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OTL03-24, trip log, North Spitsbergen Explorer - Versatile Landscapes, sea ice & Wildlife - Birding, Summer Solstice

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation – Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Embarkation – Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Date: 18.06.2024
Position: 78°14.2’ N - 015°35.5’ E
Wind: SE 6
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

The day had finally come: it was time to board the good ship Ortelius for our expedition exploring North Spitsbergen! It was a beautiful, sunny day as we arrived at the port in Longyearbyen with calm, glassy waters. We were thankful of this because we embarked the ship by zodiacs! The Expedition Team and Hotel Staff had helpfully brought our luggage aboard and taken it to our cabins earlier in the day. All that remained was for us to take a few photos of Ortelius as we approached in the zodiacs before heading up the gangway.

We were warmly welcomed by all the crew and staff who assisted us in finding our cabins. We had a little time to explore the ship and get our bearings and grab a tea or coffee in the bar. Once everyone was onboard it was time for the mandatory ship safety video and briefing presented by Expedition Leader Sara and Chief Officer Romanas. We were given all the information we needed such as moving safely around the ship, the things we could and could not do, and how to put on our emergency life jackets. Having learned this, it was then time for an abandon ship drill so after hearing the seven short and one long blast of the ship’s horn we went to our cabins, got our lifejackets, and went to our muster station in the bar. Then we were led to our lifeboats so we would know where to go in case of a real emergency.

After the drill we headed to the bar where Hotel Manager Vova and Expedition Leader Sara gave a welcome briefing, helping to explain how life would be on the ship over the coming days. With briefing formalities concluded, it was time to join Captain Per in the bar to raise a glass in celebration of the voyage. Cheers everyone! Then it was time for our first evening meal, with a delicious buffet selection provided by Chef Heinz and his galley team served by our friendly dining room staff. After dinner we were given our muck boots which we would use for going ashore; comfortable but also, very importantly, waterproof for our wet zodiac landings!

After a long day of travel for most of us it was time for bed to get some rest before the first full day of our trip tomorrow.

Day 4: Alkefjellet

Date: 21.06.2024
Position: 79°18.9’ N - 019°02.1’ E
Wind: SE 5
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: -3

When we awoke we found ourselves just in front of Faksevågen, a sheltered bay in Lomfjorden. Fog was surrounding Ortelius on all fronts and we could barely see land. Still, the expedition team started to get ready to scout for polar bears for our safety, but just before they stepped into the zodiacs, the fog worsened. Unfortunately, this morning the weather gods were not on our side and so “Plan A”, a landing with beach clean-up, had to be cancelled. “Plan B” was to sail south-east down the Hinlopenstrait to reach fast ice and look for wildlife. In the meantime, Christophe gave a talk about the Brünnich’s guillemot and prepared us with all the necessary information for our afternoon adventure. Hazel lectured later in the morning about the seals we had already seen and those we hoped to see during the remainder of the trip. Just before lunch and still sailing in the fog, we reached the fast ice between Spitzbergen and Wahlbergøya. A short while after going along the fast ice, with hardly any visibility, we miraculously spotted a polar bear! Despite the fog everybody on board had the chance to have a good look at the animal, but it was a bittersweet moment as we realised the animal was very skinny. Later photos of the bear yawning revealed it had very few teeth, suggesting it was an older animal which had perhaps naturally reached the end of his days.

After lunch, the crew and expedition team started to prepare for a zodiac cruise at Alkefjellet. This impressive cliff is one of the largest Brünnich’s guillemot breeding colonies on Spitsbergen, with an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs! On our way to the southern end of the cliff we observed huge flocks of Brünnich`s guillemot in the water. The bird life was magnificent and the cliff itself was a truly awe-inspiring sight; millions of years ago basaltic magma intruded into the ancient layers of limestone in this region, and today this basalt layer is visible as these impressive cliffs. The sky was peppered with black and white birds, some swooped low almost touching our heads. The nearer we got, the more we could see, and hear…and smell!

