HDS05-22, trip log, North Spitsbergen - Bowhead Whales & Polar Bears in the sea ice – Birding

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Bitácora

Day 1: Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen
Fecha: 23.06.2022
Posición: 78°14.0’ N, 015°37.4’ E
Viento: SE 8, at 8 am
Clima: Cloudy
Temperatura del Aire: +5

Our Arctic adventure was due to begin today but extremely high winds meant that Oceanwide Expeditions had to take unprecedented decision to postpone embarkation until tomorrow. This image shows the wind speeds (in knots) as recorded from the bridge of our ship, M/V Hondius; gusting up to 56 knots, the conditions made it impossible to embark guests. Our usual operating limit for zodiacs is 25 knots with gust up to 30 knots. As we could see from shore, the storm was affecting all the operations in Longyearbyen harbor. Prioritizing the safety of our guests, we reluctantly conceded that embarkation would not be possible today.

Day 2: Embarkation in Longyearbyen, Isfjord ship cruise and Skansbukta

Embarkation in Longyearbyen, Isfjord ship cruise and Skansbukta
Fecha: 24.06.2022
Posición: 78°16’.7 N, 015°25’.6 E
Viento: SSE 6
Clima: Cloudy
Temperatura del Aire: +2

The Expedition Team were on standby for 5:45 am, zodiacs were lowered, and the staff made their way to meet and greet guests whilst Hondius remained anchored just offshore. By just after 7 am all guests and their luggage were on board. Despite embarking a day later than planned and an early morning start, everyone was in good spirits and excited to finally begin their Arctic Expedition! The first priority, after boarding, was breakfast and having a little time to settle into cabins and unpack. After this, later in the morning, Expedition Leader, Florence (Flo), and Hotel Manager, William, gave the introductory briefing, then Chief Officer, Matei, commenced the mandatory ship safety briefing. Assistant Expedition Leader, Sara, gave a presentation regarding AECO (the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) to inform visitors of correct behaviour towards the environment, people and wildlife of the Arctic. This information was very important of course, but when a guest shouted that they had seen a whale from the Port Side Observation Lounge window, to say everyone was distracted is an understatement! Once the animal, identified as a Minke Whale, disappeared, order was restored! AEL George gave the final briefing regarding zodiac operations and safety which would come in useful later for our afternoon activities, getting ashore to explore.

The location of our afternoon shore landing was Skansbukta, named after the nearby mountain Skansen (a Norwegian word for ‘sloping’ which refers to the shape of the wide plateau that tops the mountain). This fantastic location full of interest, from great views of Svalbard Reindeer to a wide variety of plant life to fascinating historical features. A twisted, rusting railway, remains of mining operations for Anhydrite, desiccated version of Gypsum, (which ran from 1918 – 1930’s by the Dalen Portland Cement Works), and a small wrecked ship were items of significance at this site. Additionally, there was a trapper’s hut, built in the early 1900’s but well maintained and still in use by locals today. In terms of plant life, Mountain Avens, Arctic Bell Heather, Tufted Saxifrage, Drooping Saxifrage, Snow Saxifrage, Ellesmerel, Woolly Lousewort, Hairy Lousewort, Pale Whitlow-grass, Sulphur Buttercup, Hawkweed-leaved Saxifrage, Northern Golden Saxifrage, Mountain Sorrel were all observed. The towering mountains surrounding the landing area were an impressive sight and host to large numbers of nesting seabird. At the end of the afternoon guests enjoyed returning to Hondius via the seabird nesting cliffs. Everyone enjoyed experiencing birds flying close overhead, including Northern Fulmar, Arctic Terns and Kittiwake. Many guests were particularly thrilled to see numerous Atlantic Puffins, a much requested and beloved bird! After this we headed back on board for Captain’s Cocktails, with a glass of ‘bubbly’, meeting our Captain Artur Iakovlev in the Observation Lounge, listening to recaps from some of the Expedition Staff and chatting to each other about our day. What excitement would await us tomorrow we wondered?!

