Gliding lightly through the Arctic

What a beguiling place the Arctic is. Its atmosphere creates inversions capable of stretching out distant objects, bending light and playing tricks on our eyes so we see things as distorted versions of what they truly are. Microscopic ice crystals too small to see and suspended in the air all about you makes sound travel further here through its frigid air than anywhere else outside Antarctica. 

Sea ice mesmerises, and the sighting of polar bears, narwhals or bowhead whales can cause a dining room to empty in seconds. Fogs can sweep in and envelope you for days. You might even be lucky enough to see a Sun Dog halo around the sun, or even – dare I say it – a fata morgana.

We all know of the Northern Lights, and you may well see those up here too. But wait till you see a fata morgana, an Arctic mirage caused by that misbehaving atmosphere. I saw one while gazing out of the window of my cabin on Hurtigruten’s brand new polar expedition ship the MS Roald Amundsen while cruising from the Svalbard Archipelago towards the coast of East Greenland. It made me seriously late for dinner. But food can’t compete with something like this. 

Gliding lightly through the Arctic on Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen cruise.
Image: John Emil Richardson

It resembled a wall of stepped, plateau-shaped icebergs stretching in a line across the horizon that echoed the skyline of mid-town Manhattan. I knew what I was looking at was not there, but that didn’t prevent me from grabbing my Canon 6D and trying in vain to capture an image of something that didn’t exist.

The platform that provided me this moment, Hurtigruten’s MS Roald Amundsen, is in its own way also making the impossible seem real. It isn’t hyperbole to say this ship, which was launched in early 2019 with 264 cabins and suites, three restaurants, a sauna and able to cater to the needs and whims of 530 passengers, is the literal future of cruising.

Gliding lightly through the Arctic on Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen cruise.
Image: Espen Mills

Not because of its cutting-edge approach to recycling or waste management or its patented wave-piercing bow designed to power through metre-thick sea ice. But because at its core, far below decks in a room roughly the size of a double garage, there’s something no other polar expedition ship in the world has: a bank of lithium-ion batteries, designed to lessen the load on its four diesel generators. Cutting edge hybrid technology, it provides electricity in a process its engineers refer to as “peak shaving”, the selective powering down of its diesel engines as its batteries come online to cut its carbon emissions and reduce the environmental impact on the seas through which it sails.

So, where did it take us?

Well, turns out this was a trip that required a degree of improvisation. On day three, after two days spent cruising west from Svalbard, broad arcs of sea ice – more than had been seen in years off the East Greenland coast – hampered our progress and landings were abandoned in the unspoiled and largely unpopulated wilderness that is Northeast Greenland National Park, at 972,000 square kilometres the largest national park on the planet.

Gliding lightly through the Arctic on Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen cruise.
Qassiarsuk, Greenland. Image: Camille Seaman

We managed to make a landing at Myggbukta (Mosquito Bay), a disused whaling and weather station established in 1922 at the head of Mackenzie Bay, but fjords that looked inviting had to be missed because if you enter one and sea ice comes in behind you, you could struggle to get out. While the Amundsen can turn on a dime, precious time might be lost. It was all exhilarating, really; ship vs nature in a game of rugby with the goalposts constantly moving. What it must have been like in the Age of Sail. 

Some passengers moaned about the fog and the sea ice, but its presence should be welcomed. Polar bears cannot hunt without it, and it can transfix you with its patterns, reflections and hues. It makes the ocean flat, it is elemental. Like the flames of a camp fire, you can’t help but look at it.

Gliding lightly through the Arctic on Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen cruise.
Image: iStock

Continuing south through thinning ice we visited Ittoqqortoormiit, the region’s only permanent settlement with a population of just a few hundred who “shoo away”, in the words of one local I spoke to, polar bears that routinely wander into town. Over 200 in the past 12 months, and a mother and two cubs just the day before we arrived!

Ittoqqortoormiit lies at the entrance to Scoresby Sound. It’s the world’s largest fjord. So large, in fact, that it has fjords of its own, that come off it as branches do the trunk of a tree. Glaciers of every type abound here: cirque glaciers, valley glaciers, one after the other in such a parade it played havoc with one’s punctuality. Passengers were late to all sorts of things: lectures, meals, impromptu dinner dates. The routine of daily life, hijacked by nature.

Gliding lightly through the Arctic on Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen cruise.
Image: Camille Seaman

Diesel has replaced sails, and now batteries are replacing diesel. But here nature, just as it always has, determines everything, from a ship’s path to human behaviour and societal norms. On the Amundsen, we had become a world unto ourselves. 

Sure, the muted bluey/grey hues of sea ice had dogged us, with unhelpful trade winds and ocean currents pushing it in all the ‘wrong’ directions. Hoped-for landings had been abandoned. So what has changed? The Arctic has always been like this.

Ships like the Amundsen are important, and not just because of its batteries. It’s large by polar ship standards. But doesn’t it make sense to take 500 people to the Arctic on one ship rather than four ships each with 125? And trailing behind them more than four times the emissions?

Gliding lightly through the Arctic on Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen cruise.
Image: John Emil Richardson

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there:
Australians need to fly to Svalbard from Oslo, Norway (with Norwegian Airlines); or fly direct to Reykjavik, Iceland (with several carriers).
Inspiring Vacations has a global partnership with Hurtigruten and can arrange all aspects of your Arctic adventure: inspiringvacations.com.au

Cruising:
Hurtigruten offers a range of Arctic cruises to Iceland and Greenland; Svalbard; and through the Northwest Passage.
The 16-day Heart of Greenland cruise onboard MS Fridtjof Nansen sails from July to August. hurtigruten.com.au


This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, Summer 2019/2020, issue 113

Tags: , , , , , , ,