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HDS02-22, trip log, North Spitsbergen In search of the Polar Bear & Pack Ice - Birding

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Embarkation, Longyearbyen

Embarkation, Longyearbyen
Date: 02.06.2022
Position: 78°14.7’ N, 015°37.2’ E
Wind: NW 2
Weather: Sunny
Air Temperature: +10

What a beautiful day to begin our Arctic adventure; cloudless blue sky, bright sunshine and calm waters. Perfect! The Expedition Team lifted luggage aboard and then greeted guests as they walked up the gangway of our lovely ship, M/V Hondius. Many guests explained they had been due to make this trip a couple of years ago, but unfortunately due to the covid pandemic it had to be rescheduled. So, you can imagine the excitement everyone was feeling to be finally starting this expedition after a long wait! With guests and their luggage happily aboard Expedition Leader (EL) Eduardo, and Chief Officer Diederik commenced the mandatory ship safety briefing at 17:30pm. Dr Rogier Steins also introduced himself; he too had been scheduled to come on board a few years ago so shared the guest’s joy at being on board! During the safety briefing guests were shown how to put on life jackets and shown the floatation suits which are stored in all cabins for use in an emergency situation. As part of the briefing an abandon ship alarm was sounded so we all made our way to our muster stations, either in the Observation Lounge (station B) or Restaurant (station A). Once all guests had arrived wearing their lifejackets correctly, we proceeded to the lifeboat boarding area on deck 6. We were directed to our lifeboats and given further information by Second Officer Kirill Buriachek and Third Officer Don Buren, who would be the masters of these vessels in the (very unlikely) event of us having to use them. Afterwards, at 18:15pm, guests received a welcome and orientation briefing from our Hotel Manager William and EL Eduardo. Our bird list, beginning from our time of departure from the port in Longyearbyen, already included Common Eider, Black-legged Kittiwake and Black Guillemot. Soon after leaving we started to see Northern Fulmar, notably much darker than those seen further south; most of the birds encountered around Spitsbergen have the blue colour morph of plumage, giving them a smoky grey-blue appearance. After the important matter of dinner time (a wonderful buffet provided by head Chef Ralf and his team) it was time for the third and final briefing of the evening, a video presentation from AECO (the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) which informs visitors regarding correct behaviour towards the environment, people and wildlife of the Arctic. After a day of travel and lots of important information many of us headed to bed to be well rested for our first full day of expedition tomorrow. At 23:00pm the handful of guests still awake were lucky enough to see two Blue Whales! The ship slowed to assess their direction of travel. Large whales are at risk of ship strike so it is vitally important we take their movements into account. Thankfully, the animals remained at a safe distance and they were heading in the opposite direction to us at speed. There was no way we could have slowed or repositioned to get a better view of them; the blue whale is capable of a top speed of 28mph (45kmh) in short bursts (but more regularly cruise along at 1-5mph). Our ship’s top speed is nearer to a maximum of 17mph (27kmh) which gives you an idea of just how fast these whales are, despite being huge!

Day 2: Lilliehöökbreen and Ny-London

Lilliehöökbreen and Ny-London
Date: 03.06.2022
Position: 79° 01.9’ N, 011°37.2’ E
Wind: Variable 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +6

We awoke to our first full day afloat to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and an even more leisurely cruise down the fjord to the Lilliehöökbreen Glacier. Although the glacier front had contracted backwards considerably over the recent past, for those of us visiting for the first time we could only be struck by its sheer enormity. Not the highest of glaciers, but immensely wide and disappearing up the valley towards its distant source, out of our sight into low cloud. The water in front of the glacier was sprinkled with pieces of ice, some with bright blue hues. We started identifying the birds flying around the fjord with Brünnich’s Guillemot and Northern Fulmar being the most common with a few King Eider and an Arctic Skua. A Bearded Seal was also a great find! Back on board, muck boots were distributed to all guests followed by a mandatory briefing about zodiac safety prior to the first planned landing in the afternoon. Over lunch Hondius relocated to the Kongs fjord to undertake the first landing of the cruise. Half the guests entered the zodiacs to be taken to small bay that was the site of a failed marble mining operation by Ernest Mansfield and his Northern Exploration Company Ltd. They explored the perimeter of the remaining cabins (which are still in use by researchers), the crane and the transport engine. In the bay a pair of Long-tailed Duck (pictured left) proved a great start to the wildlife seen which also included Reindeer, Purple Sandpiper and Pink-Footed Goose. One group were completely taken by surprise when a stunning winter plumaged Rock Ptarmigan landed almost at their feet and calmly settled down to feed. The other half of the guests were taken for a zodiac cruise in the fjord including winding through a field of small bergs of many shapes and hues, including one that was uncoloured and virtually transparent, looking like a huge diamond as the sun shone through it. A Minke Whale surfaced in front of one zodiac but then promptly disappeared and was not seen again despite other zodiacs arriving on scene; typical ‘slinky Minke’ behaviour! Several Common (Harbour) Seals were spotted as well as a stunning Long-tailed Skua, sitting imperiously on a rock of the summit of a small hillock in the late afternoon sun. A magnificent end to the day!

