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On the 6th September 2019, I boarded the expedition vessel m/v Sea Spirit with Poseidon Expeditions. Sailing from Reykjavik, Iceland, we travelled north across the fabled Denmark Strait on a rare voyage that deeply explored Scoresby Sund, the world’s largest fjord system, located deep in the Arctic on the wild and isolated East Greenland coast.
This was my first time travelling solo on an expedition voyage, and I was immediately struck by how at home I felt on the ship from the moment I stepped aboard. The m/v Sea Spirit feels warm, cosy and full of classic expedition charm; dark timbers, brass fittings and polar-related artworks throughout the ship give a classic expeditionary ambience. The suites themselves are all very spacious, with more storage space than I could possibly know what to do with, far surpassing the size of what I have ever experienced on other expedition vessels. I opted to stay in one of the Superior Suites, featuring two large picture windows overlooking the promenade deck and a vast walk-in wardrobe, handy for storing any damp gear to dry out. Whilst other guests could effectively walk past the windows from the promenade deck, I didn’t find this to be intrusive and found the location ideal for speedy access to the panoramic observation decks. The suite was set up with a very comfortable king-sized double bed and, as with all accommodations on board, came with daily housekeeping and an evening turn-down.
The service experienced on board was excellent. The crew were always smiling and showed genuine enthusiasm to interact with all guests and seemed to know everyone on a first-name basis quickly, which was impressive. I found that all the waiters in the restaurant couldn’t do enough to assist and were very attentive to my niggly dietary needs. The cuisine on board always hit the spot perfectly, and the daily choices were too numerous to mention and certainly catered for all tastes and nationalities. One of the real stars of the show was the bar manager Sixto, who was a wonderful charismatic host, taking it upon himself to lead a spontaneous whiskey tasting session in the polar library, and then later in the cruise, a wine tasting evening. Sixto has spent many decades at sea as a bar manager, and his endless stories were always mesmerising and adored by all those around him.
Whilst navigating the Denmark Strait towards Greenland, we enjoyed lectures presented by the Expedition Leader, Anja Erdmann-Rutten, and her supporting expedition team. The expedition team members themselves came from a range of fascinating professional backgrounds, and included a dedicated Greenland expert, marine biologist, historian, ornithologist, doctor, mountaineer, hiking and kayak guides, Zodiac drivers, language interpreters and a polar photographer. They offered presentations on a range of topics designed to enhance our adventure – subjects were broad and varied to suit all interests, including presentations about iceberg formation and glaciology, Citizen Science, polar bears, bird species, photography, and polar and cultural Inuit history.
One of the most engrossing lectures was presented by expedition guide Peter Fabel, who told an incredible account of being on an Icelandic farm during the infamous eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, which brought the aviation world to a standstill. Whilst any human within a 40km radius was immediately evacuated, Peter was one of the few permitted to stay within the boundary to assist his Icelandic farmer friends protect their livestock. He was just 8km from the volcano. Given that the column of ash being spewed into the atmosphere was 10km high, one cannot begin to imagine the fear Peter must have felt. Being so close to the action, his incredible photos and video footage were broadcast all over the world and many of the images were instantly recognisable, historically engrained into memory. We were all on the edge of our seats listening to his report – I have never been so captivated!
Although onboard entertainment evolved mainly around the presentation programme on the sea days, we enjoyed the time at leisure to really get to know our fellow explorers from across the globe. During the day, I would often head out on deck or utilise the ship’s open bridge policy, spending time peacefully keeping watch for whales, and observing the numerous seabirds which would swoop around the ship, rising off the draughts created by the waves.
