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OTL02-18, trip log, Fair Isle, Jan Mayen, Spitsbergen North Atlantic Odyssey – Whale Safari

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation, Vlissingen

Embarkation, Vlissingen
Date: 18.05.2018
Position: 51°27.7‘N, 003°41.8‘E
Wind: N 4
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +12

Northward ho! Having been picked up at the station in Vlissingen we reached the harbour after a bus trip through the Dutch countryside. We found our ship Ortelius alongside the pier with the other Oceanwide ship Plancius nearby in the dry dock. From around 4pm, boarding Ortelius started, and we were soon checked in by our Hotel Manager and his assistant, Sebastian and Lilian. Our luggage had already found its way into our cabins, so we had some free time to get unpacked and settle in. Shortly afterwards we gathered in the Lecture Room to be welcomed by the Hotel Manager but also to attend the mandatory safety briefing followed by a safety drill. Wearing our big orange lifejackets we mustered in the Bar and proceeded to the top deck for a look into the lifeboats. Our journey and, for that matter, Ortelius’ Arctic season began with the mandatory calibration of the ship’s magnetic compass. Soon after having done the necessary circles we were under way towards out first destination, Aberdeen, heading out of the harbour, passing the beaches of Vlissingen and sailing out into the North Sea. The birdwatchers had taken position at the bow and were collecting the first observations.

Day 2: At Sea towards Aberdeen

At Sea towards Aberdeen
Date: 19.05.2018
Position: 53°04.1’N, 002°40.7’E
Wind: NNE 3
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +10

Our overnight passage was very quiet and calm and everybody rested well following a very busy day. The birders were out on deck early and a few seabird species were seen. At 09.00 the boots were distributed and at 10.00 Bill gave his lecture; an introduction to Scotland. It was cloudy but by lunchtime the sun appeared and by afternoon it was quite warm. This is not always the situation here in the North Sea! There was a light breeze but that too disappeared and it was possible to be out on deck in comfort. We had our mandatory safety and wildlife guidelines presentation at 16.00. More seabirds were seen throughout the day and evening and one Minke whale was also sighted. Before dinner Captain Mika welcomed us on board with a toast – at the same time saying goodbye to the passengers who would leave in Aberdeen – and our Expedition Leader Jan briefed us on our proposed activities in and around Aberdeen on Sunday.

Day 3: Aberdeen

Date: 20.05.2018
Position: 57°09.8’N, 001°59.1’W
Wind: S 4
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +13

Ortelius approached Aberdeen early morning in reasonable weather to find that the ship had been requested to stand-off by the harbour port control until after 12.30, due to exceptionally low tide at the harbour mouth. Fortunately, some of the Cromarty Firth resident population of bottle-nose dolphins are regulars in this area and appeared to cavort around the ship much to our delight. Once the ship docked, we quickly went through passport control on the quayside then boarded the two coaches for a quick architectural tour guided by Bill, of Aberdeen before heading north to the RSPB bird reserve at the Ythan Estuary. There, we disembarked and were free to wander over the massive sand dunes at the river mouth to view and photograph the huge population of eider ducks, assorted terns etc. For many however, the undoubted highlight was the unusual sight of thousands of common and grey seals resting on the beach on the north side of the river and of the hundreds of bobbing heads of seals as they drifted upstream on the incoming tide. The coaches returned to Aberdeen harbour via the beach esplanade and stopped at the harbour mouth to enable passengers to explore the narrow streets and quaintly decorated houses of the old fishing village of ‘Fittie' [aka ‘Foot Dee’]. Whilst the time had unfortunately been short, everyone found the excursion totally rewarding. As Ortelius left the harbour for the open sea overnight voyage to Fair Isle, dolphins put on a final performance to delight the photographers.

