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HDS06-19, trip log, In search of polar bears and pack ice

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Embarkation, Longyearbyen

Embarkation, Longyearbyen
Date: 28.06.2019
Position: 78°13’.62 N, 015°38’.50 E
Wind: SE 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +3

Finally, the much-awaited departure day was upon us, for many of us today signified the culmination of a lifelong dream. The day started brightly in Longyearbyen, but unfortunately the sunshine was short lived and was quickly exchanged for clouds and a light breeze. However, this did little to dampen our spirits and the sense of excitement as to what the forthcoming adventure would hold.

Since Longyearbyen’s foundation as a coal-mining settlement in 1906 by John Munro Longyear, it has been the starting point for many historic and pioneering expeditions. The town has a permanent population of around 2,200 residents but this number increases significantly during the summer with the arrival of thousands of cruise ship tourists ready to explore the archipelago of Svalbard.

At 16:00 we gathered at the small pier were members of the Expedition team took care of the luggage and handed out lifejackets ready for the short zodiac ride out to the middle of the fjord where the m/v Hondius was anchored.

We were greeted at reception by the hotel team who checked us in and showed us to our cabins. After which, most of us either headed to the outside decks to enjoy the views or to the bar for a warming cup of tea or coffee where we chatted excitedly with other passengers and staff about the upcoming days. At 17:30 we were asked to gather in the lounge for a welcome briefing from the Expedition Leader, Raphaël and Michael the Hotel Manager. We were then briefed by the Chief Officer, Mindaugas, on ship safety and how to prepare for abandon ship procedures, should the worst incident happen on board. Soon afterwards it was time for the mandatory safety drill, so we collected our SOLAS orange life jackets and immersion suits from our cabins and gathered in the designated muster stations. After an electronic roll-call to ensure everybody was there, we were then escorted outside to take a look at the lifeboats, but were left confident that we would have no reason to do this again in the next 7 days!

With the mandatory safety briefing completed we lifted the anchor and set sail through Isfjord. Shortly afterwards we were invited to the dining room to enjoy the first of many delicious meals on board, prepared by head chef Ralf and his team. There was a real buzz in the dining room, as we got to know each other and talked about our hopes and aspirations for this voyage.

As we headed to open water after dinner there was plenty of birdlife to be spotted around the ship, so many people dressed warmly and headed back outside. The keen birders amongst the group were pleased to see their first Atlantic Puffins of the voyage along with lots of Black Guillemots, Little Auks and Northern Fulmars.

At last, tired from our travels, we retired to our cabins to rest and prepare for the first full day of our polar adventure.

Day 2: Smeerenburgfjorden and Magdalenefjord

Smeerenburgfjorden and Magdalenefjord
Date: 29.06.2019
Position: 79°37’.67 N, 011°28’.10 E
Wind: NE 3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +3

After a smooth first night on board, we were woken up at 07:30. As we enjoyed our first buffet breakfast on board, the ship sailed towards the beautiful surroundings of Smeerenburgfjorden.

After breakfast it was time for everybody to attend the mandatory AECO briefing. During the briefing Raphaël explained the goals and objectives of AECO, which stands for Association of Artic Expedition Cruise Operators’’. In brief, 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 is important that all passengers receive this information before doping a landing or zodiac cruise. Assistant Expedition Leader, Adam, followed on with the zodiac safety briefing, despite not being the highlight of the trip these briefings are extremely important.

After the briefing, everybody was called down to Deck 3 to collect rubber boots from the boot room, it can sometimes be challenging to find the correct size for everyone but the Expedition staff were on hand to assist. Just as the last boots were being distributed, the first polar bear of the voyage was spotted. As anticipated, this caused great excitement and everyone wrapped up warmly and dashed out side. The bear could be seen in the distance resting on the fast ice, which in line with AECO guidelines we are not allowed to break through so we viewed it from a non-obtrusive distance. Despite only being a few pixels in our cameras, it was very humbling to see this beautiful creature on this expanse of ice and a very promising start to the voyage. As we retreated from the ice to let the bear rest in peace there was another exciting announcement, belugas! We gained good views of these white whales as they swam close to the shoreline, our second true Arctic species of the morning.

