Day 1 – Aberdeen, embark Greg Mortimer
Make your own way to Aberdeen pier. Our expedition team will welcome you aboard the Greg Mortimer at approximately 4.00 pm (boarding time will be confirmed in your final documents). You’ll have time to settle into your cabin before our important briefings. After settling in we will set sail in for the Orkney Islands, where Stone Age villages like Skara Brae, relics of Viking occupation and the wild sea vie for our attention.
Day 2 – Kirkwall, Orkneys
Discover the rich history in Kirkwall, capital of the Orkney Islands. Initial impressions are misleading, as the harbour area looks modern, but the narrow winding streets and lanes of the old town, which have remained relatively unchanged over the centuries are appealing. Explore magnificent St Magnus Cathedral built from red and white sandstone and considered the finest medieval building in the north of Scotland before popping across the road to Tankerness House and Gardens, a restored 16th century former manse, now housing the Orkney Museum featuring archaeological artefacts from Neolithic times to the Vikings. The exhibition is a great way to whet your appetite for the archaeological gems you will find on the mainland including the unique and well-preserved 5,000-year-old semi-subterranean village of Skara Brae.
Everything west of Kirkwall is known as West Mainland, an area of rich farmland, rolling hills and moorland, with dramatic cliffs along the Atlantic coastline. Some of the main archaeological attractions we may see include the standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and the chambered tombs of Maes Howes that to this day still have unresolved mysteries. One of the mainland’s main attractions is Skara Brae, the best-preserved Stone Age village in northern Europe, located in the spectacular white sands of the Bay of Skaill. Revealed in 1850 after a storm blew away the dunes, the site dates from approximately 5,000 years ago and was occupied for about 600 years, showing a unique picture of the lifestyle of the original inhabitants.
Days 3-5 – Faroe Islands
In the middle of the North Atlantic, barely visible on most world maps, you will find the Faroe Islands, an archipelago consisting of 18 islands with a population of only 50,000. The Faroe Islands are built up of layers of volcanic basalt, and are tilted with the eastern shores sloping into the sea and the western coasts rising up in soaring and spectacular cliffs. With their breathtaking beauty, steep mountains covered in soft green grass, deep fjords, long summer nights, unique culture, and a humble, friendly and welcoming people, the islands are the perfect destination for travellers wanting something dramatically different from the mainstream.
Discover a few of the gems of the Faroe Islands including Tórshavn, Kirkjubour, Mykines and Vestmanner. In Torshavn, possibly the smallest capital in the world, wander the narrow streets of this windswept town, built on a hillside with colourful contemporary houses and old traditional timber dwellings all painted red and with characteristic grass roofs, white-framed windows and black wood. You may see the oddest array of sheep lining the steep hillsides - black ones, brown ones and even piebald ones! Perhaps catch a glimpse of Faroese ponies with their spectacular flaxen manes and coats varying from a palomino colour to rich chestnut. The town’s history can be traced back to around 900 AD when the first Viking settlers arrived here by longboat from Norway.
Landing at Mykines can be tricky. The cliffs are sheer and there are steps to climb once you are out of the Zodiac, but the views are impressive. Geographically, Mykines is the Faroe’s most westerly outpost, and the island dubbed the “paradise of birds” featuring gannets, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots and puffins. We are able to get quite close to the birds by sailing under the majestic bird cliffs or on a hike. In addition to the seabirds, the Faroe Islands’ remote location functions virtually as a magnet for birds that migrate over the North Atlantic Ocean. Around 300 bird species have been recorded in the Faroe Islands, but only around 100 species are regular migrants or breeding birds. This means that about 200 species are rare migrants and new birds are added to the national list every year.
One of the highlights in the Faroe Islands is Vestmanna Birdcliffs, where in kayaks and Zodiacs you can explore caves, arches, waterfalls and sea stacks below majestic cliffs towering hundreds of metres above. You may see kittiwakes and fulmars overhead, with razorbills and guillemots sitting on nests high above us and puffins bobbing in the sea.