As we drove along the cliff, we could observe that most of the Brünnich’s guillemot were already incubating their egg and showing us their black backs. The kittiwake nests could be seen much higher up on the cliff face, and there were numerous glaucous gulls positioned on good lookout points over the colony looking for feeding opportunities. As we reached the end of the cliff on the bright green slope, we spotted some black guillemots breeding in cracks of boulders and the sun started to appear out of the clouds. Feeling almost warm now in the sunny conditions, we enjoyed views of a small glacier front of the Odin Jøkulen ice cap on the northern side of the bird cliff before we all headed back to the ship. After dinner we proceeded further north, and we were all excited for what the morning after would bring in the sea ice!

Day 2: Lilliehöökbreen & Tinayrebukta

Lilliehöökbreen & Tinayrebukta
Date: 19.06.2024
Position: 79°20.9’ N - 011°42.8’ E
Wind: Light air
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +10

After a steady sail north from Longyearbyen and along the west coast of Spitsbergen we awoke to an announcement from our Expedition leader Sara, who had some exciting news for us. A female polar bear and her two cups were spotted from the bridge when we entered Krossfjorden. We quickly dressed and went out on deck, not to miss this opportunity to see our first bear(s) of this cruise. We were able to watch the female bear feeding on a walrus carcass and the two sweet cubs, only a few months old, playing in the water. What an incredible start of this expedition!

After breakfast we all attended the mandatory AECO and zodiac briefing before we found our ship in front of an impressive glacier front at the head of the fjord. This calving front of the Lilliehöökbreen is seven kilometer-wide. The scale of the place may have been hard for some to comprehend, but no one could fail to be impressed at the massive glacier framed against the surrounding mountains and with its parent snowfield rising above it. After all zodiacs were lowered into the water we were called to the gangway for a zodiac cruise. The blue skies and sunshine made for a wonderful morning and the Lilliehöökbreen tidewater glacier is definitely one of the most spectacular in Svalbard. Its massive face sweeps around the entire end of the fjord with plenty of birdlife including black-legged kittiwakes, Arctic tern and Northern fulmars.

During lunch we enjoyed the cruise up towards Tinayrebukta. As we arrived there, the expedition team started to prepare and scout the landing place for us. All save for us to go, we took a short zodiac ride to the beach, where we started our hikes. Those wanting a more strenuous hike headed straight up to the ridge and followed it around. Here they encountered Reindeer with calves, rock ptarmigan and lots of birdlife. The middle hiking group was split in half and followed up the ridge but had time to take in the scenery and beauty of the area. Both of these groups were having fantastic views of a harbour seal. The short hikers have been also able to watch a harbour seal close and taking time to appreciate the smaller aspects of the flora and the many mosses and lichens. Our time ashore passed quickly and soon it was time to return to the Ortelius for showers, the daily recap and briefing. After dinner, many choose to retire to the bar to celebrate what had been an incredible day exploring Spitsbergen.

Day 3: Texas Bar & Monacobreen

Texas Bar & Monacobreen
Date: 20.06.2024
Position: 79°36.5’ N - 012°29.7’ E
Wind: Light air
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +6.3

Just after 7:00am in the morning, Sara woke us up over the PA-system with the delightful message that the weather Gods were working in our favour, meaning Liefdefjorden looked good as we were approaching our destination. After another delicious breakfast, we landed on a beach near Texas Bar. Here we had three different hikes on offer; short, medium and long. No matter which adventure you picked, you got to enjoy the beautiful landscape, the view over the fjord and flowers like mountain avens, purple saxifrage, mountain sorrel and woolly louseworts. The long hikers made it all the way up to a high view point where they encountered a male Rock Ptarmigan. Medium and short walkers enjoyed the nice flowers and other bird species that this place offers, such as the iconic King eider! Sara made sure everyone got to explore the Texas Bar, Norwegian, hunting hut from 1927 before, either heading for a swim or going back to the ship.

