Dialing Svalbard up to 11: Youth wows locals with years of book knowledge prior to visit, but discovers reality is so much more

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(Editor’s note: This youth was sent to me by someone at Visit Svalbard who was wowed by his knowledge of Svalbard – no small thing given the number of tourists the office sees – but after talking to him I was more interested in how his “book knowledge” (videos, website resources, etc.) compared to the “real education” of being here. These are his impressions with only minor edits for grammar and other tidbits.)

BY RISHI GOKHALE
SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR

My name is Rishi Gokhale and I just turned 11 years old. I like to travel to different places around the world. Before visiting any new place I like to research and try to learn as much as possible about the place I am visiting. So when I first arrived in Svalbard I thought that I knew everything there was to know about the archipelago; however, soon enough I found out that there was much more to Svalbard than what I had learned.

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Rishi Gokhale, 11, plays with a sled dog during a walk in Advendalen during the youth’s visit to Svalbard earlier this month. Photo by Sumita Gokhale

I first became interested in the Arctic region when I visited Iceland in the summer of 2015. I loved visiting Iceland. It was like an alien landscape of geological diversity. In the autumn of the same year I learned about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and thought that its location beyond 78 degrees north latitude was really cool. It sparked my interest in the archipelago, and I started reading about it and watching YouTube videos about Svalbard. I learned many facts, just a few of which include:

1. Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost permanently-occupied town in the world with a population of 35 people.

2. Longyearbyen has the northernmost sundial in the world which also has the steepest noman in the world. It’s also the only sundial in the world which works 24 hours a day (at least in the summer months and when it’s not cloudy).

3. To be born or to die in Svalbard is prohibited, so you have to go down to Tromsø since the hospital in Svalbard can only serve for minor ailments.

I became eager to visit Svalbard and convinced my mother to take me there as soon as possible. In the first week of July of this year my wish came true. I was extremely happy when I touched the ground in Svalbard, less than 1,000 miles from the North Pole. However, I learned of many differences between what I had read before I came to Svalbard and what I actually observed during my trip.

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Rishi Gokhale shows a fossil he found during a hunt near Longyearbyen . Photo by Sumita Gokhale.

To begin with I didn’t expect many tourists in Svalbard, but I soon discovered that it’s already becoming very popular with the tourists. I saw many boats and cruise ships carrying tourists, anchored in the harbour.

Both of our flights were completely full, except for just a few empty seat on each flight. I had expected the airplanes to be small, carrying a few passengers and only being half full. Instead, we flew in large modern jet aircrafts that were packed to capacity.

Despite Svalbard’s growing popularity among tourists, Longyearbyen still doesn’t have enough hotel rooms. So only a small number of “non-cruise ship” tourists can be in the area at any one time. Although we booked our hotel room in October 2017, almost all rooms were sold out. Longyearbyen needs more hotel rooms to cater to the increasing number of “non-cruise ship” tourists in Svalbard. I must say, however, that the Internet speed in Svalbard is amazingly fast. I later learned that it was due to the research stations needing the high bandwidth connectivity to conduct their research and studies. As a result, despite the remote location, I felt more connected to the world than I have even in urban areas with old or strained Internet infrastructure.

Since our visit to Svalbard was in July, I didn’t expect to see any polar bears especially because the last polar bear sighting in the Eastfjords was a month ago. However, I was surprised to see one eating a humpback whale on our boat tour to the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden. I did expect there to be a bit more snow than I saw due to its location at 78 degrees north and even more once I got further north and further out of the settlements. I also expected the temperature to be near freezing most of the time, and dropping below zero every so often. However, one of the first things that I learned is that Svalbard is a desert. So, it receives less precipitation of rain or snow, especially in summer when temperatures are above freezing, even though only by a few degrees Celsius. That’s also warmer than other places on Earth at similar latitude. That explained why there wasn’t much snow when I visited Svalbard in July this year.

In Svalbard, I enjoyed walking with the husky dogs. It was one of my favorite things to do during my visit. I was surprised by the number of husky dogs in the area. I learned that the dogs have adapted to living in Svalbard very well all year round and, in fact, I was surprised to learn that the huskies feel very hot during summer time even though it’s only a few degrees above freezing.

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An Arctic fox is observed during a hike. Photo by Rishi Gokhale.

Visiting during the summer, I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights, but seeing the midnight sun for all four days of my visit was amazing. The 24-hour sunlight was especially great as it allowed my mom and I to explore even when it was one o’clock in the morning.

I was also surprised that there are mosquitoes in Svalbard, because when I visited Iceland, which is right on the Arctic Circle and, farther away from North Pole, there were no mosquitoes at all. I know mosquitoes are very resilient insects, but I didn’t expect them so close to the North Pole. I was also surprised to learn that puffins also inhabit Svalbard up to 80 degrees north latitude.

I had read that Svalbard is a de-militarized area, but I learned during my visit that there was military action in Svalbard during the Second World War, when Nazi Germany invaded Svalbard to take control of Svalbard’s weather stations as the weather in Svalbard moved south towards the Soviet Union. The Nazis plan was to use weather information from Svalbard to choose a day to invade a certain part of the Soviet Union.

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A polar bear eating a whale carcass is observed from a tour boat on its way to Pyramiden on Saturday. Photo by Rishi Gokhale

All of the people in Svalbard were very friendly, which makes sense as the Old Norwegian settlers had to work together to survive the harsh cold weather. But, I was surprised to learn that many of the people living in Svalbard today are not of Norwegian origin. People of different backgrounds and from different cultures still work together to help make Svalbard a better place in the Arctic and also on the global stage. I was really surprised to learn that the non-Norwegians of the archipelago come from over 50 countries. I didn’t expect people from so many different countries to come to a relatively remote place at 78 degrees north latitude. As a result, relatively remote Svalbard is surprisingly diverse and multicultural, and many of the restaurants serve fusion dishes combining multicultural flavors and tastes with traditional Nordic cuisine. This makes the food scene in Svalbard as unique as the land and people. I really enjoyed the truly delicious food in Svalbard.

Svalbard has been an interesting place for me to visit and explore. I hope that one day I can come back to see more and to see how much it has changed. When I first came to Svalbard I thought that I knew everything there was to know about it. But, now that I’ve visited, I know a lot more about the Arctic and the world and understand that in any scenario, there will always be more to explore both in the Arctic and the world. Thank you Svalbard for an incredible trip!!

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