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HDS04-23, trip log, North Spitsbergen, In search of polar bear & pack ice

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Longyearbyen - Embarkation Day

Longyearbyen  - Embarkation Day
Date: 14.06.2023
Position: 78°13.7’N / 015°36.02’E
Wind: W 5
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +1

When we arrive at the quayside in Longyearbyen, our adventure begins immediately with a Zodiac ride! Hondius, our transport and home for the next seven days, is sitting out at anchor in the fjord. In a chilly wind, we don our lifejackets for the first time and enter the Zodiacs for the transfer to the ship. Our luggage is already on board, and we are greeted by the enthusiastic staff before being shown to our cabins.

Once settled in, we all gather in the observation lounge for a mandatory safety drill from our Chief Officer, Matei, which includes an evacuation exercise ending next to our designated lifeboat station. We then have an initial briefing from the Deputy Hotel Manager, Alfredo, before our Expedition Team Leader, Sara, invites her multi-talented team to introduce themselves to us. Sara then gives us an outline of the cruise schedule and some of the key safety issues. Then it is down to the dining room for our first taste of the excellent food on board, meeting some of our fellow travellers and members of the expedition team who join us for dinner. There is no stopping even after that, as we make our way down to Deck 3 to be fitted for our essential muckboots. Finally, we make our way to bed, tired but excited. Our adventure has begun!

Day 2: Gullybukta & Gravneset

Gullybukta & Gravneset
Date: 15.06.2023
Position: 79°57.0’N / 010°87.0’E
Wind: NW 3
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: 0

First thing in the morning sees us still heading north in Northwest Spitzbergen National Park after setting off from Longyearbyen last night. We are soon turning east into Magdalenefjorden and our first destination of the trip. As the incredible scenery surrounds us, we all gather in the lounge for the vital AECO, Zodiac, and polar bear safety briefings. These briefings keep us safe and also increase our anticipation of the places we will visit.

As soon as the briefings are concluded, we go straight into the action with a short, mid-morning Zodiac cruise towards Gullybukta. We see a burping, farting, smelling pile of sleeping walruses on the beach at the entrance to the little bay on the south side of the fjord. Accompanied by Arctic terns, black guillemots, and eiders, it is a perfect little introduction to wonderful Svalbard, the Zodiac operations, and the incredible sights we will enjoy throughout the trip.

After a good lunch, we head out again for our first full afternoon with a split landing / Zodiac cruise at Gravneset and the fine glacier of Wagonwaybreen. On the land, we are treated to a nice little walk, all the time dodging the aggressive Arctic terns that are settling down to breed on the shingle ridge. We enjoy some moments of self-reflection as we gaze across the small fence at the site of 130 whaler’s graves, wondering about the incredibly hard lives of the 17th century whalers interred at this remote location. The Zodiac cruise part of the afternoon takes us deeper into the fjord, past a fine selection of wildlife from resting Harbour Seals perched on their rocks in classic ‘banana’ pose, to an excellent mixed flock of Common and King Eiders – an excellent total of 41 Kings is a great aggregation and singing Snow Buntings spaced evenly along the hillsides, hoping to attract a mate.

After fantastic views of the glacier and some wonderfully twisted iceberg shapes deep in the fjord, we happily head back to the ship for another sumptuous meal and to bask in the memory of some wonderful sights on our first full day. It is not over though, as after dinner we continue our way north towards our next destination and the alluring promise of the ice-edge. We enjoy some flat, glass-calm seas in the glorious evening light, all the time surrounded by thousands of Little Auks and Brunnich’s Guillemots whizzing around, also making the most of the fantastic evening.

Day 3: Smeerenburg/Virgohamna & Ytre and Indre Norskoya

Smeerenburg/Virgohamna & Ytre and Indre Norskoya
Date: 16.06.2023
Position: 79°43.5’N / 011°22.00’E
Wind: NNW 1
Weather: Sunny
Air Temperature: +6

Waking up north of the Smeerenburgfjord, we make our way into the to the peninsula of Smeerenburg at Amsterdamøya. Captain Toni positions Hondius just between Amsterdamøya and Danskøya. Activity of this morning is split Zodiac Cruise and a landing at Smeerenburg.