During lunch the ship repositioned further south, deeper in Liefdefjorden to reach Monacobreen – a large and very scenic glacier spilling into the fjord. This glacier is in retreat, as are many on Svalbard. As a result our ship sailed into waters where very little chart information exists, as this part of the fjord was once under the glacier! After finding a safe anchor position, zodiacs were launched and we cruised along the glacier front. Each zodiac group would have had a different experience travelling through this ethereal sea and ice-scape. Encounters included several Bearded seals, Arctic Skua/Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake and Long-tailed ducks. The cruise ended up with a great encounter with belugas! After the very enjoyable cruise, the fleet made its way back to Ortelius. We had our daily briefing and recap by Sara and the expedition team. It was then time for dinner and a good night sleep.

Day 5: Ice Day

Ice Day
Date: 22.06.2024
Position: 80°58.0’ N - 020°45.0’ E
Wind: N 2
Weather: Clear sky
Air Temperature: +17

After a few days exploring on land, we woke up to a beautiful seascape of ice with the Seven Islands in the background. Today is a day spent navigating the sea ice looking for wildlife. We couldn’t have better conditions. Beautiful sunshine, not a drop of wind and not a cloud in the sky; what else could we ask for? We felt very privileged to spend time in an environment that will be more and more difficult to experience in the future.

We spent all morning outside looking for life and were rewarded with many seals on the ice, including ringed seals and bearded seals. One particular sighting of a bearded seal stood out; as it swam along the ship we watched it swimming gracefully under water. The birders also had a fantastic day, with long anticipated sightings of an ivory gull AND the rare Pomarine Skua!

Barbara gave an amazing lecture on Sea Ice as an ecosystem in the morning and in the afternoon, Sara gave a brilliant talk about polar bears. In the evening, we had a lovely barbecue on the helipad, where we could relax and enjoy some good food in the fresh air of the arctic 24-hour daylight. Weather was again perfect. The evening developed into the dance floor, while beautiful fog covering the ocean while sailing back South. We were even greeted by a brilliant fog bow! Young and old were doing the boogie to Hazel’s BBQ party playlist.

Day 6: Smeerenburg & Waggonwaybreen

Smeerenburg & Waggonwaybreen
Date: 23.06.2024
Position: 79°43.9’ N - 011°01.7’ E
Wind: SSW 4
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +6,2

After a hearty breakfast, we boarded the zodiacs and headed for the sandy beach of Smeerenburg. On the way in, we rounded a point where a group of walrus were huddled together on the beach causing a ripple of excitement among the guests. After the first five zodiacs of guests had landed ashore they were led along the beach by guides Hazel, Misha and Allan to a viewing point where they could admire the walrus: true Arctic icons! The bewhiskered beasts were very relaxed and sleepy so for the best part of an hour we watched them. For the most part, it’s fair to say that the Walrus were not that active, but every now and again some sort of movement within their tight huddle would elicit quiet laughs from their audience as they jabbed at each other with their tusks or exhaled, snorting loudly.

Meanwhile, the last five zodiacs to land were led by guides Christophe, Barbara and Aitana on an exploratory walk of the area which is of huge cultural and historical importance. Smeerenburg was the site of a Dutch whaling station way back in the first half of the 17th century. At its peak some 200 men worked there, processing whales that had been caught in the fjords of Svalbard. In a nutshell, it was a place that saw the death and destruction of bowhead whales on a horrendous scale. We imagined the beach littered with partially dismembered carcasses, the unbearable stench, and the clouds of birds that flew in to feed off the detritus. Little remains of the whaling station, but we could see some of the circular formations of ‘blubber cement’ that outlined where the huge try works sat that were used to extract oil from the blubber. A simple brass plaque mounted on a frame of Siberian driftwood marked the site, which is remembered as being Europe’s first oil venture.

Halfway through the morning, the two groups switched places. Part of our time ashore was dedicated to a beach clean, a tradition that Oceanwide Expeditions tries to observe on at least one landing of every Svalbard voyage. A fantastic amount of plastic rubbish was collected as everyone got enthusiastically involved.

