OTL06-15 Trip Log | North Spitsbergen - Polar Bear Special
30.06.2015 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, while our luggage was being sorted out and brought to our cabins on board of the ship. This gave everybody a chance to see the town centre and the 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 like in the twentieth century. Our expedition ship and home for the next week, the Ortelius was anchored in Adventfjorden and members of our staff and crew drove us with Zodiacs to the ship. 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 John 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 Mathew, 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. As we were leaving Isfjorden towards the open sea, the wind picked up and we rapidly felt the ship’s movements. 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.
Not all of us have had a pleasant night. The seas were rough and there was quite a bit of wind. During the night (although at this time of the year there are 24 hours of daylight in Svalbard), Ortelius pitched her way through the waves to take us to the Northwest side of the archipelago.
On our way to Smeerenburgfjorden (named after the biggest whaling station in Svalbard active in the 18th century), we passed on our starboard side by Prins Karls Forland and Albert I Land.
When the sea conditions were calmer we all gathered in the lecture room for some mandatory briefings that we have to attend before going ashore, our Expedition Leader Rinie explained to us the rules and regulations that we need to follow while visiting the top of the world. He also explained us how to get in and out of the Zodiacs (the rubber boats we will use for landings), how to wear life jackets and about polar bear safety.
Later in the morning, by entering Sørgattet sound we reached Smeerenburgfjorden and we sailed through this narrow passage. It was cloudy and foggy but we enjoyed looking at land from the ship in search for polar bears. We were excited on deck with our jackets on looking for the king of the North.
At midday our bellies made us notice that it was time for lunch and the next group meeting happened in the dining room with a nice hot meal.
Early in the afternoon, Ortelius made her way to Raudfjorden, a 20 km long and 5 km wide fjord with two branches, Klinckowströmfjorden and Ayerfjorden. Visibility was still reduced with some sleet falling over the ship, however, we kept the lookout for these majestic mammals.
From time to time we saw some little auks, puffins, and black-legged kittiwakes flying near the ship.
In the afternoon Barbara gave a lecture about the sea ice ecosystem. She explained the formation process of the ice and talked about the life that grows inside and how it influences other ecosystems. We also learnt about the arctic marine food web and the connection with the arctic terrestrial food web.
In the evening, during the daily recap, Rinie informed us that we would head north where the sea ice is located, in search for polar bears.
Later on, surrounded by a mystic fog, Ortelius turned northeast in search for the pack ice.
During dinner time we were all excited waiting for the next morning to come. We went to bed hoping it was another day already!
Our day started quietly; Ortelius was surrounded by fog and ice. How beautiful and not a normal start to the day! Slowly the fog cleared away revealing the fantastic polar pack ice glistening in the bright sunlight. So began the bear watch with all eyes and binoculars searching for the animal we all hoped to see. Bearded seals and ringed seals lay scattered across the ice floes and this will surely attract a bear or two.
Shortly after dinner another bear was sighted. This time it was on ‘a kill’, that is, a bear feeding on a seal. Once again we made a slow and easy approach without disturbing the bear. Another young male bear had killed a bearded seal. The bear was in good condition, normal at this time of year, and he was not in a hurry to eat the seal. A hungry bear will eat continuously and speedily to prevent another bear from taking the food. And so the evening passed with our ship maintaining its position just like the bear did with the seal. The main reason for staying was the hope that another bear(s) would smell the kill and be attracted to join in the feast. Like us, the bear relaxed and eventually fell asleep following a busy day on the ice.
We encountered a large iceberg wedged into the sea ice. This iceberg most likely came from East Greenland. It was broken into halves and we could see the layers of snow accumulation which built up over many years creating the original glacier from which it came (calved). The beautiful blue colour inspired many photographers. Onward to the north and east we sailed and the warm sunshine with no wind, was very pleasant indeed.
