Please note, all photographs, unless otherwise indicated, in this tour journal are my work and are copyrighted 2019 by Bob Henderson. Some of the text however is borrowed from Albatros Expeditions.
Days 1 and 2: Edinburgh
At the end of May, Lori and I joined a Road Scholar group of 26 Americans in Edinburgh for an expedition in the Scottish Isles and the far northern Atlantic. The first two days consisted of touring Edinburgh on our own and with the group.
After lunch we toured more of the city. Among the many beautiful buildings in the Old Town is St. Giles Cathedral with its massive columns, blue ceiling and fabulous stained glass widows.
We also visited the area made famous by the true story of Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who laid by the grave of his master for 14 years and became loved by all in the city. On his death, Bobby could not be buried near his master because the ground was concentrated. He is buried just outside.
On our free time, we wandered through the National Museum of Scotland looking for history of the Clan Henderson. Much to our surprise, there was almost nothing in the museum concerning the clans. More attention is paid to the concept of clans today than was in the early periods of Scotland.
Day 3: On the Road to Aberdeen and the expedition ship...
Boarding a bus, we left the city and headed across the new Queensferry Crossing bridge on our way to Aberdeen and the ship.
Midway to Aberdeen, we stopped for a break. Much to the surprise of our group's leaders, the bus driver managed to gain entry to the grounds of Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the former Queen Mother.
From Glamis we continued on the bus to Aberdeen, had dinner, boarded the ship and had the required safety drill.
MV Ocean Atlantic was launched in 1985 at the Stocznia shipyard in Poland. She belongs to the ‘Shoshtakovich’ class of passenger vessels and has six sister ships. Her original name was Konstantin Chernenko (Константин Черненко), after Konstantin Chernenko, President of the USSR (1984-1985). She was renamed Russ (Русс) in 1988, and spent most of her life working in the Russian Far East. She had a reinforced car deck with a stern and side ramp that enabled her to carry military tanks in time of war. She was purchased by Albatros Expeditions and completely refitted in 2017. She is now a 200-passenger expedition vessel, which may soon be retired as a pair of new ships are on online. On our trip, there were 182 passengers, 16 expedition staff and 90 ship crew. Of the 182 passengers, our 26 Road Scholar member group were the only Americans; a large majority were Swedish and the rest Danish. Fortunately for us Americans, the official language of the ship was english.
Day 4: The Orkney Islands.
Day 4 saw us arriving in the Orkney Islands which are part of Scotland. We landed by zodiac in the main city of Kirkwall, the unofficial capital of the Northern Isles. Much like the rest of Orkney, Kirkwall has a strong Viking heritage dating back 1,000 years to the first Viking settlers. Indeed, the name Kirkwall is a derivation of the Norse name Kirkjuvagr – meaning “church on the bay”.
Upon landinge via zodiacs, we boarded a bus for a trip to the Neolithic village of Skara Brae which dates back to approximately 3000 BC. The remains of this village were unknown until the 1850s when a great storm battering the coast of Orkney uncovered parts of it. Skara Brae was occupied by about a hundred people before either Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built.
Because few if any trees grow on the island, the construction was stone, including the storage shelves and the bed base. It is believed that some timber was used to support the sod roofs. A number of family rooms where connect by passages to a central work area. The section uncovered so far may be lost in the coming years to the sea, but it is believed that more of the site remains uncovered inland.
On the way back to Kirkwall, we passed by standing stones which predate Stonehenge.
Returning to Kirkwall, some of us choose to visit the Highland Park Distillery while others wandered through the town. Highland Park produces, what else, single malt Scotch Whiskey.
Day 5: The Shetland Islands
Today our destination was the town of Lerwick, the capital of the Shetlands. Lerwick is derived from the old Norse (Viking) names: Leirvik (= Muddy Water = Lerwick) and Hjaltland (= Hilt- land = Shetland). Hundreds of years ago, Vikings used the area to stage raids on the British Isles and other parts of Europe. Today, the largest population is the millions of sea birds that return to nest.
... we were taken by bus to the Bronze and Iron Age remains at Clickimin Broch.
We returned to Lerwick to tour Fort Charlotte and the stone town hall with its many beautiful stained-glass windows which tell Norse histories.
Having been settled by the vikings, the story of how the Shetlands and Orkney became part of Scotland is interesting. When Margaret of Norway married James III of Scotland in 1468, King Christian of Denmark-Norway was so keen for the alliance, he agreed to give a generous dowry which he could not afford. Instead of cash he pledged both Orkney and the Shetlands. They were never redeemed and annexed to the Scottish Crown in 1472 bringing and end to more than 600 years of Norwegian rule.
We must not forget an important feature of Shetland -- the Shetland Pony
Day 6: The Faroe Islands
On the morning of the fourth day, Streymoy Island had emerged from the thick sea fog in front of the Ocean Atlantic. Our destination for the day was Tórshavn (Thor's Harbor), the capital city of the Faroe Islands. We had a walking tour of a charming section of the city, composed of red wooden buildings with grass-covered roofing, which has been home to the Faroese government for over a thousand years.
