OTL07-15 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 with a population of about 2,300 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. 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.
At 7:30 in the morning we heard the wake-up call made by our Expedition Leader Rinie, it took us only a couple of minutes to go out on deck and realise that it was a beautiful day. The seas were calm and there was almost no wind, we could see the snow-covered mountains of Spitsbergen and there was a pleasant temperature of 8° C.
During the night (although at this time of the year there are 24 hours of daylight in Svalbard), Ortelius had made her way through the North Atlantic 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 Prins Karls Forland and Albert I Land.
As we had made a good progress during the night and taking advantage of the wonderful conditions the Captain took us on a detour to Magdalenefjorden right after breakfast.
Later on, we reached Smeerenburgfjorden and as we sailed through this narrow passage, we saw a group of walrus resting on the shore. To our delight the Expedition Leader decided to give us a closer experience with these mammals and informed us that we would attempt to land there after lunch. For that reason, we gathered in the lecture room for some mandatory briefings that we have to attend before going ashore; Rinie explained to us the rules and regulations that we need to follow while visiting the top of the world. He also explained to 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.
After a quick visit to the dining room we were ready at the gangway for our first adventure at Smeerenburg, on Amsterdamøya (øya means island in Norwegian).
Once on land, we slowly approached the small group of male walrus that were resting on the beach. This is the largest seal species in the Arctic. The tusks can be up to one meter long. Bulls can be up to three and a half meters long and weight up to 1,500 kg, while cows reach two and a half meters and weight 900 kg. While we were watching the animals on the beach, a single male came out of the water and joined the sleepy group. They seemed to be enjoying the sunny day as much as us!
We also saw the remains of the main base for Dutch whaling in Spitsbergen. Parts of the 12 blubber ovens can be seen near the beach. We couldn´t imagine to think about what life would have been like during the first half of the 1600´s when this station was fully operational, housing about 200 people.
In the afternoon, Ortelius made her way to Raudfjorden, a 20 km long, 5 km wide fjord with two branches, Klinckowströmfjorden and Ayerfjorden. The afternoon could not be any better, the sun was shining, there was no wind, and the beautiful landscape of the fjord was right there in front of us.
From time to time we saw some little auks, Brünnich´s guillimots, and black-legged kittiwakes flying near the ship.
In the evening, during the daily recap, Rinie informed us that for the next day, we would head north to where the sea ice is located, in search for polar bears.
During dinner time we were all excited waiting for the next morning to come. We went to bed hoping it was another day already!
How many times in our lives will we awake to find ourselves surrounded by the polar pack ice, a celestial blue sky and sparkling sunshine? Such was the scene this morning with Ortelius slowly gliding through a sea of ice. We had reached 80°N and we were on the lookout for polar bears. Large, very large paw prints on the snow covered ice assured us that somewhere out there the ice bears is on patrol. Just before 09.30 a call from the bridge; not one, but two bears at 11.00 o’clock to the ship.
Captain Ernesto and his officers repositioned the ship and soon we were watching two playful male bears within 500 meters of Ortelius. To everyone’s delight, especially the photographers, the bears stood upright and briefly embraced each other like sparring boxers. Onward they moved taking no interest in us and we left them to their play fighting and icy habitat. A combination of warm sunshine and a cold sea resulted in fog developing and this limited our chances of spotting another.
From time to time the fog lifted and many seals were seen spread out over the ice floes. After lunch, and a siesta for some folks, Ian introduced us to the polar bear’s world. His presentation told us of the polar bear’s evolution, adaptations, life histories and overall breeding and feeding biology. Two more bears were spotted in the afternoon not as close to the ship but seeing a bear in its natural habitat at any distance is thrilling experience which inspires awe and respect.
The mystery of tables and chairs being set up on deck 6 was solved when plans for a BBQ were revealed. With music, fine food and drinks, the polar pack ice surrounding the ship provided an unforgettable backdrop to our evening’s entertainment on board Ortelius.
Foggy tones of morning light fell upon the crumbled pack ice, as people woke from last night’s joyous and sumptuous repaste of high arctic solstice BBQ.
We aboard the Ortelius had over-nighted adrift inside the jig-saw ice puzzle pieces.
At seven o’clock, on the forward port horizon, the First Mate spotted a polar bear shuffling it’s beige colored robe and massive slippers in the spring snow. After breakfast, guests made their way to the bow and bridge decks to binocular watch and tele-photograph the “Ice Bear’s” progress close across our bow! Seals, ringed our vessel round the compass rose. Glaucous gulls, black-legged kittiwakes, northern fulmars and various auks (murres, guillemots) were busy at their frenzied searches for sustenance. Three angelic ivory gulls and a piratic arctic skua carved flyways through the ephemeral curtain mists.
Lectures on Marine Birds of the Arctic by David and Explorer Roald Amundsen by Sebastian were presented late morning and after a delicious lunch, during breaks in the wildlife action.
Late afternoon, we found and then lost a polar bear in the phantom whiteness.
