OTL06-17, trip log, Spitsbergen: Polar Bear Special
22.06.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
On this nice 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 anchor 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 settled into our comforta-ble home for the next 8 days, most of us found themselves either on the outside 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 Rinie van Meurs, 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 Ernesto Barria 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. After dinner, our Expedition Leader Rinie 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 – two Blue Whales were seen right next to the ship for a while and at a bit of a distance a Humpback Whale was seen. What an exciting first day, and what a start to our voyage!
Following last night’s Blue Whale encounter we had a restful night and we awoke to choppy seas and a change of plans. Instead of sailing between the islands of Danksoya and Amsterdamoya we sailed into Krossfjord and dropped anchor in Tinayrebukta. 30 knots of wind offshore called for a new schedule and that is often the way in the expedition cruise business.
The morning on board passed quickly in preparation for landings. Safety and procedure in zodiac operations and on land (in Polar bear country) must be covered by briefings and this was followed by the distribution of rubber boots.
After lunch the zodiacs were launched and we went ashore on a sandy beach overlooked by the mountains, glaciers and moraines of this beautiful landscape. Three walks were offered; long, me-dium and short. It was cold but calm and occasionally the sun shone a little and the cloud thinned out. Short hikers followed the shoreline, medium walkers moved some way uphill and inland and the long walkers made their way up through the snowfields and tundra crossed over some ridges and returned via the terminal moraine of the nearby glacier. Some wildflowers were beginning to bloom and several species of birds were seen. King and Common Eider along with Puffins passed by the shore and Arctic terns came close enough for folks to get good photos of courtship behaviour.
Snow buntings sang their lovely musical songs on the high ground, Rock Ptarmigan, still in white winter plumage circled around and Arctic skuas kept a watchful eye on us as we passed through their habitat. Reindeer tracks crisscrossed the snowfields and in the distance we saw small numbers with their calves. An Arctic fox was also seen roaming around inland.
The wind increased a little, the temperature dropped and by six o’clock we were all back on board and ready for refreshments, recap and a briefing about the next day’s planned activity. Dinner at seven was followed by a ship’s cruise near the front of the Glacier. This brought an end to our first day of adventures in the high Arctic.
When we first looked out from the ship on Friday morning, we were just a few kilometres offshore from the NW corner of the island of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. It was overcast with bits of low cloud and fog, cool and windy. But – we were surrounded by sea ice and that meant we might see polar bears! So, undeterred by the weather, and dressed in warm clothing, the bridge and the decks were soon filled with eager binocular-carrying passengers searching the sea ice, not only for bears but also for other arctic treats such as the ringed and bearded seals scattered at low densities throughout the ice-covered areas. For the birders, the pos-sibility of seeing such treasures as Sabine’s gull or the ivory gull kept eyeballs and binoculars glued together. But, beyond those specific goals, it was their first opportunity for most to simply observe and experience the fascinating world of arctic pack ice.
We looked, and looked, and then looked some more. No bears were seen in the morning, although some old tracks in the snow served as a tantalizing reminder they were out there … somewhere. By early afternoon, everyone’s eyeballs were beginning to wear out and the first wave of enthusiasm had dimmed a bit. To re-energize everyone, Bill gave a stimulating lecture on the history of arctic whaling, with some emphasis on Scottish involvement in that industry. His lecture also provided some insight into another aspect of the past in the very waters in which we were sailing. Sadly, as was the case elsewhere around the world, the whalers were terribly efficient in the waters around Svalbard. Consequently, only a tiny fraction remains of the large whale populations that once were resident here.