In the evening, there was certainly no need for the big Broadway shows or casinos found on large cruise vessels for entertainment, as Mother Nature had other ideas in store for us under the dark, starry Arctic night sky. As if by clockwork, right around midnight, a faint foggy glow could be seen overhead out on deck. Wrapped up in the toasty expedition jackets provided by Poseidon, we kept watch on this glow with cameras mounted readily on tripods… and we waited… and watched… and patiently waited…
As if by magic, the fog suddenly began to look greener, and then started to dance around the sky before our eyes, morphing into the most incredible formations. The spirits of the sky were out in force, and the interactions were some of the strongest many of the crew had ever seen. The Northern Lights were more spectacular then I could have possibly imagined. Hours ticked by deep into the night, yet we stayed exactly where we were, truly mesmerised and moved by the Aurora Borealis; this was a dream come true and going to bed was simply out of the question! We were lucky enough to witness this same spectacular display five nights in a row, and it was just as entrancing every time.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. The time is 7 a.m. and we have crossed the Arctic circle through the night and arrived at our first landing location, on the entrance to Scoresby Sund. I recommend that you have a look outside and enjoy the remarkable view of Ittoqqortoormitt. Welcome to Greenland!”
I awoke feeling slightly bleary-eyed following a late night watching the Northern Lights. After Anja’s wake-up call, I opened the curtains in my cabin and looked through the window. Wow! It was an incredible sight, and I really felt like I had arrived into another world; this was the picture-postcard Greenland that had been a lifelong dream of mine to see. On the horizon, a hamlet of colourful buildings was illuminated by the gentle kiss of street lamps, and the distant howl of Greenlandic dogs could be heard. Following a hearty breakfast on the ship, the Zodiacs were launched and we made our first landing at this Inuit community – one of the most remote settlements anywhere on Earth.
The 370 residents who live in Ittoqqortoormitt are cut-off from the rest of the world nine months of the year, as sea ice makes access by boat completely impenetrable and there are no roads to this isolated wilderness. This is an incredibly harsh, desolate environment and life in Ittoqqortoormiit is all geared around survival in the wilderness; hunting is therefore a necessity. Walking though the villages, this traditional lifestyle was very apparent, as seal and polar bear skins could be seen drying out on racks outside the colourful houses. The local supermarket had many rifles on display for purchase, and there was a distinct lack of fresh food on the shelves – everything is frozen or vacuum packed.
We were able to walk around the town freely, and I found the locals to be very friendly. Meeting the local community was incredibly enriching, and we spent time enjoying the small museum to learn more about Inuit culture, and buying handmade trinkets from the gift shop. Whilst casually strolling through the settlement, I was ambushed by a young Greenlandic child sporting the biggest of smiles, who threw himself at me and decided he wanted a piggy-back ride and to play with my camera. It was an unforgettable moment I will treasure forever.
Walking around the settlement, we also found the hyperactive Greenlandic working dogs, who were all chained up outside together waiting for the return of the sea ice. When the ocean once again becomes a solid ice block, the dogs will then lead their musher (driver) out on a sledge on hunting expeditions, using their endless stamina to cover great distances.
Following our initial stop at Ittoqqortoormiit, over the next seven days, the m/v Sea Spirit penetrated the deepest crooks of the world’s largest fjord system. Words cannot begin to describe the majestic beauty of East Greenland, and the sheer scale of the environment. Huge vertical cliffs erupt dramatically from the ocean for thousands of feet, topped by jagged spires that seemingly disappear into the clouds. Colossal glaciers tumble from the mountains into the ocean from every direction, calving icebergs bigger and more architecturally spectacular than anything I have been fortunate to witness in other polar regions, including Antarctica. These icebergs can be compared to skyscrapers in scale, and totally dwarf the ship in size.
Being a small vessel with just 114 guest capacity, we were able to benefit from having two landings (excursions) a day with the expedition team for many hours at a time, giving us a deep appreciation for the special polar world few get to see. At each landing location, Poseidon Expeditions had expertly arranged activities to suit all ages, abilities and interests. Those keen to sit on the beach and simply find a quiet spot to reflect and absorb the extraordinary panoramas around them or learn more about the enchanting botany of the tundra were able to join fellow "beach bunnies" and unwind. For adventurers who felt like they needed to stretch their legs a little, a light walking group would be organised. For the more active explorers that wanted to really burn off a sumptuous lunch at a speedy pace, a small hiking group would be arranged to venture higher up and deeper into the mountains, always led by the expedition guides who were equipped with rifles and flares. Safety is always paramount on any expedition, especially as polar bears can smell humans from 20 miles away and there was a mutual appreciation between guides and guests that nobody fancied becoming their next meal!