The staff radios crackled as a report came in from the Ortelius bridge watch that a Polar Bear had been spotted by officer cadet Erik! Assistant Expedition Leader Claudio was sent in a zodiac to investigate. It was across the water from us, in a bay called Virgohamna on Danskøya (Danes Island). Expedition Leader Sara instantly made the decision to close our landing and get all guest off land as soon as possible, not because we were in any risk of the bear but because it presented a fantastic opportunity to see this magnificent animal. She requested that all remaining zodiacs be launched from the ship and all guests be emabarked into them without delay. Some of us were already back onboard and out of our outdoor gear but the exciting announcement that we were going to go and have a look at the bear had us scrambling to get back into our waterproofs! The zodiacs gathered just off Virgohamna and made a slow approach towards where the bear was enjoying a relaxed stroll along the waterline. Our guides quickly identified it as a young male, perhaps only three or four years old. The best news of all was that he was in fantastic condition with healthy deposits of fat in all the right places for a polar bear! The zodiacs lined up just offshore and the bear gently wandered past us, stopping from time to time to check us out and sniff the air. At one point he stopped to paw a man-made relic that lay among the rocks. It was a truly phenomenal encounter with the creature we had all journeyed to the high Arctic hoping to see. The experience moved some people to tears and left pretty much everyone speechless. Among the thousands of photos taken of this beautiful creature were some truly spectacular framefilling images.

Lunch had opened while we were admiring the bear from the zodiacs, but the restaurant was empty for a time as we delayed our eating for time with the beautiful bear. Eventually we had to leave though, so after moving quietly away from the bear, once at a distance from him we sped back to the ship, stripped off our outdoor gear, and headed for a well-earned meal. The anchor was raised, and Ortelius got under way for Magdalenafjord, further south down the coast. We arrived mid-afternoon, and soon all the zodiacs were on the water to take us out for an exploratory cruise of this spectacular place. The scenery was breathtaking; towering mountains, tumbling glaciers and steep scree-covered slopes where countless Little Auks made their home. Harbour seals popped up their heads here and there and a variety of birds were seen including common eiders, Arctic terns, black guillemots, barnacle geese, pink-footed geese and snow buntings. The birders were especially excited to see good numbers of king eiders. Several reindeer were also spotted, bounding across the steep mountain sides. We went into the fjord as far as we could go, where the Waggonway Glacier meets the sea. This curious name appears to be the result of a feint medial moraine that leaves two perfectly parallel lines down the middle of the glacier, which resemble the tracks of an old wagon.

We returned to the ship, passing Gravneset, a point that is the location of some 130 or more centuries-old graves of whalers and mariners, which is now a protected site of special cultural and historical significance. A Sysselmannen’s (Svalbard Governor) hut could be seen nearby. Back on board, we got ready for the briefing that would prepare us for the next day’s activities, before heading off to dinner. And so ended a truly remarkable day when the Lord of the Arctic, the polar bear, graced us with his presence and touched our hearts.

Day 7: Alkhornet & Ymerbukta

Alkhornet & Ymerbukta
Date: 24.06.2024
Position: 78°13.0’ N - 013°52.1’ E
Wind: Light air
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +8

This morning we arrived at Alkhornet, admiring the impressive, towering cliff face that provides a perfect surface for nesting black-legged kittiwakes and fulmars, along with Brünnich’s guillemots which do not nest build but instead rest their pear shaped eggs directly onto the ledges of rock. After the expedition team had safely scouted the site and taken their positions around the perimeter of the site the announcement was made for us to embark the zodiacs. We couldn’t wait to get ashore and enjoy free-roaming within the boundary of the guides, choosing how to spend our three hours ashore. Some opted to energetically walk the entire area, including hiking up the slope to the locations of guides Christophe and Keechy who were underneath the imposing peak at the highest point of the perimeter. Alkhornet takes its name from being home to auks (Alk) such as the aforementioned Brünnich’s guillemots, and being shaped like a horn (most closely resembling that of a rhino, not an animal we see in the Arctic!)

