We woke up to a wintry Arctic landscape surrounded by snow-covered mountains and blue glaciers. Low-hanging clouds masked the tips of the mountains from our view, leaving us to wonder at the height of these peaks. The air was crisp and fresh. Despite the chill, we were ready to head out. Our morning started with a landing in Gnållodden, a spectacular place surrounded by steep cliffs that are full of wildlife. These cliffs are nesting spots for large numbers of black-legged kittiwakes and guillemots. We soon realised why this place is called Gnållodden, as the calls of kittiwakes followed us throughout the morning. Gnåll means whining or gossip, and odden means point. We learned about the life of Wanny Wolstad, the first female trapper in Svalbard, and got to peak into one of the small cabins that trappers once used. We admired the birdlife and ice-covered beaches during our hikes. After lunch, we headed out once more, this time on Zodiacs and kayaks to enjoy views of the surrounding glaciers in Burgerbukta. Some brave guests also joined in a Polar Plunge, jumping into the icy Arctic water for a refreshing dip. We finished off the day with a lovely Philippine buffet dinner.
We docked in Helsinki early in the morning. It was raining and the sky was gray, but we knew it was a matter of time. The weather forecast predicted sun a little later, and, indeed, the sky cleared up, helping us enjoy a fabulous day. Guests were divided into two groups. One group visited the second oldest city in Finland, Porvoo. The other visited the open-air museum located on the island of Seurasaari. The good thing about doing activities outside the city of Helsinki is that we were able to cross the entire city by bus. We had the chance to see firsthand all the most relevant monuments and buildings, such as the library and the train station. We took advantage of the afternoon to explore on our own. After dinner in the evening, a small group took a tour of the port and admired the icebreaker fleet docked nearby.
Rough weather conditions meant that today was a sea day, but after staying up last night to watch a polar bear slumber along the shoreline, we were happy to have a day of rest and relaxation. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before Kerstin, our naturalist, gave a fascinating lecture on polar bears. With the sighting from the night before still fresh in our mind, Kerstin’s talk was timely, and we enjoyed learning about the biology and behavior of these beautiful animals. We then heard from Maria, a polar bear guard and weapons master, about “survival of the fattest” and how bigger is better in cold conditions. With that in mind, we went off to enjoy lunch with multiple desserts to improve our “buoyancy.” The weather did not improve, so after our afternoon naps and further devastation of the cookie jars, more presentations were scheduled. Undersea specialist Paul discussed plankton, football teams, and the movie Alien …fit those together if you can! Just before Caroline set up her “Geology Rocks!” presentation, a call from the bridge made everyone rush to the outer decks. Eight humpback whales had been sighted! We sailed around to the western side of Svalbard outside of the fjord system of Hornsund. The whales were diving for the planktonic organisms that are attracted to the nutrients flowing from the glacier fronts. Caroline gave a really fascinating talk on the formation of the Svalbard archipelago, followed by a recap of the day and dinner. The chocolate mousse cake was incredible. Coming from a Scot, this is praise indeed!
We spent half the day at sea as we made the long crossing from Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia. We passed the island of Saaremaa and the low Estonian coast. During the morning, Stephen Fisher gave an extensive overview of the military operations in the Baltic in World War II. Some of these were quite surprising – the awkward involvement of the Finnish leadership with Hitler’s regime, for instance, a careful balancing act between two aggressive superpowers which managed to secure Finnish independence. National Geographic photographer Sisse Grimberg followed with a fine exposition of her National Geographic assignment, portraying the history and practice of the Hanseatic League. It was very topical, as the cities we are visiting were at one time or another part of that intricate network of enterprising merchants. As always, Sisse’s images were highly personal, finding a view of practices that have survived through the ages and creating a direct link to the past. Then: Tallinn. On a gloriously clear and sunny day, the city presented itself from the sea with perky spires and medieval towers with bright red tile roofs – and with a whole lot of very recent architecture, testimony of the brilliant revival of Estonia from the drab Soviet occupation. National Geographic Explorer guests came prepared – not just by Stephen Fisher, but also after viewing The Singing Revolution , a moving documentary on the Estonian struggle for independence in the 1980s and 1990s. A long and winding walk through the old city brought historical and contemporary energies together. The upper city, Toompea, the seat of Estonia’s government, is a quiet and dignified maze of spruced up official buildings. The not-so-old Russian Orthodox cathedral towers over some of it, a token of older attempts to dominate Estonian culture. The ancient Maria Church is much more genuinely ‘Estonian’ in that respect. The gravestones are in German, and the walls are covered with elaborate coats of arms of the old German nobility, which ruled these lands for hundreds of years. We took a breather on the terrace that overlooks the lower city, once the domain for those busy merchants. We enjoyed a long stroll down Pikk Jalg, where nifty painters of cityscapes peddle their canvases, and headed into the bustling centre. ‘Spruced up’ is not saying enough. Since independence, Estonia has flourished, and everything here is testimony to that. Colourfully plastered gables offer ample indication that this is a very old city. We had a cup of coffee in an ancient merchant’s house that dates to the 14th century. On the same street: two old Guild Houses. This particular hall is the seat of the Tallinn Philharmonic. Boys and girls went in an out in what looked like school uniforms – but then again, not. They told me it was because they are involved in their end of term school presentations. One boy reluctantly told me he was to recite a poem later that evening. The others were to dance and sing. Like many 13-year-olds, they dreaded what was to come. After the tour ended, guests and staff had plenty of time to walk around this great old city and have a beer or two. Still, the day was not over. On the back deck of National Geographic Explorer , two Estonian musicians, masters of the ancient harpa, performed a highly unusual mix of traditional music and contemporary sounds with some of the most hilarious commentary we have ever witnessed, including songs about loneliness and cross-country skiing, for a start. All guests joined in a marvelous “flat-footed waltz.” Then it was time to cast off and sail to Helsinki.
Early in the morning we started our activities by visiting Punta Cormorant. We had a wet landing on a green-sand beach formed by olivine crystals. Walking an easy trail we reached a brackish lagoon, where we found Galapagos flamingos. The last part of the trail was a white-sand beach crowded with green marine turtle nests. Spending the whole day at Floreana, we had all kinds of fun. Snorkeling at Champion Islet brought us close to playful sea lions and colorful fish. In the afternoon, we paid a relaxed visit to Post Office Bay. This historical site features a wooden barrel that served as an informal postal service, the first in Ecuador. For centuries, this barrel was visited by pirates and other seafarers who left letters to be founded by other people and taken back home. Our guests continued the tradition by leaving postcards and picking up postcards to be delivered when they get back home.