maandag 28 juli 2014

Participatory observations on the expedition cruise ship MV Ortelius

From the second I entered my Twin Porthole cabin at the expedition cruise ship Ortelius, I regretted that I could only stay for one day. At the same time I felt excited and very welcome. 80 passengers and 40 crew members, a very luxury ratio as you ask me.
Linde on board of the MV Ortelius
We started off our journey with a safety briefing and an exercise with life jackets. Afterwards we left the port of Longyearbyen to sail in to the fjords. I spend some time on the bridge with the captain and I met someone that was working in the cruise industry, but was currently enjoying a trip with his family. It is very easy to meet people on this type of crew. People are quite interested in nature and wildlife and eager to hear about other passengers' travelling adventures and wildlife encounters. Afterwards there was a briefing on food and drinks by the hotel manager, a toast with champagne and warm snacks on behalf of the captain and an introduction to the crew. The crew came from all over the world (Great Britain, Schotland, Australia, Canada, Spain, Belgium...) and covered also different disciplines like marine biology, polar history...  After dinner I got a bit tired, but tried to stay awake to see some wildlife. The crew told me we would soon enter a good area to spot whales as they had seen blue whales there the day before. It was worth to stay awake. We spotted two blue whales, which we saw pop up four to five times with 6 to 7 minute time lapse in between. Amazing to spot the world's largest species blow-outs, fins and tails. It made my day. 
The 14th of July glacier
The next day we got a briefing on environmental guidelines and a zodiac cruise explanation. We put this in practice by enjoying a zodiac trip to the 14th of July glacier. A stunning view with the mountains covered with snow, the blue glacier and the green tundra next to it. The bird droppings fertilize the cliffs which become very green. We saw Arctic reindeer, pink-footed geese and black-legged kittiwake. After lunch we continued our trip to Ny-Alesund, the research community at 79°N. Passengers explored the village, which only opens its shop and post office when tourists come in town. Afterwards they got a historical tour to the Nobile mast, as Ny-Alesund is the starting point of many attempts to reach the North Pole by famous explorers like Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile. In the meantime I managed to get an interview with Jim Mayer, the expedition leader of Ortelius. In Ny-Alesund I will spend the next ten days conducting interviews with expedition leaders, researchers from the different research stations, the Norwegian Polar Institute and Kings Bay. In addition I will investigate the tours expedition cruise tourists take through the village. I will tell you all about this in the next blog.

