OTL04-16, Trip log, North Spitsbergen - Polar Bear Special
09.06.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Around one o’clock in the afternoon all of us were in Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen. This former coal mining settlement has a population of about 2,300 and is one of the world’s northern most settlements. We were taken to the town, which gave everyone a chance to see the town centre and excellent museum in the large modern university building. On display in the museum is the whaling history of the archipelago and plenty of information about wildlife, early exploration and World War II.
Longyearbyen is named after the American, John Munro Longyear (1850-1922), one of the founders of the Arctic Coal Company (1906-1916). Coal is still produced in a mine near Longyearbyen but not in quantities as seen in the twentieth century. Our expedition ship and home for the next week, Ortelius was anchored in Adventfjorden and members of our staff and crew were on the pier with us while we were waiting for a large cruise ship to set sail and Ortelius to moor alongside the pier. Our stay on board started with a warm welcome in the lecture room by hotel manager Robert with a useful speech about the ship, from basic rules about toilet system to high tech wifi and internet connections. We also heard a bright safety briefing by third officer Luis about abandon ship procedures and how to react in case of distress signals. This was followed by an exercise with gathering at the muster station. Always good to know such things, and hopefully not put them into practice!
We then gathered around our expedition leader Rinie who introduced us to the rest of the team and we all toasted to our great adventure ahead with Captain Ernesto Barría. After a great dinner prepared by the chefs Christian and Paguio, we were sailing in the large fjord of Isfjorden. On both sides of Isfjorden flat-lying sedimentary rocks only 45–60 million years old were exposed, very young compared to most other parts of Spitsbergen, carved by recent glaciers to display beautiful U-shaped valleys. Tired after the long journey and the new impressions, the bunks were quickly found while the ship sailed into the open sea towards the North.
Overnight the captain moved the ship north and we woke up looking out on the jagged mountains of the northwest corner. We would be sailing all morning towards Liefdefjord and we spent this time going over several mandatory briefings. We were told about how to behave ashore, how to get in and out of the zodiacs and what to do when we encountered a Polar Bear. After we were handed our rubber boots, we could already practice a little with that last newly learned skill as the first Polar Bears were spotted on the shores of Reindyrsflya. A mother and a one-year-old cub were walking along the shore. We had to stay a little out as the sea charts didn’t have any depths close to the shore, but the captain did a great job in bringing us as close as safely possible. Both bears seemed in reasonable good shape, but being on land already now, they still had a long time to go before the ice returned.
After lunch we boarded the zodiacs for a zodiac cruise around the largest of the Andøyane at the entrance of Liefdefjord. These islands lived up to their name, Andøyane translates into Duck Islands, as we saw many Eiders and King Eiders resting on the shores or the ice along the shore. Especially the royal of the two was very popular by birders and non-birders alike with its colourful head and bill. Another highlight was the several Red Phalaropes that were swimming and displaying along the shores. It was really nice to see these colourful birds in their summer plumage, in contrast to the grey winter plumage some of us know from back home. Meanwhile the divers had their first dive in the chilling waters, something many of the non-divers had quite a bit of respect for. But we all wondered what life would be like under the water. To give a little insight in that world, Arjen had caught some plankton and put it on display in the bar. When given a closer look, the water teemed with tiny, barely visible copepods, who turned out to be a really important stage in the food chain.
Just when recap was about to be started, another Polar Bear was found on a small island in the inner Liefdefjord. This time we could get a bit closer, but apparently this bear was very tired. Even though Ortelius isn’t the quietest of ships and Rinie was making several announcements, it never even lifted its head. Only when Rinie made one final announcement proclaiming him dead and saying that we would continue, he moved over and lifted its head, showing he was really alive.
Recap was cancelled and we went straight to another nice dinner. After dinner many of us went outside to have a look at the magnificent Monacobreen surrounded by steep mountains. Many pictures were taken and people marvelled at the size of the glacier, even though Rinie announced that the small island we saw quite far away from the glacier had been ice covered little over 10 years ago. This far away from civilization the effects of climate change were clearly visible. But thoughts on that didn’t linger long, as we were all captivated by the different colours of the ice and the sheer size of the glacier.
After a short stay near the glacier front, we headed out again, out of Liefdefjord towards Hinlopenstretet, searching for the ice and hopefully more Polar Bears.
After an uneventful overnight voyage from Woodfjorden and an excellent cruise around the Andøyanen (Duck Islands), Ortelius entered the 100km channel of Hinlopenstretet with Gustav V Land to port and Asgardforma to starboard. Poor visibility and weather gradually improved as the ship sailed south giving superb views of the ice covered landscape. Passengers became excited as broken sea ice and small bergs slid past the bow as the course neared Wahlbergøya Island. Ahead an unbroken line of white on the horizon indicated that we were nearing the ice edge. As Ortelius nosed into the vast expanse of sea ice, sharp eyes spotted a bear walking across the floes directly towards the vessel. Long lens cameras clicked as passengers recorded the scene. This was what everyone had hoped for…a bear on ice. Unfortunately, just as lunch was called, and still some distance away, the bear veered off to the left and walked away from the ship.
