HDS05-19, trip log, In search of polar bears and pack ice

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation: Longyearbyen

Embarkation: Longyearbyen
Date: 21.06.2019
Position: 78°09.6’N, 14°14.9’E
Wind: NNE 2
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

Some of us had already arrived in Longyearbyen the previous day, while a few flew in just in time to embark on Hondius. After long journeys we were finally on Svalbard, in the realm of the polar bear. We had imagined that the Arctic was wild and unforgiving, and the flight in over the rugged icy desert underlined this. We had arrived into a world of glaciers, mountains, and wild Arctic coastlines. We have travelled from 16 different countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, France, Thailand, and China. After making our way to the harbour we were welcomed aboard Hondius and shown to our cabins by the friendly hotel team. We had a little time to grab a coffee in the lounge and to explore the ship, home for the next week of adventure. Our expedition leader Raphaël greeted us in the lounge and we were given a mandatory safety briefing by the First Officer before we went out on deck to wave goodbye to Longyearbyen. We sailed out of Adventfjord, past the airport and satellite station, before making our way south, exploring new destinations around beautiful Svalbard. We enjoyed our first sumptuous dinner in the restaurant, while the Arctic landscape outside was bathed in the sparkling sunlight of the midnight sun. As we headed out of Isfjord, and onto the open seas, the gentle movements of the ocean swayed us to sleep.

Day 2: Exploration of Hornsund

Exploration of Hornsund
Date: 21.06.2019
Position: 76°58.2’N, 16°34.7’E
Wind: SSW 2
Weather: Sunny
Air Temperature: +9

After a smooth night we were woken up by the announcement of a polar bear in front of the ship. Overnight Hondius set sail to Hornsund where we were welcomed by glorious sunshine once again. We managed to have a good look at the polar bear before heading for breakfast. The bear was very relaxed but unfortunately decided to go for a swim which made its observation slightly more difficult. As the bear was swimming, aiming to cross parts of the fjord it was finally time for everybody to attend the mandatory AECO briefing given in the lounge. The bear continued to swim and some of the staff kept an eye on it in order to keep track of the route that it was about to take. We all were hoping that the beautiful bear would eventually decide to land. Sitting, waiting, wishing… Some of our French guests decided to eat ‘Come on bear’… in order to enhance the chances of a promising sighting. During the briefing Raphaël presented the goals and objectives of AECO, the ‘Association of Artic Expedition Cruise Operators’. This organisation establishes rules of what to do and how to behave when travelling around the Arctic, ensuring we operate in a sustainable manner. Our assistant expedition leader, Iain subsequently gave a ‘zodiac safety briefing’. Both briefings might not have been the highlight of the trip, yet they are very important. When Iain was nearly finished, the bear came ashore and started to walk calmly towards the glacier front, again giving all of us plenty of time for observations and pictures. Immediately after the zodiac briefing it was time to collect our rubber boots, that we were going to wear during landings. 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. After a good lunch it was time for the first zodiac operation. All boats where lowered and passengers dressed up appropriately for the occasion with rubber boots and red life jackets. We managed to catch another glimpse of the polar bear, which had swum across the fjord and was now walking slowly up the dusty mountain flank in search of a spot to snooze. Our next stop was the front of the Mendeleevbreen, it was beautiful to marvel at the glacier front along with the birdlife in this area. We also gained a good look at some tracks of our polar bear in the snow along the shoreline. After everybody was back on board and the ship making her way towards open waters, we received an announcement that there were beluga whales swimming in front of the ship. More than 100 individuals were swimming along the coast of Brepollen, at the far end of Hornsund. We caught incredible sights of these seldom spotted whales. Most of the beluga where white, while a few were more grey in colour. During the recap we learned that beluga calves are born dark and turn completely white with age. We eventually had to leave the area to commence our route northwards to reach our destination for tomorrow, Kapp Lee, on time. Leaving the stunning surroundings behind us we saw some fog coming in over the glacier, perhaps a foretaste of tomorrow? Leaving Hornsund, some of the staff were on Bridge Watch in search of whales. At 18:30 we gathered once again in the lounge for our daily recap before dinner, which was accompanied by a welcome cocktail to meet and greet our captain, Alexey Nazarov. Raphaël 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 talked about belugas. What a day, we were woken up by a polar bear and sent to sleep by a large pod of beluga whales.

