Svalbard (for life…)

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I thought I’d use this post to tell you guys about a place that’s very important to me, called Svalbard.

Map of Svalbard

In the second year of my bachelor at SAMS (Oban), there was all this talk about a new agreement which SAMS had signed with the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). It meant that future third year students could apply to take their third year on Svalbard, instead of at SAMS. They could do courses there in different Arctic subjects; biology, technology or geology, and it would count as credits.

Svalbard is an island archipelago belonging to Norway. It’s situated at 78oN, about 400 miles north of mainland Europe (aka remote). To get there, you can take a flight from Tromso or Oslo, or sail. The flight’s about 3 hours. About 3000 people live on Svalbard, most in the town called Longyearbyen, where there are bars, restaurants and the university. Science is one of three pillars of Svalbard’s economy; the other two are coal mining (which is still big in certain spots) and tourism.

As I was approaching my third year, SAMS presented me with the following offer: I take one or both semesters at UNIS (I would take biology courses), and when I come back for my final year, I would do an Arctic-focused dissertation project and other specific Arctic-related subjects. If all worked out, I would graduate with a new degree called Marine Science with Arctic Studies. This all sounded amazing to me, and at the time Oban was dragging on me. I was ready to get out for a while, but this was going to be expensive…

Although I had been working in a supermarket throughout my second year and had raise some money, it wasn’t really enough. No lie – life in Svalbard is expensive. Food and drink are about three times more expensive on Svalbard than in Scotland. It’s fine if you’re on a  Norwegian salary, more of a challenge if you’re not. My family offered to help me out financially to allow me to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have a lot to owe them for. I also received funding from a charity called the Roddan Trust, and from Erasmus and SAMS. I was so happy when I realised that this dream was going to become reality!!!

In August 2008, I travelled to Svalbard with my friend and fellow third year, Carl Ballantine. I was 19. We stayed in these converted army barracks at the top of the town with other students. On the first night in Longyearbyen, we went to a pub called Karlsberger. This pub used to be one of the best pubs in the world. In some ways it still is, but they changed the layout of the bar last year and I’m not feeling the new one so much. Karlsberger has no windows and really low lighting. We went outside, slightly toxic, at 3am, and were blinded by the glorious sunshine. So this is what they called the midnight sun then…

I stayed on Svalbard until the following June, experiencing all seasons. It was probably the best year of my life. I took classes in marine biology, pollution studies and environmental management (all of which are big talking points in the Arctic). Despite being an Arctic town, there are tonnes of things you can do in and around Longyearbyen; there’s a cinema, a sports hall, and of course some of the most beautiful views you’re ever going to see. I met so many cool people there, and keep in touch with many of them today.

By June 2009, I was ready to go home and see Scotland, my family and friends again, but I had the Svalbard bug and knew I’d return.

And I did, and will again…

Jx

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