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Island Discovery on a Jan Mayen Cruise

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Jan Mayen is a tiny volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, 600 miles west of Norway and 350 miles north of Iceland. It is dominated by the 7,470-foot-high Mt. Beerenberg, the northernmost active volcano in the world, which last erupted in 1985. It is a territory of Norway, and has no native population. The eighteen people who currently live there operate the weather station, LORAN-C transmitter, and coastal radio station. Their base is called Olonkin City, which is located on the southwest coast. Small planes come in several times throughout the year, landing on the unpaved airstrip to bring supplies to the station personnel.

For many years no one was allowed to visit the island, but recently the tiny island has become available to tourists and a Jan Mayen cruise has found growing interest. As it is a territory of Norway, visitors need a passport to set foot on the island, and must keep in mind a few basic rules. As the environment is extremely fragile, no souvenirs—in the form of flowers, moss, or fungi—may be gathered. Permission to climb Beerenberg while on a tour of Jan Mayen must be requested from the Station Commander, as the glaciers are dangerous and often deeply crevassed.

Travelers on a Jan Mayen cruise will be in awe of the austere landscape—from the majestic slopes of Beerenberg to the curving, rocky coasts. In the summer, bright green moss spreads in a blanket across the land, and small wildflowers, lichens, and fungi also attract the eye. Jan Mayen is home to many birds, from the albatross-like fulmar to the black-and-white puffin. Harper seals and various species of whale can also be seen swimming in the chilly waters.

The Environment and Geography of Jan Mayen

Jan Mayen’s remoteness, its unique geography and environment, has particular appeal to adventurous travelers. This isolated island is located between the Greenland and Norwegian Seas, northeast of Iceland. It is located near the intersection of the Jan Mayen Fracture Zone and Mohns mid-ocean ridge. Though claims of its discovery are scattered throughout the centuries, the first person to indisputably find Jan Mayen, in 1614, was a Dutch whaling captain for whom the island was named. The island has belonged to Norway since 1929, and is home to the northernmost active volcano in the world, Haakon VII Toppen/Beerenberg. This volcano is also the island’s highest point, at 7,470 feet, its ice cap spilling glaciers down the slopes while plumes of smoke and vapor rise from the crater. The volcano has erupted six times since 1732, with the eruption in 1970 the first to be witnessed in modern times. Beerenberg is a favorite destination for visitors on their Jan Mayen tour. The most recent eruption was in 1985, with 250,000,000 cubic feet of lava spewing from the volcano in only 40 hours.

Jan Mayen is a long, narrow island—only 34 miles long and two to nine miles wide—with the volcano dominating the northeastern end. During a tour of Jan Mayen, travelers will have the opportunity to explore the southern half of the island that consists of a mountainous ridge of craters, mounds, and domes. Covering only about 230 square miles, it is only slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C. It has no native inhabitants, but there is currently a Long-Range Navigation (Loran-C) base and a weather and coastal services station, which are together operated by 18 personnel.

Because of its extreme northern location and the fact that it is a volcanic island partly covered by glaciers, Jan Mayen has no arable land. There is one unpaved landing strip, and planes come to bring supplies (and transport the personnel in and out) only eight to twelve times a year. While the land is mostly barren and dominated by impressive volcanic formations, there is some moss, grass, and small flowers. While on a trip to the island, keep an eye out for the 75 species of vascular plant, 176 species of moss, 140 species of lichen, and 66 species of fungi. In the warmer months, the moss spreads thick, bright green carpets over the rocks, sometimes so lush that people can sink in up to their calves.

The History of Jan Mayen

Jan Mayen has a relatively quiet history – mainly characterized by the hunting and whaling expeditions, but in its more recent history the island has become an important navigation station. Jan Mayen travel is also part of this island’s recent history, partially because its isolation has made travel to Jan Mayen difficult.

