A small-ship enthusiast, Barry Stone didn’t expect to be lured by Hurtigruten’s new – and sizeable– MS Roald Amundsen, but a host of on-board innovations proved impossible to resist
I’ve always considered myself a small-expedition-ship person. Ageing expedition ships, actually; the kind that were built in Finland in the 1980s for the Russians that have since been converted to carrying paying guests. Stepping over heavy steel bulkheads, the smell of engine oil maybe wafting up from below decks. I never bothered calculating the carbon footprint such ships might leave, or about the heavy fuels they might be burning. I never considered how much sense it surely makes to go to our fragile polar regions in just one ship with 500 people on it instead of four ships each carrying 125 and likely getting there on the back of old-world technology. And old-world emissions.
Our planet is warming, and nowhere is this change being felt more than in the Arctic. In July this year, 60 per cent of the Greenland ice sheet was found to have significant pools of water on its surface, a melt-rate never seen before.
I stepped inside Hurtigruten’s brand new MS Roald Amundsen as it lay moored in Longyearbyen harbour in Svalbard, determined not to be seduced. Completed early this year, it has 264 cabins and suites, a passenger capacity of 530 and a soaring atrium with three glass elevators, and the largest LED screen currently at sea – all 114 square metres of it. There’s a swimming pool with two hot tubs, three fabulous restaurants, a spa and wellness centre, a jogging track on the Observation Deck and a sauna that looks out to sea. There’s no shortage of bling to distract you.
The fact it looks like it’d be more comfortable cruising the Mediterranean than down the all-but unpopulated coastline of East Greenland, with its off-shore arcs of heavy sea ice and glacier-fed fjords, is a moot point. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see the Amundsen is much more than just a pretty face. What distracts isn’t the bling, it’s the tech.
The world’s first hybrid-powered polar expedition ship is chock-full of cutting-edge technology, specifically a bank of lithium-ion batteries that augment its four diesel-fuelled generators. This allows the ship to implement ‘peak shaving’ – the transference of electrical power to the generators to reduce the load on its diesel engines. The ability to power down a generator while at sea, or use less engine power while manoeuvring in and out of ports, means fewer pollutants ejected into the atmosphere.
Hurtigruten leads the cruise industry in its approach to sustainability. It was the first to ban single-use plastics, and is pushing for a ban on the use of heavy, dirty fuels throughout the Arctic. The Amundsen’s engines run on a diesel fuel that is as light as what you put in your car, and it even has a patented wave-piercing bow that can smash its way through metre-thick ice, meaning less time is spent slowing down.
On this trip, however, our route would require improvisation. On Day 3, after two days spent cruising west from Svalbard, broad arcs of sea ice off the East Greenland coast – more than had been seen in years – impeded our progress. Landings were abandoned in the unpopulated wilderness that is Northeast Greenland National Park, at 972,000 square kilometres the largest national park on earth, and prevailing winds were moving the ice in all the wrong directions.
It was the essence of expedition cruising, with intended itineraries abandoned and new ones found. Old trapping stations we hoped to visit were bypassed, as were fjords which looked inviting but if you’re in one and sea ice is blown in behind you, you might struggle to get out. e Amundsen can turn on a dime, but much time would be lost. It was Ship vs Nature, a game of football with the goalposts always moving. A return of sorts to the vagaries of the Age of Sail.
Sea ice should be welcomed. Polar bears use it to hunt and it is a beguiling thing. It mesmerises with its patterns, reflections and hues. It flattens the ocean and is elemental. We stared at it as you would a campfire, becoming lost in the muted bluey greys of Arctic nights.
Heading south the ice began to thin and we entered Scoresby Sound, our most hoped-for destination and the world’s largest fjord. We sailed into it flanked by vertical mountains and glaciers too numerous to mention. It was our sixth day, and we’d not seen a single ship.
At the entrance to Scoresby Sound is Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland’s most isolated settlement founded by Inuits in 1925 and a population of 450. I asked a local how many polar bears come into town. “We had over 200 last year, and a mother and two cubs just yesterday. We mostly shoo them away.”
We saw surprisingly little wildlife: far-off whales, a pod of narwhals, seals and a few musk oxen on a distant hill at Hekla Havn, a small cove in Scoresby Sound where we kayaked for two glorious hours. Polar bears were spotted while at sea, but to avoid causing them stress we kept a respectful distance.
The Science Centre on Deck 6 was my favourite space, a hub of activity with its extensive library, eight polarising microscopes and marine biologists on hand to answer your every question as you peer onto slides containing strands of humpback whale baleen and marine plankton. Castings of walrus and whale skulls, horned puffins, king penguins and much more are everywhere courtesy of Bone Clones, a Los Angeles-based company that started supplying castings to universities in the mid-90s and now partners with Hurtigruten to bring hands-on science to its passengers.
Heading south from Scoresby Sound towards the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, we spent our last full day to its north on Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula, exploring lava tubes, craters, cinder cones and gnarled volcanic beaches. In Jules Verne’s classic tale Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Snaefellsnes volcano was the doorway to the unseen world of the earth’s core.
But it isn’t just science-fiction that has portals and doorways to other worlds. The Amundsen taught me that.