OTL04-17, trip log, Spitsbergen: Polar Bear Special
07.06.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
On this beautifully sunny, stunningly warm day in Longyearbyen, when we made our way to the pier we found out that indeed we were about to embark on an adventurous voyage. Ortelius was at an-chor out in the fjord, and once we had arrived to the small pier we met members of the expedition team who took care of our luggage and handed us lifejackets – our transfer to the ship would be by zodiac. Soon we were crossing the calm waters towards the ship. After we had made our way up the Ortelius gangway, we met the hotel team who showed us to our cabins. As soon as we had set-tled into our comfortable home for the next 8 days, most of us found themselves either on the out-side decks to enjoy the views and the sunshine or in the bar for a coffee or tea.
Soon it was time to gather in the lecture room for several welcome briefings. One was by our Ex-pedition Leader Jan Belgers, 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 short blasts 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. Meanwhile, Ortelius made her way through Isfjorden towards the open sea. Just as we had finished dessert, our Expedition Leader Jan told us that there was a special treat waiting for us: whales had been sighted just ahead of the ship! And there they were, several blows beautifully backlit against the coastline – one, another one, yet another one, and wait, there’s more! With excitement and awe we watched four species of baleen whales – Blue whale, Fin whale, Minke whale and Humpback whale – blowing, surfacing, diving, and the Humpback even breached right in front of us. What an exciting first day, and what a start to our voyage!
When we were woken by Jan’s soft voice in the morning it was sunny – again. It didn’t really feel very arctic but few complaints were heard. After breakfast we were all called to the lecture room for a briefing on how to behave onshore, in the zodiacs, and how to avoid being eaten by a Polar Bear. Handing out the rubber boots was postponed for a while as we had another wildlife encoun-ter. After the beautiful whale experience the previous day, we now found some Walruses hauled out on ice floes. The captain managed to pass them several times inching closer and closer. It was really nice to see those high-arctic seals peacefully resting on the ice.
After we had gotten our rubber boots we all headed outside again. The captain steered Ortelius through Sørgattet, the narrow strait between Danskøya and the main island Spitsbergen. Splendid scenery all around, many ice floes in the water, some of them with more Walrus, snow-covered mountains as a backdrop and all of that in beautiful weather: for most of us it was really difficult to go inside to have lunch.
After lunch it turned out we couldn’t go ashore on Smeerenburg on Amsterdamøya. There was too much ice around the landing site, and if it moved position we might get trapped on the island. Quickly a “Plan B” was formed by the expedition staff and we now went ashore on nearby Danskøya. Here we were given snowshoes to put under our rubber boots as the island was still completely covered in snow. We split up in several groups and off we went. Some of us climbed higher hills, some smaller ones while others walked along the shores, but all enjoyed the spectacu-lar scenery and the historical stories that were told. From where we were walking we could see many different places of historical interest, from the remains of 17th-century whaling on Smeeren-burg, to Virgohamna where many, mostly ill-fated, expeditions by air to the North Pole had started. The best known was that of the Swede Andrée, who tried to get to the Pole with two companions in a hydrogen-filled balloon. Thirty-three years after departure they were found on Kvitøya, with their diaries and even unprocessed pictures next to their bodies, so their fate could be reconstructed. It turned out they had crashed onto the ice, far south of their goal, and had made their way back to land. However, due to the drift of the ice they had only managed to reach the very barren Kvitøya, soon after which they had died due to unknown causes. It was very interesting to see these histori-cal places. It made us think about the conditions the explorers of those times had to survive in and made us feel lucky about our own.
Back on the ship we cruised between some islands before the captain turned the ship north. After dinner the ship’s horn was suddenly blown: we had crossed the 80th parallel – a line that few peo-ple cross. A few minutes after crossing this imaginary line, we hit the pack ice. Another very special sight. Many people went outside to enjoy this spectacle. Our guides had told us there was a lot of ice this year, something we could now see with our own eyes. Binoculars were used in the search for Polar Bears, but they didn’t want to show (yet). As the sun didn’t set, we really had to look at our watches to see it was time to go to bed. A difficult decision when it’s this beautiful outside…
Waking up in the fringes of the northern pack ice is a fairly unique experience and one few will ev-er experience. A vista of interconnected ice floes extending towards the northern pole and beyond to the American Arctic leads one to introspection and thoughts naturally tend towards the early pioneers of this inhospitable landscape. The days Ortelius spent in the ice were breathtakingly calm, warm and pleasant but for the indigenous populations, whalers, scientists and explorers who made their livelihood, names and fortunes from this region of the planet, life was not always as agreeable. It can be an incredibly hostile and unforgiving environment. Many died or were lost, never to be found, thousands of kilometers from their homes and loved ones. In the digital age, it is sometimes hard to comprehend just what it must have been like to head north, not for two weeks but for two years! Limited communication, poor living conditions and with dangers constantly threatening mortality, this was not a life for the average person.