Everyone thought the appearance of the bear appeared would be the highlight of the day, when suddenly there was a dramatically announcement on the tannoy as everyone was called to lounge to hear the captain announce that Ortelius had a major mechanical problem. The ship had been immobilised… losing all power in the main engine, with the failure of one of the cylinders. He explained the ship was in a safe position and in no danger whatsoever and that Spitzbergen authorities, Oceanwide Office and all Travel Agencies had been informed and the automatic, incident, maritime safety procedures for passenger ships were in place.
This included two vessels sailing directly to the Hinlopenstretet location to escort Ortelius. As Ortelius carried spare parts for almost all eventualities, the ship’s engineers started working on the repair.
The captain then addressed passengers again at Recap at 6.30. Followed by short wildlife lectures from Rene and Arjen. A very interesting contribution of the recap was the series of underwater photographs taken by expert diver Rene Lipmann of “Sea angels” and assorted species.
“Happy Hour” ensured happiness for the remainder of the evening.
In the night of 3 to 4 June there must have been a higher number of restless sleepers than usual. Not due to a heavily rocking boat or noisy people in the hallway, but because the day before we were informed by the captain that – if we were lucky- the engine might get fixed overnight and we would be able to hear this if they succeeded in fixing it. In any other case, we would get towed back to Longyearbyen by the Sysselmannen who were already on their way.
Since no strange sounds from deep down under in the Ortelius were perceived by either crew, guide or passenger, we were not surprised when we received the news that all the hard work overnight had sadly be in vain. The engineers had tried everything possible, but were not able to get the engine running in time. Our captain then made the official announcement that we would get towed back to Longyearbyen after all, since we were “adrift” and were to follow standard procedures, time had run out. Not to worry however, we were in a safe location, a safe and –apart from the engine- properly functioning vessel, and the Sysselmannen were already on their way.
Despite this sad and slightly unexpected news since everyone, including captain and crew had kept their hopes up, the mood was optimistic. “We are adrift in the Arctic pack ice and will get towed away, that makes for a story!” and after all, we still had an amazing view and interesting and informative activities to fill the time. Very understandable though, several people informed as to what would happen with regards to refunding, possible flights home that could be rebooked to an earlier date and of course “Does this mean we can have free drinks?”, followed up by loud laughter.
After this short update about the whole situation and how to proceed, we were being spoiled with an intriguing ¬lecture about the “reproduction of polar bears” by the polar bear specialist and hobbyist, Rinie van Meurs! For additional information on this reproduction of polar bears, we were visited by our own personal polar bear who had apparently been in disguise dressed up as a human being in between the passengers and came out to show his true (white) colors. The polar bear gave an impressive and very detailed preview of “Arctic courtship”.
Next, we could get comfortable in the lecture room which was transformed into a true “home cinema” where the first part of the documentary Frozen Planet was shown, narrated by -of course- David Attenborough. In the meantime, the Sysselmannen arrived and people were kindly requested to stay off the deck and remain inside due to possible danger of the towing cables that were being attached. Everything proceeded according to plan and soon we were on our way to Longyearbyen again!
Later in the afternoon, a lecture about Barnacle geese was on the menu, presented by the ceiling cleaner, Arjen, after which the documentary Frozen Planet continued with a second part.
Half an hour before diner the usual recaps were presented in the lounge with Bill the Scot telling us about how to see and perceive things in the Arctic in relation to his creative work that can be admired on several locations in the Ortelius. Next, Hannah came up with a short recap about piracy amongst birds in the Arctic, and finally JB-Jean Baptiste showed us some very nice recordings of his work on Brünnich’s guillemots in Spitsbergen.
The dinner after these recaps was most welcome since everybody had been looking forward to a delicious bbq-buffet. Chicken drumsticks, racks, and beef was offered as well as oven potatoes and for desert some cake and brownies for the ones with a sweet tooth. Coming up; relaxed digestion in the Ortelius lounge! Relaxation didn’t last long however, since a helicopter with three extra technicians landed on deck and people hurried outside to take some nice pictures of this spectacle. With the landing of this helicopter and the bar filled with stuffed and chatting people came an end to a somewhat unusual day.
In the morning light with a fog-dimmed sunshine or later on in the darker fog with different grey in the light, we found ourselves still towed from the “Polarsyssel” around the northwest corner of Amsterdamoya.