Days 6-7 – Sea Crossing to Jan Mayen
Enjoy sailing to Jan Mayen Island accompanied by sea birds while keeping a look out for whales. Enjoy a presentation from our team of experts, get to know your fellow expeditioners, stay fit at the gym or treat yourself to a massage in the wellness centre.
Day 8 – Jan Mayen
The approach to Jan Mayen is spectacular. The huge Beerenberg volcano (2,277 metres/ 7,470 feet altitude) is the world’s northernmost active volcano, and last erupted in 1985. The northern part of the island is a great place to look for whales and dolphins, and contains impressive glaciers, some of which reach the sea. If the weather is friendly, we will try to land at Kvalrossbukta, a relatively sheltered bay on the island’s west coast. This is one of the landings used to supply the weather station Olonkinbyen, situated on the eastern side of the island. We hope to land on front of the Norwegian station at Olonkinbyen, stop to visit the weather station before embarking on a three-hour hike (weather permitting) to the other side of the Island where the Greg Mortimer will be waiting for us in Kvalrossbukta, and our trusty Zodiacs will transport us back to the ship.
Days 9-10 – Sea Crossing to Svalbard
The sea around Jan Mayen offers excellent whale-watching opportunities (bottlenose, fin, and perhaps bowhead whales in the pack ice). Sail towards Svalbard, searching for the ice edge as we continue north, retracing the route of Dutch explorer Willem Barents who discovered Spitsbergen and the Barents Sea, named after him. You may see harp seal pups on the pack ice growing quickly, while their mothers hunt for food. As we approach Svalbard, all eyes will be focused on spotting polar bears in the pack ice.
Days 11-14 – Northern Svalbard
Over the next three days, the Svalbard Archipelago is ours to explore. Our experienced expedition team, who have made countless journeys to this area, will use their expertise to design our voyage from day to day. This allows us to make best use of the prevailing weather, ice conditions and wildlife opportunities. Because we are so far north we will experience nearly 24 hours of daylight and the days can be as busy as you wish. We will generally make landings or Zodiac excursions a few times a day; cruising along spectacular ice cliffs, following whales that are feeding near the surface, making landings for hikes.
There are many exciting places we can choose to visit; a sample of some of the places where your expedition leader may choose to land, hike, photograph or view spectacular wildlife and scenery include:
Alkhornet, at the northern entrance of Isfjorden, is a striking landmark. The landscape around this large bird cliff is lush and beautiful. East of Alkhornet you can find a deep and several kilometre long bay with an exciting and diverse history. Here you will find important and vulnerable cultural remains dating from several of Svalbard’s historical periods. Alkhornet and Trygghamna offer visitors an interesting combination of cultural history and natural environment. The name Trygghamna is derived from the old Dutch name Behouden Haven and the English Safe Harbour or Safe Haven, all with the same meaning. The name reflects on the West European whaling that was carried out around Svalbard in the 17th century when whales would swim into the fjords and subsequently be caught. Trygghamna was, and still is, the perfect harbour with good anchorage. Because of its favourable geographical position, this harbour was early known and continuously in use.
At Alkhornet, reindeer observations are common, there are several fox dens, geese nest on rocks and higher up, and the bird cliff is loaded with Brünnich’s guillemots in hundreds of thousands. The cliff also houses a large colony of kittiwakes. Often seen is the glaucous gull patrolling the air around the cliff for potential prey. Arctic skuas nest here as well. The moss tundra below the cliffs bear witness of constant influx of fertilisers and some areas are extraordinarily lush for this reason.
Kongsfjorden (Kings Bay)
Kongsfjorden and the surrounding country are known to be one of the most beautiful fjord areas in Svalbard. The fjord is headed by two giant glaciers, Kronebreen and Kongsvegen. Hike on the lush tundra amongst the summer flowers and observe the remarkable bird cliffs near the 14th July Glacier, where even a few puffins nest between the cracks in the cliffs.