The morning saw the ship whilst not actually beset in the ice, surrounded by large floes at eighty degrees north. For those with a penchant for figures, it took captain and crew 2h 45min to negoti-ate 1.5 nm of 9/10 pack ice to get Ortelius back into relatively open water which gives some appre-ciation of the concentration of the pack. Many on board would have come to see polar bears, but for me, being in such pack ice is so much more unique an experience. So few vessels are rated to be able to negotiate thisty kind of icy waters, even fewer accessible to the public. And to do so in such favourable conditions: blue skies and t-shirt weather! Amazing!
No doubt polar bears will be seen during this voyage but looking back on the trip in a year’s or more time, spare a thought as to where you were on this day in the pack ice also. Think of the many who came before in a different age, under vastly different conditions, and to those who never made it back.
Three Arctic Limericks
We started our day with some walrus
Their size and tusks wow’ed all of us
Barely moving a muscle
They aren’t ones to bustle
They barely acknowledged Ortelius
During lunch the ship set sail
And soon after we headed out into a Gale
The birds were quite numerous
And guides knowledge was luminous
For a true Svalbard day we didn’t fail
We stumbled upon a reindeer
To us it showed almost no fear
As the shutters clicked
Its eyelashes barely flicked
It really allowed us to get quite near
Hornsund is said to be Spitsbergen in a nutshell, and indeed it was. We went south during the night and woke up approaching the mouth of Hornsund in the morning hours, heading towards the sun, the glaciers, and hopeful for a bear sighting. Already from afar you could see the Hornsund peak (Hornsundtinden) towering in an icy white coat watching over its sound. One breathtaking ship cruise later, we arrive in Samarin bay (Samarinvågen) with fast ice ahead of the glacier front, smaller glaciers hanging down from the sides, and with fresh polar bear tracks along the shoreline. We followed them intensely through our binoculars, all eyes on deck, hoping to get a glimpse of the king of this arctic world.
And then those two words sounded over the front deck: polar bear! An immediate buzz of haste and excitement spread across the ship. Where was it? Binocular by binocular, we all got tuned in on the sight, and what a sight it was! The majestic animal walked steadily along the shoreline, coming closer to the edge of the sea ice and our ship. We could follow its every turn, climb and even a little swim on its way to the mouth of the fjord. After a quick lunch, we hopped in the zodiacs and set out to further watch the bear continuing its walk on the beach.
Finally leaving the bear behind as it was now resting on the ice in front of the Mendeleevbreen, we took our zodiacs to the next bay, escaping the cold gusts of wind. Some saw the King eider, and a few seals popped up here and there. Finally, we all surrendered to the peaceful atmosphere of the quiet bay, watching a bearded seal pup resting on an ice floe. Its mother fishing for food would eve-ry now and then stick her head up and do a check-up on her young one. Quite some of the magic in these powerful moments lies within the fact that we are only visitors in this part of the world. For a short while we too can sit quietly among ice floes, taking it all in and thus briefly be part of a world that keeps on turning long after we are gone. The hunt continues, the tide ebbs and flows, and the glaciers will continuously make their way to the sea.
Let’s not forget that an amazing day was rounded off with an After Polar Bear Barbeque on the hel-icopter deck. Excellent food served with a side dish of prima vista and a hot toddy with a buzz, the party kept on going long after the tables had been stowed away.
We awoke to find Ortelius approaching the entrance to Hornsund fjord. A stunning landscape of jagged mountains and glaciers unfolded. Cameras clicked incessantly as people responded to the dramatic geology. The peak of Bautaen dominated the landscape. Another beautiful day – the sun shone, although it was a cold wind.
After an early breakfast, excited passengers boarded the zodiacs for a lengthy ride to the enormous bird cliff at Gnålodden. After landing, guides formed a perimeter guard, enabling everyone on shore to wander freely between the Wanny Woldstad trapper’s cabin and the steep hillside. Thou-sands of birds screeched as they wheeled overhead and nested on the ledges. The two diver boats drifted between a couple of offshore islands following the trail of bubbles left on the surface.