Day 3: Magdalenefjord: Gullybukta and Gravsneset

Magdalenefjord: Gullybukta and Gravsneset
Date: 04.06.2022
Position: 79°33.8’ N, 010°57.6’ E
Wind: Variable 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +6

We woke up to rain under a grey sky, but the stunning landscape compensated for this. While guests were slowly waking up, the Expedition staff were already getting ready for the day ahead. At 7:30am Hotel Manager William called us for breakfast and, whilst eating, we were admiring the beautiful landscape that Magdelenafjorden had to offer through the windows of the dining room. Dark, jagged peaks up to 900m high dappled with patches of mosses and the remains of winter’s snow and ice. At 8:30am we were invited to meet at the shelf door to set off for our landing site, Gullybukta. The landing was split in between a small hike and a zodiac cruise. Luckily for us, by now the rain had stopped. We went on a small hike that took us around the landing and up to a Walrus haul out. These gigantic tusked beasts were playing and foraging in the water, being surprisingly active compared to the usual behaviour we observe of them sleeping on the beach! We would have spent the whole day watching these comical creatures ashore, but it was time for the groups to swap; those who had been ashore now went for a zodiac for a cruise around the fjord. Some of us went straight to a Little Auk colony, to watch these tiny birds flying whizzing to and from the cliffs where they were nesting. Other zodiacs took a route along the shore to look for other wildlife. The highlight though was yet more walruses: they curiously swam around the zodiacs giving fantastic views. The morning’s activities drew to a close and we returned to the ship for lunch. The restaurant was buzzing with excitement as passengers shared their experiences from the wildlife filled morning. After lunch it was time for another zodiac cruise, deeper into the fjord. This was a fantastic afternoon with lots of King Eider and Arctic Terns along with harbour seals, some swimming and others hauled out resting. Thanks to a keen eyes guest some of us were able to see an Arctic Fox! Other guests were treated to a fantastic view of a Minke Whale (pictured on previous page) A beautiful blue and white glacier spanned across the end of the fjord. It was undoubtedly stunning, but we could see it was not in the best shape with brown and grey patches indicating this is a retreating glacier. As it continues to retreat, it will erode the rocks around it leaving large amounts of rock dust on the surrounding ice. Back on board, everyone met in the lounge. You could tell it had been a good day by the atmosphere of excited chatter in the room. At 18:15pm Eduardo, our expedition leader, invited us in the lounge to show tomorrow’s plans. He was followed by some recaps about birds: Andrew talking about Skuas and Meike about Little Auks. The day ended with a delicious dinner prepared by our favorite chef Ralf and a celebratory drink at the bar served by Rolando and John, our lovely bartenders. We knew we would sleep well tonight after a day full of expedition and couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow would bring.

Day 4: Fuglefjorden, Smeerenburg and Danskøya

Fuglefjorden, Smeerenburg and Danskøya
Date: 05.06.2022
Position: 79°47.1’ N, 011°23.1’ E
Wind: Variable 1
Weather: Sunny
Air Temperature: +8

When we opened the curtains in the morning a sunny day with calm waters was waiting for us. After breakfast one group of passengers went out for a morning zodiac cruise in the fjord, while the other group stayed at the ship for an excellent lecture about Polar Bears by Sara. Later in the morning the groups swapped their activities. Today’s location for our exploration was the fjord of the birds (Fuglefjorden). Roaming through the broken sea ice we found a variety of birds: Black-legged Kittiwake, Black Guillemots, Atlantic Puffins, Common Eider and King Eider ducks and the Arctic Tern. We were also treated to great views of Bearded Seals, both in the water and resting on the ice. Once again a sharp sighted passenger spotted an Arctic Fox; this one was moulting its white winter coat into its brownish summer fur. In the afternoon we visited the historic Dutch whaling settlement of Smeerenburg (meaning ‘blubber town’) which used to be home to two hundred inhabitants living in sixteen houses and numerous blubber ovens used for boiling down whale blubber to obtain oil. In addition to this, further historical interest was provided nearby when we undertook a zodiac cruise to Virgohamna (situated on Danskøya) to see the remains of a structure used to support a huge hydrogen balloon used by Swedish engineer/physicist, Salomon August Andrée, along with Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg, in an attempt to reach the North Pole in 1897. Alongside the history there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy wildlife during the afternoon. Walrus delighted everyone on shore at Smeerenburg and we had some truly special encounters with Harbour Seals later whilst zodiac cruising. In the evening, we had a special meal: an Arctic barbecue on the back deck! We headed outside for this unique dining experience, a full buffet and barbecue in front of the Smeerenburgbreen. With music playing and free drinks for the evening the atmosphere was very festive and plenty of us saw out the end of the day on the dancefloor.

