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HDS03-24, trip log, North Spitsbergen Explorer - Polar bears, bowhead whales & more

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation – Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Embarkation – Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Date: 10.06.2024
Position: Kullkaia (the Coal Pier)
Wind: NW3
Weather: Sunny
Air Temperature: +15

What a beautiful day to begin our Arctic adventure, cloudless blue sky, bright sunshine and calm waters. The Expedition Team lifted luggage aboard and then greeted everyone as they walked up the gangway of our lovely ship, M/V Hondius.

With all passengers and their luggage happily aboard Expedition Leader Jerry, and the Chief Officer commenced the mandatory ship safety. During the safety briefing we were shown how the life jackets are put on and shown the floatation suits which are stored in all cabins for use in an emergency. 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 everyone had arrived wearing their lifejackets correctly, we proceeded to the lifeboat boarding area on Deck 6.

After this briefing, we received a welcome briefing from our Hotel Manager Albert and the Expedition Leader. Captain Arturo made a toast to start off the trip, a real captain’s cocktail with prosecco, and canapes. It was noticeable everyone was very excited to start the trip! We had our first dinner on board, a wonderful buffet provided by Head Chef Ralf and his team. 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.

Day 2: Smeerenburgfjorden

Date: 11.06.2024
Position: 79° 37.7’N 011° 28.6’E
Wind: N4
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +1

On our first day of activities in Svalbard we woke up approaching the rugged western coast of Spitsbergen. Good progress had been made during the night, despite the poor visibility and while breakfast was served in the restaurant M/V Hondius made her way into the northern entrance of Smeerenburgfjorden.

The early morning was mostly dedicated to mandatory briefing such as polar bear safety and Zodiac operations. However, since our Expedition Leader Jerry did not want to lose any opportunity for an outdoor activity, we soon found ourselves getting into the Zodiac for our first time. Sea conditions were ideal for a morning cruise and in the meantime the visibility had improved, and clouds had lifted up, allowing us to appreciate the jagged and pointy mountains which gave the name to this island of the Svalbard archipelago.

Cruising slowly into the bay that hid Smereenburgbreen, we quickly discovered growlers and bergy-bits of different shapes and hues, tinged with blue, turquoise and white. Multiple glaciers and moraines stretched down from the valley, telling us a distant story of the glaciation of these islands; at the feet of those moraines, we found flocks of Black Guillemots, Eider Ducks and even a considerable number of King Eiders. The glacier was quite active and frequently calved into the bay creating small waves and discharging brash ice into the water. Less than an hour into our cruise a small pod of Beluga was spotted swimming alongside the front of Smereenburgbreen.

Belugas, also known as White Whales, are gregarious marine mammals adapted to live in the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean. Measuring between 3 to 5 meters, they are easily distinguished by their pale-white coloration and the lack of a dorsal fin. Belugas often forage near glacier terminus where calving activity stir up the water and sediments, providing a good opportunity for these agile cetaceans to feed on crustaceans and benthic invertebrates. What a nice morning to start our first day!

Back to the ship, lunch was served in the restaurant, followed by a nice cup of coffee and a short relaxing break. At 3pm we were invited to go out again on the Zodiac for a second cruise alongside the northern coast of Danskøya and into the historical bay of Virgohamna. During the early afternoon the wind had picked up a bit, creating a bit of a swell in the fjord; nothing difficult for our excellent guides who quickly took us on board and drove us towards shallower and calmer waters.

Virgohamna is known as ‘Svalbard`s Cape Canaveral’. Despite being used at the beginning of the 17th century as a whaling station by the Dutch, it gained its importance in the late 18th century when the Swedish engineer Salomon Andree decided to make his first attempt to reach the North Pole by using a hydrogen filled balloon. The first unsuccessful try was followed by a second one in the summer 1897. Andree with two other members of the expedition took off from Virgohamna and started to fly North, passing 82° of latitude. Unfortunately, the balloon could not maintain its height and after only 2 days, they crashed landed on the sea ice, from where they hauled provisions for 2 months eventually ended up on the remote island of Kvitøya. The fate of the expedition was only solved when their bodies were found by a Norwegian sealing ship 33 years after their departure from Virgohamna – photographic and diary entries record the sad end to the expedition. A dramatic story worthy of the heroic age of Arctic exploration.

Day 3: Woodfjorden (am), Bockfjord (pm)

Woodfjorden (am), Bockfjord (pm)
Date: 12.06.2024
Position: 79° 38.2’N 013° 13.2’E
Wind: W6
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +3

Early this morning while en route to Texas Bar, the expedition team spotted a polar bear on shore. It was feeding on a carcass for a while as the ship approached and then settled down to rest. We decided to change our plan from landing to a full ship Zodiac cruise to try and get a look at the bear resting on shore. Jerry woke everyone up early with the announcement of the bear sighting – what an exciting way to start your day!