zondag 27 juli 2014

Interviews, glaciers and Pyramiden

Time for a new update. The last days I have been busy with taking interviews and transcribing them. I managed to have meetings with three expedition leaders: Christian Bruttel, nature guide and assistant expedition leader at the MS Quest and MS Stockholm of the Swedish operator Polar Quest, Axel Broman, expedition leader at the MS Quest and also staff and operations manager of Polar Quest and with Karin Strand, the first female expedition leader I spoke on board of the MS Fram from Hurtigruten ASA, the Norwegian expedition tour operator. In addition I talked with Terje Aunevik, the managing director of Pole Position Logistics at the port of Longyearbyen, and with Ilja Leo Lang, the office manager of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO).
Longyearbyen's busiest cruise day
It has been interesting to hear different perspectives (field perspective from expedition leaders, port perspective by Pole Position and management perspective by AECO) regarding expedition cruise tourism and how it adapts to ecosystem changes. There are some structural properties of the business that complicate management. Expedition crew swap between ships and companies or work on freelance basis. This makes it sometimes difficult to decide who will pay for investments and training of them like for example for shooting practice, zodiac training, first aid, ... In addition there are no proper certificates that prove the training the expedition leaders have had, both from a theoretical and practical point of view. Sometimes you have to rely on people's word for it. Other experience they will gain by learning-by-doing.
World's most Northern statue of Lenin in Pyramiden
Friday was a crazy day as 3 big overseas cruise ships entered the port, as well as an expedition cruise ship. This day the population of Longyearbyen tripled as between 5000-6000 additional tourists spend a day in town. This is the first time that many tourists visited this place at the same day. The town was crowded with shuttle buses, people wandering around, sightseeing tours... Queues for internet access, souvenirs shops, cafes and restaurants and even for the toilet facilities. All resources had to be used to provide an enjoyable day to those tourists. The receptionist at my guesthouse told me she worked three jobs at the same time that day: receptionist at the guesthouse, receptionist at the Svalbard musuem and in between she guided two sightseeing tours by bus through Longyearbyen. Sometimes it is difficult to draw a line between work and pleasure here, especially because I am investigating tourism. All the time I perceive things from a tourism research perspective, but I managed to enjoy some free time. I took a hike to Fuglefjellet, a bird cliff, 10 km outside Longyearbyen and near the shore. It was nice to see what is behind the valley in which Longyearbyen is situated. Another day I took a one day cruise trip to Pyramiden, a previous Russian coal settlement which transformed into a kind of ghost town. All the mining facilities and equipment were left behind like it was still in operation yesterday. The Soviet Union atmosphere is still vibrant here. Afterwards the boat trip took us to the beautiful Nordenskiöld glacier.
Nordenskiöld glacier
It was so impressive, the different shapes, the ice pieces floating around, the truly blue color of the ice... When we left the glacier behind, suddenly the boat turned around. Although it was just a tiny white spot that slightly moved, I can say I have seen a polar bear. Actually we saw much more wildlife during the trip: fin whales, Arctic foxes, puffins, Northern fulmars, Arctic terns, glaucous gull... I am sure I will even see more wildlife in the coming days. Today I will go to Ny-Alesund. Normally I would go by air plane, but Oceanwide Expeditions was so kind to let me join their expedition cruise tour from Longyearbyen to Ny-Alesund. This will be excellent  for my research, as I will experience life on the expedition cruise ship Ortelius. So stay tuned for my next update about the actual experience!

zondag 20 juli 2014

Hanging out at the harbour

Arctic reindeer next to my guesthouse
My research has had ups and downs the last days. The down site is that some of the actors that I would like to interview are on holiday, others are very busy because of the high tourism season, the arrival and departure cruise schedule is quite flexible and the ships do not always moor on the shore, but anchor further in sea and are only approachable by zodiac (rubber boat). Last but not least, they are very busy because they have to change crew and passengers in one day, because Longyearbyen is the end and start destination of expedition cruises. The positive thing about these struggles is that it makes me very creative and open-minded when it comes to data collection. In the beginning I was a bit hesitant, because you do not know how everything works. Now I just try different ways and strategies to get track of expedition cruise ships and expedition leaders. Basically I spend a lot of time hanging out at the harbour to check when expedition ships arrive in order to be able to get track of the expedition leaders. Luckily for me it pays off. Pole Position, the logistics company is very helpful, as they have a better idea when the ships will actually arrive and they are in radio contact with them. I managed to interview two expedition leaders. Jan Belgers, from Pole2Pole Travelguiding, hired by the Dutch tour operator Oceanwide Expeditions for the MS Ortelius and Alex Cowan, on board of the MS Expedition from the Canadian G Adventures, which I interviewed during his lunch break. His colleagues told me he was having lunch in a restaurant in town, so I went to the restaurant and caught him for an interview.
Collecting business cards from expedition leaders by zodiac
From expedition leaders of two other ships (Polar Pioneer from Aurora Expeditions and Sea Spirit from Quark Expeditions) I collected business cards for a follow-up skype interview, when they are less busy. Even collecting business cards from expedition leaders is challenging as I had to go by zodiac to get to the anchored ship. Definitely an adventure! Although I do not yet want to share my research results, I can tell you the most striking finding so far. Expedition leaders do not have to have a specific training or degree to become an expedition leader. If they can prove they have sufficient experience, they can be hired. They will get more knowledge and experience on the many expeditions they will guide. Another way to get more knowledge on cruise tourism in general is by attending the guided sightseeing tours tourists take in Longyearbyen. Arctic and Antarctic Operations Schütz and Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions were so kind to take me with them on their tours to the city centre, Svalbard museum, a husky farm, the radars of the Eiscat Scientific Association and a hike to Plateau mountain. Although these tours were organized for tourists from big overseas cruise ships, which is not my research focus, I thought it would still be relevant, as expedition cruise tourists do similar things when they visit Longyearbyen. In the end joining these trips turned out to be even more successful for my research than I expected them to be. I did not only get submerged in the culture and history of Svalbard and cruise tourism behaviour, I managed also to get useful contacts and interview appointments. On Svalbard many people change jobs often or have several jobs at the same time. Two of the tour guides also work as nature guides on expedition cruise ships. With one of them I made an appointment for an interview, as I saw him in the swimming pool. So even my free time is productive in terms of making appointments for interviews.
Do not go beyond this sign without a riffle!
Before I finalize my blog, there are still some interesting facts I learned during my stay that I cannot wait to share with you. You are not allowed to be born, die or be burried at Svalbard. Longyearbyen has a hospital which is only used for emergencies. Giving birth is not considered an emergency. Pregnant women are send by airplane to Tromso four weaks before the expected due date and are only allowed to come back when the baby is born. The prohibition to die here is determined by some strange findings in the past. A few bodies were burried here, but due to the permafrost, they rose fairly near to the surface. If you die on Svalbard, the body will be send to Tromso and cremated. Only ashes can be scattered around here. Another interesting finding is that if you enter a public building in Longyearbyen like the library, museum, tourist office,... you have to take off your shoes. This dates back from the old times when mining was a commercial activity in Longyearbyen. To keep out the black dirt, people took off their shoes when they went inside. Apparently they still do. And to end, you are not allowed to leave town without a gun, to protect yourself against potential danger from polar bears.