The cruise takes us along Virgohamna, where we find historical remains from the several different attempts to reach the North Pole. The most important, but also most tragic, was the attempt of Salomon August Andreé, Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg with a Balloon. They all died on Kvitøya, after their balloon crashed in the pack ice.

We also hear stories about Walter Wellmann, just when we pass some remains of these times. A lot of harbour seals are lying on the rocks, looking like bananas, and some of us are lucky to spot a Minke whale during the cruise. We go ashore at Smeerenburg, which means ‘blubber town’. About 20 brown and blubbery Walruses are snoozing on the eastern end of the peninsula, and we get the chance to observe and photograph them while they yawn, roll and scratch themselves. Not a lot of action while they are digesting their clams.

Turning around, we can see a lot of Arctic Terns mating, since their breeding season has just started. Of course, this place is mainly known as one of the largest land whaling stations in the 17th century. Starting in 1616, the mainly Dutch whalers built solid houses and ovens for cooking the blubber that is extracted from the whales. We walk along the line of the ovens and are really stunned about the good condition of some of the 400-year-old blubber ovens.

During the walk along the coastline, we also pick up a lot of plastic. Mainly fishing-related rubbish like nets, buoys and pieces of plastic boxes. This is very dangerous for the birds and other animals, Sara tells us in the recap. ‘They eat this and die of starvation’. After a fully packed morning, we return to the ship and enjoy lunch.

The ship travels further to the north. Just north of the Smeerenburgfjord, the islands of Klovningen and Ytre & Indre Norskya appear. Hondius positions itself between these three islands, and we go for a long Zodiac cruise all together. There are birds everywhere: Black and Common Guillemots, Puffins, Fulmars and Arctic Terns, Eider Ducks and Barnacle Geese. Some of us are lucky to spot two Bearded Seals, and one of them is singing to attract a female! Others can witness a Glaucous Gull trying to eat a sculpin in one piece. The gull struggles for 15 minutes, but then finishes the meal successfully. After 2 - 2,5 hours of cruising, we are happy to be back on the ship and enjoy a hot cup of coffee. In the recap Sara tells us we will be in the pack ice in about an hour, and we will also cross the 80° N this evening.

After dinner, we hurry up to go out on the bow or to the bridge. The ice is fantastic, and Captain Toni safely navigates Hondius through it. At 20:40 p.m. we cross the 80° and Captain Toni himself does the announcement. Many of us have come to north with this aim and there are a lot of happy faces on the bridge. Let´s see what happens next.

Day 4: Amongst the Pack Ice

Amongst the Pack Ice
Date: 17.06.2023
Position: 80°10.0’N / 010°08.00’E
Wind: E 3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

Another dawn with great expectation as Hondius motors away from the Svalbard coast into the drift ice. The most eager of us, festooned with binoculars and cameras, line the ship bulwarks before breakfast hoping to be the first to sight a polar bear. Breakfast is consumed rather quickly as we all seek to get outside to savour the stunning vastness of a seascape totally studded with ice-flows. Countless interesting asymmetric white shapes set against the swirling ever changing the dark leads. It is a mesmerising hypnotic experience staring down at this visual feast. In the extreme distance to the south, the mountains are tinged with a faint hint of orange. Photography is the morning priority amid the gentle throb of the ship’s engines, punctuated by the constant click of the shutters of the cameras. First sign of life on the ice… A diminutive harp seal, then over the next few hours as we cruise backwards and forwards through the ice, three more seen at a distance plus one sighting of a Minke whale.

