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HDS04-19, trip log, Spitsbergen - In search of polar bears & pack-ice

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation (Longyearbyen)

Embarkation (Longyearbyen)
Date: 14.06.2019
Position: 78°14,3’N, 011°00,5’E
Wind: NNE-2
Weather: overcast, sunny
Air Temperature: +5

Svalbard did not live up to its expectations and welcomed us with a rather unusual sight. We have all heard about this isolated Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean with few inhabitants, yet we were greeted by a 2300 passenger cruise ship from Germany instead. Down town Longyearbyen showed similar characteristics to Mallorca during today’s afternoon. It was surprisingly hard to find a cap, not mentioning a place in one of the few restaurants around. This experience enhanced our excitement regarding the embarkation of the Hondius aiming to set sail to more wild and pristine places around Svalbard. We were picked up from the airport and received a warm welcome in this cold place. The midnight sun was shining, so were the faces of the expedition team when they met us for the first time. Our luggage was transported to the ship separately, which is why most of us enjoyed strolling around town in the never-ending daylight. We met our fellow passengers along with the expedition stuff at a small jetty aside the large cruise ship. After life vests were given out, we were prepared for our expedition adventure. The first zodiac ride to the ship left us with a taste of what to expect during the following days. Once onboard we met our expedition leader Jan Belgers in the lounge for an introduction to the safety procedures onboard, followed by a mandatory safety drill practicing abandoning ship procedures. Finally, it was time to join our first delicious dinner onboard, while talking to fellow guests and making new friends. After dinner, we met the whole expedition team in the lounge and were introduced to the plans for the voyage and soon learned that there are almost no real plans whatsoever. Regarding the plans for the next days, we heard that there are no plans except for ice, ‘white fluffy things’ and ice and ice and ice. We were told that we have to be spontaneous as new plans arrive due to variations in wildlife and weather. The evening ended in the bar and around the most important machine onboard- the coffee machine ;). New friendships started to evolve as well as first arguments, which were partially solved and dimmed by the overall excitement among most of us. The first night under the light midnight sun onboard was about to begin. Off to new destinations and into the wild!

Day 2: Ships cruise in Smeerenburg Fjorden

Ships cruise in Smeerenburg Fjorden
Date: 15.06.2019
Position: 79°41,8’N, 011°07,2’E
Wind: NW-2
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +3.5

After a smooth night, without to many waves we woke up in foggy surroundings. The ship made good progress overnight and we were heading for a ships cruise in Smeerenburg Fjorden. After breakfast, everybody had to attend the mandatory AECO lecture but when the fog lifted just after breakfast everybody was enjoying the beautiful surroundings and the walruses that were out on the ice flows around the ship. So, we postponed the meeting and we had some very good sightings of these impressive walruses before we headed for the Smeerenburgbreen, or Smeerenburg glacier, as “Breen” is Norwegian for glacier. At 11.00 there was no escape anymore and all passengers joined the compulsory meeting in the lounge. During the meeting, the expedition leader Jan explained the goals and objectives of AECO, which stands for Association of Artic Expedition Cruise Operators. Basically, it tells everybody what to do and not to do when traveling around the Arctic to make sure the delicate eco system is disturbed as little as possible. Therefore, it’s important that all passengers will receive this information before heading out of the ship on a landing or a zodiac cruise. Straight after the meeting it was time for rubber boots. Deck by deck everybody was called down to collect rubber boots from the boot room, it can be difficult sometimes to find the right size but at the end all got a pair that fitted well. The colour choice however was an issue for anybody though! After a lovely lunch, it was time for the first proper zodiac cruise in the far end of Smeerenburg fjord in between the islands Fugelsongen and Klovingen. The weather was very calm which gave us a good opportunity for some adventurous exploration of the drift ice. Besides the magnificent colours and shapes of the ice we cruised along the coast of Fugelsongen. From the water, we managed to see one of the largest little auk colonies in Svalbard and enjoy their natural behaviour completely undisturbed by our presence. The little auks nest in-between the rocks and boulders where the eggs and chicks are protected from predators. Another highlight for most of us was the sighting of a little group of puffins on the water. After everybody was back on board we once again gathered in the lounge for our daily re-cap before dinner and this time also to meet our captain, Alexey Nazarov. When we left Longyearbyen the day before the captain had to be on the bridge to navigate the ship out of the port so after an amazing first day on this trip the captain came to welcome us on board and to toast on a successful voyage. Jan also explained the plans for the next day and we had a couple of small re-caps by Bill and Sara. Bill talked about how to look, see, think and do and Sara explain the difference between various seals and how to identify them. Dinner was served in the dining room and when we were all enjoying the main course Jan came in and announced the first polar bear sighting. The dining room emptied out very quickly and all of us got a very good look at our first bear. The staff identified the bear as a young male, looking healthy and very relaxed, as he stayed sleeping and stretching on the sheet of ice we found him on. When we all had a very good look, took enough pictures and maybe got a bit cold, we wandered back inside where we found desert was brought up to the lounge for us to enjoy while we were still in beautiful surroundings. After dinner lectures where postponed to the next day so everybody had the change to enjoy desert, the surroundings, a coffee or a drink from the bar. What a magnificent first day!