dinsdag 15 juli 2014

Welcome to Longyearbyen

Fram expedition ship
Yesterday night I, Linde Van Bets, PhD researcher of the Environmental Policy Group of Wageningen University, arrived in Longyearbyen, where I will stay for two weeks to investigate how expedition cruise tourism adapts to ecosystem changes. Expedition cruise tourism visits areas that are normally inaccessible for the public, like the unique landschape of Spitsbergen. Currently Spitsbergen is becoming a popular cruise tourism destination. Expedition vessels are not that big, they can host up to 120 passengers. On my way I had to change flights in Oslo, but the flight schedule allowed me to spend my afternoon in Oslo. No better way to prepare for my stay in Spitsbergen than to visit the polar expedition Fram museum and the Norwegian Maritime Museum in the beautiful area Bygdøy. The expedition ship Fram was especially built in Norway for polar expeditions and was used between 1893 and 1912 to explore both poles, guided by expedition leaders Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and Roald Amundsen.

Spitsbergen from the airplane
After this stop, it was time to continue my journey to Spitsbergen. At the airport in Oslo it became already clear to me I was travelling to an outdoor area, which required good equipment. Different brands were competing when I looked around and saw the variety of hiking boots, backpacks, rain coats, rain pants and ski suits. Around midnight the airplane approached Longyearbyen. During summer Spitsbergen is enjoying 24 hour daylight, so at midnight we could still enjoy the beautiful scenery of Spitsbergen. After my first night I had to wake up in time. At 10 o clock I had my first interview, with Ronny Brunvoll, director of Svalbard Tourism. I am staying in Guesthouse 102 in Nybyen, it is a 2 km walk to Longyearbyen. My research focuses on how expedition cruise tourism adapts to ecosystem changes. I conduct semi-structured interviews with actors like authorities, expedition
Longyearbyen from the airplane
leaders, researchers, port authorities,... In addition key actors have to fill in a questionnaire in which they rank which factors contribute the most to access to accurate and relevant knowledge and information, conflict resolution mechanisms, compliance with rules and regulations, sufficient infrastucture and being prepared for change. This is based on the theoretical framework of my PhD research. After my interview with Ronny Brunvoll, it was time to explore the neighbourhood. I went to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), Spitsbergen travel, the supermarket and the library. In the afternoon I was lucky, Kjetil Bråtel, the harbour master of the port of Longyearbyen had time for an interview. Good that I could meet with him today, as he will be in Finland for the next three weeks to pick up a brand new boat for the port of Longyearbyen. I learned that the schedules of expedition cruise ships are quite flexible. So I have to check the updated schedule, because the next days I will do some observations when cruise ships arrive and depart in the harbour. Today turned out to be very productive: two interviews and one blog post for my first day in Longyearbyen, not bad at all.

