OTL03-17, trip log, North Atlantic Odyssey
01.06.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Our ship m/v Ortelius was at anchor in the harbour of Ritthem, near Flushing (Vlissingen). At about four o‘clock the buses arrived and we boarded the ship the start a very exciting expedition cruise.
Once on board, with the help of the hotel crew, we settled into our cabins and got acquainted with the layout of the ship, our home for the next 10 days. We were soon gathered in the lecture room for several different welcome briefings. One was by our expedition leader Jan Belgers and the rest of the expedition staff, and another by our hotel manager Dejan (DJ). We were also briefed by Third Officer John on ship safety and how to prepare for the worst.
A drill of the general alarm (seven long blast followed by one long blast) was made, and we all donned the SOLAS orange life jackets and mustered in the bar guided by crew and staff. After a roll call to assure everyone was present we went out to the lifeboats and some of us actually went inside.
We returned to our cabins briefly before regrouping with Captain Mika Appel in the lounge for a welcoming toast of champagne or juice before heading down to the dining room for our first scrumptious dinner prepared by Chef Heinz and his staff. An exciting first day, the start of many more adventures to come in the following week.
After a calm night, we awoke to a stunningly beautiful morning. The sun was shining, there was very little wind, and the North Sea was but a blue blanket with the odd ship or offshore rig sticking out. Ortelius steadily made her way north while we enjoyed a first coffee or tea on deck. Of course, the keen birdwatchers had been the first ones up and about.
Right after breakfast, it was time to collect our expedition equipment. We were called by decks to the lecture room to receive and try on the rubber boots which would keep our feet dry in the zodi-acs and during landings. In addition, each of us got an inflatable lifevest. Soon afterwards, Bill in-vited us to his talk introducing us to, of course: Scotland! Some of us preferred to bask in the sun on the top deck instead or look for wildlife from the bridge or the decks.
In the afternoon Expedition Leader Jan introduced us to the do’s and dont’s with regards to safe zodiac operations and explained how to behave around nature and wildlife. Speaking of which, qui-te a number of species had been observed during the day including (a very brief encounter with a) Minke whale, Gannet, Common guillemot, Black-legged kittiwake, Greater as well as Lesser black-backed gull, Herring gull, Razorbill and even a Manx shearwater much to the delight of the birders.
Before dinner, we gathered in the bar where Jan and Bill outlined the plans for tomorrow when we would have a full day around Aberdeen. Excited by the prospect, we proceeded to dinner while Or-telius continued to make her way across the calm North Sea towards the Scottish coast.
Passengers were up at the ‘crack of dawn’ 5.30 am in the hope of spotting Bottlenose Dolphins off the mouth of Aberdeen harbour. Aberdeen was a major Scottish whaling port sending many vessels to the Arctic. The pilot boarded Ortelius and helmed the vessel into the River Dee past Girdleness lighthouse on the headland. This was the location of the tragic wreck of the whaling ship ‘Oscar’ in a storm in 1833. 42 sailors drowned in the mountainous waves, only two survived as the disaster unfolded in front of horrified families who had gathered to say goodbye as the ‘Oscar‘ sailed to the Arctic.
After breakfast and immigration checks, everyone boarded two coaches for the tour north. Bill act-ed as guide as they drove through the more interesting parts of Aberdeen, and provided a commen-tary on the architecture and politics of the area. A few miles north the coaches made a detour as they drove down to have a quick view of the controversial Trump golf course at Menie Estate. First stop was the beautiful ‘Sands of Forvie‘ nature reserve at the mouth of the river Ythan at the village of Newburgh. The reserve is the largest breeding ground of Arctic Terns and Eider Duck in the UK and also the site of a haul out of over 1000 grey seals and 10 common seals. Birdwatchers were delighted with the variety of birds found at this location.
After lunch the coaches drove north past Cruden Bay and the romantic ruin of Slains Castle – the inspiration for the story of Dracula – to the dramatic cliff scenery of the ‘Bullers of Buchan’. Only a very short walk from the car park, the cliffs provided the ideal vantage point to observe thousands of seabirds including everyone’s favourite, the comical-looking puffin.