After lunch it was time for our first landing in Magdalenefjord. The first half of the passengers went towards a walrus haul out on the Western entrance on Gullybukta (Gully bay), with hushed voices and slow movements, we approached the mass of bodies. With a closer vantage point we could see there was about 20 walruses in total, resting peacefully in the warm afternoon sun. We observed them slumbering and digesting, flippers and tusks stuck in the sand or draped over one another, seemingly without a care in the world. This group of guests continued with a zodiac cruise along the front of Gullybreen (Gully glacier), there was plenty of birds to be spotted and a many guest saw a small group of Harbour Seals hauled out on the shoreline.

The other half of the ship went to the opposite side of the fjord for a landing first, where the guides had marked out a safe perimeter in which we could wander around freely. Beautiful green peaks with little auks flying high above and a rocky coastline bathed in sunshine, made for a very enjoyable afternoon. After about an hour and a half the two groups swapped to ensure everyone had the same experience.

At 18.30 we gathered once more in the lounge for our daily re-cap before dinner. Bill talked about how to look, see, think and do’ and Sara spoke about seal identification. After that it was time 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 toast the success of the rest of the voyage.

Day 3: Pack ice

Pack ice
Date: 30.06.2019
Position: 79°56’.91 N, 010°54’.52 E
Wind: NE 5
Weather: Fog/overcast
Air Temperature: -1

After another gentle night of sailing we woke up in sunny weather, but unfortunately the fog was not far away. Around 07:00 the first ice smashed against the bow of the ship, a good wake-up call for the people who were still in bed. As we enjoyed breakfast Raphaël announced there was a walrus on an ice floe very close to the ship, so we strained our necks to get a closer view from our tables. We cruised passed the walrus very slowly so as not to disturb it.

Despite a thick band of fog on the horizon, some sharp eyes from the bridge spotted a polar bear in the distance. While we slowly approached in the direction of the walking bear, we passed a group of swimming harbour seals in a gap in the ice floe. The Hondius finally came to a halt so as to allow the bear to approach us at its own pace for the finally few hundred meters. Suddenly he got sight or scent of the seal that was resting on the ice on the starboard side of the ship.

The polar bear crossed in front of the ship, to get closer to the seal and made the finally approach by swimming to avoid being spotted by its prey. Occasionally it popped its head up from between the ice floes to mark the position of the seal. Unfortunately, the mist thickened and the stalking technique of the bear became harder to follow. Nonetheless, most were still able to get a glimpse of the incredible action that was unfolding right before us, even if it was not particularly photogenic. Fortunately for the seal, but unfortunately for the bear, the seal spotted the bear just in time and darted back into the water for safety. For the bear there was nothing left than to continue the search and we saw it walking away in the fog.

Through the fog and beautiful ice plates we make our way further North and the weather began to clear up. At 11.47 it was bright sunshine and we crossed the ‘line’ of 800 North, the first time in the young history of Hondius. This was quite some achievement considering how much ice there was further South in comparison to the previous year at the same time.

After lunch it was decided we would travel West to try and find some shallower waters where seals are more likely to be found, in a hope that we can get a glimpse of their predator once again: The King of the Arctic. Unfortunately, the fog quickly thicken and we had to abort this plan and change course to a more southernly position.

At the entrance to Raudfjorden the visibility was significantly better and the Captain found a large piece of ice that would hopefully facilitate a landing. The scout boat tried to find a good ‘harbour’ to use and after two attempts they found the perfect place. We were shuttled in small groups from the ship to the ice floe. This landing gave us a much-needed chance to stretch our legs, and of course plenty of photos were taken to capture this unique moment- not many people can say they have walked on sea ice.

Back on board it was nearly time for dinner so recap was postponed till afterwards. Recap consisted of Raphaël explaining plans for tomorrow, all weather dependent off course, a quick introduction to the Birds of Svalbard from Melissa, a bit more information about Beluga whales from Sara and Bill concluded with a few thoughts about Arctic whaling and sealing.

To ensure a quiet and undisturbed night of sleep for all it was decided to stay out of the ice overnight. Most retired to their beds very happy, the day in the pack ice had exceeded most expectations, to see a polar bear try and hunt a seal was extremely rare and something most will only ever experience on a television documentary back home.

