Le Commandant Charcot awaits!
Our charter flight was from Paris to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway. To clear up where I am going up, Longyearbyen is a town on the island of Spitsbergen, which is part of the archipelago known as Svalbard which, in turn, is part and off the coast of Norway.
The chaos in European airports greeted us after a very smooth hotel pickup and check-in for all-economy seating four-hour flight. While I thought we would be greeted with a glass of champagne and a more upscale experience, it was, alas, an economy experience. But just getting on the plane was good enough. The airport passport control system was down so there was a two hour plus line just to get through passport control. And that put me in the line as the plane was taking off. I sent a WhatsApp (that is what is ubiquitous in Europe) to Ponant, as there was no representative in the area, and was advised that the message was passed on. Then I rushed to the gate only to be told there was a delay in getting the aircraft fueled…and then getting a bus to take us to the plane, so we were delayed three hours. Who needs champagne? I just need to know we were going!
The flight was not full – which if the ship is full I don’t think would be the case. The fact that we actually took off after a three-hour delay due to airport chaos (not Ponant’s fault) was more than enough to satisfy me.
Upon our very late arrival we were ushered onto waiting buses, leaving the issue of luggage to Ponant. A quick pier-side pre-check-in (health questionnaire, proof of vaccination, and Covid test results) and we were brought onto a tender. Upon boarding the ship I was directed to the Registration Deck where one turns in your passport and receives your room key. (They ask you to return to the Registration Desk within two days to provide a credit card.)
With the schedule in disarray, one would have thought there would be chaos. Heck, it was after 8:00 PM and the idea of dinner service hadn’t even crossed my mind. But the Ponant staff were calm, flexible and said we should relax and not worry. With the smiles, confidence, and a truly stunning ship, that is exactly what I did.
And the ship is “stunning”! Here are just a few interior photos, including my Deluxe Suite:
And then it happened: Broken plane! The guests of the prior cruise (a full ship charter by Monaco to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Prince Albert’s expedition to one of our first stops: Monaco Glacier, hosted by Prince Albert III) weren’t going anywhere. A new plane had to be flown in the next day. Well, Longyearbyen doesn’t have nearly enough hotel rooms, so back to our ship and another Ponant ship, Le Boreal, they came…and the staff had to make up rooms and organize dinner for all of them…while taking care of us. And they did just that. Bravo!
While our expedition would be delayed almost a full day, the Le Commandant Charcot rearranged things so it was more akin to the first day at sea of an Antarctica expedition with boot sizing, jacket exchanges, safety briefings, etc. The captain also assured us that we would not miss anything as he would just increase the ship’s speed as we traveled our circumnavigation of Svalbard. (Guests on our expedition were eventually given a 10% refund or the application of the funds to a new cruise, as they desired.) With a great job of keeping the guests segregated it was – for our group – a seamless and non-stressful event. I am sure if there was a comingling of guests the frustrations of the Monaco group would have spoiled our start. But the staff was amazing.
With the fortunate arrival of the replacement plane, at 4:00 PM and one day late our expedition began! Whew!!! Our journey will take us up the west coast of Spitsbergen and into a number of fjords before heading north and into the ice. From there we will continue our circumnavigation of Svalbard by traveling along the north coast of Nordauslanet and then the eastern coast of Svalbard before returning to Longyearbyen.
Our first stop was a cloudy and foggy Mushamna, where there is an historic trapper’s hut and some wetlands filled with artic terns and other birds such as Barnacle geese and Red Throated loons. It was an expected easy first landing (so folks can get used to the concept) and was a great location to speak to Eli, one of the local guides, who enthusiastically discussed how the locals enjoy using trapper’s huts (most are much smaller) for a few days or weeks in the summer for a bit of solitude…from the “busy” life in Longyearbyen as well as the history of this rather famous one.
Next up was Monaco Glacier. Monaco Glacier is now actually three glaciers with it having receded dramatically in the past five years. While we were there a number of calving occurred and it was clear from the jagged faces of the glaciers that there was a lot of activity on a regular basis.
We were fortunate to get a glimpse of a Bearded Seal, in addition, to literally thousands of kittiwakes and hundreds of arctic terns.
But our day was not over. A Blue Whale had been spotted during dinner. While it was not one of the huge blue whales, it was exciting to see this highly endangered species – the largest animal to ever live on earth – and appreciate its grace.