At 3.00 pm the group drove back towards Aberdeen and along the beach promenade between the rivers Don and Dee to the old fishing village of Fittie (or ‘Foot Dee‘) at the mouth of the harbour and on the edge of the beach. Passengers were able to wander through the narrow streets filled with low granite-built houses and highly individual eccentrically decorated sheds. Cameras clicked frantically. At 4.30 everyone returned to Ortelius and at 6 pm the vessel cast off and sailed clear of the harbour for the voyage north to Fair Isle. One Bottlenose Dolphin was sighted just before the pilot left the ship. This was another stimulating Oceanwide Expeditions day providing a great varie-ty of interest!
We were approaching Fair Isle well before breakfast time, in a fairly settled sea, with slightly over-cast conditions. However, what little cloud there was, soon evaporated, treating us to a wonderful-ly clear and sunny day with a fresh breeze from the west.
Breakfast over, packed lunches assembled, four zodiacs were launched, and we commenced our landings at Bu Ness, arriving at the sand and stone beach of North Haven. This was the first time in zodiacs for many of us, and it was satisfying to know that all the briefings had worked and there were no hitches.
From there, we all took many different routes; a large party walked eastwards from the landing site to view the puffins nesting in defunct rabbit burrows high on the slopes over the sea. Others made their way along the winding little road that runs most of the island’s length, past the famous Bird Observatory with its modern, purpose-built establishment, constructed in 2010. The walk passed through wide open rolling country, dominated by the view of dramatic headlands further ahead, and covered with heavily grazed heathland and pastures. In places we saw the Helgoland traps used by the Observatory to humanely record and release birds, contributing to their unique data-base of migrations in this part of the world.
Many of us visited the intriguing local museum with its rich flavour of the community’s history and the little shop (in the latter, some emerging with examples of the famous local knitwear). For oth-ers, the main purpose was to see a small selection of the enormous range of bird species recorded here; treats included northern wheatears, excellent views of nesting kittiwakes, gannets and ful-mars, as well as many great skuas (bonxies), whimbrel, purple sandpipers, and even red-backed shrike and others (see species list).
Finally, during the mid-afternoon, it was time to return to Ortelius, via a series of zodiac shuttles from the beach. With a little time in hand, it was possible to divert from the straight route to view the magnificent cliff coastline of the island, through waters dotted with common guillemots and puffins. Then a turn out towards the ship through clear blue waters rising and falling in a gentle swell.
Back on board, after refreshments, Jan and the team gave us a recap on some of the features we’d seen during the day, and an outline of the plans for the next couple of sea-days, including an opti-mistic weather forecast for the sea conditions. Prospects for happy whale spotting!
Days at sea can leave lots of time for thinking. Staring out over a calm ocean watching for whales allows for introspection on the days past and where we are heading. In a world where it is now more common to run than to walk, having time to think and reflect away from the internet is valuable.
The day at Fair Isle yesterday had been stunning, a rare blue sky day in the Scottish Islands where more than one got sunburned. Standing on the edge of the cliffs, fulmars swinging overhead, gan-nets, puffins and others darting to and from their nests, one could feel again small compared to the life in the world. Looking down to the nesting sites of the gannets, though, was a reminder of how dramatically we are influencing the world. As the birds flew in with nesting material to build this year’s nest, it was surprising to see a large proportion of plastic netting taking the place of natural material. No doubt this leads to a more durable nest, but the fact is that these birds aren’t the only seagoing animal to suffer from plastic pollution. The Fulmars of the North Sea were recently esti-mated to be carrying plastic in their stomachs at an astonishing incidence rate of 85 to 95 per cent.
Whether it is plastic packaging coming from developing countries, pre-production plastic coming from developed countries, or fishing gear from the fishing industry, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is growing rapidly and will have unforeseen consequences on the wildlife of the ocean. With a lecture on oceanic plastic pollution coming soon, the need for awareness and action is strong, the problem can be slowed relatively easily, it just needs to be done.
As a Fin whale came to the surface to breathe, the mind was focused back to the immediate sur-roundings. Nevertheless, the lingering thoughts of our effect on the ocean isn’t lost as one thinks about how this giant animal feeds, scooping up tons of krill and who knows what else.
Keep yourself informed, do some research, and do something individually for the good of the whole.
