Sea Kayaking with Keith Perry in Greenland

January 12, 2017

This article was previously published by Keith Perry in the City AM on Dec 09, 2016

The iceberg looming above me is the size of an apartment block, yet despite its enormity the frozen seascape is eerily silent. I am sitting in my kayak with eight other paddlers in one of Greenland’s enormous Arctic fjords. All that breaks the calm is the snap, crackle and pop of the ice. Then, as if on cue, a curious seal pokes his head above the water to check us out.

Kayaking the pristine, glass waters of the Arctic is an adventure travel experience like no other.

“Don’t get too close to that big iceberg,” warns Scott, our kayak instructor. “The large ones have a tendency to tip over without any warning – and the bit above the water is only 10 per cent of its total size.”

Keen to avoid the Titanic experience, we back off. Moments later, there is an enormous groan as a giant iceberg starts to keel over. We paddle farther away as the monstrous hulk sends up showers of ice and a large wave surges behind us as the unstable berg tries to right itself again.

“That,” says Scott, “is why you never get too close to an iceberg.” He picks up one of the millions of tiny floating ‘bergy bits’ surrounding us and places it onto his kayak. “We’ll have that with our gin and tonics later. Not often you get to enjoy a 5,000-year-old chunk of ice in your drink.”

It’s all quite a change from the standard summer holiday. On an Arctic cruise to Greenland, I am spending what should be the warmest month exploring Inuit settlements and glimpsing glaciers around this country’s rugged and dramatic coastline.

Greenland is the largest island in the world. It’s sparsely populated, with barely any mobile phone coverage. But add in stunning mountain ranges, glaciers, ice-choked fjords, polar bears, hot springs, volcanoes and spectacular views of the aurora borealis and you have the perfect recipe for enjoying one of the most pristine and spectacular places on the planet. It’s no surprise that Greenland appeared in Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel” list for 2016.

Second only to Antarctica for ice cover, it’s home to the northern hemisphere’s fastest moving glacier. The Ilulissat Icefjord is known as the iceberg capital of the world, with as much as 20bn tonnes of ice flowing through the fjord each year.

Kayakers get a close look at an iceberg in Greenland.Like icy soufflés, icebergs can collapse without warning and ruin your afternoon. Photo credit: Keith Perry 

While we’ve opted to enjoy this UNESCO world heritage site by sea kayak, our colleagues on this polar cruise are ferried ashore in a flotilla of Zodiac dinghies for walking tours of varying lengths and skill levels. The terrain is isolated, hilly and magnificent. It can also be dangerous. At all times, passengers are escorted by a team of rifle-bearing expert guides who keep a close watch out for starving polar bears.

The 370,000sqm Greenland National Park is the largest park in the world and, as an international biosphere preserve, is also home to 40 per cent of the world’s musk ox, polar bears, walrus, arctic foxes, beluga whales and many species of seals and birds.

A team of scientists and wildlife experts give fascinating lectures throughout the cruise to help explain the sites we enjoyed on our twice-daily excursions ashore.

Greenland has a fascinating history stretching back beyond the first Viking explorers. At least six different Inuit cultures have called Greenland home, and the community of Brattalhio is where Erik the Red and his descendants lived until the late 15th century, when they disappeared.

My home is aboard the 2,183-tonne, ice-strengthened Ocean Nova. Waking on my first morning after crossing the Denmark Strait, I drew back my cabin curtains and glimpsed a northern fulmar (an Arctic sea bird) skimming the mirror-smooth waters.

Life on board is easy and relaxed with many passengers socialising in the ship’s lounge bar, occasionally dashing out on deck to snap a particularly eye-catching ice sculpture floating past the ship. A team of scientists and wildlife experts give fascinating lectures throughout the cruise to help explain the sites we enjoyed on our twice-daily excursions ashore.

Our adventure began with an overnight stay in Reykjavik before being flown to the northern Iceland port of Akureyri, where the Ocean Nova will take us via the beautiful fjord scenery of the Eyjafjörður as we head north towards Greenland.

Once aboard, we enjoy formal waiter service and five-course meals. But despite the top-class surroundings, there is something strangely Hi-De-Hi about the morning wake-up call. At 6am each day, expedition leader Hadleigh Measham rouses us over the tannoy with his favourite pop music – anything from Rolling Stones to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers – before outlining our latest GPS position and the adventures we would hope to enjoy that day.

Explorer Hadleigh has completed over 50 expeditions to the Polar Regions including Antarctica, East and West Greenland, Baffin Island, Svalbard, the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), the Scotia Sea Islands.

Sometimes he’d wake us even earlier, at 2am, encouraging bleary-eyed passengers to enjoy the full beauty of the aurora borealis as it danced and undulated across the sky. Nature’s very own firework display.

Expedition Leader Hadleigh Measham plans activities, Zodiac cruises and landings at the most interesting, exciting destinations accessible at any given time throughout the expedition.

Expedition Leader: Hadleigh Measham

Breakfast would normally be at 8am before we kayakers would don our dry suits and lifejackets to explore the world’s largest fjord system of Scoresbysund.

The daily adventures include an expedition to Ela Oya (Ella Island) where binoculars are a must; as we climb to the summit of the islands there’s an outstanding view over of five fjords and grazing musk oxen. Ella Oya is a hiker’s dream.

At the mouth of the fjord complex, we visit Ittoqqortoormiit, East Greenland’s most northerly community that boasts a blend of traditional and modern lifestyles.

On our adventure we saw bearded seals, musk ox, arctic foxes, and although the polar bears eluded us, we kayaked, walked, explored in inflatable boats and cruised for more than 1,000 miles, mostly in sunshine.

There we enjoy watching sled dog puppies frolicking in the sun, and visitors are invited to support local Inuit artisans by purchasing unique handicrafts and gain an appreciation of the local way of life.

Inuit are allowed to hunt 70 polar bears a year and we’re also shown intricate carvings made from whalebones and walrus tusks. The general store sells postcards, hunting rifles and bullets next to packets of children’s sweets and groceries. Teenagers here can buy their first rifle at just 12 years old.

One evening treat involves being whisked by Zodiac dinghy among the icebergs at dusk before being warmed up by mugs of hot chocolate and Tia Maria served to us as we cruise among the ice floes. But my favourite pasttime is simply exploring the shoreline silently by kayak. As we paddle along Dream Bay, a pair of beautiful Arctic foxes with grey and white fur coats sniff around the shoreline for food.

On our adventure we saw bearded seals, musk ox, arctic foxes, and although the polar bears eluded us, we kayaked, walked, explored in inflatable boats and cruised for more than 1,000 miles, mostly in sunshine.

The final shock came on the last day before disembarkation, and this time it wasn't glaciers or orcas. It was our turn to be sea mammals and a chance for all those fit and brave enough to take the traditional end-of-cruise ‘polar plunge’.

I wasn't in the freezing water for more than 10 seconds and swam at speeds worthy of Michael Phelps. But it gave me a newfound respect for any wildlife that can call the Arctic home.

Learn more about the East Greenland: Northern Lights expedition. Short on time? Learn about the Arctic Express: Greenland’s Northern Lights expedition. 

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