Then, in the late afternoon, it happened. Rinie spotted a distant slightly yellowy dot moving a bit on the ice as well as several birds standing around on the ice. On the sea ice, the polar bears usually appear as a buttery yellow rather than the white colour we always associate with them. This was exciting, not just because of spotting a bear, but seeing the associated birds on the ice indicated the likelihood they were scavenging on the remains of a seal killed by a bear. Captain Barria skilfully moved the Ortelius to about 150 m or so from the bear so that we were able to observe him feed-ing as well as some additional interesting aspects. The bear was a very large mature male, proba-bly about 15-18 years of age and in very good physical condition. The seal killed was an adult bearded seal, which we were able to confirm from the large size of the skeleton and rib cage and the fact there was a substantial amount of skin left on the ice. The skin of a bearded seal is very thick so, rather than eat it, the bears just shave the fat off with their incisor teeth and swallow it. In contrast, they usually do eat the much thinner skin of a ringed seal along with all of the associated fat. Furthermore, it appeared that the seal had been killed a couple of days or so earlier because the bones had been picked clean by the gulls. Thus, the bear we were watching was likely not the one that killed the seal but rather was just scavenging. Although there were about 25+ glaucous gulls scavenging as well there was no sign of the ivory gulls, which have frequently been seen, in previous years.
A little later, we saw a second adult male though he was a little smaller than the first. Normally, adult males avoid the ships altogether but this male actually approached quite deliberately and came close to the stern where he continued to take in the scene. All the while, his tongue was going in and out of his mouth, suggesting he was trying to make a better assessment of things with his sense of smell – of course, it was only a few minutes before dinner so there might have been some very interesting smells to investigate. Overall, these two bears provided some outstanding viewing along with some interesting insights into their life on the sea ice and a nice way to end our first day in the sea ice.
The morning was beautiful, calm weather and a lot of free space around us. On the horizon we can only spot northwestern part of Spitsbergen and endless sea covered by ice. After breakfast we had zodiac cruise through the ice. After only few minutes on sea we spotted a Minke Whale – the smallest baleen whale, we were extremely lucky, they are really hard to observe because they show up for a moment, dive again and show up again in different place. Minke Whale swam around our zodiacs not further away than 30 meters. What a magnificent mammals.
After 1h30min zodiac cruise and delicious lunch, crew took place at bridge and highest deck to spot for us more Polar Bears. Passengers participate in astonishing lecture about Polar Bears conducted by Ian Stirling the Word famous Polar Bear researcher. On a lecture we absorbed a lot of infor-mation about evolution and behaviour of those amazing animals, next after the lecture we heard long awaits voice from speakers about spotted Polar Bear, in 1 minute all passengers were on a deck 6 with binoculars and cameras. Our long observation interrupt snowfall, on a ship we had al-most Christmas atmosphere.
Before dinner we had a recap by Baldur, Arjen and Rinie about Minke Whales, Arctic Terns and spotted Polar Bear, Rinie also give us some more detailed information about future plan for our stunning voyage. At the end of a day we were able to see our first Walrus on a sea ice, but after few minutes he dived at deep-sea water.
Rinie’s wake up call at 07.15 alerted us to the fact we only had 15 minutes to get into breakfast (early) in order to be up on deck and looking for wildlife. As Ortelius sailed into Magdelenafjord in the early morning sunshine we were rewarded with some Minke whales escorting the vessel to our anchor position.
After a short briefing in the lounge, zodiac operations were soon underway and the groups split into their two options for the morning landings. The hikers would walk along the shore of Gravenesodden and the birders would head in the opposite direction to the Little Auk colony. Both groups had a wonderful morning, the fast hikers bathed in sunshine as they walked along the snow trail to their high point overlooking the glacier and across to the walrus haul-out on the opposite side of the bay. The hikers also enjoyed hearing some historical information from Arjen and learned something about glaciers from Szymon. The hikers had some quiet time listening to the natural sounds of the arctic before making their way back to the landing area. The birders also had an incredible morning up at the Little Auk colony listening to and observing these amazing birds.