When we woke up, we hadn’t crossed the Arctic Circle yet. All the whale stops from yesterday had slowed us down a little. The advantage of this was that we now were fully awake to have a proper ceremony. After breakfast we were called to the helideck where Dejan and Lilian were waiting for us with hot chocolate (with something extra). When we crossed the Arctic Circle at 66°33’27” N, Bill and Iain made us pass under the symbolical line and we could take pictures with an Arctic Circle sign – a great way to start the day and for several of us the first time we were officially in the Arc-tic. In the morning the group on the bow saw several Northern Bottlenose Whales, though they were all quite far away.
After this Sandra gave a lecture on photography, providing us with many tips to make better pic-tures – very useful as we all had cameras but not always got the results we hoped for. After another splendid lunch we had some time to enjoy the seas, although that became a bit more difficult. The wind had picked up a little, creating more waves and swell and for the first time the doctor was needed to hand out seasickness medicine, even though it wasn’t that bad really.
Later in the afternoon we were called to the lecture room again by Aad for a lecture about Jan Ma-yen. He told us all about this little island that we were about to visit. Nice stories and pictures fueled our enthusiasm for our visit tomorrow even more.
The recap was filled with our plans for our visit to Jan Mayen the next day. Jan gave us an overview of the weather forecast (beautiful sunshine and very little wind) and the possibilities for hikes and landings and Bill illustrated this with even more pictures.
After dinner a documentary was shown about Orcas, but many people stayed outside, in the bar or went to bed early, full of anticipation for tomorrow’s activities.
Our Expedition Leader’s earlier optimistic predictions for the weather at magical, mysterious Jan Mayen were confirmed early in the morning: the landing at Jan Mayen was on! For many of us a visit to this rarely visited island was at the top of this cruise’s wish list.
The hikers departed first as they needed time to cover the 10-km walk across the island. A landing was made at Båtvika, a small bay near the 200-metre high mast of the no longer operational LORAN navigation station. On approaching the coast both the black lava and the abundant green moss were noteworthy. We were greeted by the „stasjonssjef“, the commanding officer of the 18-strong Norwegian station crew. He gave a short introduction to the island and mentioned do’s and don’ts. We were free to wander around the station, do bird spotting or visit the shop for postcards and souvenirs. While the first hikers set off, a queue was formed as the small station shop could only accommodate 5 people at one time!
The hikers having left Ortelius, those who would not do the walk across the island to Kvalrossbukta, also left for Båtvika. They, however, were to return to the ship at noon to join in a circumnavigation of Sør Jan, as the southern half of the island is called.
Beerenberg, the 2277-metre high volcano on Nord Jan refused to reveal its beauty and the snow-and glacier-covered top remained shrouded in clouds for the rest of the day. Jan Mayen is of volcanic origing, seated on top of a so-called hot spot near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Recent eruptions of Beerenberg were in 1970 and in 1985; earthquakes every now and then rock the station’s buil-dings. While Beerenberg dominates the northern half of the island, lower, extinct volcanoes dot Sør Jan, the highest peak here being 769 metres. Erosion and frost wear have done a thorough job in grinding down the volcano tops.
Those who had returned to Ortelius enjoyed the sight of the steep cliffs as we sailed around the southern half of the island. After rounding Sørkapp we passed some of the beaches where the Dutch whaling stations were active between 1616 and 1648; by then, merciless hunting had just about eliminated the whale population around Jan Mayen and the installations (blubber ovens, tents and wooden houses) were dismantled and taken home, or simply abandoned.
In the meantime the hikers were on their way from the station to Kvalrossbukta at the other side of the island. Although the island at this point is only 3,5 kms across, the 10-km road has to cross the low hills on what is called Mid Jan. The hikers were fascinated by the bleak volcanic landscape, and many sat down to absorb this magical place. Everyone took his or her time to cross the island, while the bird watchers managed to spot quite a few species in this barren landscape. Lunch was eaten with perhaps the strangest view ever.
At about 4 o‘clock Ortelius started disembarking the passengers who had sailed around the southern part of the island, while the first hikers had already arrived at Kvalrossbukta, a site of former Dutch whaling activity. Countless logs, originating from the Siberian coast, were littered along the coast. At one place, planks, probably from former Dutch whaling houses, were sticking out of the sand, while fragments of the frost-shattered yellow so-called IJssel-stones, which the Dutch ships brought with them as ballast to later use them for foundations of their houses and blubber ovens, were spread all over the black beach at the far side of Kvalrossbukta, toward Briel-sche Toren. It looks as if the waves and erosion are quickly destroying the last evidence of the Dutch presence here some 400 years ago.