Day 3: Exploration of Kapp Lee

Exploration of Kapp Lee
Date: 23.06.2019
Position: 78°05.1’N, 20°45.5’E
Wind: S 1
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +3

After another smooth night we woke up to foggy surroundings. It was an early morning, with a wakeup call at 7.00, because we had the plan to go ashore at Kapp Lee (also known as Dolerittneset) and visit the walrus and huts over there. However, due to limited visibility a landing at Kapp Lee became impossible. Fortunately, the scout boat discovered a fog-free area close to shore. Therefore, team members of the expedition team drove us to Kapp Lee and the walrus. We did not only see the huts along with the group of walrus on the beach, but there were also some walrus swimming around in the water. Besides, there was more wildlife around, such as arctic foxes, reindeer, arctic skua and some of the same birds we have encountered earlier including fulmars and kittiwakes. Each zodiac cruise took approximately 30 minutes. Even though, it was a rather short cruise, we got a taste of the ‘real Arctic’, it was chilly and damp and were glad to be back onboard. The most important machine on the vessel did not let us down, and provided us with well-deserved hot coffee and tea. We sailed four long, but exciting hours through the fog, aiming for one of Svalbard’s largest glaciers, Negribreen. Unfortunately, the fog won over the sun and thus created dangerous environmental conditions, preventing us from landing or cruising alongside the glacier. Our glaciologist, Laurence, awaited us in the lecture room at 3:30 pm for a lecture on glaciers. It was a great presentation and we learned a lot of interesting facts about the glacier that we couldn’t see, yet… At around 4:00 pm we reached Negribreen (‘breen’ means glacier in Norwegian) at a distance of 1.5 km. Since it was too shallow for the ship to approach the glacier any further, two scout zodiacs were lowered into the water to check whether the visibility was any better near the glacier front. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Instead Sara gave a highly interesting talk on polar bears. Finally, we all knew where and what to look for in the ice. Hondius sailed for five hours with us through the fog to the entrance of Freemansundet. After a delicious dinner we had time for a cup of coffee in the lounge awaiting the arrival to the entrance of Freemansundet. The fog surrounding the ship was still very dense, but dark ice flows, coloured by dust and algae, floated around the ship. Just before 11 pm there was a sighting of a bearded seal and the sound of ice against the bow of the ship became louder and louder.

Day 4: Pack ice and Bråsvellbreen

Pack ice and Bråsvellbreen
Date: 24.06.2019
Position: 79°06.0’N, 20°24.0’E
Wind: SW 2
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +6