Following a wonderful lunch buffet provided by the hotel staff we were all fed and watered and ready for the afternoon activities. With Ortelius now re-positioned off Amsderdamoya we all en-joyed a sunny afternoon at Smeerenburg. Half the group visited the Walrus haul-out whilst the oth-ers listened to Bill and Rinie talk of the old whaling days, blubber cookers, flensing knifes, naval battles and hard, cold conditions for the poor souls that used to make their living up at 79 degrees north. At half time each group changed ends for the final passage of the afternoon to play out. With memory cards jam packed we all made our way back to the vessel to see exactly how many pictures we had taken during our afternoon fun in the sun.
The fun didn’t stop there; the hotel team had arranged a fabulous arctic BBQ to take place on deck at the back of the ship. Sheltered from the wind and once again bathed in sunshine we all enjoyed the stunning views as we ate and re-hydrated at the free bar. What a day, so much to reflect upon as we sail north once more in the evening light towards the pack ice and the anticipation of another incredible day out on deck in the arctic sunshine.
It was another beautiful day…the sun shining on a sparkling seascape of ice. Ortelius zigzagging back and forth, east and west, north and south in search of our target species the iconic polar bear. On the bridge, a reassuring commentary from the captain and helmsman….Starboard 15…starboard 15 sir…hard to starboard…hard to starboard sir..thank you…
Ease to 10…ease to 10 sir…thank you…midships…midships sir…thank you…rudder hard to port…rudder hard to port sir…thank you…midships…midship sir…thank you…ease to 5…ease to 5 sir…midships…midships sir…rudder midships…very good….starboard 15…starboard…hard to star-board.
An announcement from the bridge …‘Walrus’ had everyone crowded on the starboard side as the skillful captain slowly inched Ortelius up to a seemingly oblivious walrus sleeping on an ice-flow. Harp seals were spotted swimming in the larger dark leads in the sea ice.
A constant crashing and grinding as the powerful bow of Ortelius sliced through successive ice flows. Passengers lining the rails with cameras clicking at the hypnotic slow-motion rearing of huge chunks of ice tumbling every now and again to expose polar cod… the target of excited wheeling and diving Kittiwakes who accompanied the vessel all day.
Ian Stirling delivered another thought provoking lecture, this time on ‘Polar bears and Climate Change’. He used statistics from various sources to illustrate the problem of dwindling Arctic sea ice in relation to polar bears. He also confirmed that bears were being adversely affected by pollu-tion as they were at the top of the Arctic food chain.
The diving group boarded Zodiacs for an underwater excursion in the afternoon. Reporting back when they returned to the ship that visibility was very poor due to the enormous abundance of Krill in the water.
As various circumstances made it unfeasible to do a morning landing, we decided to see what the sea might offer us instead. The whole morning was spent looking out for the largest creatures of the planet just off Northwest Spitsbergen. And around they were, in the shape of the mighty Blue Whale. The calm sea and visibility made it very easy to spot them from a distance and they seemed largely indifferent to our presence, simply minding their own business, which in these waters means feeding on krill, a tiny type of crustacean of which these animals are specialised feeders.
The afternoon saw our last landing of this trip, at Alkhornet, beneath a beautiful bird cliff. Kitti-wakes and fulmars soared the sky as we landed and went for walks that were from very easy to reasonably challenging. While we did not see the foxes we had hoped to see there, beneath bird cliffs usually being excellent spots to find them, we could see some of their “work” in the shape of half- and fully eaten bird carcasses dotted around. Reindeer were plentiful though and the calves were a particular joy to watch. Reindeer tend to be indifferent to people to an extent but they de-serve full respect and that we tried to give them by always giving them an open side into which to run if they would feel threatened by our presence.
It was mixed feelings to return to the ship, knowing that tomorrow would be the end of our trip, but all good things must come to an end and the memories from this adventure of ours will last a life-time.
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 close to the ship, the first evening’s whales and the walruses on land. And those were but a few of our many magic moments.
After our unforgettable and very special trip, which had lead us to the northern parts of the archi-pelago 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: 698 nautical miles
Furthest North: 80°02.1’ N / 012°20.0’ E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barria, Expedition Leader Rinie van Meurs, Hotel Manager Dejan Nikolic, and all their crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.