Speaking of dinner, the cuisine onboard Le Commandant Charcot has been very good. I will delve into it further, but suffice it to say I am enjoying more than my share of “French wine and cheeses”.
Day 3 (or Day 2 if you forget about our lost day) was one of my favorite days on an expedition ship. So much happened, but it was done with a very quiet voice. We started with a visit to Alkefjellet (Norwegian for “bird cliff), a cathedral-like cliffside with over 200,000 pairs of Thick Billed Muir (or Guillemot) with some Black Guillemot, Kittiwakes, and other bird species thrown in. It was very impressive and with the ornithologist in our zodiac it was a joy to see his enthusiasm and desire for us to know so much about the guillemot and how similar they are to penguins…and why they are different.
And then an Arctic Fox was spotted. And then a second one still with most of its white winter coat was spotted.
Our guide, Ariel – another local and bright light – was so enjoying our zodiac cruise – possibly even more than some of our English-speaking group (as we are now segregated, making our ability to understand what is happening much easier) – that we fortunately long overstayed our allotted time!
It was then a short sail to Palanderbukta, with its strikingly different, desert-like landscape, for what would be a 5.5-mile hike over four-plus hours. A dense fog had overtaken the area right after we departed Alkefjellet but it lifted, but not enough for the sun to really return. But it was warm…like really scary how warm and a testament to the rapid melting of the sea ice and, thus, there being so much stress on polar bears. About 10 minutes into the hike, I wrapped my Ponant parka around my waist and comfortably hiked in my t-shirt! (I don’t know the temperature, but I would guess it was about 50 F degrees when it should be about 30 F degrees.)
I notice a number of flowers growing very low to the ground and started taking photos of them. And that is when it became apparent that our guide – you know the one for the English-speaking group – didn’t speak English. And when asked some simple questions it became clear (since the Captain had joined us and could be our interpreter) that he didn’t really know much or how to explain things.
With the group frustrated I became the group’s botanist, geologist, and glaciologist. (Thank you Professor Tobissen for the botany, Jenn for the geology, and Luci for the glacier knowledge!) I am not going to say I was perfect, but at least I was able to give rudimentary information that was pretty accurate…and least I think so. And the group was happy enough and I wasn’t asked any hard questions!
The landscape was breathtaking. It was rocky, not sandy, mostly in shades of tan. I said it was like Star Wars and the Captain he hadn’t been to the moon, but imagined it to be like it. But in the distance was a glacier that clearly has been rapidly receding. Because if its scale you thought it was close enough to hike to, but in reality, it was very far away.
After getting as close as we could, we headed up a couple of hills to see another glacier…well, actually five. They converged on a small fjord that, to me, looked like a great spot to take a swim. (We didn’t.) The Captain, however, was amazed that it was all water because he had been there ten days earlier and it was completely covered in fast ice (first-year ice). Yes, the unusually high temperatures can melt the ice that fast.
One fun thing also happened, the Captain, I believe the Chief Engineer’s girlfriend, and I were ahead of the group. As we were descending a fairly steep hill we came upon a large icy patch. What to do? I suggested we just sit down on our bottoms and slide down it…and so we did! The others followed, some mimicking us, others using walking sticks to careful descend and one attempting to ski down on her boots. A good bit of fun!
Back on board the separation of the Recap and Briefing into English and French versions is working exceptionally well. It has given us an opportunity to see and enjoy the fact that there are members of the expedition team that are truly knowledgeable and excited to share it. There is still a sense that there is a bit of disorganization, but it may be more of a lack of precision and casualness from the Svalbard-based leader rather than disorganization. Regardless, after a bit of a rough start and a few hiccups (like a qualified hiking guide that didn’t speak English…which is OK on land, but what if the same situation exists when kayaking?) I feel like things are going along pretty well.
As we left the area the Captain wanted to take a bit of a scenic cruise into an adjoining fjord and then three exciting things happened.
First, there was a group of five walrus hauled out on an ice flow. I have loved walrus since I was a child and seeing them for the first time in the wild was pretty exciting for me…and I was able to watch them from my balcony in a bit of a private moment. As the ship slipped past the walrus they eventually started moving about and eventually were all in the water. I think we disturbed them, but it was interesting to see how these massive creatures instantly became so agile.