After a particularly foggy day before we were extremely pleased to emerge from our cabins to find clear horizons and perfect wildlife searching conditions. Overnight we had successfully traversed Freemansundet and were now approaching the ice edge. As breakfast finished, we started to feel the vibrations of the ship as she moved through ice and the Expedition Guides were on watch on the Bridge and outside decks with binoculars scanning every lump of ice and shadow to see if it was a bear. Fields of dense pack ice alternated with patches of open water, with such clear conditions, their search radius was enormous but before long there was an announcement over the PA system to say that a bear had been spotted by Raphaël almost 2 nautical miles away. When everyone came out on deck it was just a cream dot on the ice, but as we slowly approached the shape of a sleeping bear became clear, and it thankfully it appeared to be very relaxed about our ship approaching! With some fantastic navigation from Captain Alexey we were able to get very close and watch it rest, stretch, yawn, and lick its giant paws. It was amazing to see this apex predator at such close proximity, yet it somehow seemed dwarfed by the enormity of its harsh and barren environment. As we watched silently our thoughts evitable went back to Sara’s lecture from the day before where she explained the challenges these magnificent creatures are facing. Eventually the bear decided to stretch its legs once more and wandered off slowly, rolling and clambering over mounds of ice on its way, we made no attempt to follow it and allowed it to disappear from our viewfinders once more. It was a real privilege to watch a polar bear so closely and see it so relaxed. As continued on our way through the ice, searching for more wildlife, most people headed inside for a warming hot drink and to peruse and compare the thousand photos they had just taken of our beautiful ice bear. During lunch the Hondius started to cruise towards the ice cliffs of Bråsvellbreen, which along with the adjacent Austfonna makes up the second largest ice cap and glacial system outside of Antarctica and Greenland. The ice cliff is 170km in length making it the longest in the Northern Hemisphere and we could not have wished for more glorious weather in which to enjoy it. After devouring another delicious buffet lunch, (the ice cream sundae being the highlight), we were encouraged to wrap up warmly and head outside to marvel at this natural spectacle. We spent the next couple of hours slowing making our way along the ice cliff, giving us plenty of time to appreciate its sheer size and splendour. With the sun high in the sky, and clouds passing in and out of view, the glacier almost seemed to change colour before our eyes as we gazed in total wonderment. Just as we thought the day could get no better, Michael announced that they would serve hot chocolate and rum on the bow of the ship to warm us up. As we traversed our way along the coast to Vibebukta we found several walruses hauled out on the ice. The ships great maneuverability and quiet engines allowed us to approach these ‘rose tooth - walkers’ quite closely, allowing fantastic photos to be obtained from the sea of long camera lenses out on deck. One particular ice floe had three female walruses and their calves on it so we ensured a respectful distance was maintained so as not to disturb them. Almost on que as we headed into dinner the fog rolled in once more, but nothing could dampen the excitement in the dining room, everyone was buzzing from a fantastic expedition day in the ice. Before we could retire for the night we convened in the lounge once more to hear more about the plans for tomorrow from Raphaël and some interesting stories from the staff including a brief history of Svalbard from Ombline, the climate of the archipelago from Szymon, and seal identification from Sara. There was little doubt we would sleep well tonight, as the days excitement had definitely taken its toll on us and it had also been an early start for many!

Day 5: Arctic desert of Nordaustlandet

Arctic desert of Nordaustlandet
Date: 25.06.2019
Position: 79°10.1’N, 11°50.4’E
Wind: E 3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +6