Day 3: Cruising in Smeerenburgfjord

Cruising in Smeerenburgfjord
Date: 16.06.2019
Position: 79°49,4’N, 010°02,1’E
Wind: N-4
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: -1

After a lovely and quit night cruising in Smeerenburgfjord, there was a loud ‘Bing Bong’ around 6.50 in the morning. When most of us were dreaming of different things, there was a call about a polar bear. So, we were told to dress warmly and come to the outside deck to enjoy the beautiful polar bear. The king of the Arctic lay down not far from the ship and looked at us now and then. It was a very special arctic morning. Some still (half) asleep, we all had a good view on the polar bear while the snow came slightly down. As if we were in a Christmas card. After the polar bear excitement, it was time for breakfast after which Jan explained our plans for the day. The plan was to stay in and around the ice and enjoy the outside scenery as much as we can. Lectures would be put on and announced if there is little to see due to fog for example. And was the polar bear this morning our number two or was it the same one as yesterday? We will never now, but it was good to see it (again). Because a big ice flow came into Smeerenburg fjord tonight, it was not possible to go straight up North. It took too much time and it is not good to break the ice in the fjords with the ship. So, we sailed back to Sørgattet and went up north at the west coasts of Danskøya and Amsterdamøya. Øya means island in Norwegian. Around 10.30 there was a lecture about polar bears in English by Sara and in German by Tobias. Now everybody knows where to look for and how a polar bear manages to live in the cold. Then it was time for a cup of tea and we all had a delicious lunch. At 14.00 Jan told more about the plans of the rest of the trip. It is definitely not possible to go further north because of the pack ice. As there was not much live to be seen outside and we had occasional spells of fog, we continued our travels along the ice-edge to the west so we reach the continental shelf. Because the area around the shelf edge is an upwelling area, lots of nutrients come to the surface. There we hope to see more wildlife, such as seals, whales and maybe polar bears. Because of all the ice around the ship it was a good time to give a lecture about the ice, again in German by Tobias and in English by Iain. After the lecture, we all gathered to make a group picture on the bow of the ship. It was pretty cold so afterwards there was mulled wine and bread and butter pudding with hot vanilla sauce on the aft deck to warm up. Combined with a little snow and sunshine it all was a very good/nice/special experience. Because of the very thick ice it took a long time to find our way to open water, still beautiful surroundings and quite a few seals in the evening. Due to the extra time spend in the ice we decided to stay in the same area for the night and make our way to the continental shelf the next day. Before dinner there were recaps as normal. After a story by Bill, Andreas told us more about the clean-up Svalbard project and the issues with plastic. Szymon also explained how we can get all the trip de tails when we are home. It was a day with everything. Snow, fog, sunshine, polar bear, walruses and the first ivory gulls were spotted. During dinner Hondius sailed right into the ice. Very special to have dinner in an environment like this.

Day 4: Ice, ice, and more ice.

Ice, ice, and more ice.
Date: 17.06.2019
Position: 79°44,6’N, 009°00,3’E
Wind: N-3
Weather: snow, medium vis.
Air Temperature: 0

