Smeerenburg, the Dutch Whaling Settlement

We spent a couple of days in the thrall of the astounding Smeerenburgbreen, the glacier named for the nearby 16th century Dutch whaling settlement of Smeerenburg. This was possibly the largest glacier we saw during our trip but it certainly had the greatest presence; muffled thunder and sudden cracks sounded out a few times an hour, and calving ice rocked our ship all through the nights.


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The Antigua at Smeerenburgbreen. For scale, the ship’s mainmast is 31.5 meters tall and the face of the glacier is ~60 meters

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Being such an active glacier meant stunning blue ice and water full of icebergs and littler bergs, hissing and crackling like effervescent soda pop in the ocean. The contrast between the quiet, still moments where you could hear the soft lapping of the water at the edges of the ice and the sudden cracks and crashes of the calves… it was really a magical place.

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Two of our guides and Nemo at one of our landings

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A sunset at Smeerenburgbreen

The area provided several great spots to land, lots of floebergs (beached icebergs) for the art residents to work with, and some quiet time where we got to stay in place for more than a day. After our stay at the glacier, we visited what was left of the settlement of Smeerenburg, which translates to “Blubber Town”. Located on the little island of Amsterdamøya, not much remains aside from scattered logs and bricks. A single whale vertebrae, a couple decrepit blubber ovens and the yellow, fat-saturated ground still oily with the remnants of the whales.

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Leaving Smeerenburgbreen in the fog and clouds

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Smeerenburg whaling settlement

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What’s left of the blubber ovens

Here’s an updated map of our trip so far! Coming up, some epic mountains and equally epic disappointment when the weather turns against us.

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Svalbard and the War

Preface: You may not know this, but I take a great interest in military history in addition to my interest in polar exploration and aviation. My particular sphere of amateur expertise is The Great War, also known as World War I, but I dabble in World War II as well. I was recently asked if there had been any action in Svalbard during either of those wars, and the answer turns out to be yes!


Svalbard’s location, though remote, has made it a strategically important bit of land to control over the years. Notably in World War II there was a fair bit of fighting over the archipelago, for it acted as a gateway to the arctic regions of Russia in addition to having some pretty excellent coal deposits and other natural resources.

In 1940 and 1941, Germany invaded Norway amongst many other sovereign nations in Europe. Concerned that the Germans would try to make use of the rich coal deposits in Svalbard, the British and Canadian forces raided the island of Spitsbergen with help from the Free Norwegian Forces with the aim of destroying as much of the coal as they could. Called Operation Gauntlet, the combined forces were able to set many mines to destroy the coal supply, after of course they packed away 450,000 tons of coal and 275,000 gallons of fuel and grease to take with them. They also took a few thousand Russian coal miners and a handful of French and Norwegians off the islands to unoccupied territory. As they left, the Allies also managed to blow up the few radio stations on the archipelago. This was in late August/early September 1941.


A radio station in Spitsbergen being destroyed

According to the memoirs of Phillip Vian, an Admiral in the British Royal Navy, the only casualties during this operation occurred when the rearguard at Barentsburg had accessed the vodka stores and had to be carried aboard.

During the war, an enormous amount of naval activity took place in the arctic, mostly in the form of convoys.This meant ships carrying troops and goods, more ships trying to sink those ships, submarines, mines, and airplanes and aircraft carriers, too. The conditions, even in the summer months, were pretty appalling.

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With the coal mostly destroyed and the miners mostly gone, the Germans set up a weather station in Svalbard to help them with their navigation of the arctic naval situation. The Allies made a failed attempt to dislodge the Germans during Operation Fritham in April 1942, resulting in the loss of two ships and twelve men (thirteen if you count a wounded man who later died of his injuries). In September 1943, the Germans launched Operation Zitronella and were successful in destroying the last remaining Allied weather stations.