Other guests opted to stay lower down on the flat vegetation covered plain of the site, enjoying fantastic views of Svalbard reindeer which were so confiding they could almost be thought of as tame! They are not at all domesticated, but the fact they need to make the most of summer vegetation eating opportunities after lean winter times means that they are completely focused on feeding, even if that brings them into close contact with their human observers. Another wildlife highlight was observing a couple of Arctic foxes with their adorable cubs! These little ones can only have been a few weeks old and were very small indeed. They seemed to be enjoying exploring their new world, tumbling around as they played together waiting for their parents to bring provisions. In terms of bird life, Arctic skua, pink-footed and barnacle goose and snow bunting were enjoyed. After a few hours ashore it was time to head back on board for lunch.

After our afternoon meal we headed round the corner to Ymerbukta to enjoy the unique and memorable experience of touching a glacier! Esmarkbreen is a very slow-moving glacier with some of its terminating face on the land, meaning it is safe to be touched. After making the scenic drive across the bay to the landing site we stepped ashore and walked across the moraine through the muddy sediment towards the glacier. We were in awe of this amazing river of ice and it felt like a truly special way to bring our trip towards its end, knowing how vitally important ice is not only to the Arctic ecosystem but to global climate.

It was a beautiful afternoon with clear blue sky and sunshine and we relished every moment of our time, knowing it would be the last landing of our trip. We spotted king and common eiders and numerous seals hauled out on the fast ice in front of the glacier.

After spending time ashore for a couple of hours we reluctantly headed back to the landing site, boarded the zodiacs, and headed back to Ortelius to continue (or start!) packing our bags. Having returned our muck boots it was time for Captain Per’s farewell cocktail in the bar, so we gathered there and joined him and the expedition team in raising a glass of prosecco or non-alcoholic alternative in celebration of our fantastic trip. Before enjoying our last evening meal together we watched the end of trip slide show prepared by expedition guide Misha. This was a spectacular photographic and videographic record of the experiences we had shared over the past week and we all loved recalling the incredible sights of Svalbard. This brought a tear to many people’s eyes as we were reminded just how special this place is; the fauna and flora, landscapes and ice of this Arctic Archipelago would stay in our hearts and minds forever. We left the bar and made our way to the restaurant with smiles on everyone’s faces: did we really see and do all those things in just one week?! We felt so lucky.

After a delicious meal we were grateful to have the opportunity to see and give thankful applause to different departments of the ship, including hotel, housekeeping, galley and deck crew.

Day 8: Longyearbyen - Disembarkation

Longyearbyen - Disembarkation
Date: 25.06.2024
Position: 78°14.6’ N - 015°32.5’ E
Wind: N1
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +7

After seven superb days our Svalbard expedition was over, but the memories we had made would live with us forever. With our luggage left outside our cabins ready for the staff and crew to take down the gangway, we headed to breakfast. After saying goodbye to the dining room crew we took our remaining belongings and disembarked onto the coal pier. There was just enough time to say farewell to the expedition team before we boarded the buses and left for our onward travel.

Thank you all for such a memorable voyage, for your company, good humour, enthusiasm, and patience when the weather decided we should do something different. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!

Total distance sailed on our voyage: 913 nautical miles

Furthest North: 81°06.100’ N - 020°35.769’ E

On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Per Andersson, Expedition Leader Sara Jenner, Hotel Manager Volodymyr ‘Vova’ Cherednychenko and all the crew and expedition staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you! We look forward to seeing you again on one of our ships for another adventure.


Tripcode: OTL03-24
Dates: 18 Jun - 25 Jun, 2024
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Ortelius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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Aboard m/v Ortelius

The ice-strengthened Ortelius is thoroughly outfitted for polar exploration and, when necessary, helicopter flights.

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