Day 5: Into the Pack Ice – over 80° North

Into the Pack Ice – over 80° North
Date: 06.06.2022
Position: 80°04.1’ N, 011°34.2’ E
Wind: Variable 1
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4.6

Hondius had sailed through the night to a position just north of the archipelago of Svalbard, to achieve two targets. Our first was to cross the latitude line of 80 degrees North, which we did at 07:31 on the 6th June, 2022. This is a position not many people can say they have crossed because it is so far north. Also, we had left all remaining land to our south and the North Pole was now just 1,111 nautical miles dead ahead of us, as the Captain pointed the ship in that direction. However, to get there from this point you have to overcome an immense physical barrier. We had arrived of the edge of the pack ice, our second target, and from here to the pole is an immense frozen sea. At its southern edge it is broken up by the combined action of the energetic sea and the warming temperatures of the coming summer. At 09:00 Captain Artur turned Hondius into the ice and we able to spend nearly the whole day in this magical environment. We could look back to the iconic mountains of northern Spitzbergen and gaze forward towards the ice locked, northern pole of planet earth. Inside, Laura gave a particularly relevant talk on ‘Sea Ice’. From early morning, with guests still asleep in their cabins, the expedition team had been scouting for polar bears that stay on the pack ice to hunt seals. We immediately began to spot seals hauled out in solitary seclusion on the ice floes. Bearded Seals was the most common species recorded during the day but we also identified three Hooded Seals, the first of the trip. Back indoors, Hazel gave a fascinating presentation on ‘Arctic Pinnipeds’ (flipper footed animals such as the seals and walrus) and Koen on the ‘History of Svalbard’. Meanwhile, outside, most of the now familiar seabirds were seen in good numbers Fulmar, Black Guillemot, Brünnich’s Guillemot and Little Auk. Today was a bit of red-letter day for birds because we sighted two rare and highly sought after gulls of the Arctic (albeit briefly). Firstly, in the morning, a Sabine’s Gull in splendid breeding plumage flew quickly across the bow and never stopped going. In the afternoon, an Ivory Gull was spotted sitting on the ice, next to a Glaucous Gull and a dark phase Arctic Skua. No sooner had the ivory gull been sighted it took to the air and flew away from the ship. In these circumstances only a few lucky people got to see one and even fewer, both. Also, despite the great visibility and a significant number of eyes glued to binoculars and telescopes, we were unable to spot the proverbial ‘needle in a hay stack’: a white bear in a vast white wilderness.

Day 6: Fjortenda Julibukta and Ny-Ålesund

Fjortenda Julibukta and Ny-Ålesund
Date: 07.06.2022
Position: 79°07.6’ N, 011°49.1’ E
Wind: E 2
Weather: Part Cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