A highlights of our day on the Faroe Islands was a visit to the southernmost village on Streymoy, Kirkjubøur. This tiny hamlet is one of the most important historical sites on the Faroes and has the Magnus Cathedral, built around 1300 and a still-inhabited farmhouse that dates back to the 11th century.
After our visit to Kirkjubøur, we returned to Tórshavn along the coast. Among the features was a Salmon farm (the first photo below).
We boarded the ship and departed watching the pilot boat take the harbor pilot back to town.
Day 7: At sea
Day 7 was a day at sea on our way to Jan Mayan. For most of the day the ship was accompanied by hundreds of Northern Fulmars. Without flapping their wings they would ride the wind off the ship swooping up, down and around.
Also on day 7 we reached a milestone, we crossed the Arctic Circle. This event was celebrated with a cup of hot chocolate with Baileys that awaited us on the cold outer decks.
Day 8: Jan Mayen
Early in the morning of day 8 we saw the southern cape of Jan Mayen – one of the loneliest islands in the world. As we headed north the view looked unpromising for a landing; forbidding cliffs of grey lava with their heads lost in ragged cloud and the swell breaking on a rocky shore.
Early in the afternoon, we commenced landing operations – despite the difficult swell at the gangway and breaking waves on the beach, everyone made it ashore, mostly dry. The landing beach was black sand – fragments of volcanic rock – but with a large number of green grains of olivine. The Ocean Atlantic was the first of seven ships of the year which attempted landing to make it ashore on Jan Mayen due to storms and heavy seas. The ship sent ashore fresh produce to the delight of the 18 military personnel stationed there, their first fresh produce in months.
The walk to the station and its shop took us through strange volcanic landscapes, past lush moss banks, and onto the largest flat area on the island. The weather continued to improve and the summit of Beerenberg, the highest mountain at 2,277 meters, came into sight, poking its head above a mid-layer of cloud. Beerenberg is the northern most active volcano on Earth. The northern end of the island is growing as a result of its eruptions.
After exploring the area around the base, we returned to the ship and sailed north past Beerenberg under cleaning skies which gave us beautiful view of the volcano.
Day 10: Sailing toward Svalbard and Spitsbergen
The second sea day dawned with an air of expectation – we were due to reach Sørkapp – the southernmost point of Spitsbergen – during the afternoon. As the morning progressed, there were more seabirds. From the satellite ice charts, it was clear that we could not reach the original objective of Edgeøya (Edge Island), which was surrounded by drifting ice, driven SW by the winds. With this news, we lost our best chance to see Polar Bears to our great sadness.
We got to Sørkapp about 15:00 and immediately met the edge of the ice. The sea was relatively calm, but it was very much colder than previously. The scene outside was truly arctic – the sparling ice, the snow capped land in the distance, and the vivid blue sky between the clouds.
Day 12: Bamsebu deep in Bellsund
The Ocean Atlantic made her way eastward, deeper into Bellsund, and towards the sheltered harbor of Ahlstrandhalvøya in Sør-Spitsbergen National Park. Here, we found calm seas, a fresh breeze, and even a little bit of sunshine – perfect conditions for an afternoon landing. A very curious Ring Seal kept popping up to see what these strange creatures were doing on his beach.
Once on land, we set off in a number of directions; some to check out Bamsebu, the hygge hut just a few tens of metres from the sandy beach. Although we couldn’t go inside the hut, we were able to walk around it to enjoy the lush greenery of the abundant vegetation, including beautiful blooming purple saxifrage heath.
As we walked further down the beach, we experienced first-hand the remains of the beluga whaling business that boomed during the interwar years. Whalers once called Bamsebu their home station as they tracked and trapped belugas in the hopes of harvesting their valuable blubber and skin. These days, the beach around Bamsebu is littered with hundreds of beluga bones, a harrowing reminder of a once-thriving industry.
Day 13: Alknornet and Longyearbyen
Today the ship made its way slowly into the mouth of Tryghamna – the Safe Harbour. To our left, the towering cliffs of Alkhornet were alive with birds. Alkhornet means Aukhorn after the large number of birds that nest there; at 785 m, it is not the Matterhorn, but its distinctive twin peak is the most obvious landmark in outer Isfjorden.
We landed at the tiny beach SE of Alkhornet; a short scramble up a snow slope brought us out onto a broad grassy plain, rising up mossy slopes to the scree-ringed cliffs of the mountain.
The cliffs above were alive with birds: 60,000 breeding kittiwake and Brünnich’s guillemot kept up a continuous chatter in this vertical soap opera. The supporting cast of fulmar, glaucous gull, ivory gull, little auk, puffin and black guillemot added their cries.
Once again, sentries were posted in case of bears; it was rumored that one sentry did see a bear at a distance.
The ship then moved to Longyearbyen where because of an early arrival we were forced to dock at a coal loading pier. The early arrival did give us a chance to explore the town of approximately 2500 on foot.