As we loaded the Zodiacs, a second polar bear was spotted approaching the area of the sleeping bear. The new arrival woke up the first bear and they started interacting and came down to the shoreline. As we approached with the Zodiacs, we realized there was a carcass on the beach and they both began feeding. The pair seemed to be a mother with a cub from the previous season. The little cub was almost all grown up and was nearly the same size as it’s mom. Both bears happily fed on the beach throughout out encounter. The cub was making little growling noises while eating, perhaps a sign of a bear happy with its meal. The bears were eating some kind of toothed whale, but it was very difficult to tell what exactly was on the menu while out in the Zodiacs.

When we returned to the ship there was some detective work to be done to determine what kind of whale the bears were feeding on at the beach. The freshest one that they were eating turned out to be a white-beaked dolphin.

As we turned our course for our afternoon landing, we enjoyed beautiful calm seas. Marco gave a lecture about sea ice but was interrupted by a breaching minke whale! Minke whales are not the most charismatic whale species, but this one had some energy to use! It jumped out of the water enough times that most people could get outside and enjoy at least one aerial display. We stayed with the whale for another few kilometres while it travelled, since we were both going the same direction.

We picked up speed again and made our way to Jotunkjeldene for our first landing of the trip. In the distance the expedition team sighted reindeer during their scouting efforts and when we landed on shore, we saw plenty of evidence of their presence in the form of droppings all over the hillside. We landed in groups for hiking and after making our way out of the Zodiacs and dropping off our lifejackets we gathered on the hillside. Jotunkjeldene is known for its interesting geology and hot springs. Every hike passed by the lowest hot spring, enjoying flowering tundra plants along the way. Stunning views surrounded us as we ascended the rocky slopes. We even sighted two more minke whales in the water near the landing site that were busy feeding under flocks of Arctic terns. It was great to stretch our legs after being confined to the ships and Zodiacs since leaving Longyearbyen. We were met with a splashy and cold Zodiac ride to get back to Hondius for the evening, but nothing a warm shower and dinner couldn’t fix!

After dinner we were closing in on the pack ice for the next day as we steamed northward. At about 9:50pm we crossed North of 80 degrees latitude! Many gathered on the bridge to watch the chart screens read out at our northerly position. Almost like a New Year’s Eve count down.

Day 4: Sea Ice Ship cruising

Sea Ice Ship cruising
Date: 13.06.2024
Position: 80° 45.6N 013°05.2’ E
Wind: W3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: -1

We were treated to a slight lie-in this morning after a couple of days of early morning starts and the beginning of the adventures almost seemed like they were planned, as we just began to nudge into the sea-ice at wake-up call. It was straight into the ornithological action from the get-go with flocks of Kittiwakes foraging in front of the ship, picking up little tidbits from the ice as we pushed through. The conditions were excellent (albeit a little chilly!) with great visibility and truly little wind so, after a fortifying breakfast it was all eyes to the ice as we searched for wildlife.

The birders were soon picking out sought after Ivory Gulls in amongst the Kittiwakes, their harsh cries usually alerting us to their presence as they were almost invisible against the white snow and ice. We were also enjoying fantastic views of Black Guillemots, Little Auks, Brunnich’s Guillemots and Glaucous Gulls as they fed in the open water between the ice chunks and more surprisingly, a little Snow Bunting was hopping around the back decks, certainly regretting its life choices out here, a long way from land!

It wasn’t long before we started seeing a few mammals to go with the abundant birdlife with several big, chunky Bearded Seals seen, along with a few smaller, cuter Ringed Seals and on this theme, the first lecture of the day started with Katlyn talking about some of the potential marine mammals that we may encounter. However, in what became a running joke through the day the lecture was cut short by the shout from the bridge of ‘Polar Bear’ out on the ice. No one (especially not Katlyn!) really minded the interruption for us to enjoy another great sighting of this beautiful apex predator.

The bear proved to be perfectly content with its life though and spent the entire time we were there asleep on the ice! After lunch, we reluctantly left the bear to its slumbers and carried on with our travels through this wonderful environment. Next on the lecture programme was Simon talking about the birdlife of Svalbard, summarizing what we have seen out here on the ice, on land and what we could potentially see on the rest of this trip. After this, it was back out on the deck where the sun made several valiant attempts to break through the clouds which we celebrated with more Ivory Gulls and more importantly (to some anyway!) hot chocolate with rum and cream out on the bow – a wonderful moment in this pristine and other-worldly habitat.