Meanwhile, a languid walrus hardly noticed our combustion engine thrumming and continued its brown blubber nap on grey ice. Kittiwakes continued their flutter wing, looping patrol and namesake cries searching our cusinart churnings for tidbits to tide them over.
Late day cooling temperatures and rising barometer made for interesting weather patterns. One moment limited visibility and then either half an hour or many hours later the curtain would raise. Turning back west, we once again found two polar bear’s resting, then ambling the frozen sidewalk.
Attracted by the shipside kittiwakes, a dark colour variant pomarine skua made an excitingly different breeze through the throng. Rainbow coated guests delighted in amazing life forms, foreign to many.
All in all, a wonderful day in the annual ice pack off Northern Svalbard!
This morning the weather gods were definitely on our side, calm sea, no wind and a little bit of sunshine. A perfect morning for a zodiac cruise at Alkefjellet, an impressive cliff and home to an amazing amount of bird life. This is one of the most incredible places in Spitsbergen to view Brünnich’s guillemots breeding at close proximity, packed tightly together on narrow rock ledges cutting across the face of this dramatic cliff.
The rock shelves are only just wide enough for a bird to lay it’s single egg. Alkefjellet is one of the largest Brünnich’s guillemot breeding colonies on Spitsbergen, with an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs!
We split into two groups and for those who were waiting on the ship, Christophe and Mick gave a talk about the biology of the Brünnich’s guillemot.
On our way to the cliff we already observed some northern fulmars curiously approaching our zodiacs, as well as big flocks of Brünnich’s guillemot. The cliff itself was already an impressive sight. Between 100 and 150 million years ago, basaltic magma intruded in to the ancient layers of limestone in this region, and today this basalt layer is visible as a massive cliff. Beneath the cliff under a sky peppered with black and white birds, some swooped low almost toughing our heads. The nearer we got, the more we could see, and hear, and smell…
As we drove along the cliff we could observe some dead birds in the water, immediately eaten by a great skua and some glaucous gulls, who were fighting over the prey. Most of the Brünnich’s guillemots were already incubating their egg and showing us their black back. The kittiwake nests could be seen much higher up on the cliff face, and the glaucous gulls always taking good lookout points over the colony and breeding birds. As we reached the end of the cliff on the bright green slope, we spotted some barnacle and brent geese, as well as some snow buntings. These slopes are fertilised by the guano and are attractive grazing grounds for other animals. After visiting a glacier front on the northern side of the bird cliff we all headed back to the ship, to sail further south.
After lunch we enjoyed a wonderful ship cruise in Vaigattbogen on this sunny afternoon. What impressive scenery, glaciers floating down into the sea, reflexions in the water, sea ice mixing with icebergs and from time to time a bearded seal to spot. As we approached Hinlopenbreen the Captain parked the ship at the edge of the fast ice, three polar bears were around! After dinner we rushed out on deck again to watch a bear “lying – still hunting”, one of the many strategies of a polar bear to hunt a seal. The hunt was unfortunately not successful, but definitely worth to see!
After dinner we proceeded further north, and we were all excited for what the morning after would bring in the sea ice.
We woke up this morning exactly where one should be on a “Polar Bear Special”: in the drifting pack ice near the Seven Islands (Sjuøyane), with more than 6-8/8 ice cover and pretty much unlimited visibility.
Actually, it is not so much just that the bears “like” that specific amount of ice cover but rather that their primary prey, the ringed seals do. Aerial surveys of ringed seals done in many parts of the circumpolar Arctic have shown that the seals show the highest preference for sea ice cover in the range of 6/8 to 8/8, probably because, in turn, such habitat has substantial populations of arctic cod living beneath the ice itself. Although you can find some bears in almost any kind of hab
itat in Svalbard at one time or another, the very best places to search are in areas of high ice cover over the biologically productive continental shelf, or in the bays and fiords of the archipelago that are still covered by the fast ice that formed in winter, precisely because those are the favoured habitats of the ringed seals and their availability is greatest.
By shortly after breakfast, three bears had already been spotted and we headed for the nearest, which turned out to be a 3-4 year old subadult male who came right up beside the ship. He was very curious and went back and forth on the ice by the bow while investigating us at close range until he concluded we were not very interesting, i.e. there was nothing to eat so he headed away across the ice. Our collective appreciation was underlined by the deafening roar of camera shutters! The next bear was a large fat adult male which, like the majority of older males, was not frightened of the ship but simply did not wish to be nearby. Thus, he simply kept steadily walking away from us so we let him continue in peace, undisturbed.
