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HDS09-23, trip log, Around Spitsbergen, In the realm of polar bear & ice, Cleaning the shores

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Longyearbyen - Embarkation Day

Longyearbyen - Embarkation Day
Date: 23.07.2023
Position: 78°13.7’N / 015°36.02’E
Wind: NW 1
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +12

Around three o’clock in the afternoon, we arrived with the provided shuttle bus at the Coal Pier, a working jetty far out from the small town of Longyearbyen. Our home for the next 10 days, Hondius, was a welcome sight. Nearby, the huge piles of black coal were impressive reminders of the early times of mining on Svalbard.

Walking up the gangway, each and every one of us was greeted by the hotel crew guiding us to our cabins. Soon after many of us reappeared to roam through the ship trying to gain some level of orientation. Once discovered, the coffee machine right away became the most frequented area of the ship.

Very quickly the first announcement over the PA system called us to the observation lounge for the first mandatory briefing. Michael, the safety officer, explained how to put on the lifejacket as required for the lifeboat drill. Seven short signals followed by a long one told us to head to our cabins, to grab the life-west and to come back to either the Muster station A or B. The drill finished on the aft deck where Igor, the second officer, explained the procedure to board the orange lifeboats holding 100 persons each – naturally only in the unlikely event of a real evacuation.

With the drill completed, Captain Ernesto welcomed us with champagne and canapés Expedition Leader Sara introduced her team of 16 guides plus the doctor, Jeff. She continued to give us an overview of our journey stressing that plan A might be replaced by plan B, C, D or X. The video from AECO (www.aeco.no) explained the dos and don’ts when visiting polar regions respectfully.

After our first tasty dinner the guides sized up our feet to give us the correct Muck boots. These will be our footwear when in the zodiacs and on land throughout the journey. Some of us will need to get used to them.

Then, although the light around the ship didn’t change a bit, silence spread through the ship as more and more of us went to their cabins thinking of the adventures ahead while falling asleep.

Day 2: Ny-Ålesund and 14 Julibukta

Ny-Ålesund and 14 Julibukta
Date: 24.07.2023
Position: °79.00.7’N / 011°55.3’E
Wind: SE 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +7

Our morning began with a visit to Ny-Ålesund, a charming small town located in Oscar II Land. This town holds the distinction of being the world’s most northernmost research settlement at 79 degrees north.

During our time here, we had the opportunity to learn about the historical significance of the airship mast. This is the mooring point from which the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, the Italian, Umberto Nobile, and American, Lincoln Ellsworth, left in the airship Norge in 1926. They were the first to successfully reach the North Pole.

Nobile left from here in 1928, in another attempt to reach the North Pole, in the airship Italia. They did reach the pole but unfortunately crashed during the return journey. Half of the crew were killed, though the rest, including a badly injured Nobile, were eventually rescued.

During our walking circuit of the station the excellent museum enriched our understanding of the area's past, particularly its mining history; the dog yard gave us a glimpse of the enduring legacy of sled dogs and their integral role in polar expeditions; the gift shop allowed us to send postcards, to share our unforgettable experiences, and to collect souvenirs as cherished mementos; and the Arctic Terns kept our hands above our heads as they defended their nests.

In the afternoon, our adventure continued at Fjortende Julibukta (14th July Bay), a name given by the keen oceanographer, Duke Albert I of Monaco, in honour of the French national day. Cruising along the bird cliff was a beautiful experience, where we saw Brünich's guillemots, adorable Puffins, and Glaucous Gulls with chicks. From the Zodiacs, the glacier front provided a dramatic and awe-inspiring view, a testament to the power and beauty of nature.

While ashore, we absorbed the flowers and greenery of the hanging gardens. Best of all, we were treated to an enchanting moment as five young arctic foxes playfully frolicked on the beach and up and down the slope. Their cuteness was simply irresistible, and to make it even more special, one of them was a rare blue morph.

Overall our day was filled with unforgettable moments, from delving into history and exploration in Ny Ålesund to marvelling at the wildlife and stunning landscapes in Fjortende Julibukta.

Day 3: Magdelenafjord

Date: 25.07.2023
Position: 79°32.0’N / 009°36.7’E
Wind: Var 1
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +5

This morning we woke early to the site of fog outside the window in Magdelenafjord. This wasn’t quite what we had hoped for, however, as we looked east up the fjord there was light at the end of the tunnel and a sign that the fog would lift during the morning.