Speaking of valiant attempts, Katlyn then tried to complete her interrupted marine mammal lecture, but this again was doomed to failure as another shout came from the bridge, this time, it was for a magnificent Bowhead Whale off the port side. This rare, impressive cetacean was at the top of many peoples target list for the trip and even though the visibility was starting to close in we all got brilliant views of this huge whale as it surfaced pretty near the ship.

A fantastic end to our day in the sea ice, with many of our big targets found and some excellent conditions in which to experience this incredible environment – a fabulous and exciting day of wildlife watching.

Day 5: Alkefjellet (am) and Eolusneset (pm)

Alkefjellet (am) and Eolusneset (pm)
Date: 14.06.2024
Position: 79° 53.1’ N 017° 42.2’ E
Wind: W5
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: 0

Hondius sailed through the night to the northwestern side of Svalbard, anchoring in the Hinlopen Strait for our morning exploration of the Alkefjellet cliffs. Despite the wind picking up, our excitement for the Zodiac cruise past these magnificent bird cliffs was palpable. The dramatic dolerite cliffs of Alkefjellet rise 150 meters straight from the sea, teeming with seabirds like Brünnich’s Guillemots and Black Guillemots, creating a spectacular sight.

After breakfast, the wind and swell had intensified. The expedition team ventured out with two Zodiacs to assess the conditions, navigating high waves and getting splashed in the process. With waves crashing against the gangway, Expedition Leader Jerry decided it was safer to sail Hondius past the bird cliffs. As Captain Arthur sailed Hondius by, we enjoyed breathtaking views of the geology and thousands of birds perched on the cliffs, using telescopes to get close-up looks that brought big smiles to our faces.

Continuing our journey, Hondius set sail for the next destination while Laurence gave an enlightening lecture on glaciology. He explained that Svalbard is a natural laboratory for glaciology, with 59% of the archipelago covered in ice, featuring different types of glaciers and ice caps. We learned that the oldest ice on Earth is in Antarctica, over 2 million years old, while the youngest ice is just 20 years old on Mount St. Helens. Listening to Laurence explanation of the melting of the ice that by 2100 the sea level has risen with more than 50 meters. It made us realize that our grandchildren will not experience the Arctic as we see it today and have to adapt to a new reality.

For lunch, Head Chef Ralf and his galley team prepared a mouthwatering meal with options for every taste. As we sailed towards our afternoon destination, Sorgfjorden, the wind picked up and a bit of fog rolled in. The expedition team diligently scanned the horizon for bears. Once it was safe, we received the green light to go outside for our afternoon activities, which included a split landing and Zodiac cruise.

Eolusneset, still covered in snow, provided amazing views and historical landmarks. We hiked up to a lookout where a tall cross stands, raised in 1855 by skipper C. Holmgren in memory of fallen whalers. Contrary to earlier beliefs, the graves in the area were not related to a sea battle in Sorgfjorden but were instead a cemetery for 17th and 18th-century whalers. This fascinating history added depth to our adventure as we explored the area.

During the Zodiac cruise, our guides led us through Sorgfjorden, where we marvelled at the mountains and spotted reindeer and purple sandpipers along the shoreline. Onshore, near the whalers’ graves, we were delighted to see an Arctic fox, still in its winter fur with a bit of its summer coat showing. This curious fox made sure to check out all the new visitors to its territory, and we all stood in awe of this Arctic treasure.

The evening concluded with our daily recap, where Expedition Leader Jerry shared plans for the next day. Marco provided insights on the geology of Alkefjellet, and Meike discussed the life cycle of the Brünnich’s Guillemots that breed on the cliffs. This informative session rounded off a day filled with exploration and learning.

We ended the day with a delicious dinner prepared by Chef Ralf and the legendary chocolate cake for dessert, ready to sleep well after a day full of adventure, eagerly anticipating what tomorrow would bring.

Day 6: Sea Ice Ship Cruising – North Spitsbergen

Sea Ice Ship Cruising – North Spitsbergen
Date: 15.06.2024
Position: 79° 54.4 N 008° 42.0 E
Wind: NE3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

Expedition Leader Jerry decided for another day in the sea ice looking out for Bowhead Whales and other wildlife. The staff were up on the bridge on an hourly rota throughout the night to see if they could be spotted, but it was a quiet night. Although no wildlife was spotted upon the ice, Joyce took a dive into the ocean depths and presented her lecture on life on the deep seabed. Even though it’s not visible from above the water surface, the ocean floor is teeming with life! But then, just like the two days before, after 30 minutes, the lecture was interrupted by a wildlife sighting. In this case, an Arctic fox! Of course, as we were all excited, we grabbed our warm coats and binoculars and headed outside to spot the fox. The fox was walking so beautifully along the sea ice edge, and with the water so calm, a fabulous reflection could be seen.