Another expedition day in the pack ice in the north west of Svalbard. We wake up in a white desert. A landscape of black, white and blue. What a sight. Jan calls us all into the lounge after breakfast to talk about the plans for the day and the rest of the voyage. Plans have been changed and we hope to head for the beautiful Hornsund fjord in two days. But for today something special is planned. A landing on the sea ice. Everyone gets of the ship and can walk a few meters over the ice. What an astonishing thought. Captain Alexey tries to find a suitable ice floe and dock it alongside to Hondius. After several attempts, he postpones the landing to after lunch as he first has to find a new ice floe. But luck is not on our side after lunch either. All the ice the ship tries to dock at, breaks into small pieces alongside the vessel, making a landing to risky and we sadly have to refrain from our courageous plans. But something better pops up (literally). A minky whale has been spotted straight ahead of the ship. There are only few moments that the dining room empties so fast and they are normally connected to the encounter of yellow fluffy animals. But as soon as we arrive at the outer decks, we see nothing. Well not completely. There is ice and there is water, but no trace of an animal. Simply nothing. Minky whales are certainly not the easiest to spot and most of the time just dive again immediately and so it comes that it is gone without most of us even getting a glimpse of it. We begin to head back inside, slightly disappointed. No whale, no bear. What are we doing here? Another announcement. A whale has been sighted. A bowhead whale. Now, this is something special. Once bowhead whales have been roaming the waters around Svalbard in numbers of tens of thousands (estimates are that there were about 60.000 bowhead whales in Svalbard waters), but then the whaling period started in the early 17th century and after an intense whaling period the bowhead whales were basically extinct on Svalbard and remained so for the following centuries. Only very few and rare sightings have been made over the last decades. And now this, a bowhead whale in the distance, slowly swimming between the ice floes. Surfacing and then diving again. Adam has to postpone his lecture about forgotten explorers several times as the bowhead whale just keeps poping up over the course of the afternoon. And in the late afternoon even the daily recap has to be postponed to after dinner, as we now have four to five bowhead whales swimming in near vicinity to the vessel. Surfacing, diving and showing their tails. What an incredible experience. An experience, which is only topped by Mikels call “It’s dinner time”. Another wonderful dinner on Hondius. But even during dinner the bow head walls pop up and during the after-dinner recap more bowhead walls are seen in the ocean. In total, we saw between 15 and 20 bowhead walls, an extremely rare encounter, as the current Svalbard water population is estimated to be around 300. What a lucky day we had.

Day 5: Kongsfjorden

Date: 18.06.2019
Position: 78°57,1’N, 012°08,8’E
Wind: NNW-3
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +1

We were woken up at 5:30am by the bridge because they spotted a nice pod of beluga whales very close to the coast entering the fjord. All we could see at first were some yellow backs arching out of the water very close to the beach and it seems they were rubbing their bodies on the pebbles to slough off their dead skin. Belugas are called the canaries of the sea because of their nice songs under water. From what Jan told us, the Spitsbergen population is relatively silent. They are often seen in the fjords. As we continued entering the fjord we saw a couple of elusive minke whales. But then we saw another group of belugas on the other side of the fjord. This pod was much larger and probably contained about 150 individuals. It was a treat to see them swim slowly along the shore with their blows showing nicely against the sun. As we continued we entered the Krossfjorden and we scouted for polar bears. We went all the way to the bottom of the fjord and observed the Lilliehookbreen in all its glory, especially with the beautiful sunshine hitting it. It was not long until Jan discovered another pod of belugas swimming at the edge of the glacier. After a nice observation of the glacier and the landscape we headed back out of the fjord and found a couple of minke whales feeding. Sara and Tobias both gave a lecture on polar bears, in English and German respectively. We headed then towards Kongsfjorden where we planned to do a landing. Both groups of passenger went on shore on two different beaches about a kilometre apart. The site is called Blomstrand halvoya where Mansfield camp was established back in the days in the search for marble. We enjoyed the beautiful landscape with these pyramid-shaped mountains around the fjord and all the passengers were engaged in hikes of different lengths. Back on the boat we listened to the recaps on bowhead whales by Sara and on art by Bill. As we were having dinner the ship navigated out of the fjord and headed South. Most of us were still scanning for polar bears and whales. After dinner Dr Spitzenberger gave a talk on the differences and similarities between the Arctic and Antarctica. Many passengers stayed on the bridge until very late scanning for whales as we had beautiful midnight sun.

Day 6: Sailing through the entrance into Hornsund

Sailing through the entrance into Hornsund
Date: 19.06.2019
Position: 77°02,6’N/ 015°57,9’E
Wind: NNW-3
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +4

