My expedition on Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot continued after we ended our icebreaking journey (which is still fresh in my mind and still thrilling me) to Andreenset – the very northern island of Kvitaya; known as the White Island.
NOTE: In case you missed my last article – there was an issue sending it out to everyone on my list – here it is: Goldring Travel’s Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot Svalbard & High Arctic Experience (June/July 2022)- Part IV – More Travel Challenges, A Blue Whale, Polar Bears and a Gorgeous Ship!
As with a number of our destinations, there was a good bit of fog, which is caused by the warm (too warm) air mixing with the cold water combined with a lack of wind. So we didn’t exactly land on Kvitaya, in part, because of dense fog, in part because the shores are extremely shallow, and, in part because of the reason we came waiting for us: Walrus. (We also may have not headed to the north side of the island as we needed to catch up after missing the first day of the expedition.)
The expedition team cautiously coordinated the zodiacs so that we traveled together in a line so no one would get lost in the fog. While each zodiac has GPS tracking so that it wouldn’t actually be lost (the ship would know where it is), but the idea is to be sure the zodiacs know where the ship is.
There were large rock formations just off the coast and one of them was literally covered with these very large and far more dangerous than I thought animals. They are not all the friendly cartoon character “Wally the Walrus” I grew up with; especially the females with calves – which was predominantly what was present. In fact, a walrus attacked the zodiacs of the expedition leader who was traveling without guests.
That said, not all walrus are aggressive…but just enough are to keep you on your toes and out of a kayak!
Our guide, a local from Svalbard, Ariel, is fantastic. I comment on her specifically because she is a dynamo with such positive energy, enthusiastic sharing of information – especially from a local perspective – and takes the extra time to make sure all is as it should be, both on the zodiacs and in the briefings.
It was then a longer cruise to our next destination, Austfonna, the largest glacier in Europe by area with an over 150-kilometer face. (The largest in volume is in Iceland.) For me, this was a bit of a jaded disappointment because it may be a big deal here, but having been to Antarctica I was thinking “Mate, you think that’s a glacier? No. This is a glacier!”
It was also somewhat of a disorganized – laissez-faire is probably a better term – situation where we were supposed to also go to an island where there was a polar bear. As I waited, I saw and photographed that polar bear swimming up to and past the Le Commandant Charcot without a care in the world.
So with no polar bear to see on the island and our group scheduled to depart at 6:20 PM – but with my invitation to dine with the Captain and the White Night Officers’ Gala to start at 7:00 PM…and then 7:30 PM…and then, – well you get the idea. I asked one of the guides how long it would take to get to the island and he told me five minutes…which was impossible. What he didn’t tell me is that he didn’t understand or speak English! So rather than referring me to someone who did he gave me an answer to a question of unknown content. Not good!
Well, we never did go to the island, but I did spot one walrus in the water and “suffered” with the view bobbing in our zodiac.
More importantly, I had a good conversation with “Ana”, one of the expedition team that actually specializes in Inuit culture and will be on Le Commandant Charcot in late August in the Northwest Passage and, especially western Greenland…where I will be, but on another ship. She was charming, intelligent, and passionate about the Inuit. What a pleasure! Among the somewhat less than precise early evening expedition, there is some magic! (Ana also gave an excellent lecture on walrus which really engaged the guests with question after question. Good stuff!)
As it has in every somewhat chaotic – laissez-faire may be a better term (Did I say that before?) – instance on this expedition, it all worked out. Quite a few of our “English Speaking Group” dined with Captain Marchesseau and his charming daughter…with the times for everything (cocktail party, dinner, and after-party) were simply pushed back and the staff seamlessly (to the eye) adjusted. (I am sure the Chef was throwing things in the galley, but as I will discuss in another article, the dinner was flawless…as was every meal!)
Our next destination was Wilhelmoya, a small island on the northeast coast of Spitsbergen. The 8:45 AM departure for our group seemed way too early, after the prior evening’s Polar Ponant Parka Party at the outside bar at the Blue Lagoon – basically a very high-energy French disco with even the Captain out dancing – ending at about 1:00 AM. But ya do what ya gotta do!
It was, to me, this landing was pretty much an excuse for kayaking…something pretty difficult to accomplish on this expedition due to concerns over polar bears, walrus, fog, wind, seas, etc. but the island had – once again – a totally unique landscape with black rocks and muddy marshes. So I accept the “excuse” with wonder and enjoyment!
Two highlights for me: Polar Poppies and a Skua that I accidentally came too close to her nest…and she was having absolutely none of it! I felt bad, but also relieved that I escaped without being successfully attacked!
Well, there was actually a third highlight, which was a nice chat with another expedition team member from Canada. (I forget his name. Sorry!) He had given an enthusiastic presentation on whales that was cut short due to time and I did hope he would be given the opportunity to complete it. But as a multi-year Ponant guide I wanted his insight as a North American on this very French ship. He really enjoys it, but being French Canadian he has an advantage linguistically if not totally culturally.
As our afternoon and then the next morning’s expeditions were canceled due to fog – not that you couldn’t see anything, but that the guards can’t properly look out for polar bears – now is a good time to discuss “the elephant in the room”: Ponant’s reputation for lacking in the area of its expedition team. While I have never seen a “perfect” expedition team, and while on this expedition I have been blessed with some amazing guides – actually some of the most engaging and knowledgeable – there are a few guides that I cannot understand how or why they were hired. It paints an unfairly bad picture of the team…but they are part of the team.