In this area we find the former mining settlement of Ny-Ålesund. Situated at 78º 55’ N, Ny-Ålesund is one of the world’s northern-most year-round communities. The settlement of Ny-Ålesund is strongly linked to coal mining operations, scientific expeditions and recently also to various international research efforts. It is located more than 100 km north of Longyearbyen and is one of the northernmost settlements in the world. In and around Ny-Ålesund is found the largest concentration of protected buildings, cultural monuments and various remains in Svalbard, rendering the place an important cultural heritage site. The cultural history is represented by the town itself, including 30 listed buildings (out of 60 in total), industrial monuments related to the coal mining operations, Roald Amundsen’s airship mooring mast and hangar foundation and some remains of research activities. Ny-Ålesund is the largest Norwegian settlement in Svalbard that was not set fire to during World War II. The settlement is well preserved and worth experiencing, and serves as a valuable historical source.
Ny-Ålesund has also been the starting point of several historical attempts to reach the North Pole. Names like Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile are strongly linked to Ny-Ålesund. The place has been a centre for tourist operations, with several hotels located in town. Today, approximately 20,000 travellers visit Ny-Ålesund on a yearly basis. Since 1964, Ny-Ålesund has also been a centre for international Arctic research and environmental monitoring. A number of countries run their own national research stations here, and research activity is high in the summer.
The islands and islets in the inner part of Kongsfjorden teem with birds. At the head of the fjord, mighty glaciers calve into the sea. All of this is framed by characteristic mountain formations. Situated at the north side of the fjord, London is a monument to past optimistic expectations for big money from the supply of marble to the world market. Further north-west lies Krossfjorden, with its cultural remains from the whaling period, Russian and Norwegian overwinterings and World War II. Large bird cliffs are also found here.
Nordvesthjørnet and Raudfjorden
It was here, in the far north-west, that Willem Barentsz and his crew discovered new land on 17 June, 1596. They described the land as being “rugged for the most part, and steep, mostly mountains and jagged peaks, from which we gave it the name of Spitsbergen”. In the centuries that followed, the large number of bowhead whales found here attracted whalers from the Netherlands and various other countries, and the area became a place of high activity, both on the shore and in the surrounding sea. This is why Nordvesthjørnet offers the largest concentration of graves, blubber ovens and other cultural treasures on Spitsbergen, all dating back to this first era of the exploitation of Svalbard’s natural resources.
Cruise northwards along the west coast of Spitsbergen, visiting intriguing places like Magdalenefjorden, located inside the Northwest Spitsbergen National Park. According to historical sources, Magdalenefjorden was first used by the English in the early days of the whaling era. They erected a land station on the headland and named the area Trinity Harbour. The station was closed in 1623, but the cemetery remained in use. More tourists are visiting Gravneset than any other site in Svalbard outside the settlements, but since 2015, ships carrying heavy fuel on board are no longer permitted to enter the large national parks and nature reserves in Svalbard.
The spectacular alpine scenery is lined with jagged mountain peaks, to which Spitsbergen (‘pointed mountains’) owes its name. At 1,115 metres / 3,658 feet, Hornemanntoppen is the highest mountain in the area is, located east of Magdalenefjorden. The topography of the area is mostly rocky, shorelines are covered with stones and walking here can be challenging. The topography also does not allow for much vegetation, which is limited to mosses and lichens near bird colonies. Little auks are breeding in large numbers in scree slopes everywhere around Magdalenefjorden. Amazingly, a few reindeer occasionally roam around on mossy slopes and polar bears as well as walrus are regularly seen here.
The name “Smeerenburg” means “Blubber Town”. Its whaling station served as the main base for Dutch whaling in the first half of the 17th century, which was the period when whale hunting was still happening along the coastline and in the fjords of Svalbard. Smeerenburg is situated on the island of Amsterdamøya, surrounded by fjords, tall glacier fronts and steep, rugged mountains. The most obvious sign of its days as a whaling station are the large cement-like remains of blubber from ovens where the blubber was boiled. The rest of the old Smeerenburg has largely disappeared under layers of sand.
Virgohamna is one of Svalbard’s most important cultural heritage sites. On the beach are remains of blubber ovens and a Dutch whaling station. There are also graves from the whaling period. But Virgohamna is most famous for being the starting place of many an expedition attempting to reach the North Pole. Both Andrée (1896, 1897) and Wellman (1906, 1907, 1909) built bases here, consisting of a balloon shed, airship hangars and gas production works. The place was named after Andrée’s steamship and transport vessel, the Virgo. All the areas with cultural remains in Virgohamna are protected. To disembark here, one must have written permission from the Governor of Svalbard.