We woke to the sultry voice of Raphaël; he informed us that during the small hours we had successfully navigated through the morass of drifting sea ice towards Torellneset, our goal for the morning. As we stretched, and drew our curtains, we were greeted by an atmospheric view across the sea ice to Nordaustlandet; the second largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. Low cloud shrouded the tops of the dolerite cliffs and hid the upper reaches of the ice cap in the distance. Banks of fog occasionally rolled around the ship, temporarily enclosing us in a swirling world of white. As we ate breakfast Raphaël announced that we were moving our landing site; the ice at Torellneset was too thick to land with Zodiacs, so we relocated a few kilometres along the coast, towards the east, to explore the Arctic desert of Nordaustlandet. We split into groups according to our hiking preferences. After a short, but beautiful, zodiac ride through the sea ice we landed on the shingle beaches among towering piles of ice stranded high on the shore. The long walkers landed at a spot to the west of Vegafonna, the large ice cap dominating the skyline of the landing site. The medium and short walkers landed at a site a little further to the east. Once ashore we set off into the wilderness. The going underfoot was not that easy; the early season landscape was thick with slushy snow and small rivulets of meltwater coursed off the edge of the ice cap. As we picked our way carefully across the barren terrain it was hard not to draw analogies with the landscapes of the moon; it is a wild and truly unique landscape; all the more so because it is almost entirely devoid of life. During our wanderings we did discover a few glimpses of nature clinging to life in tenuous positions. Perhaps the most exciting example was a very old whale skull discovered far inland and many metres above the present-day shoreline. This skull was an oasis of life among the sterile gravel and cobbles of the glacier foreland. Nutrients from the skull enrich the immediate surrounds and the skull itself provided a solid anchor and shelter from the worst weather for plants to grow on. Many of us pondered how this skull had come to be so far inland; Iain gave us a short explanation, describing how the islands of Svalbard were weighed down by the immense mass of ice during the last glaciation, 18,000 years ago. As the ice sheet melted the land is springing back upwards; a process called isostatic rebound. Consequently, the shorelines around Svalbard are being lifted out of the water leaving ancient driftwood, shells, and whalebones far inland. After several beautiful hours ashore, we headed back to the ship for another sumptuous lunch. In the afternoon Raphaël announced a unique landing; we would leave the ship and land on a large plate of sea ice floating in the middle of the Hinlopen Strait! We would split into two groups to undertake this special activity. A small team of expedition guides set out to check the sea ice, probing for cracks and areas of weakness. The prognosis was great, it was solid enough to support us safely there was an easy face to pull up alongside in a zodiac. Before long we were stepping foot onto the ice, striding out onto this unique environment. The ice was magnificent, it was a truly bizarre experience to be floating on a plate of ice over hundreds of metres of deep, dark, cold Arctic ocean. On the way back to the ship we took a short zodiac cruise; exploring the maze of sea ice from water level, and taking a few moments to appreciate this unique seascape. We had not yet had our final surprise for the day, at recap the dinner plans were revealed; an Arctic barbecue on the back deck. We headed outside for another unique experience, a full buffet and barbecue surrounded by sea ice. 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 an impromptu dancefloor; a fitting end to an unforgettable day.

Day 6: Sundneset and Storfjord

Sundneset and Storfjord
Date: 26.06.2019
Position: 78°12.9’N, 21°07.8’E
Wind: W 2
Weather: Sunny
Air Temperature: +7

Another day dawned with the promise of further excitement as Hondius slid gently towards the proposed landing site at Sundneset on Barentsøya (Barents Island). Guides were up early, scanning the coastline from the bridge looking for signs of ‘white furry creatures’. The landscape was reported clear and it was safe to land. After breakfast the operation commenced as Zodiacs shuttled backwards and forwards from ship to shore ferrying camera and backpack festooned passengers to our next adventure. Drivers skillfully negotiated hazards of the rock-strewn shore to land everyone to the obvious interest of several reindeer who wandered close to the landing area to watch the proceedings. Cameras clicked to take advantage of the superb photo opportunity. Three walks were planned so we opted for either long, medium, or short. Raphaël led the long walkers on a challenging hike across the tundra followed by a lengthy climb to the dizzy heights of the mountain overlooking the entire area. Bill and Adam split the medium hikers into two groups who then walked in opposite directions around a loop encompassing the high, rock-strewn ridges, partly frozen lakes and a photogenic hut. The short walk ambled around the landing area looking at moss, flowers, and stones, and observing some resting reindeer on a snow bank above the beach. This landing was a chance to experience the landscape and wildlife of Svalbard up close. The list of species observed was remarkable… purple sandpiper, rock ptarmigan, long tailed duck, reindeer (over 65 counted), pink-footed geese, barnacle geese, king eider, grey phalarope, Arctic skua, black guillemot, black legged kittiwake, Arctic tern, red throated diver, snow bunting and Arctic foxes….wow! In the afternoon, serious education as recreation from Adam and Meike. Adam with a lecture about Benjamin Leigh Smith and Meike about Auks in the Arctic…both were well attended. Bill delivered a ‘late night’ after dinner lecture on ‘Whaling and Sealing in the Arctic’. Using statistics and stories this was a sad tale of the death and destruction of whales, seals, walrus, men, vessels, and business. Another brilliant day ended with everyone delighted with their experiences. Wow again!