A lucky group photographers saw a brown scruffy-looking fox make an appearance high on the hillside at the base of the cliff and dived on and killed a hapless bird. Everyone spread out across the designated area guarded by guides and enjoyed this beautiful location.
The zodiac trip back was bouncy and wet as the boats were forced to head into the wind and waves.
After lunch a ship cruise along the edge of the fast ice proved profitable as a mother bear with two cubs was spotted in front of a glacier. The bears were far from the ship and difficult to see without binoculars. Ortelius explored further into the fjord, everyone scanning the landscape for another sighting. After a period of time another excited call, the bears seen earlier were now approaching across the ice. What happened next was one of those magnificent rare encounters.
The mother bear and the two playful and curious cubs approached the ship and moved along the ice edge adopting various poses much to the delight of the constantly snapping photographers, crew, guides and passengers.
After a reasonable length of time the ship moved off and left the bears to their peaceful expanse of fast ice.
The fjord cruise continued towards the glacier and another bear was spotted high on the hillside but as it was walking inland it was hard to photograph. After dinner, a lengthy recap by Jan, Arjen, the plastic researchers and Bill with ‘Looking, Seeing, Thinking’ related to painting of the sea, complet-ed a superb day.
For many passengers this was an intensely emotional day in a voyage full of stunning experiences.
At nine o’clock we found ourselves in Recherchefjorden, named after the 1838/1839 French scienti-fic expedition which wintered here. Our fjord was sheltered while in Van Keulenfjord, of which Re-cherchefjorden is a branch, the wind was reaching speeds up to 30 knots or more. We were thus in more tranquil waters and a short and comfortable zodiac ride took us to the shore from where we went inland: small heaps of pebbles, small lakes with melting snow and a large lagoon, all of which were the product of the now-retreating Recherchebreen. This bre ( = Norwegian for glacier) sub-stantially surged a number of years ago as evidenced by rather higher heaps of sand and stones, seemingly pushed forward by a giant bulldozer. The glacier has now retreated leaving a giant part of ice on the side: so-called dead ice, ice no longer connected to the glacier.
Scenic though this all was, the small hummocks are the perfect hiding place for our whitish-yellowish pluffy friends so every now and then the guides stopped us to do a short recce so as not to be surprised by a Polar bear.
Small lakes, some containing water, others still ice-covered, made for fantastic photography with Recherchebreen forming an impressive background. Ice ridges invited some of us for extensive photo sessions. Closer to the glacier three Ringed seal were observed, which, however, quickly disappeared. Katabatic winds (powerful cold winds coming from the glacier) were interspersed with windstill moments, showing how quickly the weather can change up in Svalbard. Coats went off and on! In sheltered places early saxifrage showed its splendid purple colours, much to the delight of the photographers.
Recherchefjorden has seen many of the mostly failed industrial enterprises in Svalbard: in Recher-chefjorden the Northern Exploration Company, headed by Ernest Mansfield carried out exploritati-ve mining on magnetite, asbestos and coal. In the end the company went bankrupt as the Svalbard climate and the short season make mining very expensive. Of an other dimension are the remains of the Russian Pomor stations, the hardy Russian trappers who, among many other places in Sva-lbard, also overwintered in Recherchefjorden.
By 12.30 all of us had returned to Ortelius for a well-deserved lunch. Afterwards we left Recherche-fjorden and were heading towards Bellsund, the great fjord. Ortelius slowly ploughed her way through the choppy waves, again against the background of an impressive scenery. Slowly we were heading for Isfjorden where we had started our expedition a week ago … just one week?! Sure enough, our voyage had an ending just as splendid as the start: It was whale-watching time again as a Humpback was feeding literally right next to Ortelius …
When Ortelius arrived at the port of Longyearbyen it was hard to believe that a week had passed since we had left – it seemed like yesterday, yet also a long time ago. The expedition voyage had exceeded all our expectations, and of all our lucky and truly amazing wildlife sightings, the most special ones certainly had been the Polar Bear mother with her cubs, the first evening’s whales and the walrus on the ice. And those were but a few of many truly magic moments we had encountered …
After our unforgettable and very special trip which had led us to both the northern and the southern part of Spitsbergen, we were rich in memories and knowledge about the Arctic and its wildlife. It was sad to say goodbye to the ship and its 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 as the polar bug clearly had gotten hold of us. This amazing trip will last us a lifetime – in our memories, in our imagination, and in our dreams.
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: 735 nautical miles (1.361 km)
Furthest North: 80°04.1’ N / 011°50.9’ 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.