Day 3: Magdalenafjord, Gullybukta, Gravnesodden and Waggonwaybreen Glacier

Magdalenafjord, Gullybukta, Gravnesodden and Waggonwaybreen Glacier
Fecha: 25.06.2022
Posición: 79°33.9’ N, 010°56.1’ E
Viento: Light air
Clima: Sunny
Temperatura del Aire: +10

This morning, we were in Magdalenafjorden and the next site scheduled for exploration was Gullybukta. This shore landing provided us with the opportunity to take a short walk to enjoy incredible views of Walrus at their haul out site. Walruses are quite particular when it comes to their preferred haul out locations; they like sandy shores with plenty of food, mainly mussels and clams, available in the surrounding shallow waters. Gullybukta ticks all those boxes for these impressive tusked beasts and we were able to see approximately thirty-five of them! Most were resting on the shore, a big pile of blubber, tusks and flippers, whilst others wallowed in water, and a few were seen swimming together, heading offshore. Walruses are often curious and today was no exception, with a few taking interest in our presence, positioning themselves in the water near the landing site, raising their heads to look at what we were doing. Another wildlife highlight of this site was a Red-throated Diver (aka Red-throated Loon) which appeared to be sitting on its nest. There were also numerous Arctic Terns busily catching small fish and we observed some pair feeding, when a male gives his female partner food, which usually occurs prior to egg-laying. We were careful not to walk to close to any terns on the ground as they may already be incubating eggs.

In the afternoon we went ashore just across the bay in Gravnesodden and took a zodiac cruise to the impressive Waggonwaybreen glacier. Gravnesodden gets its name from the many whalers’ graves located there. These are protected and inaccessible to visitors, but we could still see the memorial stones and crosses marking the final resting place of these seafarers from outside the surrounding railings. Those ashore then enjoyed a walk between a perimeter of Expedition Staff who were on lookout for bears, ensuring guest protection. The weather was spectacular, more like St. Lucia than Svalbard, with glorious sunshine and a cloudless blue sky. Wandering the rocky beach we spotted the remains of sea urchins, presumably eaten by gulls, and even some reindeer bones, before sitting on the shore to relish some quiet time to appreciate our beautiful surroundings. Snow Bunting, the most northerly passerine (perching/songbird) species in the world, and Arctic Skua were seen and far above us flurries of Little Auks flew to and from the cliffs. During the zodiac cruise guests were delighted by wonderful views of Harbour Seals (aka Common Seals), many of whom were hauled out resting in their curved ‘banana’ pose! For the birders, King Eiders were the highlight of the zodiac cruise. The males have pale blue-green plumage on their heads with a red beak complete with large yellow ‘crown’ patch – they are real stunners! The fabulous finale, before the zodiacs turned to head back to Hondius, was seeing Waggonwaybreen glacier.

It was then time for brave/mad folks to undertake the Polar Plunge! The sandy shore at Gravnesodden and the sunny, warm conditions made it truly a perfect site for this and many guests decided to do it. After all, how often do you get the chance to take a dip in the Arctic Ocean?! There were smiling, happy faces all round when we arrived back on board: a sure sign that everyone had a great day! What could we do to make the perfect ending to the day? A BBQ for dinner on the outside decks followed by music and dancing of course!

Day 4: Smeerenburg, Virgohamna and Ytre Norskoya

Smeerenburg, Virgohamna and Ytre Norskoya
Fecha: 26.06.2022
Posición: 79°43.9’ N, 011°01.7’ E
Viento: Light air
Clima: Sunny
Temperatura del Aire: +7.6