By 6 o‘clock the last zodiac departed for Ortelius, with the station commander and two of his crew waving us goodbye from the beach.
Now Ortelius set off for the pack ice. A few hardy photographers defied the cold wind for a few last pictures of the glaciers coming down Beerenberg. A most remarkable day had ended!
Another day at sea! Just like any other?
Pre-breakfast Orcas were enough to rouse even the most committed of duvet worshippers and see them pile on their arctic layers to hit the outer decks. A pod containing at least two males was cruising around, coming very close to the ship for those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. An hour was spent enjoying these magnificent sea mammals, giving plenty of opportuni-ties for the photographically-minded to fill their memory cards! But enough about whales …
Shortly after our morning repast, rumours spread through passengers and staff alike regarding stowaways onboard the vessel. A group of snow buntings had been caught cadging a lift northward to take the strain off their wings during their annual migration. A thought must be spared for these seemingly delicate wee creatures. With a wingspan of around 18 cm and weighing only a handful of grams, these daring aviators were probably undertaking a long mission across the wide expanse of the North Atlantic to spend the breeding season in Greenland. They added a certain calm to the days’ voyage with their little chirrups – a much gentler sound than that of Ortelius! Needless to say, they had probably become the most photographed species en-route…. that is, until the early evening.
Arjen pulled out an absolute winner with his sighting of three polar bears shortly after the Ortelius hit the ice: a mother and two well-fed cubs. A real joy to see this young family looking so healthy! Around half an hour was spent with the group of polar bears. Or should I say aurora? The collective noun for this particular member of the ursine family is indeed ‘an aurora of polar bears’! Though whether three is large enough to be classed as a group is a matter for a separate discussion. Se-mantics aside, what a wonderful way to end the day – so yep, just another sea day on the good ship Ortelius …
Bang, scrape, crunch … passengers awoke to the sounds of Ortelius gently slipping through the ice-covered sea. This was exciting … after the superb sighting of three bears the previous evening, pas-sengers were eager to line the rails of the deck and bridge to be the first to spot the next Arctic wildlife. Outside the temperature was -3 degrees centigrade and the sea -1, and a slight breeze ensured a chill in the air.
On the bridge, hour after hour, a reassuring monologue from the captain and confirming replies from the helmsman … Starboard 15… Starboard 15… Hard to Starboard… Hard to Starboard… Ease to 10… Ease to 10… Midships… Midships… Rudder hard to Port… Hard to Port… Hard to Port now… Okay… Midships… Midships… Hard to Starboard… Ease to 5… Ease to 5… Midships… Rudder Mid-ships… very good. Starboard 15… Starboard… Hard to Starboard… Ah! The phone is ringing!
On the horizon, what appeared to be a jumble of heaped-up ice proved to be a mirage effect. Lots of open water and every now and again a sighting of hooded seals on ice flows.
Two superb, highly educational lectures during the day: in the morning, by Iain, ‘Sea Ice’ and in the afternoon, by Bob, ‘Selkies – the life of northern seals’, had passengers entranced.
A relaxing morning and afternoon … no real excitement but then a cry from the bow … ’Ross’s Gull’ … and louder chorus of voices: ‘Ross’s Gull’, had everyone scurrying for their cameras and has-tening onto the foredeck. The hero of the hour was Ingmar, one of our eagle-eyed bird-spotters. This was the highlight sighting of the voyage, a rare and beautiful bird, normally found much fur-ther east. Bill quickly drew a cartoon certificate which was then presented to the proud spotter.
The scheduled Arctic BBQ on the helicopter deck was cancelled as the hotel staff thought it rather cold. A pity, as eventually the sun came out and it was a rather pleasant evening with Ortelius amidst the ice.
The delightful evening of the previous night wasn’t with us the next day unfortunately, as we start-ed, some way south of the ice, in a fresh northwesterly wind, grey clouds, and to put it gently, a rather lumpy sea. Throughout the day the weather conditions deteriorated with wind piping up to about force 7 and sea conditions becoming worse to the extent that the foredeck had to be closed, even for the most intrepid birders.
