(3rd July) Ilulissat
Thankfully the weather witches complied with my wish and we woke at 7 am to discover a clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Today we were off to see the glacier from the sea.
Twelve of us boarded a small boat from the pontoon set aside for the Ambiences’ tenders on its port side, and then we headed off at speed towards a large cluster of icebergs spilling into the bay around half a mile away. Our pace didn’t slow as we entered a field of bobbing berg fragments, their crunch under our craft was a little unnerving. We soon began to weave in avoiding a field of increasingly larger chunks as the mammoths of the glacier neared. In no time at all, we were among them, with the engine slowed and the skipper searching for a safe route among this jumble of white giants.
These bergs were very different to our rainy day, blue creations of a few days ago in Narsarsuaq, these are primarily white and much, much bigger. There was blue but limited to the cracks and crevices of the really large monsters. There was brown, these were the bergs calved from the sides of the glacier and got their colour from the finely ground rock as the glacier scraped its way to the sea. And there was black, these were the dangerous ones, the ones our skipper watched out for. They were chunks of bubble-free ice, hard to see, extremely solid and could rip the bottom off a boat foolish enough to encounter it.
We spent a couple of hours carefully picking our way between these dangerous and beautiful creations. They made for one of the best experiences we have ever had on our travels and the memory of them will never fade. Rather than attempt to crudely describe the majesty of these monoliths and the environment they have created and in which we have briefly shared, I will leave it to the photos inserted here on our return to the UK.
These marvellous masses of ice have had a mammoth journey to reach this point where our little craft and its tiny occupants have chosen to grab a few pixels of frozen time. The front of the glacier is some 55 kilometres away and its offspring have travelled to this point in just (on average) a couple of days. It is not just its calves that are record breakers, the ice sheet itself moves at 40 metres a day, the fastest moving glacier in the arctic.
The return to the ship was just as exhilarating as the outward journey, Sue and I were the first two on board the fishing/tour boat, we had bagged two of the six seats available on the outside of the craft, and the rest had the comfort and windowed warmth of the inside cabin. Despite the unusual temperature (locals were complaining of the 15° heat), when the boat picked up speed, the wind was just as bitter as it should have been. But, we were here for the experience and sometimes that involves a little discomfort to grab those photographic memories. It was 1.30 pm when we climbed the gantry into the bowels of the Ambience and lunch.
Ilulissat had not yet been explored, that was the task for the afternoon. There was a half-hour delay in disembarking the ship due to the high number of tours exiting the ship which take priority over ‘open’ travellers. When a tender did eventually arrive, frustratingly, it then had to depart to refuel!
Eventually arriving on shore, we climbed the small hill to the supermarket square and boarded a complimentary bus into town, dropping us off between two supermarkets. Surprisingly there were many passengers from the ship making their way inside, what on earth were they going to purchase I thought. Oddly, one couple emerged carrying a large bag of oranges, what can be wrong with those readily available and free on board? It was a Sunday and alcohol in Greenland is forbidden to be sold today, there was no point in me entering today!
We moved on and found a few busy touristy outlets to browse, but not buy. With a large cruise ship in port, the majority of shops were missing out on a great opportunity to make money and were closed. Spotting a vacant bench high atop a rocky hill on the edge of the town, we climbed a wooden walkway which took us part of the way before scrambling over its smoothed granite shoulder to reach our resting place for the next half hour.
The unseasonable warmth of a late afternoon above the arctic was to be relished and the panorama was special. In front was the harbour, and there in Disko Bay was the Ambience, surrounded by glistening icebergs of all sizes. Churned, propellor trails sliced the waters of the bay in all directions as dozens of little boats went about their business. We could see the tenders ponderously ferrying our fellow shipmates to and fro, not doubt one laden with oranges! To our left was the ice field sparkling in all its glory, to the right was where blocks of colourful buildings gradually petered out to be replaced by the tough, barren mountainside, craggier and increasingly white-topped as they marched into infinity. Above, an occasional aircraft cut through the azure blue on its descent to an unseen landing strip. Behind, was the home of an Innuit family. The husband sat smoking on the open verandah enjoying the sun and a cigarette. I watched as his wife arrived, laden with shopping (probably annoyed that the supermarket had run out of oranges), they shared an affectionate kiss and she disappeared inside. On the rock below was his sledge dog, trying to sleep but kept awake by the sweltering heat and my low whistles to get his attention for a photo. All good things come to an end, we did have a town to see and tender to catch.
Descending into what would be called a large village in Europe, we re-entered the ‘city’. Passing the Tourist Information Office we sat on a bench and joined a dozen or so other information-starved tourists and logged onto the free Wifi. Back in the UK, Sarah noticed we were online and made a video call. Reducing everyone else’s bandwidth for around 15 minutes we chatted and caught up with family news. Satisfyingly, it was raining back home!
Returning to the port via another little walrus tusk carving factory we caught the last but one tender home.
During the evening meal there was an announcement there was a large pod of whales breaching on the starboard side, we sat by the window on the port side. Immediately most of our fellow diners rushed out to see the spectacle. Our little table of six chose to remain where we were and eat. Then whales appeared through our window. We learned the following morning that the announcer had got his port and starboard mixed up, which explains why the diners returned disappointed and to a cold meal.
The nights here, to a southerner, are extraordinary and unsettling. The sun remains firmly high in the sky. Tonight the heavens were a vivid summer’s day blue and It felt like mid-afternoon, yet it was past midnight. When you’re inside, the eyes are weary and the body screams sleep, but confusingly on stepping foot on deck, it feels wrong and suddenly you’re wide awake!!! Am I that easily fooled?
(4th July) Sea Day
Where have all the icebergs gone? Another lovely, cloudless day was missing one important arctic element, those lovely white lumps of nature that in only just a few days we have grown to love. Maybe, I am beginning to understand why those ‘crackpot’ explorers we listen to in the Palladium, drag heavy loads across dangerous and colourless terrain and profess to want to do it again and again. Have they never thought of ditching the sledge and doing it by cruiser?
Today we re-crossed the Arctic Circle, heading south to the capital, Nuuk. We are steaming 25 nautical miles down the coast at a comfortable 11.5 knots, deceptively the continuous mountainous range we are passing appears to be only a couple of miles away. It is a reflection of how high and stark this bleak coastline is. Not a place for sensible warm-blooded creatures.
During a pleasant lunch in the Buckingham Restaurant with four other passengers we had not met before, the captain announced the ship’s Tannoy. He informed us that there are 25 cases of Covid-19 currently on board, 5 confirmed today. He went on to explain that they have increased their cleaning routines and he urged all passengers to cooperate and wear masks while out and about the ship. A very responsible announcement that I hoped hasn’t fallen on deaf ears.
Attending an excellent afternoon lecture in the Palladium by one of the polar explorers (he plans to return to Antarctica in the autumn), it was notable that most of the audience wore face coverings. Later, as Sue was returning from her programme of activities, she spotted that the cabin next door and one a little further down the corridor were having menus delivered through a barely open door. Were they isolating or just being ultra-careful?
After the evening show we ventured onto the deck to discover that the rain and mist had returned and though still light, it felt more like twilight than the ‘midnight sun.
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