As we got woken up at 7:30 am, by Flo, some of our fellow passengers were just coming back from Smeerenburg, after spending the night on the island, where they were observing the restauration of a 19’s commemorative plaque. During the breakfast, we could see the rest of the expedition staff lowering the zodiacs and getting ready for the morning activities. The plan was a split landing between visiting Smeerenburg, the ‘’blubber town’’, and a zodiac cruise toward Virgohamna. This area was full of history with some remains of the whaling era. Around 1630’s, around 200 persons were living on this little piece of land to work for the lucrative, but oh so dangerous, whale’s hunt business. Seven Dutch companies were based there, and you still saw the leftovers of blubber ovens and whale bones on the beach. On the other side of the landing, we spent a nice time admiring Walruses’ haul on the beach. These giant beasts were playing and hunting in the water and they were surprisingly active for such big mammal that usual likes to sleep on the beach. We even got a perfect sighting of two Walruses, having a good time next to the landing site. We swore that they were posing for the cameras. We would have spent the whole morning here, but we were called back to the zodiac for a cruise around part of the fjord. First, we went to see the Harbour Seals, which were not too active and were spending most of their time being lazy in the water. Following that nice encounter, we went to the remain of the starting settlement of Andre’s hot air balloon expedition which started in Virgohamna, in 1897. This expedition went horribly wrong since the beginning, but they had the magical goal to reach the north pole by the air. Like George’s explained, later during recap, they were high on oxycodone, pretty much the whole trip, which help with the moral. Sadly, they failed and died on the way. This story showed that their wish to make history was stronger than anything else. It was amazing to see the remains of the beginning of the expedition, and the last time anyone saw Andre’s team alive.

The afternoon activity started around 14:30 with a zodiac cruise around Indre and Intre Norskoya. The goal was to find a fluffy friend, but, even without a sight of a polar bear, the cruise was amazing. We started to drive toward the bird cliff on the other side of Indre Nordskoya. We could see and hear some little Auk flying around their nest and see some Glaucous Gull lurking at the eggs. In between the different birds populating the region, we admired the wild landscape of the area. We could feel that we were getting more north as the wind from the Arctic Ocean was blowing in our face. To warm us up, William and the hotel team were waiting on the water to serve us a delicious hot chocolate, topped with some rum and whipped cream. It was exactly what we needed to make us feel better and made us get through the rest of the afternoon.

As we got back to the ship to take a warm shower and go to the usual recap, Flo announced that we were having one last special evening activity. In fact, a female bear and her two cubs have been spotted a few miles away from our position. Even if we were hungry and tired, we could not miss out on this last cruise. Again, the team dropped zodiacs in the water and quickly we all jumped into one. What a sighting!!! The three bears were sleeping, lying down in the cutest position ever. One was on top of his mom, as the other was cuddling her. After an hour of quietly moving toward them, where we saw them stretching, moving, sleeping and having a good time, we headed back to the ship for a well-deserved dinner. Thanks to Ralf and his team, the dinner was warm and delicious even with 2 hours delay. We could not be more grateful for all the hotel department who had to stay up later to serve us. A quick drink in the bar and we were off the sleep after a long, but oh so fantastic, day in the Arctic.

Day 5: A Day in the Sea Ice – Heading West

A Day in the Sea Ice – Heading West
Fecha: 27.06.2022
Posición: 81°25.3’ N, 015°16.9’ E
Viento: SSW 3
Clima: Rainy
Temperatura del Aire: 0

As we thought we will have a little sleep in, Flo’s voice woke us up at 6:15 am, to tell us that a bear was spotted on the ice. Oh well, even if we were tired, we were on the ship to see these beautiful creatures and we all got up on the deck to witness an impressive show. The polar bear just caught breakfast and was having a feast on a seal. Captain Arthur placed the ship in the perfect position to enjoy the sighting. As we spent an hour looking at it, we spotted a few Ivory Gulls waiting for a share of the feast. Around 9:00 am, it started moving as he was done with the seal. You could see his full belly, as it was almost touching the sea ice while it was walking… It slowly made his way toward the ship, and we could enjoy the view of the bear trying to find the best place to digest.

As we were getting out of the sea ice, which was too thick to keep navigating in it, we started to follow the edge of the sea ice. It was time for Sara’s lecture who talked about polar bears and the faith of these majestic beast in a changing environment. That made us realized how fragile their survivals were. During the lecture, we got called on the PA system because two Bowhead whales had been spotted. What a morning!! Polar bears and, the oh so awaited Bowhead whale. It surfaced 1-2 times before diving again.

