General: The little island Amsterdamøya is at the northwestern corner of Spitsbergen, directly north of Danskøya. Amsterdamøya is famous for its whaling history.
Amsterdamøya seen from southeast, with the lowland of Smeerenburg in the foreground.
Geology: Basement. Metamorphic rocks like gneiss, phyllite and mica schist are predominant. Strongly uplifted during north atlantic rifting in the upper Cretaceous and lower Tertiary. The lowland in the southeast is covered with upper pleistocene moraine.
Rocks and Ice: Recommended book for further, well-digestable (really!) information about Spitsbergen’s natural history.
Rocky, shallow shore north of Smeerenburg.
Landscape: Most of Amsterdamøya consists of a little mountain plateaux with steep rock slopes and an undulating plateaux on top with a maximum altitude of 472 metres. Only the southeastern part has some square kilometres of lowland, which is covered with muddy sand and stones. It can be quite wet and soft in the early summer. There are several lakes and lagoons near the shore and 2 glaciers.
Lagoon on Amsterdamøya. Danskøya in the background.
Flora and fauna: The vegetation is rather scarce and consists mostly of moss beds and lichens. Scurvy grass and Alpine sorrel are abundant on cliffs near bird colonies. Harbour seals are sometimes resting on stones near the shore exposed at low tide. Have a look for unexpected bird species on the lagoons, this seems to be a good place for vagrants. Great northern diver and Red-necked phalarope are amongst the species that have been seen here. The Spitsbergen reindeer and arctic fox are roaming over the lowland, and it is not too uncommon to see a polar bear walking somewhere. Sometimes walrusses are resting on the shore near the blubber ovens in Smeerenburg.
Walrus on the shore near a blubber oven in Smeerenburg, Amsterdamøya.
History: Amsterdamøya is famous for the whaling station Smeerenburg, which was built by Dutch whalers in the 17th century on the southeastern point of the island. 8 commerce chambers from different Dutch towns were active there and had each at least one double oven complete with 2 buildings. At times, also a Danish company was involved here. From west to east, the ovens had the following owners: Hoorn/Enkhuizen, Delft, the Danes, Veere, Vlissingen, Middelburg and Amsterdam. There were altogether 16 or 17 houses and a little fortress, probably a gun battery, in Smeerenburg, which translates as “blubber town”. In the heydays around 1620, there were up to 200 men working in Smeerenburg for some hectic summer weeks. The remains of the blubber ovens can still be seen. In the late 1620s, whaling got less profitable and the activity ceased over time, until Smeerenburg was abandoned around 1660.
Blubber oven in Smeerenburg, Amsterdamøya.
In 1633-34, a crew of 7 men wintered successfully. This was the first planned European wintering in Spitsbergen. Another attempt was made in 1634-35, but then, all 7 died. Altogether 101 graves have been found by archaeologists in the lowland not far from Smeerenburg.
Whaler’s grave on Amsterdamøya.
Almost as in the 17th century: A Dutch sailing ship, the SV Antigua, anchored at Smeerenburg. Remains of a blubber oven in the foreground.