So after a lovely breakfast of eggs, fruit and other bits and bobs, half of us loaded the Zodiacs and set out to explore the foggy Gullyfjord in search of Walrus and glaciers. Those back on the ship enjoyed an informative lecture by Hazel about the king of the arctic, the mighty Walrus.

As we rode the Zodiacs up Gullyfjord, the fog lifted enough for us to see the Gullybukta glacier and a shaft of sunlight illuminated the green glacier melt water around us.

After watching the glacier and exploring the brash ice from recent calving events, we to the mouth of the fjord where there is a well-known Walrus haul out. There, in front of us on the sandy beach, lay 5-10 of the fattest Walruses you could ever see! With their white ivory tusks and their whiskers, these beauties certainly know how to steal the show. The few Walruses swimming in the water took turns spy hopping to check on the new visitors were before returning to their clam fishing. Once the lecture was over, we changed positions and the Zodiac explorers were invited to Hazels second lecture, and those on the ship went to visit the glacier and Walruses.

During a delicious lunch Hondius repositioned. From there half of us went ashore to Gravneset to explore the beach and surrounding area. We saw historic blubber ovens and a graveyard with approximately 130 graves from the whaling era. As we explored, we found more aggressive but beautiful Arctic Terns, lots of driftwood and, a rare sight in Svalbard, beautiful golden sand.

The other half of us boarded the Zodiacs and found Harbor seals near the bottom of Brokebreen hauled out on large boulders in a lagoon. We then cruised up towards the head of Magdalenefjorden where the Waggonwaybreen glacier calves into the fjord. This glacier was very active, so we kept our distance. Much of the fjord was covered in brash ice from recent calving, which allowed for time sitting in silence listening to the popping of the ice.

As usual, we changed over, and all of us had the same opportunities. In the meantime, the divers embarked on their second dive of the trip, this time around an iceberg near the shoreline.

In the beautiful sunny evening, we made excellent use of that sandy beach as nearly half of us took the Polar Plunge into the icy glacier melt waters. It was truly a very special way to highlight another very special day.

Then it was back to our good ship Hondius for recap including Paolo’s explanation of the fog we had seen earlier, and Chloe’s display of plankton under a microscope! Then it was plated dinner followed by a soothing night’s sleep in our cabins in the calm fjords.

Day 4: Monacobreen and Texas Bar

Monacobreen and Texas Bar
Date: 26.07.2023
Position: 79°45.0’N / 019°08.0’E
Wind: SSE 2
Weather: Sunny
Air Temperature: +13

We awoke to stunning light conditions, a light mist coiling around the mountains as the sun tried its hardest to shine through, giving the whole area of Monacobreen an almost ethereal impression. Having strengthened ourselves with a hearty breakfast, to give us that small extra layer of fat against the cold winds of this mighty glacier, we set off on a full-ship zodiac cruise.

We started at the eastern end of the glacier, slowly making our way westward. In a leisurely way, we drifted along this 5 km long colossus, admiring all the tiny cracks and crevasses that form when this solid body keeps moving over the ground. Birds of many species were flying around, or sitting on ice, and noisily chatting. With ice of different hues of blue, and icebergs of different shapes, every aspect was a new treat.

The groaning sound of thunder as the glacier kept on cracking, sometimes calving on the front, filled the fjord with booming sound. Sometimes chatter, sometimes silence, as we swayed along and tried to take in this incredible sight.

As if this was not enough, a pod of belugas decided to join the fray, making its way towards the glacier. The white backs of the Arctic canary could be observed in between the ice, feeding on fish and crustaceans close to the glacier front, sometimes coming out to the edge of the slush ice, where we were waiting to take a look. The combination of beluga and glacier just made for an indescribable sighting.

Leaving the white whales to their feeding, we slowly headed back to the ship, passing by Sara who was waiting on the drinks boat with hot chocolates to warm up our cold faces and hands, much appreciated. We reboarded Hondius knowing that we were privileged to enjoy this special moment.

During lunch, acknowledged by many as the best meal on the ship, we relocated to Texas Bar. The plan specified different walks to admire the flowers and landscapes. The expedition team set off and came on land, but very soon after, the scouters found a polar bear not too far away, and the site was evacuated immediately.

After assessing the situation, we went on a zodiac cruise to find the bear on a small island resting in the flowers. For many this was the first polar bear they had seen, and what a sighting! It was laying down relaxing, so, while maintaining absolute quiet, we could observe this ferocious animal simply having a nap.

As we watched, it awoke and started moving. It wandered its way finally to the other side of the island and had another lay down. It would every so often move around, stretch, and then finish in a horizontal position. Genuinely lovely to see a bear so relaxed.