On one hike through the picturesque arctic tundra deep in the towering fjords, we were fortunate to spot a herd of a dozen musk ox. These incredible mammals have a real presence and are perfectly adapted to living in such an extreme environment, with their thick, black shaggy coats and 400kg of mass providing the essential protective barrier to the extreme Arctic world. We silently watched them grazing on the willows and berries of the autumnal tundra, with the only sound coming from the wind whipping through the fjord, and the odd splash of waves hitting an iceberg in the distance.
Suddenly, the alpha male of the herd instinctively galloped away having spotted us and proceeded to make a dart to the comfort of the distant mountain ridge. A domino effect ensued, with the rest of the herd powerfully galloping away leaving a chorus of thunderous steps ricocheting through the valley. We were left in awe at the sighting, and as we hiked back down the mountain to the shoreline, we quietly contemplated the strength and magnificence of these creatures. How any wildlife can survive in such a hostile environment really is quite unbelievable.
Whilst I had enjoyed the land-based activities with Poseidon Expeditions, I was very fortunate to have secured a space on their sea kayak programme for this voyage. This was a small group activity for just eight people (in four dual-seat kayaks), and was led by Patagonian kayak guide, Luis Turi. Over the course of the expedition, conditions allowing, our group would go out paddling whilst the other guests on board would instead go out on a Zodiac cruise. The kayak group were always first to leave the ship, and as a result, we felt like we had the silent Arctic world all to ourselves. It was a phenomenal privilege.
One of the most memorable kayak outings was at Rode Ø or “Red Island,” aptly named due to its geological formation from red Devonian sandstone. The only sound for seemingly thousands of miles was the soft break of the water as my paddle gently kissed the mirror-like water, and the occasional Rice Krispie-esque crackle of ice as we passed smaller icebergs (or “bergy bits”, as they are known).
We peacefully kayaked along the east side of the island, following a gigantic crimson-red rock wall that rose from the water’s edge seemingly into oblivion. Occasionally we would spot the most wonderful grey basalt layer of rock that intruded through the red sandstone mountain – you couldn’t help but be dazzled by this wizardry of nature. To top off this incredible scenery even further was the horizon of countless ethereal skyscraper-sized icebergs, which adorned the landscape as far as the eye could see. Each ice block was unique and perfectly formed, with the most intense white and blue colours providing a stunning contrast to the red rock cliffs surrounding them. I had heard the icebergs were gigantic in East Greenland, but nothing could prepare me for the spectacle I was surrounded by, and particularly when seen from such a low vantage point of a kayak; the word “scale” takes on a whole new meaning.
Every kayak tour offered by Poseidon Expeditions in Greenland was unique. We visited spectacular glacier fronts, remote beaches where we hiked amongst the tundra, explored ancient Thule remains, paddled amongst ice floe spotting seal, and sometimes just simply relaxed, bobbing tenderly around on the water absorbing the surreal landscapes. Kayaking gives you a real appreciation for the silence, scale and serenity of the environment around you.
If you are considering kayaking for the first time in the polar regions, it is worth highlighting that your kayak guide will keep you at a greater distance to the giant icebergs or glaciers than you would find yourselves in the comfort of a speedy Zodiac. Given the unpredictable nature of icebergs and due to 90% of their cathedral-sized mass hiding under the waterline, a respectable distance must be maintained. I really loved the flexibility Poseidon Expeditions offer guests on the kayak programme day-to-day, as they allow you to mix paddling with Zodiac cruises and hikes ashore, for a fully immersive experience – something few operators offer.