Day 4: Fjortende Julibukta

Fjortende Julibukta
Date: 01.07.2019
Position: 79°47’.91 N, 010°22’.30 E
Wind: ENE 6/7
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +1

Another day dawned, the plan was a landing at Fuglesangen to climb across the boulders to get close to the thousands of Little Auks nesting there, but it was obvious, even to the less nautical passengers, that this was not going happen. The wind was gusting to 60 knots at times and blowing at a steady Beaufort Force 7.

Plan B was enacted, two lectures were delivered on board, Melissa with an interesting talk on polar bears and Iain explaining his great love…glaciers and sea ice, as Hondius voyaged south to the more sheltered waters of the Fjortende Julibukta in Krossfjord.

To maximise the experience two activities were planned, a Zodiac cruise to observe puffins, the stunning landscape and glacier and a landing whereby the passengers went given the freedom to walk along the base of the towering mountains to the edge of the glacier.

Crumbling scree slopes of sedimentary rock encroached onto the edge of the shore-line. On the far shore an enormous lateral moraine cascaded from the mountains and extended the length of the fjord. Staff provided a safety cordon on the outer limits of the operational area, an exercise known as a perimeter landing and passengers were able to relax and walk about exploring and photographing, at their own pace.

The area was rich in wildlife, passengers reported sightings of Common Guillemot, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Little Auks, Puffin, Barnacle Geese, Common Eider, King Eider, Purple Sandpiper, Snow Bunting and an Ivory Gull.

The glacier calved several times with ice cascading into the water with a booming crash during the afternoon sending waves surging across the bay. During the afternoon the wind dropped and the weather moderated.

However, the highlight of the day occurred late as during Bill’s lecture Art of the Sea, the meaning of the sea in paintings, half-way through the lecture, as he was in full-flow, there was a mass exodus from the room as the loudspeakers announced that we had just encountered a swimming bear. Wow!

The bulwarks of the ship were then lined with excited passengers ‘looking, seeing and thinking’ as they followed the bear with their long-lensed cameras and binoculars. The bear swam across the bay and then ambled slowly along the shore before climbing up the moraine in the direction of Fjortende Julibukta. This was a great sighting to add to the already impressive list accumulated throughout this voyage.

This had been another action packed Oceanwide Expeditions day as the ever-flexible expedition team maximised every opportunity to create memorable experiences.

Day 5: Kongsfjord and Ny-Alesund

Kongsfjord and Ny-Alesund
Date: 02.07.2019
Position: 80°02’.31 N, 010°59’.91 E
Wind: NE 4/5
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +1

We were roused from our slumber by the now familiar bing-bong, followed by the gentle tones of Raphaël. He informed us that we had entered into Kongsfjorden (The Kings Fjord) and that the weather was variable. Strong gusts of wind were coursing through the fjord, ruffling the water into flurry of spray. We would make our way further in to the fjord, in search of shelter for the morning.

However, this plan was interrupted by the rushed announcement that a polar bear had just been spotted on land, our fourth of the trip! Captain Alexey took Hondius in close to the coast, making the most of the good charts in this area of Kongsfjorden. As we approached, the bear stretched and yawned, before slowly rising and ambling across the tundra of Blomstrandhalvøya. As we observed through binoculars, telescopes and camera lenses we saw her approach a group of reindeer browsing on the slopes. The sudden appearance of a large apex predator sent them into a panic and they fled for the hills. The bear paid them no heed, knowing she could not hope to outrun a reindeer; although much smaller and with short legs, reindeer have excellent endurance and can easily escape a pursuing bear. This bear was in great condition; chubby and healthy with glorious coat of cream fur. Before long though she had entered the waters of the fjord and we took this as a cue to depart, bears are vulnerable when swimming, and following them can cause stress. A great start to the day, and all before breakfast!

After breakfast we found ourselves in the inner-reaches of Kongsfjorden, anchored in relative shelter near Ossian Sarsfjellet, a rocky oasis protruding from the huge glaciers in the eastern end of the fjord. Our goal was a zodiac cruise along Kronebreen, one of the largest, and arguably the most impressive of the glaciers in Kongsfjorden. Two scout zodiacs were lowered to assess the conditions, after twenty minutes the staff returned, soaking wet and with a report on the conditions; it was too windy and too wavy for a zodiac cruise, it simply was not safe. Instead there was an impromptu lecture in the lecture theatre. Appropriately enough it was on glaciers and delivered by Laurence, our in-house glaciologist. We learnt how glaciers are formed, how they behave, and saw some examples of the more unusual glaciers around the world. We also learned about their colossal power and how they can gouge out spectacular landscapes and trigger large earthquakes.

