An evening whale searching safari in Isfjorden
Heavily impressed by all I saw in the morning on my first day in Svalbard – the dogs were absolutely fantastic – I went to the harbor to check-in and enter the famous Polar girl boat in the late afternoon. The boat was supposed to drive a handful of tourists along the Isfjorden with intention to spot some whales. Isfjorden (norw. the ice fjord) is a regular stop for different whale species during the most of the year, so I was hoping to see at least one in its natural habitat.
When I saw that I can book an evening time slot for this safari, I had to book it straight away because it seemed like the only logical thing to do – I cannot imagine anything more enjoyable than a round of gliding over the arctic dark sea in the evening. The night before was the last one with 24 hours of daylight in 2020. This means that this one was the first one after almost 6 months which ended with a sundown. For 15 minutes only and around midnight, but still, the darkness was slowly returning to this place.
The weather was outstanding. It was cold, the low arctic wind was blowing continuously and the smell of frozen kingdom brought by it was so fresh.
Our guide, a swedish man, really nailed his duty to tell stories, explain, answer bajillion of our questions related to this nature, animals, habits of an average Longyearbyen-ian, etc. The passengers (Norwegians, Germans, Swedes, Finns, and a certain Croat) were really eager to see some whale tails. In total, we saw a few minke whales from a distance which did not allow me a decent photo, but the whole environment, the vibe and climate managed to make me more than happy. Let me tell you why.
The air is special and this trip made me love the cold even more. I stayed at the front part, outside, staring into this glorious nature. I did not even noticed that I was alone; the guide came down around 23:00 to tell me that after some point the only person who stayed outside was a Croat, while the Scandinavians crawled back to the heated area. I was dressed appropriately and even though I was a bit cold, it was worth it. I know I won’t have the opportunity to be here on a regular basis so I decided to absorb everything I am able while I am here. There is something intense and almost scary in dark and cold sea. It was calm, only disturbed a bit by the winds coming down from the nearby glaciers.
Isfjorden is surrounded by mountains with numerous peaks and glaciers between them. As I came in the late summer, everything was glowing under the sun and the autumn colors were amazing.
In September 1872. six ships packed with seal hunters from Tromsø got locked in ice after a heavy storm in the northwest of Spitsbergen, at Gråhuken. They asked A.E. Nordenskiöld, a Finnish-Swedish explorer who was in the vicinity doing his own expedition, to help and accommodate them. Nordenskiöld stated that he did not have enough resources to keep his crew and the stranded hunters, so he suggested that one part of the people go and locate the Swedish house, the oldest building on the Spitsbergen, as there was supposed to be enough food and necessary equipment.
The house was pre-built in Sweden, taken apart and shipped to Svalbard with intention to make the headquarters for mining coprolite (dino poop), but soon it became obvious that this would be an unprofitable endeavour, and the project was abandoned.
Together and among themselves these men decided who would/should go to the Swedish house, and who would stay with Nordenskiöld. Those without families or relatives, 17 of them, on October 14th went out to the sea to reach the house. They rowed for 7 days in the arctic autumn for over 350 km before they reached their goal, the Swedish house. One can only imagine the weather conditions in Arctic ocean in October.
The next summer a ship from Tromsø came to the Swedish house, to rescue those 17 men. What they saw was very unusual.
The rescuers found five men in front of the house, dead, wrapped up in tarpaulin. The door was locked from the inside, with a clear and unequivocal sign: “do not enter”. Inside, there were more dead bodies. They were scattered all around the place – some of them were lying on the floor, some of them on the bed or chairs. Every one of them was dead. The rescue crew buried them. Out of respect, they were buried in the same position in which they were found. 2 years later, two more bodies have been found approx 500m from the house.
The rescuers were confused by what they’ve found. And in such a way, without any visible traces. There were no visible injuries or evidence of violence on any of them. The amount of food in the storage was sufficient for an even longer time period than they managed to live there. Starvation was excluded. There was enough coal to keep them warm.
It was also speculated that they contracted botulism or got tuberculosis. Both of these diseases were regular at that time. For a long time, it was also suspected that scurvy (lack of vitamin C) managed to exterminate every one of them, but the hunters were instructed how to deal with the environment from which they had to learn how to use the vitamin C (f ex drinking fresh blood from animals). But, every one of them became sick almost at the same time, which is almost non-existent with scurvy patients. Also, there were no visible symptoms of scurvy, such as teeth degradation, anorexia etc.
It was assumed that men were stupid, reckless and lazy, unable to follow basic routines and advices. At the time, it was believed that scurvy is caused by laziness.
One of the hunters kept a diary. It was written that the first hunter died in november, and the last one in april. By Christmas, every hunter was hit by an unusual disease. In it, it was written that the men at first hunted polar bears and reindeers, but when the polar night came, they started to rely on the cans. There were over 700 cans lying on the ground behind the house.
In 2008. a medical doctor and a historian got the approval for opening the graves and taking samples of bones, based on a theory that these men had severe lead poisoning. During the 18th century using lead as a sealant on tin cans was a regular occurence; there were cans with up to 50% lead in them in regular use. When exposed to heat, the cans and their content would become very toxic and in the end, deadly.
What I liked the most was how the researchers proved that these men were neither stupid or lazy. The diary had regular updates in weather stats and weather conditions, on a daily basis. When these men were in the most severe acute phase of lead poisoning, they were still going out as it was intended, as it was a part of the deal with Nordenskiöld.
It is forbidden to visit the Swedish house. You are welcomed to use it only in the case of emergency, when nature forces you to find a shelter from the elements. I’d bring my sleeping bag here anytime if there wasn’t for the strict law, shooing my spook-hungry ass away from the Kapp Thordsen.
I came back to my hostel thoroughly impressed by everything I saw during the day, ready for the next day and curious about what I will see, as this place just kept on giving.