A crash wrecked German Junkers Ju 88, which landed in Svalbard in 1942 and has never left

The most famous moment of note in Svalbard during WWII is right at the very end of things. Actually, after the end of things! The last Germans to surrender, officially ever, was a group of Germans posted at the end of the earth, in Svalbard. Although Germany had officially surrendered as of May 1945, these last few germans didn’t formally surrender until September 1945! The story goes something like this:

“…apart from poor transmitting conditions in Svalbard- the entire communication apparatus of the German army was fast falling apart from the seams. On May 8 their superiors in Norway told them that the war was over, but that was the last mesage they ever received. Being stranded on the island with nothing but a rowing boat, they kept on broadcasting weather forecasts (albeit uncoded, presuming that a world at peace also needs to know from which way the wind blows) and eventually tried Allied distress channels. But no replies were forthcoming until finally, in September, a Norwegian seal-hunting vessel anchored at Svalbard. The captain invited the Germans over for a hearty meal (which they must surely have enjoyed after living on canned goods for over a year) but then “we had this situation where no one seemed too sure what to do”. Finally, the German commander said “I suppose we should surrender now”, took out his pistol and placed it on the table in front of the ship’s captain. The Norwegian stared at it and asked “can I keep this then?”. He could and this made the eleven soldiers of Operation ‘Haudegen’ the last German troops to surrender -in somewhat surreal circumstances- on September 4 1945, three months after the war ended in Europe.”[1]

So there you have it, Svalbard in World War II. Four weeks until I set off for the archipelago myself, please feel free to let me know if there are any questions you have about Svalbard, Polar History or my residency (or the World Wars!!)

Tout en Haut du Monde

The French production company Sacrebleu has been working on this film for the past few years, and it’s finally due to be released sometime in 2015. It’s a beautifully animated story about a young aristocratic Russian girl who dreams of her grandfather, long since absent in his search of the north pole. She rebels against her father and her family’s expectations and heads north in search for her beloved grandfather. Looks like it will be sincerely beautiful, as dreamy and romantic and frightening as the arctic regions seem to be.

Watch the trailer here:

Email subscribers click this link to watch the trailer!

Gerardus Mercator and other guesses on the North Pole


As I’ve mentioned before, there were many inventive and wild ideas as to what would be at the north pole. Inventio Fortunata, meaning “fortunate, or fortune-making, discovery”, is a lost book dating to the 14th century-ish. It contains a description of the North Pole as a magnetic island surrounded by a giant whirlpool and four continents. No direct extracts from the document have been secured but its influence on the overall Western conception of the geography of the Arctic persisted for several centuries. The Hollow Earth theory was also enormously popular as a theory (and, apparently, is still believed by some). An idea first appearing in ancient history, this theory of a world internal to ours and accessible only at the poles was popularized by a number of 18th and 19th century scientists and philosophers, notably John Symmes and Jeremiah Reynolds, one of his followers. Reynolds pushed for an expedition to confirm his theory under John Adam Quincy’s administration, but shortly Andrew Jackson came into office the idea was dissolved. Reynolds did end up making it to the shore of Antarctica using privately raised funds, but the ship was quickly turned around and Reynolds deposited in South America when his crew mutinied.

The Ancient Greeks believed a people called the Hyperboreans lived at the pole in a paradise that could not be reached by other men (not to be confused with Hyperborea, the planet of He-Man). There they lived in the woods without fear of the weather, never had wars and grew to be a thousand years old. When they became tired of life, the Hyperboreans put on a garland of flowers and fell from a cliff into the sea. The Greeks were a bit unique in this Eden-like conception of the pole, although there were those 18th and 19th century minds that supposed a temperate land or open ocean could be found at the pole. Some even went so far as to say that the Pole could be where man first originated, literally a possible location for Eden.


This map of the known northern arctic dates to about 1720 and comes from the “C.G. Zorgdragers Bloeyende opkomst der aloude en hedendaagsche Groenlandsche visschery”, which as far as I can tell with my use of google translate is a book of maps and resources for whalers based in and around Svalbard and Greenland. As you can see, the majority of the arctic was still totally unmapped even to the northernmost-going peoples, the whalers based out of Greenland and Svalbard.

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Bonus map! This one’s a personal favorite. This 1599(ish?) map by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz mapped Spitsbergen (the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago) for the first time. It’s labelled here as Het Nieuwe Land, which is Dutch for “the new land.” It’s also a beautifully illustrated map. No Hyperboreans, but look at all the adorable whales! Wonderful.

Shelf Life

I am a huge fan of the American Museum of Natural History and a supporter of any archive or collection in their attempts to increase engagement with the greater public. It can be an immense challenge to increase the levels of interest in a collection of historic photographs, but Tumblr and Instagram seem to have greatly helped the spread and popularity of shared historic images. I follow not only the AMNH but many WWI and Arctic themed accounts that post, repost and reblog archival images.