(For example, the kayak guides – who spoke no English – were simply unqualified and, to me, dangerous. They may have a resume of kayaking all over the world, but that doesn’t qualify them to make sure a bunch of novice kayakers in arctic waters with potentially walrus and polar bears present are safe…especially if they aren’t sufficiently aware and caring. If the guides you have been given aren’t safe, then cancel kayaking. Disappointed guests are better than there being an accident.)
That said, Captain Marchesseau has shown me time and time again that he errs on the side of caution and besides being charming and energetic, he is very social and, importantly, keeps the guests very well informed.
I could be wrong, but I believe the expedition team inconsistency is caused by two things: (1) The lack of consistent long-term Expedition Team Leaders and guides (Is there a leader that coordinates the EL’s on all of the ships, or is it more of a – you knew it was coming – more of a laissez-faire approach); and (2) The increasing demand for quality guides as more expedition ships enter the market. These two issues may well be interrelated. (I will be writing a separate article on these truly industry-wide issues.)
From what I observed the expedition leader, Steinar (also a local) is caring, very knowledgable, passionate, and vigilant…but he has to work with what is given to him. And if what he is given needs to be called out or even stood down, then it needs to happen. I’m not sure that his soft approach worked on a few that needed a more stern dealing.
Continuing on with our too-soon-to-be-ending expedition, our next landing combined a large group of male walrus (some of which calmly hung out in the water observing the zodiacs coming and going), reindeer, and some beautiful wildflowers. It was definitely one of the “pull up a rock” kind of places and I was thrilled to see so many other guests doing the same thing, just quietly watching the walrus from a distance…until you got back in your zodiac!
The reindeer were off in the distance and having a good telephoto lens definitely helped. Even with my 100-500mm lens, it took some editing to provide an acceptable – if imperfect – photo.
In this harsh environment there aren’t many flowers, but the ones that do exist are very close to the ground and brilliantly colored. With the overcast skies, the lighting really makes them “pop”.
To be honest, my memory as to what happened in what order on the last couple of days is a bit blurry, but they all happened. That’s the price I paid for not having internet and then, when there was just a bit, getting a tiny bit of work done rather than writing my journal. Ooops.
I did an early morning landing in a fairly non-descript fjord in a kind-of “we have to go to Plan D” as happens on expeditions. There was just too much wind in the optimal landing sites. But – and this is the beauty of expedition – after being attacked by two Arctic terns (two separate times) even though I didn’t stray from the demarcated area suffering only a nip on my hat…and this is why you should always wear a hat!…
I saw a small pod of Beluga whales. It was only for a few minutes, but it still was exciting!
Later in the day, I hit the trifecta. After having seen a Blue whale (still very exciting), Beluga whales, it was now a large and rare Fin whale which I, again, saw from my balcony.
I should note I was on the port side of the ship which is away from land as we circumnavigated Svalbard. So many people think being on the land side is important. Well, I saw so much more from the “other” side. So trust me when I say the animals don’t know which side of the ship they are supposed to be on!
The last day of our expedition brought us two things: Sun and…finally…a bit of internet. (Yes, be prepared for virtually no internet for the vast majority of a Svalbard expedition.) There was an opportunity to hike up a hill for a scenic view, but with my mind starting to transition back to getting work done since the internet was slooowly coming back into my life, I visited an historic small mining storage shed with a crude sled on rails contraption and, of course, evidence that things didn’t exactly work out for the miners in this harsh environment.
Our last landing was at a small gravel site which is where the Polar Plunge was held. (There was too much ice when Le Commandant Charcot was in icebreaker-mode.) Curiously, Ponant requires you to submit an EKG from your doctor in advance if you want to participate. I am not a fan of the Polar Plunge because I think it can give a false sense of surviving in a polar region. Rather I think it should be respected and awed. But that is me.
There was a picturesque old whaling/walrus boat, pair of beautiful red-necked phalaropes and the elusive snow bunting.
And with that my expedition on Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot came to an end, but…
How did my post-cruise experience go; especially after the pre-cruise was such a troubling one?
With SAS Airlines on strike guests that hadn’t booked Ponant’s charter flight back to Paris were a bit panicked. (OK, one couple I befriended decided to stay onboard for the next expedition: To The North Pole!) Ponant, however, accommodated the ones that wanted to on the flight for a fee. And, graciously, Ponant also accommodated some passengers from other expedition ships that had been stranded in Longyearbyen for days. A class act for sure!
Our flight left with almost no delay, even with the unexpected additional passengers and, with equal efficiency, my luggage arrived and was delivered. (These days in Europe those are two different things!)
As I left baggage claim would there be any Ponant representative to guide me to my transfer? Would my hotel reservation be in order? Would I have a long wait to check in? I am pleased to say that everything went perfectly! In fact, my luggage came out so quickly that the driver agreed to drop me at the hotel and come back for the other guests as it was only a short drive. And when I checked in there was no wait and there wasn’t even a need for a credit card for incidentals! It was a perfect ending. (Oh, and I skipped the train and took an Uber directly to Terminal 2 for only 10 Euros.)
Eventually – even with all the European airline chaos and flying United Airlines – arrived home on time and with my luggage!