A wonderful, long Special Sunday Morning Breakfast made us awake for Rinnies second Polar Bear presentation describing the most of the hunting strategies of Polar Bears. Later in the morning, Josef offered the chance during a work shop in the bar to improve the photographic skills and speed up the cameras for better bird pictures from the ship.
A short meeting with the captain explained the upcoming hours on the ship until Longyearbyen. He noted also, that we will be much sooner in Longyearbyen than expected. We arrived there late evening around midnight.
After lunch, we found ourselves between the closed bridge, the bar or the decks to observe the nice and calm weather and the occasionally birds who passed a long side of the ship. A “BBC Frozen Planet” documentary in the lecture room was played during the afternoon.
Sebastian had a nice talk in the lecture room about the life of Roal Amundsen, one of the most successful explorers of Polar Regions. The recap updated us with some information relating to the reduction of the ice around the arctic, a personal view on paintings with Bill and Rinnie’s information about the next days in Longyearbyen including the weather forecast.
After dinner, passengers spread out between the various options with a nice cinema evening with “Home” including free popcorn or optional visits in the bar into the late evening. The highlight however was the astonishing manoeuvre from “Polarsyssel” to position “Ortelius” alongside the old coal pier near the airport in Longyearbyen.
Today we woke up along side the coal pier, the former pier used for coal transportation, in Longyearbyen. Last night, shortly after midnight, the “Polarsyssel”, our big blue tug boat, helped us reaching this destination.
This morning, everyone is free to visit Longyearbyen, a small mining city of 2500 inhabitants, built at the beginning of the 20th Century. Now, even if one mine is still working near here, in Adventdalen, the jobs are mainly focused on administration, logistics, scientific research, education and, of course, tourism. All the cruise ships traveling in the area make a stop in Longyearbyen, even the biggest one, which can sometimes make the population of the city double in a very short period of time. Our ship with its 92 passengers is for sure more discreet, even if our adventures are already in the city’s newspaper…
After lunch, almost everybody joins the walk in Adventdalen, a few kilometers from the city. The upper part of the fjord is a flat, boggy, wet area, where Svalbard Reindeers (an endemic, quiet rounded subspecies) can peacefully graze between eider ducks and Barnacle Geese. Some fellow photographers and keen birders remain at the back of the group, more interested in taking pictures of some Dunlins, Purple Sandpipers, King Eiders or even Red-necked Phalaropes, one of the most beautiful waders that can be seen here.
Back close to the city, we stopped at the kennels, where all the huskies and other dogs are kept when they are not pulling a sledge. We are less interested in the dogs sitting here than by the big Eider Ducks nesting between the kennels: those smart ducks just take advantage of the barking dogs around them to avoid being bothered by some eventual hungry Arctic Fox wandering in the area…
Back on the ship, the expedition team gave the last updates about climate change: a new study, just reported in the newspaper “The Independent”, says that 2016 could be the first year since 100 000 years with the Arctic Ocean completely free of ice. Here
in the Arctic, where the temperatures rose two times faster than in anywhere else in the world, climate warming is becoming climate warning…
Our second day of unforeseen longer stay than planned in Longyearbyen took us to the west of the administrative centre of the archipelago, to Bjorndalen or “Bear Valley”. Although by no means more likely to be a place to spot polar bears than others around Longyearbyen despite the name, the guides kept the same safety protocols as before.
The plan by going to Bjorndalen was to have a closer look at tiny fellows which we had encountered out at sea; black and white whose weight is in a matter of hundreds of grams. It is the Little Auk, Alle alle, that has its breeding place up in the hills looking over the sea where they go for their much needed krill, small crustaceans that are the fundamentals of life in the Arctic Ocean.
The buses took us past the Longyearbyen camping place and from there we walked a little distance to the site where the auks bred. Accompanied by our very own Jean-Baptiste, who has done scientific work on the site in the past, we made our way up the hill but made sure to step as little on the rocks as possible as beneath there might be auk nests. Once up, we tried to sit down and stay motionless as this would help making the birds carefree about our presence. Once satisfied with the auks, we split up, some went a bit further along the road while others began making their way back. Some Svalbard Reindeer made their appearance to our delight along the way, as did the occasional Arctic Skua and even an Arctic Fox looking for auk eggs. From the bus and also in fact whilst just out of the bus in the morning, we also spotted a Humpback Whale popping up from time to time. Whilst in a distance, it was a welcoming way to say goodbye to our passengers at the end of their albeit different trip than we had planned for.
It was now time to say farewell to our great adventure, to our safe floating home and to our lovely new friends! We went down the gangway at about 9 am. A bus took us to town so that we could do a bit of visit, shopping and mailing from one of the northern most settlements, before heading to the airport.
Total distance sailed on this voyage: 651 nautical miles / 1,205 kilometres
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barria and the Officers, all Crew, Expedition Team and Hotel Team, it has been a pleasure travelling with you!