The afternoon went slowly with the ship sailing along the packed ice looking for polar bears and, mostly, the mystical bowhead whale. While the expedition team was doing their bridge watches trying to find something interesting to see, Szimon gave a lecture about sea ice and the way it is formed. He also talked about the impact of climate change and how the sea ice is going to be affected. This was followed by Herman, our onboard Bowhead whale’s specialist. He covered everything to do about this majestic whale, from their ecology to their behaviour and historic hunting to modern day threats. He is very passionate about this species and started the Ice Whale Foundation to try and conduct research into the important areas for this species to give them further protection. As we were heading to recap, Jon, AB’s on watch on the bridge, called because he just saw a whale blow in the horizon. We could not miss that opportunity. As we were slowly making our way toward the blows, we got the confirmation it was, in fact, the bowhead whale!!

That sighting got confirmed a 100% as we saw the massive fluke, TWICE! That was unexpected and we were all amazed to reach one of the goals of the trip. You could feel that the excitement was real during dinner while everyone was happily chatting about the day that started with a Polar bear and finished with a Bowhead whale.

Day 6: A Day in the Sea Ice – Heading North

A Day in the Sea Ice – Heading North
Fecha: 28.06.2022
Posición: 79°32.8’ N, 005°28.5’ E
Viento: SSE 2-3
Clima: Foggy
Temperatura del Aire: +2

Our second day in the ice was another full schedule of lectures, alongside looking out for wildlife of course! After breakfast Expedition Guide Mikhail got the programme off to a fascinating start with his lecture called ‘Arctic Awhaleability: The Past, Present and Future of Cetaceans in Arctic’, going into detail about the threats whales, dolphins and porpoises face and some of the efforts to protect them. Hazel was scheduled to follow this with her talk on ‘Arctic Pinnipeds: Seals and the Walrus’ but this was delayed by the sighting of a real seal hauled out resting on the ice! After some debate among the Expedition Team this was identified as an immature Hooded Seal and after enjoying a fantastic view of this flipper-footed creature the talk commenced. Just as it finished Harp Seals were seen from the Observation Lounge window swimming past the Starboard side of the ship! Seeing this small group was a delight, so imagine our disbelief when eagle-eyed guides Szymon and Laura spotted a huge gathering of harp seals hauled out on the ice in the distance. At first these were tiny dark dots in the distance, but as the bridge team cautiously and carefully manoeuvred Hondius closer a spectacular vision appeared before our eyes after we finished lunch. An estimated 1,500+ seals! This was truly an unforgettable, once in a lifetime sighting. A gathering of this number is, without doubt, a pupping/mating/moulting area. The animals were a variety of ages; some were well-marked with their characteristic dark face and harp marking on their backs, other younger animals were sandy coloured with spots and there were also some pups from this year still with their bright white lanugo fur.

After we bid farewell to the seals some of the students from the Arctic Centre, University of Groningen on board for this trip gave a presentation regarding Arctic Explorers. They did a brilliant job and we were grateful to have the enthusiasm and knowledge of the entire group throughout this voyage. Expedition Guide Regis followed with his lecture about the fabulous world of seabirds and Expedition Leader Flo delivered the daily recap shortly afterwards. After dinner, guest speaker Fionn Ferreira gave an inspiring, captivating talk about his innovative work as a young campaigner and inventor tackling ocean plastics. Just as he finished speaking in the Lecture Room, White-beaked Dolphins were seen approaching the ship on the Starboard side! Sightings of these beautifully marked dolphins continued throughout the evening. As if that wasn’t exciting enough to end our day, two adult male Sperm Whales were then spotted! We know their gender not only because of their size (males are considerably larger than females) but also because of the location; female sperm whales stay in warmer waters with their calves whilst males migrate further North, and South, to colder water nearer the poles. This sighting was the first time this season we have encountered this species! We all headed to our cabins reflecting upon this spectacular marine mammal filled day.