At 10 am the lecture programme begins, with Pelin delivering a masterful fact-filled presentation on the Arctic. Her energy and enthusiasm totally captivate us all as she issues a deluge of information carefully structured and easily digested. It is terrific… A master class lecture presentation. This is followed by Marco with a powerfully rendered explanation of sea ice as we meander through it. If he was going to talk about ice, no-where better to do it than on an expedition vessel sliding through it. He succeeds in the difficult task of making graphs understandable and interesting. These presentations were highly educational, and we sit… ‘looking, seeing, thinking, listening, hearing, understanding’ as we follow Bill’s advice on how to maximise the Oceanwide voyage.

Another break for lunch…another tantalising display from our chef Ralf of high-quality food prepared to tempt even the most disciplined of us! It is as well that there are no weighing machines on board!!! Hondius continues to cruise its search pattern through the ice, although with little expectation of a bear sighting, as the floes in this area were thinner and more spread-out.

Afternoon lecture programme begins with Charlotte enlightening us with her extensive knowledge of whales. We all benefit greatly from the breadth and experience of this diverse guide team. A voyage on Hondius is not only adventure and fun but highly informative. This is followed by Sarah with her beautifully illustrated presentation on polar bears. Few of us have realised how complex these creatures were until this lecture. Sarah conveys clearly the bear’s extreme isolation as they wander on the ice and how supremely adapted they are to survive in this frozen vastness.

Highlight of recap talks before dinner for most of us was Claudio’s amazing story of the impressive fox which crossed 4500 km of the frozen ocean from Svalbard 1 March to Canada 4 July 2018.

BBQ on the after-deck is a muted affair, then after in the busy lounge there is much excitement at the cry ‘WHALE” when Bill sighted a Minke whale surfacing on the port side 200 metres from Hondius at 9.30 pm.

Another interesting sighting occurs shortly after at 10.00 pm as Hondius alter its course to give us an excellent photo opportunity of a bearded seal resting on a small ice-flow. We all think that is the day finished in terms of sightings until…BINGO! At 11.15 pm an excited announcement from our expedition leader Sarah to say that a small bear is sighted on the shore at Hamiltonbukta at the entrance to Raudfjorden. This has us all clutching cameras and binoculars and scurrying to the outside decks. We sit observing at this location until 12.30 am, then Hondius moves out into open sea, and we can all relax and retire for the night.

Day 5: Amongst the Pack Ice

Amongst the Pack Ice
Date: 18.06.2023
Position: 80°20.08’N / 011°21.02’E
Wind: SW 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +3

As the day unfolds, you find yourself in the midst of a captivating Arctic adventure. The expedition team continues its search for polar bears amidst the changing pack ice, where open water intermittently surrounds you. The fog adds an element of challenge to the search, but the team remains vigilant, scanning the surroundings for any signs of these majestic creatures. Amidst the icy landscape, a delightful surprise awaits us. A juvenile Ringed Seal is spotted resting on the ice, its sleek form blending harmoniously with the surroundings. Its presence provides a glimpse into the diverse wildlife that calls the Arctic home. Shortly after, an Ivory Gull gracefully takes flight around the ship, its pristine white feathers contrasting beautifully against the Arctic backdrop. As the day progresses, we have the opportunity to attend enlightening lectures from the expedition team. Andrew shares insights into the importance of wildlife photography, allowing you to appreciate the power of capturing and documenting the Arctic's natural wonders. Bill delves into the somber topic of death and destruction in the Arctic, shedding light on the Whaling past times.

After the engaging lectures, a delicious lunch awaits, indulging our senses and leaving us feeling pleasantly drowsy. We retire for a nap, letting the soothing rhythm of the ship's movement lull us into a peaceful slumber. As the afternoon unfolds, our thirst for knowledge is further quenched. Adam shares his knowledge of the Last Polar Explorer, immersing us with the rich history of Arctic exploration. Claudio's lecture on climate change raises awareness about the pressing environmental issues affecting the Arctic and emphasizes the importance of conservation efforts. At 3pm Sara surprises us with a delightful treat: rum and hot chocolate on the bow, allowing us to savor the moment while immersed in the breathtaking beauty of the Arctic ice. As the day winds down, dinner is served, and with satisfied bellies, slowly, the ship heads south, making its way back to Svalbard in time for a planned landing tomorrow.