Day 4: Fair Isle & Mousa

Fair Isle & Mousa
Date: 21.05.2018
Position: 59°28.1’N, 001°31.9’W
Wind: S 4
Weather: overcast, fog
Air Temperature: +12

Most of the bird and sea-life loving passengers were already out early on this misty and foggy morning as we were coming closer towards Fair Isle. At 9 o’clock we arrived at the preferred sheltered north-eastern location for a landing with the zodiacs. Unfortunately, it turned out that the sea current, wind and tide were too delicate a combination and a landing – and especially the way back to the ship in the late afternoon when the wind was expected to increase and turn towards the north – would be too risky. Therefore, Captain Mika and Expedition Leader Jan decided to bring into play Plan B: Mousa (‘Mossy island’ in Old Norse) it would be, an island of the Shetlands which is an extraordinary place and a RSPB Nature Reserve, too. After a very interesting lecture by Christophe on seabirds (especially those of the Arctic and Antarctic) and a short talk by Bill in regards to our stay on Mousa, Ortelius anchored in front of the uninhabited island and the Expedition Team and Crew started the zodiac operations. We were shuttled to the shore where a path allowed us to walk around on the small island. Beside the wildlife – seals, a great variety of birds and a small amount of sheep – Mousa comprises the archaeological site of Mousa Broch, the best-preserved Iron Age tower existing, constructed of Old Red Devonian sandstone which is well outcropped on all rocky beaches around Mousa. The eye-catching stone walls and the eleven old dwellings (inhabited 1794–1853) of which we could see the remains are also made of the local stones. In the afternoon, swell and current had increased considerably so the Ortelius gangway was a bit of a challenge but the experienced zodiac drivers managed to get everyone safely back on board. In the recap Jan briefed us on tomorrow, and Bill talked about the different ways to experience our unique journey – while we were already sailing towards Jan Mayen, which is around 1.300 km away from Mousa.

Day 5: At Sea towards Jan Mayen

At Sea towards Jan Mayen
Date: 22.05.2018
Position: 62°05.9’N, 001°31.9’W
Wind: N 3
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +12

Our first day at sea towards Jan Mayen after we had left Mousa, the little isle in the Shetlands, started with perfectly clear skies and a warm spring sun. What was even more fascinating was that we were able to spot a pod of Orcas of which some came quite close to the ship – an amazing sighting early in the morning! At 10.00 Christophe gave part two of his lecture about seabirds. After lunch we were able to see a small group of Northern Bottlenose whales. They can reach up to 10 meters in length and weigh up to 7.5 tons. In the afternoon our Expedition Leader Jan gave a very detailed lecture about Orcas. Almost at the end, there was an announcement that more whales had been spotted. Within a few seconds all of us were outside trying to locate that huge group of Long-finned pilot whales. Those whales got their name from the belief that there was a ‘pilot’ or leading individual in their groups. Around 16.30, Mick presented his lecture ‘The Private Life of the Gannet’ where we learned a lot about those amazing and underrated birds. In their recaps Mick and Sandra gave us more information about the whales that had been spotted today, and about Abraham Ortelius, the man our ship was named after.

Day 6: At Sea towards Jan Mayen

At Sea towards Jan Mayen
Date: 23.05.2018
Position: 66°13.9’N, 004°35.1’W
Wind: SSW 7
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +8

Shortly after breakfast we crossed the magic line of 66 ̊ 33ˊN defining the Arctic Circle. We were now in the land of the midnight sun – there will be no darkness for a few months until the end of August. To celebrate the event we were treated with a ‘special’ hot chocolate on the foredeck, and the Bridge crew even sounded the ship’s horn! Aad opened up the presentations session with an introduction on Jan Mayen. The sea was still calm so we were making good progress. After lunch Sandra gave us great tips to increase our photography skills. After a short coffee break we all gathered again in the Lecture Room to listen our geologist Benjamin who revealed all the secrets of the snow and ice covered volcano Beerenberg on Jan Mayen. The recap was lively as usual and not only because of Raquel’s delicious cocktails. The Expedition Team covered various topics and after dinner it was time for our daily documentary in the Lecture Room. In the later part of the evening many of us were on watch for whales until late which was a rather successful adventure as some Northern Bottlenose whales were spotted at a distance. It was then time to get to our bunks for a good rest.