Day 7: Camp Millar, Bellsund, and Fagerbukta

Camp Millar, Bellsund, and Fagerbukta
Date: 27.06.2019
Position: 77°48.8’N, 15°07.9’E
Wind: NW 4
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +3

After beautiful encounters with blue whales at around 1 am in the morning, we continued sailing north to Bellsund; named after the bell-shaped mountain at the entrance to the fjord. The plan this morning was to go ashore at Camp Millar. Michael woke us up early and invited us for a delicious breakfast, the last breakfast on this voyage while enjoying a true Arctic view. After breakfast we disembarked using the gangways as the weather conditions were a little rough for the shell doors; a new experience that went smoothly. Once on the water, we could see the little auks and common guillemots flying back and forth to the high cliffs where they make their nests. On shore we headed off in our different hiking groups, hikes with different length walks along the beach and across the slopes of Camp Millar. All the groups had time to look at the beautiful landscape. Kittiwakes and glaucous gulls were sighted and even a nest of Artic skuas was spotted in the tundra. Up on the slopes everyone had good views of reindeer as they made their way across the rich tundra. At this time of year, they are beginning to gather together for the rut, the mating season here on Svalbard. The male had great antlers and was closely following by females. A great photo opportunity as the reindeer started moving and everybody was able to have a good look at them. What a great end to the morning here at Camp Millar. While we were having lunch Hondius sailed towards her next destination, Recherchefjorden for a landing at Fagerbukta. The weather conditions were good in the shelter of the bay and as we sailed in, we could see the Recherchebreen stretching back into the mountains. This 16 km long glacier has many tributaries and terminates in a small lagoon behind the terminal moraine. The first group to go ashore were those of us enjoyed a perimeter landing where the guides provided a safe area for us to free roam while they kept a watchful eye on both passengers and the surrounding hills. The other group landed on the right side of the bay and headed up to the moraines to see how far they could get towards the glacier itself. They were able to head towards a good look out over the lagoon towards the glacier. In the lagoon there were stranded icebergs that had calved off the face of the glacier and were on the beach and floating in the lagoon. It was nice to be able to spend time exploring the area and taking photos of the ice and surrounding landscape before the big event of the afternoon, The Polar Plunge. By 3:15 most people gathered to take part in and witness the Polar Plunge, a chance to take a swim in the icy waters of the Arctic. Amid screams and laughter there were plenty of participants willing to brave the plunge so well done to you all! Back on board, and after hot showers, it was time for those end of trip activities; paying bills and returning boots and lifejackets! In the evening we were invited to the lounge for a cocktail with the Captain; a chance to toast a very successful voyage and to share our memories with fellow passengers. A true Arctic expedition, being flexible to the weather and sea conditions. Together we have overcome the natural challenges of fog and ice but we managed to find a Plan A, B, C or even D. These choices, like travelling south instead of going north, opened up new opportunities; we were the first ship to sail trough Freemansundet this year and to explore the icy lands of Nordasutlandet beyond. It has been a fantastic trip with some wonderful and varied encounters with polar bears on the pack ice, as well as some memorable meetings with walrus, beluga, and reindeer in the stunning surroundings of Svalbard. After the farewell dinner, many of us gathered in the bar for farewell drinks! Cheers everyone!

Day 8: Disembarkation: Longyearbyen

Disembarkation: Longyearbyen
Date: 28.06.2019
Position: 78°13.7’N, 15°36.0’E
Wind: NW 2
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +3

The midnight sun woke us up for the last time and we found ourselves back in little Longyearbyen. This cruise has affected us all in different ways, we leave with many pictures, new friends, and most importantly, unforgettable impressions and everlasting memories. This trip was fun, strenuous, but worthwhile. It was incredible to meet the ‘King of the Arctic’. We also learned a lot about this beautiful and fragile ecosystem of the Arctic. It’s finally time to say goodbye. On Hawaii they say ‘never 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! Total Distance sailed: 1039 Nautical Miles On behalf of everyone on board we thank you for travelling with us and wish you a safe journey home!

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