At 10.40 the call came; a bear was sighted. A large young male it was and he watched us as we watched him. He moved across the ice and swam with ease and grace occasionally diving underwater like a seal. This reminds us that the Polar bear is for sure a marine mammal. Captain Ernesto and his officers positioned the ship within 200 meters of the animal and this gave us great views and the chance to get good photos. This bear was in good condition, well fed and he showed no interest in our ship. Sometimes a hungry bear will come to a ship attracted by the smell of food. So we moved on and renewed our bear watch. Several species of birds followed us attracted by the broken ice and the chance to find food. Kittiwakes and glaucous gulls, northern fulmars, Brünnich’s guillemots and little auks were the most numerous. Ivory gulls were also seen and two pomerine skuas flew past.
The afternoon passed quickly and at 16.00 Ian gave a presentation: The Natural History of The Polar Bear which revealed many fascinating things about these super intelligent creatures. For example: they use tools sometimes to get their food (in captivity) and the females have glands on their feet which release scent. This scent can then be followed by male bears in the hope of a meeting and mating. Our recap at 18.30 included explanations of bear behavior, why birds follow ships and differences in sea ice and glacier ice.
In the morning light with a fog-dimmed sunshine or later on in the darker fog with different grey in the light, we spotted the bright and clean fur of the bear. None observed his “overnight cleaning session” after his successful catch the day before.
We shared breakfast-time with the bear, too. He started to feed again, chased the birds away and, after a while he fed several times. He shuffled snow around his kill and offered nice chances for all photographers.
With the clouded sky and fog, we didn’t really have a good chance to find another polar bear during the day. Also, we had the chance for another approach from a second bear. So we stayed for the whole morning in the same position in this fantastic place with the bear and his seal. As the ice moved and Ortelius engine’s pressed the ship a little closer to the kill. Still, the bear did not react to the ship and we had a closer look.
During the morning, we listened to Mick’s bird lecture and found ourselves after lunch between the bridge, the bar or the decks to observe the bear or warming ourselves up. After a while, the bear decided to leave, he walked slowly away and headed off into the white out. We made our way through the ice again and searched for another nice bear. Our chances with an overcast sky and thicker fog made our search more difficult.
Christophe’s talk about the Arctic cold and how the animals deal with this offered us a break and after the daily recap, we dressed warmly then joined Barbecue served on deck 6.
This morning, we woke up in a calm enchanting bay called Faksevågen, with mist hanging over the tops of the ridges and part way down the cliffs. The plan was to go snow-shoeing and, for sure, there was lots of snow!
After confirming there were no polar bears or their tracks anywhere in the snow, the zodiacs were loaded with bags of snow shoes and everyone went ashore to try a new Spitsbergen adventure. It took a little while for everyone to figure out how to put the snow shoes on and get comfortable, while stumbling about in the soft snow, but once that was done, everyone was ready to explore. The snow was deep, wet, and soft so that even with our snow shoes on, we sunk down a bit when stepping out on our own. The fast group assembled and sped off to the high ridges, led by Jim, while the medium group ambled off to a lower viewpoint with Rinie. Despite the extensive snow cover there were several bird species around getting ready for the bare ground to appear so nesting could begin. More than 50 common eiders along with 1 king eider swam along the shore or rested on a small rocky point. A lone barnacle goose walked about and, high on a rocky ridge, a rock ptarmigan cackled to advertise his breeding territory. On a distant hillside, a lone fox ran back and forth looking for something to eat while a snow bunting watched him warily. The fast group spent some time stealthy tracking a reindeer, resulting in a good encounter. On several of the zodiac rides between the ship and shore a young bearded seal swam up close to investigate and show off his magnificent long whiskers.
After lunch, we began to cruise south in Hinlopen Strait in search of wildlife in the drifting pack ice along the coast. Two large adult bearded seals provided wonderful close photo opportunities as the ship slowly cruised past. A few distant walruses caught our attention but were near to the coast in shallow uncharted waters so we couldn’t get in closer. Meanwhile, the distant walruses loafed on the floes and raised a head to look around a few times, but mainly dozed and digested their stomachs full of clams. Then we had a pause in activities while a minor problem with the ship was fixed. Once that was done, we were underway again, headed north and looking for more walruses. Luck was with us when we got to Ardneset on the SW tip of Wahlbergøya. There were a dozen male walruses, mostly young adults but a couple of young ones as well, loafing in a big pile on a snow bank above the beach, and a small variable number in the water. They were relaxed about our presence and we kept a respectful distance so as not to disturb them while the boats full of cameras fired away. The walruses on land periodically raised their heads up, gave deep roars, and then pounded down with their tusks on the back or neck of a neighbour, who in turn passed on the favour to the next animal nearby. Three walruses in the water swam near the zodiacs and demonstrated the fluid beauty of their swimming movements in the water which contrasted so markedly with their clumsy somewhat ungainly movements on land. Overhead, several arctic terns gave their high-pitched calls over the zodiacs as we took in the beauty of the moment in the soft light of late evening. It was fairly late by the time everyone and all the zodiacs were back on board but it was a memorable arctic day, characterized by taking advantage of moments of opportunity to their greatest.