While the first undisputed discovery of Jan Mayen goes to the Dutchman Jan Jacobs May van Schellinkhout (for whom the island is named), in 1614, there are stories that suggest previous knowledge of the place. The Irish monk Brendan, known to be a good sailor, may have seen the island as early as the 6th century. After one voyage, he told about a black fiery island he had seen that he believed to be the entrance to hell. In later centuries, Vikings may have come across the island in their travels. In the early 1600s, however, various sailors—including Henry Hudson, Jean Vrolicq, and John Clarke—claimed the island’s discovery, naming and renaming it.

In the years following van Schellinkhout’s landing on Jan Mayen, the Dutch used the island as a whaling base. They established several whale oil boilers to extract oil from whale blubber, and built fortifications to protect their whaling operations. In the height of the whaling years, more than 1000 men lived on the Jan Mayen during the summers. As a result of the extensive hunting, the Greenland whale was nearly driven to extinction, and whaling in Jan Mayen’s waters ended by 1650.

Once the whalers left, the island was deserted for the next two and a half centuries, with only a few ships visiting it over the years. In 1882, however, an Austrian/Hungarian expedition established a base on Jan Mayen, staying there for a year while doing research and mapping. Then, in the early 1900s, Norwegian trappers began wintering on the island, trapping blue and white foxes and polar bears. Once again, overexploitation proved the undoing of the hunters, as the fox population declined rapidly, and the hunting ended in the 1920s.

The Politics of Jan Mayen

Jan Mayen, as a territory of Norway, flies the Norwegian flag. Since August of 1994 the island has been administered from Oslo through the county governor of Nordland, but the primary authority has been delegated to a station commander of the Norwegian Defense Communication Service.

Jan Mayen is subject to the laws of Norway, and any traveler wanting to visit this territory must have a valid passport. Visitors on a tour of Jan Mayen must also remember some basic rules unique to the island: the environment is vulnerable, and visitors are prohibited from picking souvenirs—whether wildflowers, fungi, or moss. Those interested in climbing on the Jan Mayen travel must have permission from the Station Commander to climb Beerenberg; the glacier is incredibly beautiful but can also be crevassed and very dangerous. Visitors should also take notice of the electrical equipment—both because of the high voltage and, in the spring, because of ice falling from the masts and antennas.

What to Expect from the Weather on Jan Mayen

Jan Mayen has an arctic maritime climate, which causes frequent storms and persistent fog. Though the island is small, the weather can vary greatly from one place to another; travelers on one side of the island might be treated with bright sunshine, while at the same time others will be experiencing impenetrable fog on the other. When the fog clears, however, the views of white-capped Beerenberg are stunning. A day may start out perfectly calm but end in a gale, and it is this wind that makes the average winter day’s 23° F feel like an icy -15°. Those enjoying a Jan Mayen tour in the summer will notice that the Southern Lagoon dries out, leaving a dry, sandy plain, making the eastern side of the island subject to dust and sandstorms.

The average temperature on Jan Mayen is 30° F, with very little fluctuation between summer and winter. In February and March, the coldest months, temperatures average around 20° F. In July and August they stay around 40° F, though the island has experienced temperatures as warm as 64° F and as cold as –22°. The island receives very little precipitation, averaging about 27 inches per year. If you travel in September and October you will see the most moisture, with about three inches falling per month. April and May are the drier months, with only an inch and a half of rain or snow.

Jan Mayen Wildlife

Jan Mayen has no indigenous mammals, but the island is home to many birds. Both the novice and the experienced birder will be delighted at the birding opportunities during their Jan Mayen cruise. Ninety-eight bird species have been documented by the personnel living at the weather station, though only 22 species have a significant presence. Some of these include the fulmar (a relative of the albatross), the striking black-and-white polar guillemot, the tiny puffin, and the eider duck. Fulmars are most common, with an estimated 160,000 nesting couples, followed by the guillemot, with over 100,000 individuals.

Harper seals and many species of whale—including humpback and Minke—can be spotted during a trip to Jan Mayen. And occasionally even a polar bear will make its way to the island, though this happens less often as there is less ice now than there was a century ago. Polar bears have not been seen on the island since 1990.

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