We stayed with it for quite some time, then went back to the ship for recap and barbeque night! Grilled meats, sweet treats, then dancing and drinking until late in the evening, to the music of the 80s, 90s and beyond.

What a day!

Day 5: Ice Edge

Ice Edge
Date: 27.07.2023
Position: 80°54.5’N / 020°11.0’E
Wind: WNW 1
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +5

Overnight Hondius had travelled north in search of the edge of the sea ice. This allowed a bit of a sleep after the energy of the previous evening. At 07:45 Sara announced to the sleepyheads that the ice had been reached. Our plan was to spend the day in the ice, enjoying the calm vistas of ice and reflections while looking for wildlife. Many keen eyes scanned the horizon for hours in the hope of spotting a bear (or any other animal).

The day was variously foggy and sunny, so some persistence was required – but persist we did. We were rewarded with a Bearded Seal in the morning. Our northernmost position during the day was 8.

Meanwhile, we had a full programme of education, starting with Sara’s talk on Polar Bears. After a leg stretch around the outer decks and some more scanning for wildlife it was time for Mikhail to give his talk about Bird Migration. The Mandarin speakers were not left out as Rose gave a talk about the Chinese research stations in the polar regions.

After a delicious buffet lunch, the day’s routine continued with some time outside or on the Bridge to continue searching for wildlife, and some time to enjoyed Jakub's talk about Ice - why we need it. Jerry gave a lecture on the same topic in Mandarin for the Chinese speakers.

Finally, around 16:45, we spotted our first bear in the ice! Shortly after the first spotting, a second bear appeared in another direction. We spent time with the bears, taking pictures and observing the surroundings in which they live.

Then it was time to warm up with a cup of coffee, or a stronger beverage, in the lounge while participating in the daily recap. As we just finished our dinner, we learned that the day was not over yet. During dessert a third bear was spotted by the bridge, and we again enjoyed the company of the king of the Arctic.

This bear was curious to see what was happening in the strange blue iceberg. It walked to the ice edge and then swam right over to the ship. As the Captain slowly backed away, we all crowded the bow and decks and the cameras clicked like never before. What a treat.

Day 6: Seven Islands

Seven Islands
Date: 28.07.2023
Position: 80°40.5’N / 020°56.6.’E
Wind: Var 1
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +5

Our plan for the morning was to make a landing to remove rubbish from the beach. As it happened, the morning cold of minus 2 degrees meant the that fog layer was very low with some light snow. Sara changed the plan and we boarded the Zodiacs to cruise the shoreline instead. We picked our way along the rocky shore and marveled at the clearness of the sea.

The cruisers could clearly see the bottom, but it was the five divers who enjoyed the clear water to the maximum. They made their dive, also among the ice floes by the shore, until, too soon, ice came over the site they were recalled.

The Zodiac cruisers continued into the bay to watch several groups of Walruses including females with calves. All returned cold but happy following a wonderful cruise or dive among these majestic islands to enjoy a lovely buffet back on board.

Following lunch, the Expedition Team retrieved a bag full of rubbish collected the previous season but abandoned on the beach. As part of the Clean Up Svalbard project, we sorted the garbage into various categories looking for writing to help identify the origin of the litter to help the scientists understand the source of the garbage in the sea around Spitsbergen.

The divers made a dive again in crystal clear waters, but after 15 minutes the current brought ice onto the site and they were again recalled.

Those on-board were treated to an excellent presentation on Whales and Us by Ursula. We all enjoyed the navigation through the pack ice in absolutely dead calm conditions with the sea like a mirror. Then the usual routine of recap, briefing, dinner and chatter until bedtime. Aren’t we spoiled?

Day 7: Alkefjellet and Faksevågen

Alkefjellet and Faksevågen
Date: 29.07.2023
Position: 79°32.9.’N / 017°40.9’E
Wind: NE 3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

It was an early morning start today, but for good reason. Today we visited the beautiful and impressive cliffs of Alkefjellet, where an estimated 65,000 pairs of Brünnich’s Guillemots breed during the summer. It was beautiful calm weather and not too cold, so we had the perfect ingredients for a morning zodiac cruise. We started off at the waterfalls and then slowly we made our way along the shore to the higher cliffs which, at some places, are more than 100 meters tall.

The Brünnich’s Guillemots are fantastic birds with impressive statistics, but also some less impressive statistics. To start with the latter; they are the most energy inefficient birds as they use the most energy per flown kilometer of all birds. They have relatively big bodies and small wings. To stay in the air, they need to flap their wings continuously and at high frequencies otherwise they would simply fall from the sky. Unlike Northern Fulmars and other seabirds, they can’t soar on the winds. They use a lot of energy to stay in the air.