Our wake-up call was at 7 o`clock when Ortelius began to move through the ice. The bumping and grinding noises were the sound of ice being crushed and pushed aside by our very strong ship. We were at 80°26’ North, the weather was overcast, but visibility was good. After breakfast we took up various positions around the decks to begin searching for wildlife. For sure there was a lot of “blubber” lying on the ice, polar bear food, but where is the bear? At 11 o`clock Sebastian gave a talk about the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. For a while, Amundsen was busy with other adventures such as conquering the South Pole and the subsequent Maud-expedition in the Northeast Passage, which is famous for it’s successful research work. He became convinced that it was possible to reach the North Pole by air and in 1922 he chose Ny Ålesund as a base for his expeditions. He did not reach the North Pole, but could prove that it is possible to fly with a plane in the Arctic.
In the afternoon at 2 o`clock Rinie announced a polar bear far in the distance. Happily excited we all dressed warmly and rushed out on deck. First we did not find any bear, but a big flock of birds, a mix of glaucous and ivory gulls. They feasted on a large dead bearded seal, but where was the bear?
We scanned the sea ice and all the possible hiding places, behind pressure ridges, but we saw no bear. A call from the bridge gave us a hint, two big yellowish animals swimming in the water next to the kill. The bears climbed up on the ice, so we were able to have a better look on them. Two large mature battle scarred males walking on the sea ice, for sure a seldom sight. They were on a mission, heading back to their kill as fast as possible. Then they started playing with each other and with parts of the dead seal in the water. After washing their faces in the snow and matching their strengths they departed from the ship and from each other. What a show!
A lecture in the late afternoon from Ian highlighted the difficult life of a polar bear nowadays, as the climate is changing. The sea ice is getting lesser and lesser, so polar bears need to find alternative prey resources and different denning areas in the Arctic.
Recap was starting with the feeding behaviour of walruses, but we had to interrupt for a good reason. A call came through the PA system, a humpback whale feeding, hurray! It was very interesting to see this big animal doing bubble netting and many birds were following the whale as they were benefiting of the upwelling crustaceans. After watching also a few cute puffins around the ship we continued with the recap and ended the day with a great meal.
Ortelius headed southwest during the night. It was a beautiful morning and we sailed along the outside of Prins Karls Forland, heading for Tordenskjoldbukta, a beautiful area of typical arctic tundra.
During the hike we saw reindeer, some of them even grazing with their newborn calves. There were also birds aplenty – nesting barnacle geese, pink-footed geese, eiders (some even saw king eiders), great, arctic, long-tailed and pomarine skuas, snow buntings among others. An arctic fox also paid a quick visit, while a curious bearded seal welcomed us at the landing site. All in all an absolutely beautiful day in the high arctic, with wonderful weather and more diverse species of wildlife than we could have ever hoped for! The wind and swell coming from the north made our last embarkation in the zodiacs a little bit "rock n' roll"…let's be honest, it was fun!!!! Back onboard Ortelius, it was time for farewell drinks and a round of applause for all the crew members, the captain, and our expedition leader Rinie, before heading back towards Isfjord and Ymerbukta where we had a great ship cruise. It was time to make our way to Longyearbyen.
It was now time to say farewell to our great adventure, to our safe floating home and to our lovely new friends! Some of us had an early departure and left the ship at 3.15 am while the rest of us had a more civilized time and we stepped 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.
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barría and the Officers, all Crew, Expedition Team and Hotel Team, it has been a pleasure travelling with you!