Only a few minutes later there was a polar bear swimming nearby. The ship came to a stop for us to observe. Again, very exciting as it was the first time I saw a polar bear in the wild. He kept swimming but also kept looking at the ship; not swimming away from it, but clearly acknowledging its existence. As I understand it we maintained the 500-meter distance requirement, but I think we stayed a bit too long. Yes, anything can happen and patience is needed when observing wildlife – and I am no polar bear expert – but I do wonder if our staying so long wasn’t a stressor on the bear.
I know the bear wasn’t in danger of drowning as they can swim well over 100 kilometers and for days at a time, so if we made him detour a little it wasn’t an issue.
The third bit of excitement was a bit later when, all of a sudden, my phone started to blow up with message notifications. I had internet! I was able to confirm I was still alive to my children, get information on a few cruises I had been working on for clients and catch up on emails…at least receiving them. But I had one client who needed to pay a deposit on a cruise and the option was expiring the next day. What to do when you can’t email or call the cruise line or go online? Well, there wasn’t enough internet for my laptop to log on to the site, but maybe my phone. Yes! Deposit paid…and then the internet disappeared. But mission accomplished!
We then headed to The Ice! We had to go above 81 degrees North in order to find the ice as it has retreated extremely fast this year. But we did find it about 8:00 AM the next morning. It is truly a fantastic experience and for me worth the trip alone. Marveling how this ship easily cuts through the ice, the sounds, the colors, the noise. It is a full sensory experience as we slipped through this non-stop art exhibit
And this ship is solid. I mean like really solid. You know how on cruise ships if there is some weather you hear creaks and groans. Not on this ship. You hear and feel the “boom” when breaking through 3 feet of ice, but there isn’t a creak or groan…only silence from the ship. I am truly impressed. And that silence helps bring the solitude of the area into your suite and the Observatory Lounge overlooking the bow. (I will detail this in a later article.)
Added to that is that, for me, the ship is extremely well designed. There is a lot of open deck space. There is a walkaround deck on Deck 5 (much of which is open with a partial overhead cover…and with a number of heated benches), a large deck outside the Observatory Lounge on Deck 9, and the helipad on Deck 6 (the helicopter is for scouting and medical evacuation only), plus the large balcony of my suite. In addition, there is the Blue Lagoon area after on Deck 9, which is not perfect for viewing, but is fantastic for just being outside with comfortable seating (More on this area in another article.)
Speaking of sensory experiences, the ship came to a stop and then went in forward and reverse. I thought it was possibly we were stuck. Nope! The captain was trying to make room in the ice for a Polar Plunge after we all went onto the ice to celebrate with a glass of champagne.
Unfortunately, while we were able to walk about on the ice and have a glass (or two) of champagne, the ice didn’t clear enough for the polar plunge (it will be done at another venue) and there was too much fog to really walk far.
Why would fog be an issue? Polar bears! Our perimeter to venture out from the ship was limited and we were instructed not to talk to the expedition team carrying rifles as they were on a strict polar bear watch.
With everyone back on board and the ship starting to move it stopped. Why? A Polar bear was right where we had been! And he was on the hunt. He actually caught a seal and carried the seal away from the ship. I noticed the blood trail and his struggling to move his prey away from us, but apparently, some witnessed the hunt.
Once again, I felt we overstayed our welcome and probably stress the bear out a bit as he tried to move his meal further from us. Finally, we moved on.
And then a mother and older cub were spotted. This polar bear was far more interactive with the ship. She would come much closer to the ship and shout at us. You could see her tongue sticking out (polar bears taste the air as another form of smell) repeatedly. And then she would retreat…only to come back again and again. Eventually her cub joined in shouting at us. Listening to the vocalizations was truly special.
Eventually the two polar bears headed off. But once again, as fascinating as it was, I think we overstayed our welcome.
At this point, I want to pause for a ponder if the premium paid for an expedition on Le Commandant Charcot is worth the premium versus sailing on Le Boreal or another ship. If you are interested in ticking off “I saw a polar bear and a walrus” then it well may not be. But if you want to be immersed in exploring the ice, seeing polar bears on the ice, etc. this ship is probably your only true option. There are ships that are PC5 and PC6 that can cruise into a bit of ice and up to ice that is three feet or thicker, but not through it. If being on a stunningly beautiful ship is important, then Le Commandant Charcot is also a premier choice. And if you want both, well you literally only have one choice!
After a very impressive and incredibly diverse first few days, the expedition continues!
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