However, what they lack in flight energy efficiency, they make up for when diving. These birds eat small fish and sea worms, and they can dive to depths up to 150 meter which is an unbelievable achievement. In order to withstand the enormous pressure at such depths, it is believed that these birds use gas to control and manage the pressure. Dives can last up to 4 minutes. These birds are true free divers.

The Brünnich’s Guillemots breed on these cliffs to protect themselves from foxes who come for their eggs and chicks and also to make it more challenging for Glaucous Gulls to successfully grab one of the chicks from the cliffs. The older more experienced couples have the best spots, but as they need very little space, the cliffs somewhat resemble big city life in large apartment buildings. The birds come and go and the air is filled with the buzz of their rapidly beating wings.

During our zodiac cruise we spotted some foxes. One of them seemed to be a cub, very cute to watch as it walked the grassy areas of the cliffs. Time flies when you’re having fun so soon it was time to return to our ship. We had a quick glance at the glacier and then made our way back.

After a delicious lunch it was time to stretch our legs, and more importantly it was time to do a proper beach cleanup. We couldn’t do it yesterday, but today the conditions were excellent and the beach at Faksevågen was covered with washed up litter and fishing gear remains. Our beach cleanup was part of an AECO initiative, led on this trip by Eelco and Wouter from Wageningen University & Research. They informed us about their project during lectures. Their aim is not only to clean up Svalbard, but also to analyze the origins of the litter that has washed up on Svalbard’s shores. We participated actively and managed to fill almost 2 zodiacs with litter. After dinner Eelco and Wouter invited us to join them and analyze the litter together. This is a great initiative that creates awareness and hopefully active participation.

Day 8: Kapp Lee and Kapp Waldburg

Kapp Lee and Kapp Waldburg
Date: 30.07.2023
Position: 77°.09’2N / 020°55.4’E
Wind: SW 4
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +7

Early in the morning while we all slept, Hondius, sailed westward through the Freemansund strait, which separates the islands of Barentsøya and Edgeøya, towards Cape Doleritneset, also known as Kapp Lee, where, according to our plans, we were to make a landing on the shore.

Just like the previous day, precisely at 6:15, a melancholic and almost motherly warm "Good morning, good morning, good morning!" resonated from all the speakers hidden in the ceilings of our cabins, corridors, and other public spaces, performed by our beloved Sara. Almost simultaneously, the sound of the anchor chain echoed: the Hondius had arrived at its destination. Shortly after, the restaurant doors swung open, and we rushed to the buffet counter, filling our plates with omelettes, salads, fruits, and other calorie-laden delicacies. Ahead of us was a long and exciting day full of impressions and adventures.

The weather behaved capriciously, as if Spitsbergen, having gifted us a series of sunny and windless days, decided to delicately remind us that we were, after all, in the Arctic and not somewhere on the French Riviera. A fresh wind blew, and the waves were quite high compared to the previous days, making the Zodiac landing significantly more challenging than the day before. We had to hold onto the handrails and accept assistance from our guides who were piloting the Zodiacs. Bouncing on the waves, we sped towards the shore, where Sara and her assistants were already waiting to greet us.

Dolerittneset (Kapp Lee) is a unique place in every sense of the word. Firstly, it has a rich history, as one can still find remnants of Pomor hunting huts there. Brave Russian hunters once came here on small sailing boats and stayed for several months or even wintered, hunting walruses, belugas, and polar bears. Secondly, the dense tundra vegetation is particularly remarkable. It is not often seen in such northern latitudes. And thirdly, this stretch of the coast has long been favored by local giants – the Atlantic walruses – who have established their haul-out place here. We had already seen walruses before, but we had never been able to get close to them on land. What a sight it was!

Under the attentive guidance of our guides, we approached the walruses and lined up in a row to observe these enormous creatures for about twenty minutes. Most of the walruses were peacefully asleep, but some lifted their heads, looked around, moved back and forth, slowly and clumsily shifting their weight from one flipper to another, and even playfully seemed to nudge each other with their long, sharp tusks. We hoped it was all in good humour.

Afterward, upon returning to the landing site, we boarded the Zodiacs and set off on a small water journey to get a view of the walrus rookery from the water and hopefully spot other wildlife. Every now and then, small groups of walruses would surface around us, snorting loudly as they exhaled air before submerging again. It was astonishing to see how graceful and elegant they appeared in the water. It seemed even stranger to witness their sleeping counterparts ashore, resembling sacks of potatoes.