We were fortunate to have countless wonderful experiences over the voyage, so much so that it would be a novel of gigantean proportions to even begin trying to detail them all. This was helped in part due to the weather and ice conditions for the voyage, which proved to be favourable: for the majority of the trip we had beautiful clear skies day and night, creating perfect conditions to spot the Aurora Borealis. The overcast days were also welcomed – firstly it would mean not staying out all night and getting some sleep (I found Northern Light viewing to be very addictive!), but secondly, as any iceberg connoisseur will attest, the flat light allows the incredible blue hues of the ice to become even more dazzling in colour. Every day was simply a dream; however, it was our final landing in East Greenland that was perhaps the most memorable…
Standing up on the bridge alongside Expedition Leader Anja, the Captain, and numerous expedition guides, I watched the m/v Sea Spirit carefully manoeuvre its way through the maze of icebergs calved from the most enormous glacier, “Bredegletscher”, which loomed on the horizon of Vikingebugt (“Viking Bay”). The view that was ahead of us is impossible to describe fully – the silvery ocean was perfectly calm, the sky was the bluest of blues and the reflections of the icebergs all around were a photographer’s fantasy. There was a real buzz of activity up on the bridge, and notably every expedition member had their binoculars out and was scanning the surrounding mountains. I was intrigued to know what they were looking for…
As the ship came to a gradual standstill, Anja announced that we were all to get into our expedition gear, ready to go out in the Zodiacs. She advised there was an extra special surprise in store for us, as Mother Nature had once again worked her charms. Excitedly, we joined our allotted groups and boarded the ribs. We were whisked through this enchanting landscape at super speed towards a distant mountainside on the opposite side of the fjord, zipping past ethereal ice sculptures. It was absolutely exhilarating.
Arriving at our destination, we were told to look up around 150 metres from the waterline. Our phenomenal guide, Sanna Kallioo, (famed in the polar world for being the first Finnish woman to ski to the South Pole), cut the outboard motor on the Zodiac, and we quietly scanned the mountain. We were all slightly confused by what we were looking at, as the slope looked quite bare, with just the odd patch of snow on it. Sanna pointed to a snowy outcrop on the mountain and said to keep watch. We remain fixated, in complete silence. Suddenly this snowy outcrop began to move into a very distinctive creature… it’s… a polar bear! We could not believe our luck! Our group sat and observed the “King of the Arctic”, using the zooms on our cameras and binoculars to get a closer inspection. Whilst difficult to photograph, we all had the biggest of smiles and felt incredibly lucky, it was truly amazing.
Once everyone had taken plenty of photos, it was time to leave our furry friend, and we continued our Zodiac cruise towards the heavily crevassed glacial face of Bredegletscher. We zipped at speed nimbly through the most astonishing icy world and headed towards a few other Zodiacs, which had stopped at a mountainside adjacent to the massive glacier. Sanna once again cut the outboard motor of the rib, and we were told to look up. This time, just a short distance away, we saw a mother polar bear and two gorgeous cubs resting. We were truly, truly lost for words. It was certainly very chilly, but we sat still and quietly observed the most iconic of the Arctic predators. There were certainly goose bumps and a few watery eyes in the group – this was one of those surreal moments you never expect to experience without watching a David Attenborough documentary. The stars really had aligned for us, and I do not think our expedition could have ended in a more perfect way.
Sadly, all wonderful moments must come to an end, and we silently left the polar bears to have a late-afternoon snooze. Sonna took us on a final tour of the glacier front to see the stunning crevasses and freshly calved shimmering icebergs up-close, and we enjoyed our final moments in Scoresby Sund together, seizing the opportunity to snap our last selfies whilst soaking up the sunshine beaming down on our faces. This really was the most incredible adventure – our time in East Greenland was truly life-changing and an experience that myself and my fellow adventurers will cherish deeply forever.
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