During lunch Hondius relocated to Ny Ålesund, the small settlement nestled on the southern shore of Kongsfjorden. After a short, but blustery zodiac ride we were ashore and free to roam around this unusual little town. As Marcel had explained the previous night, we found ourselves in a world of ‘northernmosts’; the northernmost town, train, post box, shop, and so on. After perusing the shop and spending some time in the beautiful museum, we headed out with our guides to explore the terrain around the town. A few of us took a leisurely walk to the airship mooring mast; here we learnt from Iain about the heroic, and often tragic, Arctic expeditions which had left from this very spot. A larger contingent of bird watchers set off to the west, taking a large loop around some of the lakes in the hope of seeing some special avian life. The long hikers headed straight up the hill behind the town, aiming to get a view over the bay. They were not disappointed; from their vantage-point on the ridge the fjord was laid out like a map. They had spectacular views over hanging cirque glaciers nearby, the larger valley glaciers in the distance, and, towering over it all, the triplicate peaks of the Tre Kroner, named after the ancient Norse kingdoms of Nora, Dana, and Svea (Norway, Denmark, and Sweden).

As we returned to Hondius we were greeted with a surprise, tonight’s dinner would be an Arctic barbecue! The strong winds and occasional rain meant that we would eat in the dining room, but as free drinks flowed and we reflected on our trip thus far, a very festive atmosphere ensued. Just as we were thinking about dancing, we were interrupted by an announcement from Raphael – some very large whales had been spotted. As we made our way onto the decks under the clearing evening skies, we could see the sea was broken by the huge backs of several fin whales, and even better, some gorgeous blue whales, the largest animal on the planet. We spent more than an hour in the company of these gentle giants, watching them circle and fluke as they feasted on a bountiful Arctic buffet beneath the waves. Our encounter peaked with a serenade of powerful blows just meters from the ship as a pair of blue whales cruised alongside us. Finally, it was time to bid them farewell, and we turned, heading north once more, bound for the pack ice and the kingdom of the polar bear.

Day 6: Pack Ice

Pack Ice
Date: 03.07.2019
Position: 80°01’.32 N, 010°59’.95 E
Wind: NE 4-5
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +1

Well, after the excitement of our “whale soup” the evening before, we awoke again above 80 degrees north for another full day in the pack ice. Fog blanketed the ice but the team was vigilant on the bridge scanning as far as possible for bears. Along the way we had some wonderful sightings of harp seals – one group being close to 50 or more animals. It was fantastic to see them porpoising along, sometimes upside-down. Some had the beautiful harp shaped coloration on their backs while others still wore their spotted coat. Here and there we also found some bearded seals and it wasn’t long before we found an area where several groups of walrus were resting on the ice as we passed by.

The ice conditions were quite varied throughout the day and the fog added a bit of mystery to what we might find emerging from the haze as the ship navigated through this polar world. It was quite impressive to see the ship breaking what looked like some fairly thick ice while the shapes and colors of the pieces fueled our imaginations. It was interesting to note that in some areas, the pans did not seem to have been impacted by the fierce winds of the previous 2 days and were quite large and flat while in other areas the ice was a jumble of broken blocks. In these areas we found lots of what the team called “dirty ice.” Most of this discolored ice comes from the algal and microorganism colonies that live in the bottom layer of the annual ice. It is usually a yellow-ish color and makes it very hard to determine if something in the distance is a sleeping bear or more of this exposed layer in the ice.

At last, the team on the bridge started looking really hard at yellow spot quite a distance from the ship trying to determine if it was that which we sought – the “king” of the arctic or just another blob of dirty ice. When we were finally close enough to make the call – we were all very relieved to hear the announcement – it was our bear!! It was sleeping on a lump of snow-covered ice and had not moved in many hours.

Our captain maneuvered us closer and we were able to get a wonderful view of this magnificent creature. It stretched and yawned then decided to get up and investigate this huge thing that appeared in its world. Come to find out – it was the “queen” of the arctic that we had found.

