The North Atlantic islands and coastlines offer some of the finest scenery and wildlife experiences in the world. From the Scottish Isles to the High Arctic, visitors to the region can witness enormous colonies of seabirds thronging the cliffs and shores, and enjoy the thrilling antics of whales and dolphins and seals at sea. Though remote and sparsely populated today, many of the places we explore have been inhabited in the last 5000 years, and thousands of unique prehistoric and historic sites are a testimony to the thriving cultures of the past.
Jan Mayen is a volcanic island set in the north Atlantic Ocean, half-way between Iceland and Spitsbergen. The still active volcano, Beerenberg, is 2200m high and dominates the island. The first impression the visitor gets of the island is one of a rough, inhospitable landscape, studded with snowfields, the sides of Beerenberg swept by glaciers separated by steep, rocky faces. The weather is unpredictable: there may be heavy rain, wind and fog but then, soon after, the sun may break through and the air become clear. During the winter Jan Mayen is often surrounded by pack-ice, the slopes of Beerenberg perpetually snow-covered.
The island is named for Jan Jacobsz May, a Dutch whaler who landed here in 1614 (though the island had been seen before) and was a major whaling centre for both Dutch and English whalers. In the years which followed his visit, several settlements being established. These settlements were usually only manned in the summer. Seven Dutchmen who tried to over winter in 1633-34 all died because of scurvy. When whaling ceased, the difficulties of access and the poor climate limited human activities on the island.
Norway established a weather station on the island, finally claiming sovereignty in 1929. During the Second World War the island was of great symbolic importance as the last piece of "free Norway". The Norwegian name for this archipelago including Bear Island and Jan Mayen is Svalbard. However it is usually known as Spitsbergen. Covering an area almost as big as the Republic of Ireland, Spitsbergen with its population of 3,500 in five settlements is still today virtually unspoilt wilderness.
With its rugged mountains, sweeping tundra, ice caps and glaciers, it is a true High Arctic archipelago, and only 600 miles from the North Pole. Its abundant wildlife was once a huge draw for whalers and trappers but now discerning visitors are discovering the attractions of huge Arctic seabird colonies and the chance to enjoy and photograph species like Walrus, Reindeer, Arctic Fox and of course, Polar Bear.
Day 1: Late in the afternoon we board ship in the port of Keflavik, just a short way from Iceland’s international airport. The largest of the North Atlantic islands, Iceland’s volcanoes, icecaps, rugged glaciated mountains, fjords and coastal cliffs and beaches together form one of the most inspiring landscapes on earth. We sail north to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, which is crowned by a beautiful snow-capped volcanic cone, 1442m high Snaefellsjokull. In the mellow evening light (at this time of year it is light all night) it is worth staying on deck to watch for whales in this often very productive location.
Day 2: Today we explore the Isafjordur Peninsula, geologically the oldest region in Iceland, its imposing basalt mountains scoured out by Ice Age glaciers. We sail into Adalvik in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Once farmed, this beautiful, sheltered fjord has been deserted for 50 years. As sheep no longer graze here and the human impacts are minimal, fauna and flora thrive on a scale unknown in other parts of Iceland.
We continue our voyage by sailing along the Hornstrandir Peninsula, spotting the remains of other farmsteads along the coastline of golden sand beaches set between sheer basalt cliffs. We will land at Hornvik , where we can follow an old path, used by fowlers, to reach the top of 300m high Hornbjarg. From the dizzy heights of this cliff we can marvel at one of the biggest seabird colonies in Iceland, with tens of thousands of Brunnich's Guillemots and Kittiwakes.
Day 3: We land on Grimsey, an island off the north coast and the only part of Iceland which lies within the Arctic Circle (the Circle crosses the island). The island is home to huge colonies of Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Puffins, Fulmars and Arctic Terns, who far outnumber the human inhabitants. Numbering just 100 and living in the island’s only village, this resourceful farming and fishing community would not dream of moving to the mainland. In the evening we sail across the Arctic Circle and circumnavigate Kolbeinsey, a tiny island north of Grimsey, formed from a submarine eruption.
Day 4: On our way to Jan Mayen, situated 300 nautical miles north-east of Iceland, there will be plenty of time to devote to looking for whales - Humpbacks are most likely but as we approach the pack ice, we may also encounter Minke Whales, who can sometimes be quite curious and approach boats such as ours. We should also see Harp Seals.
Day 5: Jan Mayen is a volcanic island of breathtaking beauty and mystique, dominated by Mt Beerenberg. From the slopes of the 2277m volcano, impressive glaciers spill into the sea. Until recently, the island was off-limits, and was rarely visited by tourists, but with permission from the Norwegian authorities we hope to visit the weather station. We will also walk across the island to Kvalrossbukta to look at the remains of a 17th century Dutch whaling station and a substantial colony of Fulmars.
Days 6-7: We spend two days at sea, looking out for whales, dolphins and seals, and a variety of seabirds. When we approach the sea-ice at the southern tip of Spitsbergen, we may also encounter moulting Harp Seals.
Day 8: At Bear Island we visit the remains of a whaling station active from 1905-1908 in Kvalrossbukta. Arctic Skuas and Great Skuas can be seen during a walk across the desolate hills and tundra. The weather will decide whether we then sail along the west coast, where we can visit one of the largest seabird colonies in the North Atlantic teeming with Little Auks, Brunnich"s Guillemots, Common Guillemots and Kittiwakes. Alternatively we will sail along the east coast to visit Tunheim, an abandoned mining settlement.
Day 9: When we approach the sea-ice at the southern tip of Spitsbergen, we may encounter moulting Harp Seals on the sea ice, and make a zodiac cruise among the ice-floes. Later we will try to land at Stormbukta, with its postvolcanic springs, and a canyon with nesting Kittiwakes.
Day 10: Depending on the position of the sea-ice, we cruise the maze of fjords in the spectacular Hornsund area of southern Spitsbergen, which is ringed by towering mountain peaks. Hornsundtind rises to 1,431m while Bautaen shows why early Dutch explorers gave the name "Spitsbergen" - pointed mountains - to the island. There are also 14 magnificent glaciers in the area but as well as spectacular scenery, the area is renowned for its abundant and varied Arctic wildlife. We have very good chances of seeing seals and with a little luck, the very symbol of the Arctic - Polar Bears.
We may visit the Polish research station where the friendly staff will give us an insight into their research projects. Behind the station, the mountains are home to thousands of pairs of nesting Little Auks. Bearded Seals often cruise the inner fjords, whose cliffs are lined with colonies of Brunnichs Guillemots and Kittiwakes. On the tundra we will have good opportunities to observe foraging Barnacle Geese.
Day 11: Today we land at Kapp Toscana on Ahlstrandhalvoya at the mouth of Van Keulenfjord, where piles of Beluga skeletons are a reminder of the 20th century exploitation of these small white whales. Numbers are now recovering and there is a good chance of spotting small groups in the area. We then move to Recherchefjord, where a walk on the fragile tundra which backs the fjord may yield sightings of Reindeer. The Spitsbergen Reindeer is not as big as its mainland relative and is found in much smaller herds. Alternatively we may land at Midterhuken to explore the remains of 17th century English whaling sites. The weather will determine which good options will be chosen in this area.
Day 12: Early in the morning we arrive in Longyearbyen, the administrative center of Spitsbergen, for flights to Oslo and home, alternatively we may stay on board for the next voyage: North Spitsbergen Cruise 1.
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Arctic Arctic Iceland Norway Nature & Wildlife Wildlife Viewing Island Vacation
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