As we continued looking for any wildlife, we could see some seals here and there, in the water as well as on ice floes. Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Ivory gulls were spotted throughout the day as well. Then it was time for lunch, after which the hotel team treated us to lovely ice cream! Afterward, Meike delivered a captivating lecture on historic Dutch whaling practices in Svalbard. She transported us back in time, illustrating how whalers operated and endured the harsh, frigid conditions. By sharing a brief segment of her documentary about the last Dutch Antarctic Whaler, she provided a personal and emotional glimpse into the history of Dutch whaling.

The afternoon was spent outside on deck, looking for anything in our vicinity. Simon even spotted an uncommon Dark Morphed Pomarine Skua!

At 16.00, one of our guests, Paul Wolff, a documentary maker, presented a film in the lecture room that depicted beautiful footage of wildlife from all around Svalbard. Right after, most of us went out again on the decks to make sure we did not miss any wildlife walking or swimming around us. Just when we started to think that today might not be the day for Bowhead Whales, a guest spotted something in the water. At first, it was too far away to identify it. As we got closer, it was clear to tell it was a Bowhead Whale. And it turned out not to be just one, but two - a female and calf! They were working effectively together, in a maneuver called ‘skimming’ where they swim along the surface with their mouths open, catching as many krill as possible. They swim in tandem so that the one behind catches all the krill that the front one misses – a most efficient strategy. Beautiful and intelligent gentle giants at work, truly special to witness!

After they turned back into the thicker ice, it was time to leave them alone and make up time to get to our next landing site for the following day. We had a quick recap at which Albert gave a little talk about the sad but harsh truth: information about disembarkation day. However, still having an entire day of activities ahead of us, Jerry informed us about the next day, after which it was time to put on layers of warm clothes and head outside for an Arctic BBQ! Surrounded by beautiful fjords, the BBQ and swaying on the dance floor brought an end to an unforgettable day.

Day 7: Poolepynten (am), Alkehornet (pm)

Poolepynten (am), Alkehornet (pm)
Date: 16.06.2024
Position: 78° 24.3 N 012° 01.9 E
Wind: SE4
Weather: Calm
Air Temperature: +5

Today was our last day and we set out to meet the ‘tooth-walkers’ of the Arctic - walruses. We were not disappointed, and a smooth Zodiac drive took us to the beach at Poolepynten from where we walked very quietly up to their haul out. Both male and female walrus have tusks (which gives them their nick name) and those of a male can be up to 1m long and weigh 5kg each. Although tusks may be used for defense and display, mainly they are used to pull themselves onto ice floes – especially after a tasty meal of clams when they haul out to digest. Walruses are super social creatures, huddling together in large groups, and their size and weight plus strong social bonds means they are not afraid to face up to polar bears or orca that are brave enough to take them on.

We divided into groups of 40 so that we could approach the walruses in small numbers, others went for walk first on the flat coastal plain of Prins Karl Forland, enjoying views of the west Spitsbergen mountains. Apart from a couple of curious walruses who checked us out from the water, they were undisturbed by our presence and continued to sleep, scratch, and huddle together all morning.

In the afternoon, we continued 3 hours on our journey back to the relative civilisation of Isfjord. As we came round into the fjord, the mountains to the north reared up including Tryghamma with its dramatic cliff of Alkehornet. Just like Alkejellet, this cliff is a haven for breeding Brunnich’s guillemots (Alke = Auk) and like that cliff, it was teeming with the cries and calls of birds beginning to settle to nesting on the safe ledges. Once ashore we were once again inundated with wildlife experiences - - an Arctic fox getting harassed and chased off by an Arctic Skua; nesting purple sandpipers and a huge herd of reindeer some of which were so curious they came very close to our guests. Zodiac cruising also took place giving us alternative views of Alkehornet, and a few puffins on the water. As a finale, a few hardy people took to the water in a polar plunge!

Back on board, we had Captain’s Farewell and toasted an incredible team – the ship’s crew, the bridge and expedition team and not the least, the guests with their huge enthusiasm and energy for such a successful cruise. Ralph’s galley then provided us with an excellent last meal after which we downloaded photos, returned our Muck boots, packed our bags and headed for a last drink in the bar to swap contact details with newfound friends.

Day 8: Disembarkation – Kullkaia, Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Disembarkation – Kullkaia, Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Date: 17.06.2024

We woke to a different scene from the last few days – the coal pier in Longyearbyen where we had embarked! After getting our luggage off the ship, most of us headed to the airport although some had the chance for a last exploration of Longyearbyen. Some lucky guests had decided to stay on another trip, and head south and east to explore Svalbard! Wherever headed, we all had wonderful memories to take us home…


Tripcode: HDS03-24
Dates: 10 Jun - 17 Jun, 2024
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Hondius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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Hondius is the world’s first-registered Polar Class 6 vessel and was built from the ground up for expedition cruising.

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