Dispatch from Nanuq: a warm welcome from the Polish Polar Station

21 Aug 2018 – Text by Paola Catapano.

The Polish Polar Station in Hornsund, as seen from Nanuq.

This morning, the Captain made radio contact with the Polish Polar research station at Hornsund, where we anchored for the night, to ask for permission to visit. The request which was very much appreciated, as most of the tourists that come here with ferries do not bother to ask. So we are most welcome. As we prepare to land with the tender, a polar bear is spotted just behind the station. We see it clearly from the boat and we also see people from the station going out with cameras and self-defence equipment. All the more reason to visit them!

The Polish Polar research station in Hornsund, in the Southern corner of Spitsbergen island, is located in a stunning bay surrounded by a beautiful mountain circle coated in the intense green of the summer moss and arctic flowers, and abrupt glaciers in the background. As we approach the beach on the tender, zig-zagging our way through small but solid crystal-clear icebergs, we can already feel the warmth emanating from its chalet-style construction, a low dark wood cottage with windows all along on the bay side.

The resounding voice of the head of the base, Dr. Piotr Zagorski, of the Institute of Geophysics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, makes us feel very welcome. Once inside, greeted by coffee, tea, biscuits and candies, and a swarm of smiling faces, the atmosphere is definitely that of a big family reunion. Some of them are really young and not Polish: they are Spanish high school students, winners of an educational competition about the Arctic. Their brilliant ideas for experiments to carry out at the base won them a two-week stay as a prize.

Natural conversation groups were quickly formed over coffee and cake, all of us enjoying the cosiness and comfort of the velvet sofas facing the beautiful landscape out of the windows. Photos of the station from the time of its creation (by the Soviets, in 1957) till today pay tribute to its glorious history of Arctic research. The station has been in operation year round since 1978 and is today equipped with top-notch technology to monitor and study all the parameters playing a role in our changing climate.

Mother and cub are joined by two Arctic Sterns.

Their weather station is part of the WMO (World Meteorological Organisation) network. Using an array of instrumentation, they monitor the gradual retreat of the glaciers and the evolution of the permafrost up to 20 m below ground. We talk pleasantly about their scientific programme and their educational initiative, and about our expedition and our achievements so far. Obviously our conversation focus is the morning sighting of the polar bear. We watched stunning drone footage taken by one of the scientists, showing the bear walking around the base, swimming in a pond just behind and finally disappearing into the sea.

But time ran out fast and we had to get back to Nanuq to explore the beautiful Hornsund landscape further. They wouldn’t let us go before giving us a bag of station- branded goodies. As we signed their visitor book, we knew we wouldn’t forget the charm and warmth of this encounter in one of the coldest regions of our planet.

A day that started with a polar bear sighting ended even better – as we had three 3 more super-close encounters with bears and spotted one whale!

Cub enjoyed an afternoon snack.

Deep into enchantingly beautiful Hornsund we witnessed a scene worth the entire trip: 15 m from Nanuq, a mother bear sat with two cubs on an iceberg. One of the cubs was feeding on a freshly-caught seal, while the other rolled in the ice with the mother. Meanwhile, two Arctic sterns flying around hoping to share in the feast. They were unbothered by our silent presence, happily enjoying the fantastic light of the low sunrays. Not long after, a humpback whale elegantly jumped its way throughout the bay. We could not believe our eyes, but hey, this is what the Arctic is all about and what it should keep beeing!

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