maandag 7 juli 2014

Barnacle geese, mercury and football

View to the east, Kronebreen Glacier
Nearly a week here in Ny-Ålesund (Spitsbergen), but it is so good it seems a lot longer. I am a guest of the Dutch Arctic station, lead by Maarten Loonen from the Arctic Centre for two weeks, to help with an experiment with goslings, as part of the TripleP@Sea program of Wageningen UR. At arrival, the work started directly because the gosling which will be used on the feeding trials, were just coming in from their colonies. The major objective of my trip to this beautiful place is to help with an experiment in which goslings of the Barnacle goose will be herded at a mine impacted and control site. From an earlier trip we analysed soil samples from the mining area for mercury, a known contaminant in mine impacted areas. Concentrations were 5 times higher than in control soil, so this year we will expose goslings to the mercury in the mining area, and see if we can detect any effects. Mercury is neurotoxic and it may affect the development of the goslings. This experiment is conducted in collaboration with University of Groningen (group of Jan Komdeur) and Arctic Centre, University of Groningen (Maarten Loonen). And luckily, I am not by myself in this, most work is done by Isabella Scheiber, Margje de Jong and Anna Braun. They do all the hard work, I have only a minor part in this, but am enjoying it enormously!

So, what has happened this week. At first the goslings have been habituated to people. This enables to herd them, without them to run off. It is very funny to see the small goslings walk along the tundra behind a person (see for a short clip). They really interact with us, and now we can take them out for a walk. However, in spring a lot of snow was dumped in the area, so we still have some problems finding the proper places to let them graze. Nevertheless, we took them out in the field yesterday and today, and they were really brave. Today Margje and me went to the mines, while Isabelle and Anna walked the birds to the control site. After a long walk of 1 km, they crawled in the warm brood patch within the jacket of Margje for a good sleep. In the field they turn out to be real eating machines, foraging full time. They also start to interact between each other, which is great to see. Today, the Arctic fox lurked around to see if he could snatch one, but he did not succeed. But, it is amazing how persevering they can be… Besides the foxes we also have to watch another inhabitant, the polar bear. For this, we need to carry a rifle when off station, and I had to take a shooting course. This was much fun, but for someone who has never used a gun before it was quite frightening to see the power and noise it produces. Scary, but I did actually hit the target. But I guess, this is not a guarantee when a 500 kilo polar bear is staring at you.

Gosling of the Barnacle Goose
Beside the work, there is a lot to see here. Arctic terns are breeding in town and are studied by Maarten and Malenthe. These amazing birds annually fly from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. During courtship they display an amazing flight, and the males feed the females. From my desk I have a nice view, and can follow this for a long time. Families of Barnacle geese are feeding in the village as well, and it is really great to see the goslings grow up. They are a busy bunch. Snow buntings are all around, and their presence has actually stimulated me in writing a proposal for future Arctic work here. On the tundra we have seen Ptarmigans today, Arctic skuas flew around and reindeer slowly moved on the tundra. A humpback whale visited the fjord today in the far distance. But most impressive is the overview over the fjord, with snowy mountains and glaciers showing off their beauty. Each morning when I get up it is the first thing I look at in awe.

But there is of course also normal life, the World Championship Football! There are many nationalities in Ny-Ålesund, ranging from South-Koreans and Chinese to Germans and of course Norwegians. And you can imagine that the championship is vibrant here. There are quite a number of Germans in Ny-Ålesund, they have a really nice research station. Earlier this week we watched the match between Germany and France with them. The match Netherlands vs. Cost Rica was a nerve wrecking one, but it would be great to have a final against Germany. I think that would spark quite some energy here. But first we need to beat the Argentineans… Will update you on that later.

All the best from the far North, Nico