Suddenly, a loud cry pierced the radio waves: "Angel! I've caught an angel! I have an angel!!" It was Chloe, our guide. Chloe is a marine biologist specializing in plankton research. She had managed to capture a creature called a Sea Angel in a specialized net, and she was ecstatic about it. Her excitement was contagious, and we all shared her joy. We took turns approaching her, asking to see the "angel," and in response, she eagerly showed us her catch, a wing-flapping organism, placed in a glass.

As our time ran out, once again bouncing on the waves and showered with a fireworks display of salty sea spray, we headed back towards our ship. While we had our lunch, Hondius set course back to Freemansund, to our post-lunch landing spot - Kapp Waldburg. It was a very interesting landing site, but according to our guides, it's not always possible to make a landing there. Weather conditions might not permit it, or a polar bear could be wandering along the shore.

However, believe it or not, we succeeded this time! Our guides skilfully maneuverer their Zodiacs bac k and forth between the shore and the ship and quickly ferried all of us to the beach. The planned walk wasn't meant to be a long one, nor was it necessary. The main attraction was the bird cliff. Over thousands of years, a stream running down the slope had carved a true canyon with vertical walls. This was the chosen nesting ground for black-legged kittiwakes. Hundreds and hundreds of birds had built their nests there and were raising their chicks. We could get very close to them, but we still maintained a respectful distance. The cacophony of calls was simply deafening. We settled on the slope and simply observed the everyday life of these hardworking feathered creatures.

Indeed, there's a golden rule: where there's a bird cliff, there's bound to be a burrow where Arctic foxes reside. And that was the case here. Small and audacious creatures darted back and forth, getting tangled at our feet, and kept catching hapless birds. They would then scurry off to hide their lifeless bodies in a secluded spot to dig them up and eat them during the winter.

It was time to return to the ship. The Zodiacs were ready! Swiftly cutting through the waves, they shuttled us back to the vessel under the rays of the low Arctic sun. As soon as the last of us returned onboard, Hondius set a course to the south. We had nearly two hundred nautical miles to cover! It was a wonderful day filled with unforgettable experiences!

Day 9: Gnålodden and Samarinvågen

Gnålodden and Samarinvågen
Date: 31.07.2023
Position: 77°00.6’N / 015°50.8’E
Wind: WSW 4
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +10

Due to our long overnight transit, we were already on Plan B before breakfast. Luckily this was only a short delay to Plan A so, after an extra slice of toast, we were off to make our landing at Gnålodden. We have become accustomed to Svalbard’s beautiful landscapes, but this place was at the top of the list. It had everything: the huge, towering rock of mountain above; the flocks of whirling birds; the rocky coastline with plenty of outcrops to climb; the meadow-like tundra with abundant wildflowers; and the sunlight glistening off the sea. We were free to wander over the whole area finding hidden gems to suit our own tastes.

The constant calls from the birds help us understand the name Gnålodden, means “murmuring” in Norwegian. At the base of the rock strand one of the huts occupied by Wanny Wolstad. At the age of 39 she moved her family, including 2 school age sons, to Hornsund. There they spent 5 years – summer and winter – hunting and trapping. During this time, she shot 77 Polar Bears. Perhaps the Arctic Skua defending the nest near the hut had adopted a bit of her spirit.

After a short repositioning of Hondius over lunch we all boarded the Zodiacs for a cruise down sound to the face of Samarinbreen glacier. The sea was covered with just the right amount of glacial ice. It reflected the sun like floating diamonds as we picked our way slowly forward. It really felt like an adventure as we finally broke into the clear water at the glacier just in time for several ice calvings. To make the afternoon even more special Sara arrived just then to provide ice cream cones in a selection of flavors. Floating in a sea of ice in front of a booming glacier eating ice cream. Yum.

The day was winding down, but not done yet. After a chance to wash and put on our best clothes we joined Captain Barria and Sara to toast the success of our voyage and thank all the Expedition Staff for their help. The Expedition Slideshow demonstrated how much we have done in these short few days. The final dinner gave us the chance to share laughs and memories, debate highlights, and exchange contact information.

The lounge was even more loud and busy than usual, but eventually the need for packing and sleeping tore us away.

Day 10: Disembarkation Day

Disembarkation Day
Date: 01.08.2023
Position: 78°13.7’N / 015°36.3’E

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!


Tripcode: HDS09-23
Dates: 23 Jul - 1 Aug, 2023
Duration: 9 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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