Day 6: Signehamna & 14 Julibukta

Signehamna & 14 Julibukta
Date: 19.06.2023
Position: 79°16.02’N / 011°34.05’E
Wind: WSW 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

After two days in the ice, we are happy to once more feel land underneath our feet. Our morning activity is split. Half of us attend a lecture with Esther to learn about the history of Svalbard, while the other half of us make a landing on Signehamna, and then of course we switch.

On land in Signehamna, our expedition guides function as cairns, making clear which path is safe for us to take. On our path we are met with cultural remains of two weather stations from the 1940s that played a role in World War II. It was in fact in 1941 that the Germans that put up the first station and were able to send daily information on the weather back home, giving them an advantage in the war. A couple of purple spots on the ground grab our attention, to our delight we see this year’s first blooming of purple saxifrage.

After a delicious lunch, it is time to head out again. Our second activity is a split landing and Zodiac cruise in 14. Julibukta, named by Prince Albert of Monaco after the French National Day. Both from ashore as well as from the Zodiac cruise, we get panorama views of the colossal glacier 14. Julibreen. On an iceberg in front of it, dozens of kittiwakes pose for hundreds of photos. But those are not the only birds we see. As we cruise along the coast, we observe a colony of Brünnich‘s Guillemots, nesting on narrow ledges, so narrow that they form a single row on the nest, turning their backs towards us, which serves as protection from areal predators. Additionally, we spot a few puffins, unmistakable by their colourful beaks and faces.

As usual, we gather in the observation lounge just after 6 pm. Sara briefs us on tomorrow’s plans, and the expedition teams holds recaps and answers some of our questions from the question box.

Day 7: Gjertsenodden & Poolepynten

Gjertsenodden & Poolepynten
Date: 20.06.2023
Position: 78°31.03’N / 012°47.09’E
Wind: E 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +8

Our last day in Svalbard starts with an early morning call from our Expedition Leader Sara. After a quick and delicious breakfast, we head out to St Jonsfjorden. Half of us land in Gjertsenodden to stretch our legs with fast and medium hike options, while the rest of us go on one-and-a-half-hour-long Zodiac cruise near Gaffelbreen Glacier. It feels great to hike up to higher point and enjoy the magnificent views of the St Jonsfjorden. We also get some exciting sightings: a Rock Ptarmigan and a Polar Fox foraging on the shore! Our guides made sure to keep us in a tightly knit group just in case a Polar Bear sprung upon us! Those of us in the Zodiac cruise are delighted to see and photograph King Eiders. Such a pleasure to see these colorful birds in their element!

After another delicious meal on board, we go for our last expedition landing in Svalbard. We land in Poolepynten, in Prins Karls Forland, a narrow long island in West Spitsbergen. Highlight of the landing are Walruses. These giant gentles like to haul out in this beach during summer months. We get to observe their behavior on land but also in water. Two big walruses slowly come out from the water in front of our very eyes. Such a spectacle to watch! But one must admit, they have quite a strong odor. After spending an hour watching walruses, we reluctantly catch our zodiac ride back to Hondius. Time to get ready for Captain’s farewell cocktail.

Koen was preparing a slideshow for us all, and tonight is the night he shares it with us. It is a beautiful display of everything we have seen and experienced past week. It makes us feel emotional and nostalgic and really summed up all the magnificence of this trip. Thank you Koen! After the slideshow, we head to the dining room to enjoy the final four-course dinner the chefs put on for us. A delightful ending of our Svalbard Expedition!

Day 8: Disembarkation Day

Disembarkation Day
Date: 21.06.2023
Position: 78°10.12’N / 014°19.28’E
Wind: SW 1
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

Well, the final day is here. Our bags are packed and left outside our doors for the staff to collect. After breakfast at 0900, we disembark the ship and say goodbye to Sara and all her team. We can’t thank them enough for all their knowledge and guidance on this trip. We will be back!


Tripcode: HDS04-23
Dates: 14 Jun - 21 Jun, 2023
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Hondius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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