Many guests were wondering how we know whether it is a male or female so the naturalists helped to explain some of the characteristics to look for. It is not always easy as an immature male can look a bit like a mature female as he has not yet filled out in the head and neck so one has to look more closely. She decided to wander a bit closer to the ship to investigate but was a little shy and easily startled so suddenly became nervous and began to move away.

As much as we all wished she would stay and play, we watched as she wandered off into her icy world in search of more familiar things. It was fantastic to learn that this female was in very good condition and given how fat she was, it is almost certain that she has potential babies waiting to emerge sometime this winter. What a beautiful sighting and memory to have as we left the ice and began making our way south again.

Day 7: St Jonsfjord and Alkhornet

St Jonsfjord and Alkhornet
Date: 04.07.2019
Position: 78°30’.90 N, 012°45’.82 E
Wind: SE 1
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

At 7:00 am the sweet French voice of Raphaël swept through the speakers once more to wake us up with the joyous news that the weather looked fabulous outside for our landing in St Jonsfjord, clear skies, 7 degrees Celsius, a gentle breeze and flat calm seas.

After filling our empty stomachs with another tasty breakfast, we started our first landing and zodiac operations for the day. The expedition team decided to split the group in half and do two separate landings, one on the north side at Gjertsenodden and a second one on the south side of the fjord in Copper Camp.

Both landing sites offered us a huge range of plants and flowers to observe, breathtaking scenery and a variety of bird life, including the much sought after Ptarmigan. A few lucky groups also got to see two young Arctic Foxes at close range.

A few brave souls decided to make the most of the glorious weather and stripped off to take a dip in the icy water before heading back to the ship for a much-needed hot shower and another delicious buffet lunch.

Over lunch we sailed to Alkhornet, which is situated at the entrance to the small fjord Trygghamna on the northern side of Isfjord. It was the perfect place to end our adventure as many refer to Trygghamna as ‘Spitsbergen in a nutshell’ because the area hosts many of the features that first attract visitors to the Arctic, stunning mountain and glacier scenery, rich tundra, reindeer, Arctic foxes, bird cliffs and historical relics and Alkhornet delivered on all accounts.

As per the morning, we split in to two groups and were allowed to free roam the designated areas, which were marked out by our armed expedition team. Reindeer and flowers were abundant at both locations but at one of the sites it was some very cute fox cubs that stole the show, posing for hundreds of photos for the keen photographers. It was fantastic to have the chance to wander and explore at our pace and many people took the opportunity to sit and enjoy the beautiful scenery drenched in warm afternoon light whilst contemplating all the wonderful things we have seen and done over the past few days.

Back on board, having returned our trusty Muck boots, we were invited to the lounge for a farewell cocktail with the Captain and Expedition team, a chance to toast a very successful voyage and share our memories with our fellow passengers. The staff had compiled a selection of their photos from the trip which played in the back ground as a great reminder of all the wonderful things we had seen. After long applause for crew and staff members we headed downstairs for our last dinner on board the Hondius.

For those who had already done their packing, they headed to the bar for a few celebratory drinks after dinner. As it was clear many of us had caught the ‘polar bug’ and were already thinking about their next possible polar adventure Adam and Sara showed a short slideshow about Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica to further whet appetites.

Day 8: Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen
Date: 05.07.2019
Position: 78°14’.61 N, 015°32’.60 E
Wind: S 4/5
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +3

After arriving in Longyearbyen late last night, those of us that had the early flight boarded the zodiacs and headed towards the pier waving farewell to the staff, crew and our new friends that remained onboard.

Raphaël woke the rest of us at 7:00am, shortly followed by Michael inviting us top breakfast. On reflection, it seemed odd that so much could fit into a week; the fantastic bear sightings, the whale encounters, the walrus and other seals, the pack ice and of course not to forget the landings and zodiac cruises. Breakfast was the ideal time to talk with fellow passengers and reflect on an action packed, wildlife filled week.

As the calls came over the tannoy we said our goodbyes to all onboard and made our way across to the pier via zodiacs, which by now we had become familiar with. The staff helped us get out of the boat and made sure we had our luggage and then we were off.

Some had time in Longyearbyen, some of us straight to the airport but all with memories of a lifetime adventure made onboard the Hondius.

Details

Tripcode: HDS06-19
Dates: 28 Jun – 5 Jul, 2019
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Hondius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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