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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Gerardus Mercator and other guesses on the North Pole

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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.

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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.