A little later, we watched another bear eating a small ringed seal which, judging from its size, was a newly weaned pup. This was an interesting dietary example because it is the big flush of young ringed seals born in early April that provides the most important single food resource for the bears. They begin to accumulate fat from their mother’s milk within days. By the time they are weaned at about 6-7 weeks of age, they weigh 20-25 kg, are 50% fat, and not very experienced with predators. From the time they are weaned, to when open water predominates in early summer and the seals become pelagic and thus inaccessible, the bears must accumulate about 2/3 of the energy they will need for the entire year. Thus, staying focused on seal hunting is critical. The continued effort necessary for the population of polar bears to survive is underscored by the realization that each bear in the population requires an average of about 43 ringed seals (big bears more and smaller bears less) or “ringed seal equivalents” each year (e.g., one bearded seal might be the equivalent of 2-5 ringed seals, depending on size). Then consider that the Svalbard population of polar bears, presently estimated to number about 2,700, requires roughly 116,100 ringed seals (or ringed seal equivalents) per year and you realize how critical and demanding hunting seals is for polar bears.
Through the day, we also had demonstrations of different hunting techniques used by the bears to hunt ringed seals. The most common methods were variations on the basic theme of “still-hunting” which means remaining motionless for long periods of time by a crack in the ice or a breathing hole, and hoping to catch an unsuspecting seal when it surfaces. The breathing holes in large floes of annual ice were self-maintained by the seals themselves through the winter so they could breathe when the water was completely covered by ice. However, by this time of year, most of the snow that covered and hid the breathing hole during winter has melted, exposing the water at the surface. At this time of year, “still-hunting” may be done by lying, sitting, or standing motionless, so as to not transmit any noise into the water below that might frighten a seal away when it returns to breathe. Energetically, still-hunting is probably most biologically important because the bear is not unnecessarily wasting energy while waiting for the packets of energy (seals) to come to it. Even so, the success rate of lying still hunts (the most common form) documented in one study was only 1.5% of 223 attempts observed. The average length of a lying still-hunt undertaken by an adult male was about 68 minutes compared with 37 and 41 minutes for females accompanied by cubs of the year or yearlings respectively.
The most exciting hunting method to watch though is the “walking stalk”, in which a bear tries to sneak up on a ringed seal hauled out to bask on the surface of the ice. When doing the bear walks slowly and steadily toward the seal, and holds its head low, likely to make its black nose and eyes less noticeable. Again, the actual success rate is low, only 1.8% of 65 hunts in one study.
Although we didn’t see any walking stalks of ringed seals today, we did get to watch a spectacular tension-filled stalk by an adult male bear on a large bearded seal. The bear had been walking away from the ship when it spied the bearded seal hauled out at the edge of a lead a hundred or so meters off to one side. The bear instantly froze so as not to draw attention to itself while it carefully determined its hunting plan which would combine a gripping and precisely executed walking stalk, followed by slipping into the water and swimming both on the surface and underwater for the last few metres to the seal (an “aquatic stalk”). At the last instant, the bear tried to exit the water and seize the seal by the head in a single motion but there was too much rotten ice near the seal which would not support the bear. In a flash, the bearded seal rolled and spun itself off the ice edge and into the water and, by doing so, successfully escaped an incredibly close brush with death. In what might have appeared to be a somewhat philosophical response to missing the seal, the bear floated in the water looking about briefly, after which it simply climbed back out onto the ice to resume his relentless search for the next seal. Although there are no good statistics on the success of aquatic stalks on bearded seals, the success rate appears to be low although, when successful, the rewards are bigger because bearded seals are so much larger than ringed seals. The large size of bearded seals, at 250-350 kg, means that most can only be successfully hunted by adult male polar bears, while the much smaller 35-45 kg ringed seal can be killed by polar bears of all ages.
Today we also identified something not often seen or recognized in the natural behaviour of polar bears – the final stages of breakup of a breeding pair of adults. Polar bears have induced ovulation, which means that usually a week or more of intense behavioural interactions between the male and female are required before their normally antagonistic behaviour has become sufficiently subdued to make it possible for them to mate. Since normally, a female would be terrified of an adult male and avoid him if at all possible, a great deal of behavioural change is required before the female is sufficiently trusting of an adult male to allow him to mate. Once ready, they mate several times a day for several days in a row. By the time that is finished, there is then a spell of slow behaviour with only a small amount of passive and gentle interactions while the bears go through the psychological process of separating while still not interacting in any way that might be potentially harmful to the other. Because of long-term studies done of the complete pattern of breeding behaviour of polar bears in Canada, it was possible to recognize the behavioural stage the bears were in. This was also an important bit of documentation for the scientific record because, although most breeding of polar bears takes place in April and the first half of May, recent analyses of behavioural observations made in Svalbard in recent years has confirmed that a small amount of mating continues here until the end of June or possibly early July.
All in all, by the end of today we have seen 20 polar bears on this trip, several of which have provided both excellent viewing of hunting and other behaviours at a distance as well as several close opportunities for photography – a true Polar Bear Special!
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 (photo), eiders (some even saw king eiders), arctic skuas, long-tailed ducks, red-throated divers and snow buntings among others. A Bewick’s swan was also spotted further away in a pond. This species is very seldom in Spitsbergen with less than or around 20 sightings! With yellow covering one third of it’s beak, the birders were able to discard the whooper swan (that shows yellow on two thirds of it’s beak) and normally “more” common than the Bewick’s swan.
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!
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 3.00 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 settlement, 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!