Day 7: Jan Mayen

Jan Mayen
Date: 24.05.2018
Position: 70°31.5’N, 008°59.9’W
Wind: N 2
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +11

The waves were high in the night but the wind speed reduced in the morning and our approach to Jan Mayen was tranquil. Cloud and fog reduced visibility but thousands of birds passed our ship going to and from their home on the island. They have no need of GPS receivers to navigate! We rounded the southern tip of land and the visibility improved rapidly. The spectacular landscape of this very remote Norwegian outpost revealed itself. Red, grey, green, black and brown cliffs with snowfields appeared and as we proceeded northwards the fabled Beerenberg volcanic cone rose above the mist. Ortelius was positioned in Kvalrossbukta. The scout boat went to assess the conditions on shore where large waves were ‘dumping’ on the beaches. The Base Commander was on shore and the scout zodiac made a landing. It was decided to call off the operation and as the zodiac attempted to leave a large wave hit it broadside. The seven staff on shore worked hard to hold on to the boat in the heavy surf. While we waited for conditions to improve a relaxed atmosphere descended on Ortelius where it was warm and sunny. Mick gave his presentation ‘The Private Life of the Puffin’, the birders took up positions and recorded many new species, and everybody enjoyed great views of Beerenberg. Finally the seven staff members were returned to the ship by the skilful crew drivers who worked hard in the now even higher wind and waves. We then set course for the Polar pack ice. More seabirds along with several Bottlenose whales were seen – a good ending to a challenging day for our Captain, crew and staff.

Day 8: At Sea, sailing towards the pack ice

At Sea, sailing towards the pack ice
Date: 25.05.2018
Position: 73°22.1’N, 007°56.6’W
Wind: NNE 5
Weather: fog, rain
Air Temperature: +1

The day dawned and we awoke to the sound of water crashing against the hull as Ortelius voyaged northwards. The wind was reasonably strong early in the morning (NNE force 6) but gradually moderated to a steady NNE force 5. It rained and visibility was poor as a fog closed in, only the hardy birdwatchers were out on deck. Other more sensible types read, relaxed and swapped stories. Bill delivered an interesting lecture – ‘Whaling and Sealing in the Arctic’, really a tale illustrated with photographs of the environment, early photographs of whaling and dramatic stories and horrific statistics of the death and destruction of animals, people, vessels and business as people tried to exploit the resources of these Arctic waters. In the afternoon, there was another excellent full-length lecture, this time by a fellow passenger of ours, Herman Sips: ‘The Ice Whale’ is an account of a project to gain more information on the Right whale / Bowhead / Greenland Whale. This whale is noted for producing the most complex sounds in the animal kingdom but little is known of its breeding habits. The project was to design and build a special craft to drift in the ice off Greenland carrying research scientists to gather information about the whale and the drift-ice ecosystem. In the evening it snowed and the wind dropped to a Force 3 – there was the feeling of going north as the light in the evening extended. Sightings were restricted, no mammals and no unusual birds, just Northern fulmars, Greater Black-backed gulls, a few Brunnich’s guillemots, Black guillemots and Little auks. Tomorrow the pack ice!

Day 9: In the pack ice

In the pack ice
Date: 26.05.2018
Position: 77°15.5’N, 008°47.8’W
Wind: NW 5
Weather: clear
Air Temperature: -1

This morning did not look much – except for the ice. In thick fog and underneath a cloudy sky we entered the vast expanse of white plates in front of us. However, just after lunch we had an almost clear sky above, the endless sea in every direction covered by ice. The temperature on the outside deck reached -0.5°C which felt almost like a cruise in the Mediterranean plus pack ice. We slowly cruised the ice westwards, pushing one ice floe after the other aside while trying to spot all kind of wildlife. Earlier on, there had been a huge dark sausage on the ice: a Bearded seal. Its small head and long whiskers are distinctive, and the seal kept staring at us intently while Ortelius was slowly moving in. From time to time we were able to see groups of Ivory gulls around our vessel. Those completely white, beautiful birds are very hard to spot on and in pack ice due to their plumage. A Ringed seal entertained us for quite a while swimming playfully next to the bow of the ship, surfacing, looking at us, diving again. When the daily recap started at 18.30, Bill, Aad and Christophe had prepared presentations about various topics but the recap was canceled just a few minutes later – one of our Dutch birders had spotted a Polar bear! Within seconds the bar was empty, everybody rushed to the outside decks (or to their cabins to get a camera) while the Captain turned Ortelius in the direction of the bear. Here we were, in the pack ice which is quite a sight in itself, about to encounter the most dangerous predator on earth. The bear wandered slowly across the ice, then decided to have a look at Ortelius before continuing on its journey. It seemed to be a young animal, and with those it is always hard to tell whether it’s a male or a female; all visible features indicated a female (but we still cannot be certain). A bear! The whole ship was buzzing with excitement. After this great sighting, it was finally time to take a rest when the hotel department invited us for a delicious Arctic BBQ. Tables and benches had been set up on the heli deck, and surrounded by a myriad of ice floes we thoroughly enjoyed the delicious food and the even more delicious mulled wine. Here’s to the bear!