However, undeterred, we had a full programme on board. An early sighting of fin whales was en-joyed by many; we slowed and maneuvered gently to obtain closer views, and this was amply re-warded with the spectacle of these very large animals (second only to blue whales) cruising through the water, their sharp backward-pointing fins slicing through the choppy seas.
Alex commenced the lecture programme with a provocative and enlightening talk on the worrying amount of discarded plastic in our seas; where it comes from and what needs to be done. This caused much discussion and questions from his audience.
The afternoon kept everyone busy with talks. Jan gave a mandatory briefing on safety with polar bears, what to do and, very importantly, what not to do. He continued with a lecture on the history of Spitsbergen, the early explorers and the development of human settlements on the island. This was followed by a very thoughtful talk by Bill on marine art and the politics and emotion behind the different genres. The turbulent seas illustrated by the artists settled in to an appropriate context as Ortelius rolled and pitched with occasional thumps as we hit waves, as Bill described the feelings of marine artists becoming aware of their own mortality.
A lighter vein developed up in the bar, where we had a recap (both intellectual and liquid) about the forthcoming day’s events. This also included an appropriate addition to Alex’s talk, with a brief-ing by two researchers surveying plastic debris and pollution in Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen. And finally, there was an evening talk by Aad, about life in today’s Svalbard, the current general name for the complex of islands which includes Spitsbergen, the largest, although the Dutch keep insisting on calling Svalbard Spitsbergen! Local bear activities were highlighted as were the challenges fac-ing Svalbard by a changing climate and the consequent avalanches, mudslides and cracking houses.
The day dawned calm and sunny, and what a perfect day to conclude our cruise from Europe to Svalbard! The sun of course hadn’t set in several days, nevertheless, the early morning light illumi-nating Prins Karls Forland was beautiful as we sailed towards Poolepynten.
It had been a wonderful trip, starting in summertime Netherlands, where we walked around in t-shirts, to what felt like springtime Arctic. There was still snow in reasonable quantities on the ground here, and although it would melt soon, the migratory birds were starting to arrive. As we watched walrus in the morning, some counting trash pieces for the study of Arctic beach plastic litter, Purple Sandpipers skittered around our feet, displaying to their mate.
As we cruised under the blue sky around Ymerbukta, we were able to catch a few great sightings of King Eiders, also displaying to their mates. Even on the way to Ymerbukta, the Blue whales that we saw were…not displaying to their mates. Anyway, it’s good to see the whales back again this year after several blue whales spent the majority of last summer in the area outside of Longyearbyen.
Soon the snow will melt, and the hills of Spitsbergen will turn green and the flowers will bloom. Summer comes quickly in the Arctic and lucky are those who get to experience it.
When Ortelius arrived at the port of Longyearbyen it was hard to believe all those days had passed since we had left Vlissingen – it seemed like yesterday, yet also a long time ago. We had sailed the North Sea and the North Atlantic, we had been in what had felt almost like summer on Fair Isle and in the ice far north. We had explored beautiful places in Scotland, set foot on Jan Mayen and trav-elled under the midnight sun. Of all our lucky and truly amazing wildlife sightings, the most special ones certainly had been the Polar Bear mother with her cubs, the Orcas and the elusive Ross’s Gull. Even our last morning on board Ortelius proved to be expedition-like: it had us disembarking into the zodiacs, being shuttled to the small pier of Longyearbyen.
After our unforgettable trip to the North we were rich in memories and knowledge about the Arctic and its wildlife. It was sad to say goodbye to the ship and crew and to the new friends we had made during this trip. But we were also full of anticipation and looking forward to returning to the high latitudes soon – the polar bug clearly had gotten hold of us. This trip will last us a lifetime – in our memories, in our imaginations, and in our dreams. And for those who would stay on for the next voyage, new adventures were just a few hours away …
Thank you all for such a wonderful voyage, for your company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!
Total distance sailed on our voyage: 1.620 nautical miles (3.000 km)
Furthest North: 78°26.4’ N / 011°54.9’ E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Mika Appel, Expedition Leader Jan Belgers, Hotel Manager Dejan Nikolic and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.