The day dawned upon the mighty Hondius while sailing through the entrance into Hornsund, one of the most beautiful fjords of the archipelago. Despite the sun trying its very best, the clouds prevailed. Luckily, the clouds were high enough to allow us an excellent view of the impressive sharp mountains and their glaciers within this magnificent fjord. We were even able to see the highest mountain of south Spitsbergen: the very steep Hornsundtind reaching 1431m! The plan for the morning? Zodiac cruise in Burgerbukta, to get closer to glaciers in order to scrutinize the smaller details that abound in the ice. One by one, the zodiacs were put the water and the drivers were eagerly awaiting the first trial of Hondius shell door – a fantastic invention making boarding easier and more comfortable for everyone. Not too long after, zodiacs were leaving mother Hondius behind in all directions like little spiders leaving big mama’s back. 100 years ago, Burgerbukta was completely covered by ice, but the retreating glaciers Paierlbreen and Mühlbacherbreen turned it into two separate bays both called Burgerbukta. The western branch was full of crackling ice and blue icebergs – a symphony of sounds and impressions! Kittiwakes were flying above and along the ice while zodiacs move through the brash ice towards the glacier front. Tobias and Andreas were in their elements as the geology of this fjord is quite spectacular as well with marbles and shales intercalating and rusty waterfalls originating from the iron content within the rocks. Back at the ship, lunch was already waiting for us. More food is never a bad thing, surely the chef would agree! In the afternoon, the Captain was gently bringing the Hondius in the Brepollen – a wide bay with an almost completely glacial coastline constituted by both the Horn- and the Storbreen, while guides and guests alike were scanning the shores for Polar Bears. Even though, we did not spot any bears, the scenery was breath-taking. The sun has fought its way through the clouds and the glacier fronts open up a marvellous landscape in front of us. It was hard to stop enjoying it, but eventually, it was time to turn west heading back towards the entrance of Hornsund again. Jan gave us the plans for the following day, followed by Andreas with historic pictures of the retreating glaciers in Hornsund and Marcel speaking about Hondius – no, not the ship, but the cartographer. Just when Michael called us for dinner, a Humpback Whale was spotted in front of the ship. There was no way we would head in for dinner! It nicely showed its fluke a couple of times before we decided to leave it be and continue on to another one of Chef’s fantastic dinners and lectures on glaciers by Andreas and Lawrence thereafter. The lectures did not make it to the end as we arrived at the shelf edge and with that in a whale bonanza! First, we had a couple of close encounters with more Humpback Whales before two Blue Whales came into the picture and seemed quite interested in Hondius. They came very close crossing the bow and showing their fluke. What a fantastic finish of the day!

Day 7: St. Jonsfjord

St. Jonsfjord
Date: 20.06.2019
Position: 78°31,3’N, 012°35,1’E
Wind: NW-4
Weather: excellent
Air Temperature: +6

We woke softly to the dulcet tones of Jan’s wake-up call, a now familiar morning ritual. Jan let us know it was glorious weather outside; sunshine, blue skies, and barely a whisper of wind. As we peered out of our windows we were greeted by a stunning vista of mountains and glaciers, all reflected perfectly in the deep, silver sea Forlandsundet. During breakfast Hondius entered St. Jonsfjord and we steamed gently to a position about halfway up this serene little inlet on the west coast of Spitsbergen. We met for a quick briefing after breakfast and before long we were boarding zodiacs, bound for a landing on the tundra of St. Jonsfjorden. With calm weather and placid seas we were able to board through the shell doors in the side of Hondius; stepping straight into zodiacs. We made two landings; one group heading to the northern shore, and the other to the southern shore. At both sites we saw reindeer, Arctic skua, kittiwakes, fulmars and much more. Several large floes of winter sea ice drifted listlessly through the fjord and we could see seals making the most of the last few days of this sheltered haul out before it succumbs to the summer sun. The shores of the fjord were showing the first signs of the brief Arctic summer; tiny flecks of colour dotted the tundra as the first flowers began to open and we spent a glorious few hours wandering among them. A few groups paused quietly; taking the time to appreciate the sights and sounds of the high-latitudes in a few moments of Arctic silence. This landscape can be so hostile, yet today the fjord was perfectly still, the distant cries of kittiwakes and the exhalations from a foraging seal was all that broke the calm. We made our way back to the ship just in time for another sumptuous lunch and as we chatted Hondius heaved anchor and made her way to Poolepynten, our goal for the afternoon. Here we split into groups, landing on the sloping shingle spit. We roamed amongst the driftwood and learned that most of it originates from the boreal forests of Siberia. These itinerant logs may have spent years among the tortured pack ice before being released from the frigid clutches of the Arctic Ocean and drifting onto these remote Arctic shores. In our small groups we tentatively walked towards the tip of Poolepynten. With hushed voices, and gentle movements, we approached a gently sighing mass of russet bodies; more than a hundred walruses hauled out on the beach and dozing peacefully in the warm afternoon sun. We observed them slumbering and digesting, many in poses of total abandon; flippers and tusks stuck in the sand or draped over one another, seemingly without a care in the world. At the end of the afternoon we were all back aboard, and we headed to the lounge for the customary recap. However, this time, and our last time, we were greeted with a glass of champagne and were joined by Captain Alexey. We toasted to a successful voyage; to a week of exploration, of ethereal icescapes, magnificent fjords, the ever-shifting Arctic light, and a bounty of wildlife surprises.

Day 8: Longyearbyen

Date: 21.06.2019
Position: 78°13’738’ N/ 015°36’0278’E
Wind: E-2
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: 0

It’s finally time to say goodbye. On Hawaii they say ‘never to say goodbye, but always hello’, on Svalbard we say nothing- Norwegians are usually not particularly talkative. However, we hope to see you again in the North or South or somewhere in between…off to new horizons! On behalf of everyone on board we thank you for travelling with us and wish you a safe journey home!

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