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On Intimate Terms with My Very First Svalbard Glacier

7 December, 2022

I’ll let some science nerd give you all the geological facts and figures about Svalbard’s glaciers in another blog post. But, since I’m writing this one, and because I come from an entirely different side of Poseidon’s polar expedition cruise business – marketing and sales – I’d like to write about this subject from a different perspective…

… the perspective of being on the water in St. Jonsfjord in a sea kayak with my older and wiser brother Tom, surrounded by brash ice, with a massive glacier face looming in front of me.

We’re suited up in waterproof kayaking outfits, booties and life vests, seemingly ready for anything. But for this stunning sight, there is no preparation, since there’s no experience quite like it on earth.

I should preface this by saying that our Poseidon kayak master always kept us a safe distance away, and with good reason. Glaciers can not only calve from the top down – lose a hefty veneer of the icy face or terminus as it is pushed from behind by the incredible force of the kilometers-long glacier – but also from the bottom up. In other words, the bottom of the glacier front, submerged sometimes hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the water, can sometimes break loose and explode upwards, without warning, through the waterline.

It can be a spectacular sight, like a giant white whale breaching, going airborne. And, of course, it can be dangerous if you’re too close. So, well-established guidelines are always followed by the kayak master and Zodiac drivers to keep their charges safe and secure. A calving glacier can create waves, and you always have to be ready for that.

But, back to my glacier experience in a fjord on the island of Spitsbergen: as you might expect, the Arctic environment can be incredibly quiet, and sounds are magnified and intensified as you paddle along, through patches of icy slush and clear seawater. Bits of melting glacier, now reduced to slush, talk to us – snap, crackle and pop – as air bubbles trapped hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago are released. It’s a sound you’ll never forget.

We rest our paddles and just listen. From time to time, deep rumblings and loud cracks can be heard from the glacier, echoing around the bay, announcing to anyone who will listen its endless drive into the sea. Yes, just another voice of Mother Nature, letting us know that we’re not really the boss and putting us in our place. We resume paddling, and work our way around the very small icebergs, called growlers or bergy bits, that have broken off from the glacier weeks or months ago and are slowly melting.

These, too, we’re advised to be careful around and not get too close to the larger specimens. They can unexpectedly flip over or collapse. But they are beautiful, with veins of color – nearly every shade of blue imaginable – that change depending on the intensity of sunlight or the cloud cover.

Then, it’s time to head back to the Sea Spirit, our 114-passenger mother ship that’s been our home-away-from-home during this incredible expedition voyage above the Arctic Circle. We’ll have other opportunities to see more glaciers on this Svalbard trip, to walk up rocky trails and get a bird’s-eye perspective of these massive icy wonders, streaked with dark blue and smudged here and there with the dust of the millennium.

Now for the facts and figures: Svalbard is an archipelago of mostly four large islands, Spitsbergen being the largest. Incredibly, more than 2,100 glaciers cover 36,591 square kilometers or about 59% of Svalbard’s total landmass of 62,248 square kilometers.

We can’t guarantee that you’ll see polar bears on your Svalbard voyage with us (although we haven’t failed any of our guests yet in five years), but we can guarantee that you’ll see glaciers, and plenty of them! These might include Monacobreen, Osbornebreen, Smeerenburghbreen, Hansbreen, Lilliehookbreen, Esmarkbreen or Waggonwaybreen. If you haven’t figured it out by now, “breen” means “glacier.” If you want to see them as I did, from the seat of a two-person sea kayak, reserve your place early, as we can accommodate just eight paddlers per voyage. Take it from someone who’s done it – it’s the best seat in the house.

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