Ytre Norskøya is situated in the middle of what used to be the Dutch whaling area in the early 1600s, when it all revolved around land-based stations for boiling the whale blubber. The station is situated by the sound Norskøysundet, between the islands of Ytre Norskøya and Indre Norskøya. A sheltered bay offers protection against the weather and a broad beach facilitates landings. Today, the remains of nine blubber ovens lie in a line along the beach in the bay. The area with 165 graves on the island is one of the largest burial grounds in Svalbard.
Woodfjorden, Liefdefjorden and Bockfjorden
Located along the north coast, Woodfjorden, Liefdefjorden and Bockfjorden are rarely-visited places. This is the land of contrasts. By the large, flat Reinsdyrflya there is a great fjord system that stretches towards several mountain ridges of varying shapes and ages, including alpine summits of very old granite, majestic red mountains of Devonian sandstone, cone-shaped remnants of three volcanoes and even hot springs. Large glacier fronts calve in the sea, while polar bears are busy hunting for ringed seals and sweeping the islets for birds’ eggs. Walk on smooth raised beach terraces to a superb viewpoint or hike in the mountains on the tundra where pretty brightly coloured wildflowers and lichen grow and where reindeer graze. We may visit trapper huts of yesteryear where Russians Pomors would hunt and survive the cold harsh winters, all while remaining alert for wandering polar bears and their cubs.
Moffen Island is situated directly north of 80°N. After the near-extinction of walrus in Svalbard in the middle of the 20th century, Moffen Island played an important role in re-establishing the species here, a process which is still going on. Today, there are often larger numbers of walrus hauled out at the southern tip of the island. This is the reason why Moffen is protected. Approach during the summer (15th May to 15th September) is limited to a minimum distance of 500 metres / 1,640 feet.
Sjuøyane (Seven Islands)
In the very north of Svalbard, in the ocean north of Nordaustlandet, is the little archipelago of Sjuøyane (the seven islands), with its characteristically hat-shaped mountains. The hard granite mountains have acquired a green covering of moss due to thousands of breeding seabirds. Walrus dive for clams in the waters between the islands and in the bays. Most of the islands have been named after the English North Pole expeditions led by Phipps (1773) and Parry (1827).
Sjuøyane are located at about 80°45′N. The mountains, of gneiss and granites, are tied together by plains created by deposits, which have given the islands their large, semi-circular bays. In general the sparse vegetation belongs to the Arctic polar desert zone. However, fertilisation by bird droppings provide a breeding ground for mosses and scurvygrass (Cochlearia groenlandica), which give some of the mountains their characteristic greenish colour.
When the ice breaks up around Sjuøyane and the first seabirds return in April–May, the islands wake again after a long winter, during which the only wildlife is the odd polar bear, arctic fox, reindeer and walrus. There is a large number of bird cliffs in Sjuøyane, scattered around most of the islands. Little auks come in the largest numbers, but there are also several smaller colonies of puffins and Brünnich’s guillemots. Common guillemots nest scattered around the islands. One of the few known colonies of ivory gulls can be found on Phippsøya. Ivory gulls are categorised as listed as a Near Threatened Species.
There are also several haul-out sites for walrus on Sjuøyane. The most reliable place to encounter them is Isflakbukta on the island of Phippsøya. Up to 100 animals can be seen on the beach, and normally walrus are very active in the shallow bay.
Polar bears can be seen anywhere on Sjuøyane. The polar bear distribution is strongly related to the distribution of sea ice. If there is drift ice around the islands it is more likely that there will be polar bears on the islands. Usually there are also a few polar bears remaining in the area over the summer. Reindeer and arctic fox are also found on Sjuøyane.
Day 15 – Longyearbyen
During the early morning we cruise into Longyearbyen. Farewell your expedition team, crew and fellow expeditioners as we all continue our onward journeys. Enjoy a town tour of Longyearbyen before an onward transfer to the airport in the afternoon.