Day 7: Ingeborfjellet and Calypsobyen

Ingeborfjellet and Calypsobyen
Fecha: 29.06.2022
Posición: 77°44.3’ N, 014°23.6’ E
Viento: SSE 2-3
Clima: Mist
Temperatura del Aire: +5

Our day began with a landing at Ingeborgfjellet, specifically the area of Camp Millar. Whilst making their way to the landing site to scout for Polar Bears the Expedition Team were very excited to spot some Beluga Whales! These bright white whales (their name comes from the Russian word for white) were in two separate groups, totalling fourteen animals. This area is highly tidal with rocky outcrops and sandy shallows; the Belugas were socialising together near the shore. The scouting team reported this observation back to Expedition colleagues still on board Hondius and they were able to announce the sighting so guests could enjoy seeing yet another species of marine mammal! Once guests were ashore, they were able to enjoy wal king around this beautiful area of tundra. Arctic summer was in full flow now with lots of flora blooming, including Svalbard Poppy. A large herd of Svalbard Reindeer were also present and providing interest alongside the historical huts. These were built by the Northern Exploration Company (NEC) in 1910 as part of their project mining for gold. They did find this precious metal but their efforts to cash in on it were unsuccessful and unprofitable. Human habitation may be a thing of the past here, but the area is a fantastic habitat for seabirds with cliffs providing nesting areas for Little Auk, Northern Fulmar, Brünnich’s Guillemot and Black-legged Kittiwake. As our time at this site was drawing to a close heavy rain was falling, meaning that everyone was keen to board zodiacs to return to the ship for a hot drink. As the first zodiac returned from Hondius back to the shore, Expedition Leader Flo (who was in the aforementioned zodiac) spotted a Polar Bear heading for the landing site! An evacuation was ordered immediately. Everybody calmly made their way to the waiting zodiacs and safely journeyed back to our ship whilst the bear diverted its course and began sauntering away up the hillside. Phew!

After lunch we headed to Calypsobyen, named after HMS Calypso, a British Navy ship which surveyed the area in 1895. The huts here are used as a Polish research base and have been for over twenty years, occupied only in the summer months. Guests and Guides alike were excited to have the opportunity to talk to some of the researchers and they too were glad of our visit, chatting happily about their work and welcoming us into their huts. The particular focus of the research conducted he re are various fields of geoscience, especially permafrost and glaciers. Arctic Terns were nesting in the area around the huts and attacked any passers-by who unknowingly strayed too close. In response we of course carefully retreated. A couple of Walrus passed by offshore. For the birders Ringed Plover and Purple Sandpiper were observed. A wrecked ship from 1918, also used by NEC, (in this case for coal mining operations) was abandoned here on shore, left to be reclaimed by nature. Like their gold mining operations at Camp Millar, NEC’s coal mining efforts here also proved unsuccessful and were in operation for only two years from 1918 to 1920.

After a great day exploring ashore it was time for celebration back on board Hondius. Guests enjoyed the final recap of their expedition, complete with Captain’s cocktails and Photography Guide Georgina’s Photo Slideshow. Everyone was thrilled to be able to have the slideshow to keep and show to friends and family back home, treasuring memories of their fantastic trip in the Arctic.

Day 8: Longyearbyen - Disembarkation

Longyearbyen - Disembarkation
Fecha: 30.06.2022
Posición: 78°14.0’ N, 015°38.0’ E
Viento: Light
Clima: Foggy
Temperatura del Aire: +6

Surely our Arctic adventure was not over already?! Sadly yes, after our final wake-up call at 7:00am by Expedition Leader Eduardo it was time for our last breakfast on board M/V Hondius. Passengers disembarked via the gangway and were reunited with their luggage before boarding the awaiting coaches or strolling into the town. Everyone said goodbye to the friendly Expedition Team and departed, smiling and reflecting upon a wonderful expedition cruise!

Thank you all for travelling with us on this voyage; for your enthusiasm, support and good company. We very much hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!

Total distance sailed on our voyage: 831.1 nautical miles
Furthest North: 81°22.08’ N, 014°09.90’ E

On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Artur Iakovlev, Expedition Leader Florence Kuyper, Hotel Manager William Barnes and all the crew and staff of M/V Hondius, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.

Detalles

Código del viaje: HDS05-22
Fechas: 23 jun. - 30 jun., 2022
Duración: 7 noches
Barco: El Hondius
Embarque: Longyearbyen
Desembarque: Longyearbyen

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Aboard El Hondius

Hondius es el primer buque polar Clase 6 que haya sido registrado en el mundo, cumpliendo con los últimos y más altos requisitos de la Lloyd’s Register para cruceros de casco reforzado para el hielo.

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