and shutter clicks.

Our vessel, the Polar Pioneer, dwarfed by the enormity of our surroundings. Source: Di East

We left Iceland in beautiful weather and sailed through Denmark Strait towards the fjords of Greenland, heading for our first stopover at Romer Fjord. As we watched the world’s second-largest ice cap slide into view, the excitement levels rose. Those going ashore in the Zodiacs (inflatable dinghies) dressed in their warm Michelin outfits while we kayakers tried to pull ourselves into one-piece skin-tight waterproof drysuits — a sight to behold and worthy of a Three Stooges skit.

We launched ourselves over the side of the ship (worthy of another comedy skit) into our kayaks and 1-metre seas as I wondered about my sanity. Paddling past our first iceberg and then a large group of Harbour seals, my nerves gave way to awe with the sheer magnificence of our surroundings. Fourteen kilometres later, with tired muscles but our heads buzzing with excitement, we re-joined the ship for the first of many welcome, hot and nourishing meals.

Our interpid group of kayakers exploring Iceberg Alley in Renodde Bay. Source: Di East

As a single passenger wanting to meet as many of my compatriots as possible, I learned to arrive at the dining room late, although never late enough to miss any dinner. There always seemed to be a vacant seat with a different group of people and they never failed to welcome me.

The passengers ranged in age from young parents escaping for some adventure without their children, to people like my roommate Sue, who at 80 still had a burning sense of adventure. All age groups were equally well catered for.

Most days we were offered a morning and afternoon trip ashore either by Zodiac or kayak. My preference was to take one Zodiac trip and one kayak trip every day. The Zodiak tours included knowledgeable guides, a historian, a photography instructor and other experts with the group divided into three walks each with different levels of difficulty.

On our sixth day, we called into the small and remote village of Ittoqqortoormiit (pronounced Itokotormie) with a population of 650 people and 150 sled dogs. This village bears the distinction of being the remotest inhabited community in the western hemisphere. The settlement was established in 1925 by Denmark, which at the time had a growing interest in north-east Greenland. Prior to that the area had been home to a dense population of Inuit.

Ittoqqortoormiit the remotest inhabited community in the western hemisphere. Source: Di East

We were told not to buy from the local store, so as not to deplete the stock of goods that are supplied erratically. There is no road to this village and no regular shipping. In winter the sea ices over and transport is via sleds and skidoos.

Antony, the ship’s photography tutor, suggested I head for the cemetery because it had a spectacular view from the top of the hill. The view into the fjord and across the village was impressive, but it was the sheer, rugged, untamed land that surprised me. Instead of grassy paddocks, the local football field was made of rock, the roads were made from rock and at the cemetery, I wondered how they managed to dig into that never-ending solid mountain.

Further north at upper Kejser Franz Joseph Fjord, Sue set her alarm for 5:30am and we joined the other photographers for a Zodiak trip to photograph the numerous icebergs in the beautiful early morning light. It was light most of the night, but even here, photographing in the best light means getting up early, and it was cold!

The early morning light reflected the iridescent blues and greens from the massive bergs and bounced off the icy path of the active glacier in the background. The only sound was the enormous crackling emanating from the Zodiak breaking through the floating ice.

As we took in the beauty around us, the frenzied sounds of camera shutters clicking wafted across the frozen waters. I had always thought that icebergs were white, but they are amazing shades of blues, greens, browns and everything in between. I thought they were all shaped like pyramids, but they are every possible size and shape. They were also not stable, but instead rocked and rolled around whimsically, sometimes rolling right over and causing mini tidal waves. We stayed there for seven hours before heading back to the ship for a large, hot burrito. This day remains my favourite of the trip.

Icebergs are not just white but are amazing shades of blues, greens and browns. Source: Di East

After a week exploring the enormous ice-filled fjords of eastern Greenland, our captain turned the ship towards Spitsbergen (Svalbard), in the Arctic Circle between Norway and the North Pole.

At 2:00am one morning we stood in the warm protection of the bridge in the soft morning light, the only sound, the ship breaking through pack ice as we made our way north in search of polar bears and walruses. “Look! Over there!” Antony called.

A seal. A huge bearded seal sat alone on an ice floe uninterested in us as we quickly donned our warm gear and rushed out to the -3C (26F) temperature on the fore deck for a better view. The polar bears, however, remained elusive. In the last few years, polar bears have become scarce and we saw only the one on our first day in Greenland. In the last 10 years 500,000 square-meters of pack ice has disappeared and with it the hunting ground of the polar bear.

Later in the day, we went ashore at Smeerenburg, the site of an old whaling station and current home of around 30 walruses relaxing on the beach. These wrinkled, smelly behemoths lounged about in the weak sun, groaning as they rolled over and argued about their position on the sand. Occasionally they dragged themselves dramatically into the water for a short dip. They reminded me of a group of grumpy old men on their seats in the town square.

Like a group of grumpy old men – these walruses jostle on a sandy beach. Source: Di East

Back at the ship, it was time for the polar plunge, where, with a doctor standing by in a Zodiak, we could jump from this perfectly warm and stable ship into the freezing, ice-filled Arctic water. Deciding I didn’t have to join in with every hair-brained scheme, I resorted to taking photos, but even then, I cringed every time someone jumped in, especially when the bravest of the brave took off their robes and jumped naked!

Only the brave or the foolhardy can bear the agony of a polar plunge. Source: Di East

We left the ship in Spitsbergen in awe of the experience we’d shared and the wonder of a world that is changing faster than we’d like, as the temperatures warm and the ice melts. There’s so much more to tell about this trip, from the amazing Greenland wild-flowers and animals to the weird and wonderful geology and the ever-helpful crew. Would I do this trip again? At the drop of a hat!

If, however, this turns out to be once in a lifetime, I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to spend my 60th birthday with the guests and crew of the Polar Pioneer as we explored the beautiful and diverse waters of the Arctic.

Di’s Travel Tips

  1. Take windproof and waterproof pants and jacket as well as warm clothes for layers. They don’t have to be expensive versions, but even in summer temperatures ranged from 13C (55F) (very occasionally) to -3C (26F)
  2. You don’t need wet weather boots as waterproof rubber boots were supplied for our visits ashore
  3. Food allergies including gluten-free, dairy-free and even a Fodmap diet, were no problem, but be sure to advise of your needs upon booking
  4. Take a good camera even if you’re not a photographer. There is so much to photograph
  5. Don’t be afraid to share a cabin. There was plenty of room for two with our luggage and camera gear and I got to make a new friend
  6. If you’re a lone traveller and want to meet people, arrive slightly late for meals and fill any gaps left at the tables
  7. Everything was inclusive except for drinks at the small bar after dinner where credit cards are accepted
  8. If you’re a photographer, consider underexposing all external images by up to one stop. The light is incredibly bright.
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