But archives and collections aren’t just made up of images and photographs, they contain audio files, objects, diaries and letters, minerals, bones, flora and fauna of all kinds… anything and everything. Also, it’s not just the photo or object itself that is important, it’s the connections and relationships between objects that is the meat of a collection. The AMNH has started a really well produced internet series Shelf Life in which they explore parts of their vast collection (over 33 million items), bringing in the researchers and caretakers who work within the archives. The website for the show is brimming with extra information for each episode, and you can watch them on YouTube, too.

Ice Sheet

Murray Fredericks is an Australian photographer whose photographic works of Australian salt flats and Greenlandic ice sheets are subtle, beautiful bodies of work. He plays along with the exotic light shows he encounters in these remote locations, and the results are phenomenal.

The image of his that initially caught my eye was the photograph of a sundog, a kind of a halos created when light and ice crystal interact in the atmosphere. They tend to appear as two subtly-colored patches of light to the left and right of the sun, and can occur with mock suns and other sorts of parhelia phenomena. Solar and lunar optical phenomena are common in deserts and near the poles, and have been well recorded by explorers over the centuries. The polar regions of ice fields are deserts, and what may initially appear to be a white, colorless, blindingly bright and mind numbingly dark environments always blossoms over time. After a few days in these strange lands, men report seeing radical shades of violet, green, blue and gold in the ice and snow, and taking great pleasures in watching the sundogs and halos bob and vacillate in the sky.

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HMS Alert and Discovery

The ships HMS Alert and Discovery were the British Arctic Expeditionary vessels of 1874-1876. The ships were separated by the heavier than expected ice they encountered as winter 1875 approached, and the Discovery ended up overwintering in Lady Franklin Bay alone as the Alert pressed further north. Ultimately stuck in the ice at Floeberg beach, a small band from the Alert set out for the north pole on foot, recording a northernmost point about 83° north. Plagued by snow blindness, exhaustion and scurvy, the Alert and her crew never made it further than that. It was considered a successful expedition in most respects; the captain of the leading HMS Alert, George Strong Nares, was knighted upon his return to England. Below is a really beautiful, detailed map of the paths of both ships, as well as that of the North Pole group that struck out over the ice.

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AR Wallace

I love the NY Times’ videos. AR Wallace is not a household name, and he is an example of how life sometimes is just… not unfair, but totally indifferent. He was a contemporary of Darwin’s and actually came upon the idea of natural selection about the same time as Darwin did. He sent Darwin an outline of his own evolutionary theory that was published with a description of Darwin’s own theory in the same year. He was an immensely gifted scientist, and his story is well worth being told.

I also find it interesting the idea that many people may have come across the same idea, that of natural selection, at the same time because there was a greater stream of thought within the biological community that was just inevitably leading towards that understanding.


From Irving Penn


Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen and his wife, Magdalene Vang Lauridsen. Irving Penn, 1947

Freuchen was a Danish explorer, author and anthropologist who spent many years living amongst the Inuit in the far north of Greenland. He played an instrumental part in establishing the trading post of Thule in 1910, which would remain an important part of northerly trans-atlantic trade. The name for the post was chosen as a reflection of the term ultima Thule, a phrase from mediaeval geographies denoting any distant place beyond the borders of the known world.

Freuchen was a very active socialist in his native Denmark, becoming involved with the Danish resistance movement against the Germans during World War II. During the war he suffered imprisonment and was sentenced to death, but he managed to escape the Germans and flee to Sweden. All of this despite having lost a leg to frostbite in 1926. He lived a long life in America after the war.

I hope I look as bad ass as he does when I’m all suited up.

The Explorers Club

Last spring I became a Student Member of The Explorers Club. You may have heard of their lavish dinners (with a variety of unusual foods to sample) or perhaps heard some of the amazing objects they have on Radiolab’s Things episode. I am thrilled to be a part of a club that played a part in so many historical events of exploration, and it’s great to have a place where the crowd totally gets me when I want to talk about the intricacies of wooden propellers, man-hauled sledging or the cultural and societal atmospheres surrounding various expeditions.


Carrying the Explorers Club flag into the Crystal Cave of Giants


Inside the club headquarters located here in New York City


All of the Explorers Club flags return to the club and are displayed around the club, including the flag that went with Apollo 11 to the moon.

I also have acquired some Explorers Club patches for my jacket and my backpack, which I will wear proudly on my upcoming trip to Svalbard!