Day 10: At Sea, sailing towards Spitsbergen

At Sea, sailing towards Spitsbergen
Date: 27.05.2018
Position: 77°38.3’N, 000°24.8’W
Wind: SSW 8
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +3

This morning we awoke in the middle of the sea between East Greenland’s ‘West Ice’ and the archipelago of Svalbard. Skies were overcast with a bit of rain so it was perfect timing to join Bill for his lecture ‘Paintings of the Sea – The Meanings of the Sea in Paintings’. In this great talk, our favourite Scotsman explained paintings from the 11th century to the present day. After lunch we all gathered in the Lecture Room where Jan provided us with important information regarding Polar bear safety ashore as we would soon be exploring the realm of the King of the North. This was followed by another very good talk about Svalbard by Aad. It was definitely time to learn more about the place we would be visiting tomorrow ! Later in the afternoon we got more information on Svalbard and its climate by Szymon. Our climate expert explained why the polar regions are extremely sensitive to global warming. In today’s recap, Bill told us all about the galley as well as the kitchen and restaurant team on board, Aad talked about scurvy during early explorations and Christophe introduced us to the magnificent Ivory gull. It was then time for another lovely dinner as Ortelius was making a good progress eastwards. Some of us preferred to have a good rest, others went up to the bar for a last drink!

Day 11: Spitsbergen: Poolepynten & Ymerbukta

Spitsbergen: Poolepynten & Ymerbukta
Date: 28.05.2018
Position: 78°25.0‘N, 012°02.3‘E
Wind: S 4
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +2

After we had entered Svalbard waters during the night, this morning saw us sailing northwards in Forlandsundet. In the mist, we could hardly make out the shoreline of Prins Karls Forland on our portside, and when we arrived at the sandy spit of Poolepynten, it seemed there was nobody home at this walrus haul-out.What a pleasant surprise when we came around the corner and saw a heap of brown sausages piled up against each other, only ever so often indicating by a movement that they were alive indeed! We split into two groups and went ashore to take in the sight (and the smell) of the charismatic ‘tooth-walkers’, and some of us could not quite get enough of that! Meanwhile, the drizzle had stopped, the sun had come out, and we marvelled at the sight of the Svalbard coastline with its snowy mountains and huge glaciers flowing down towards the sea. During lunch and in the afternoon Ortelius made her way into Isfjorden before turning towards Ymerbukta. There we boarded the zodiacs again to go for a scenic cruise along the fast ice in front of the glacier. Several seals were hauled out on the ice, and in a nearby shallow bay we found flocks of Eider ducks in which some of the elusive King eiders were hiding. The light on the landscape had an ethereal quality, and we thoroughly enjoyed our quiet moments in the zodiac. Way too soon it was time to return to the ship to swap with the other group … and to finally be in time for the farewell dinner! Afterwards we met in the bar with the Captain and the Expedition team for a toast to our special voyage. When we handed in our rubber boots and zodiac lifejackets, it felt like the journey was coming to an end indeed – the evening and sunset light was oh so soothing …

Day 12: Longyearbyen

Date: 29.05.2018
Position: 78°13.8‘N, 015°36.2‘E

What an adventure it had been that was now coming to an end – from Vlissingen or Aberdeen we had made it all the way to the High Arctic! In the wee hours of morning, Ortelius sailed towards Longyearbyen. After a last night in our cabin, which had come to feel like home, it was time to move on. We put our luggage in the corridors as asked, so the crew could take it off the ship for us. After one last wake-up call and one last breakfast on board, it was time to say goodbye. Goodbye to our ship and its crew and staff, and to our new friends. Arrangements were made to stay in touch and farewells were said. We could look back on an extraordinary trip, and all of us had many memories of wildlife and spectacular scenery during our days at sea, Zodiac-cruising activities and shore landings. Finally, we handed in the keys to our cabins, picked up our luggage from the pier and made our way into town or to the airport for our onward journeys. May we meet again somewhere, someday! Thank you all for joining us on this remarkable adventure, for your great company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be! Total distance sailed: 2.184 Nautical Miles On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Mika Appel, Expedition Leader Jan Belgers, Hotel Manager Sebastian Duma and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.