Another day with beautiful sunshine, calm weather and outstanding scenery. As we were called for breakfast, the expedition staff were readying the zodiacs and scouting the landing site. Fjortenda Julibukta (14th July bay) was a colorful landing with a lot of green mosses cloaking the cliffs, some Purple Saxifrage, orange lichens and white ice. Even before we were called for boarding, some of us were excitedly waiting on deck 3 for the zodiacs to pick us up and take us out exploring. We were so excited to get back on land after a full day on the ship! The first group started with the landing where we could roam freely between the bird cliffs, the ice and the rocks. We could admire the first flowers blooming as summer was slowly starting. On one side of the landing site we could admire a majestic glacier and, on the other side, a cliff full of nesting birds, mostly Kittiwakes. After an hour and a half of walking around the landing site we were called back for the zodiac cruise… and what a cruise it was! After venturing to see the glacier we went along the cliffs, admiring Atlantic Puffins, Arctic Skuas, Brünnich’s Guillemot, Glaucous Gull and Barnacle Geese. Along with the birds, we enjoyed great views of Svalbard Reindeer and admired the beautiful, layered geology of red and orange meta sedimentary rocks along with the flowering Purple Saxifrage. We returned to the ship to have lunch and during that time Hondius started moving toward our afternoon landing site. We could feel that the trip was getting closer to the end as we started sailing south, closer to Longyearbyen. During the afternoon, we visited the scientific settlement of Ny-Ålesund. An interesting place where some meteorological, geological and biological data are taken. We did a short walk to the mast, outside of the settlement, where Meike and Miriam talked about the history of the place. Then, we went back into town to visit the souvenir shop, post office and little museum. We bought some souvenirs for our family and friends and sent a postcard from the most northerly post office in the world. Around 5:30pm we were all ready to go back to the ship after a truly wonderful day. As with every day since we boarded Hondius, recap was our pre-dinner a ritual. Eduardo presented the plans for tomorrow, followed by Miriam talking about the ‘Arctic Garden’, describing the plant life of this region. Meike then spoke about the North pole zeppelin (balloon) flight that left from Ny-Ålesund with, on board, Roald Amundsen. Everyone was relaxing after dinner assuming the day’s excitement was over, but we then encountered a large gathering of whales feeding together! The bridge team skillfully brought the ship to a halt; three Fin Whales swam close past the bow, whilst Humpback Whales were breaching at the stern. As if that wasn’t enough, there were also some Minke Whales and Sei Whales and numerous large groups of Harp Seals! This was a truly outstanding sight; it is incredibly rare to see four different whale species feeding in the same area at the same moment. We could tell it was a special moment as all of the guides, bridge officers and the captain were excited about what was happening around the ship.

Day 7: Ymerbukta and Alkhornet

Ymerbukta and Alkhornet
Date: 08.06.2022
Position: 78°14.7’ N, 013°57.4’ E
Wind: S 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +7

We arrived at our final full day in Svalbard already! Time had passed by so quickly. Today started with a split landing with the first group going ashore being escorted around a plateau upwards from the beach landing site. This pleasant walk across the tundra rewarded us with some really nice encounters with Svalbard Reindeer; the fact they are so inquisitive and approached us meant there was with plenty of opportunity for photos. An Arctic Fox was also seen darting up the mountainside with unbelievable ease and numerous Ptarmigan (pictured below) were both heard and seen! We were also treated to a flyover from some Arctic Skua. Plant life seen included Buttercup and Arctic Willow with their fluffy catkins. On the shuttling operations to and from the ship some people were lucky enough to get close views of Atlantic Puffins sitting on the water. The zodiac cruise took guests to the face of the Esmarkbreen glacier whose impressive face is more than one kilometre wide. Arctic Terns were everywhere and we were able to observe many facets of their behaviour including pair bonding displays, mating and nesting. A pair of Red-throated Divers flew overhead and at least some zodiacs managed to see a juvenile Bearded Seal sitting on a small rock! This animal was less than half the size of an adult, but it still had a good set of whiskers. Finally, for some brave (mad?!) souls, the infamous ‘Polar Plunge’ into freezing arctic water from the beach took place at 12 noon. After lunch we had another split landing. The zodiac cruisers went into the Trygghamna Fjord to explore the landscape from the sea including the Harrietbreen & Kjerelfbreen Glaciers; Common Seal and Arctic Fox were amongst the wildlife highlights. Ashore, the mighty rock faces of Alkhornet towered over the surrounding ground that we climbed to from the beach. The highest point reaches 431 metres and houses a veritable seabird city during the breeding season. The most numerous are the Black-Legged Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s Guillemot, which occur in seemingly uncountable numbers (thought estimated populations put them at least 25,000 pairs of each species). The kittiwakes could be seen flying down to pool to collect mud and vegetation together and carry it to the cliffs to construct their nests. Back on Hondius we gathered for a final time to join the Captain’s farewell party with cocktails and Expedition Photographer Juan’s superb slideshow. We copied this brilliant memento of our trip to our own memory cards and USB sticks to treasure when we returned home and to share with our family and friends.

Day 8: Longyearbyen - Disembarkation

Longyearbyen - Disembarkation
Date: 09.06.2022
Position: 78°14.0’ N, 015°37.4’ E
Wind: W 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +5

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. Luggage and passengers were transported ashore in Longyearbyen by zodiacs (one last little cruise!) The friendly Expedition Team said farewell and off everyone went with big smiles and memories to treasure forever! 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: 706.1 nautical miles Furthest North: 80°04.388’ N, 11°35.399’ E On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Artur Iakovlev, Expedition Leader Eduardo Rubio Herrera, Hotel Manager William Barnes and all the crew and staff of M/V Hondius, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.

Details

Tripcode: HDS02-22
Dates: 2 Jun - 9 Jun, 2022
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Hondius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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Hondius is the first-registered Polar Class 6 vessel in the world, optimized for the most innovative exploratory voyages throughout the Arctic and Antarctica.

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