Finally diving into Svalbard with small ships | Polarjournal
The MS Cape Race is one of the operators that have shown some staying power. The small 12-guest ship is currently on its way to Svalbard to show its guests the Arctic wilderness above and below the water. Image: mareverlag

Anyone planning a trip to the Arctic this year needed a lot of patience and long fingernails to chew on. This is because the most obvious Arctic destination, Svalbard, in particular, was cut off from the rest of the world by Norway’s COVID measures. As a result, major shipping companies and operators decided to cancel their Arctic seasons or move them to Iceland and Greenland. But some operators with small expedition ships held out and waited. With success: Svalbard is open for tourists and the season can begin.

Practically at the last minute, the redemptive words came from Oslo: travellers with vaccination, test or survived COVID disease proof or who come from countries with a low incidence rate are allowed to enter Norway and Svalbard without restriction. This meant that the small expedition ships could be sent out and the guests, some of whom had been waiting for a “go” for two years, could still have their wish for the Arctic fulfilled. One of the companies that will now operate in the waters around Svalbard after all are the owners of MS Cape Race. The small expedition ship had been lying in Kiel since the end of last year’s summer season and had been kept afloat all the time so that it could set sail as soon as the situation allowed. They obtained all the necessary certifications, put together programs, and hoped and hoped and hoped… but no movement came from Oslo.

Most visitors to the Arctic waters miss out on Svalbard’s exciting and rich underwater world. Not the guests of the Cape Race, however, as a remote-controlled underwater vehicle with cameras, gripper arms and many other gadgets takes care of that. This gives passengers a unique insight into a hidden world. Image: mareverlag

As is usual with expedition-hardened companies, there was also a plan B: sailing in the Baltic Sea, but this will not be used now. But a concept that is quite unique for a ship of this size: the underwater world as part of the expedition. Because unlike most providers, Nikolaus Gelpke, the mare publishing director and owner of Cape Race, also wants to introduce his guests to the underwater world. The studied marine biologist explains: “Because I wanted to introduce the guests to scientific work as well as delving deeper into marine biology, I started a cooperation with a former colleague at the University of Kiel, who developed so-called experiment boxes with which laymen on the one hand get to know authentic scientific work and on the other hand get an insight into the foundations of marine biology”.

“The ROV and the hydrophone are both additions that lead more to the emotional level and are intended to facilitate access to marine biology approaches: via sensory experience.”

Nikolaus Gelpke, owner Cape Race

And so that none of the guests has to go overboard for this, an ROV (remote operated underwater vehicle) was purchased. And the “Navysub T2” from European production has it all: cameras, gripper arms, object detection sonar, depth capability up to 200 meters allow the guests to dive directly into the hidden underwater world of the Arctic. The onboard underwater microphone system brings the sounds on board: experience marine biology with all your senses. “The ROV and the hydrophone are both additions that lead more to the emotional level and are intended to facilitate access to marine biological approaches: via sensory experience,” explains Nikolaus Gelpke. So don’t just look for polar bears, marvel at glaciers and photograph birds, but dive deep into the Arctic diversity, whose treasures also lie beneath the water surface: collect and observe plankton samples, see fish species that seem strange and perhaps even catch a glimpse of a seal swimming by.

Although Longyearbyen and the other towns on Svalbard did not record any COVID infection, the towns suffered massively from the pandemic. Too few tourists from Norway could be lured to the far north to allow even a cost-covering season. Even the current income from the shortened season is unlikely to be enough. Moreover, the situation remains fragile and can change again at any time. Picture: Michael Wenger

Ship operators of such small vessels will also have to develop new concepts. The current sunny situation may well change again if the epidemiological situation in the guests’ home countries changes and the Norwegian government reacts accordingly. Last year, this had already been the case once. But there is cautious optimism: the protective measures taken last year proved successful and this year’s guests have all been vaccinated, tested or have had confirmed COVID. In addition, 90 per cent utilisation of the ships is permitted this season, which eases the financial pressure a little more. But hardly anyone in the industry will really make a profit this season either. This is probably also true for the other providers such as Secret Atlas Travel with the Togo or the Tallship Company with the sailing ship Antigua, both of which will be also in the waters around Svalbard. The tourism companies in Longyearbyen, which have only seen local tourists since last year, should also be happy about the opening, but it will hardly be financially lucrative. The opening came too late, too many companies cancelled their season. Nevertheless, they are looking forward to the tourists who will still find their way to the north, Ronny Brunvoll, head of Visit Svalbard, told local media. After all, if all goes well, you can still immerse yourself in the Arctic wonderland until October… literally… on the Cape Race… without getting wet.

Entrants to Norway from green countries do not have to go into quarantine, but from orange and red do (as of July 12, 2021, All information is subject to change). Proven vaccinated travelers or people with proven COVID disease within the last 6 months are also exempt from the quarantine requirement. But the situation remains fragile due to the further spread of the Delta variant. Map: Norwegian Institute of Public Health FHI

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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