OTL07-16, trip log | North Spitsbergen - Polar Bear Special
04.07.2016 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 alongside the "coal" pier of Longyearbyen. 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. Later on we had our first encounter with wildlife: several blue and humpback whales were spotted, filling the first megabytes of our SD cards. 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.
Following the excitement of seeing blue whales and humpback whales soon after leaving Longyearbyen we settled down for a good night’s sleep after a long day of activity. Our overnight passage was a little bit choppy and we awoke to rain and low cloud. However, by mid morning the cloud began to clear and we soon entered the Polar pack ice area. Groups of Brunnich’s guillemots and little auks were heading out to sea and others were returning. These birds are nesting throughout the Spitsbergen archipelago. Black guillemots, northern fulmars and black-legged kittiwakes foraged among the ice floes. Herds of harp seals were seen regularly, swimming on their backs. This is their normal behaviour. By lunchtime the cloud lifted and bright sunshine and blue skies created a wonderful Arctic seascape. A common ringed plover was found, quite exhausted, on the heli deck. We took a couple of pictures and left him in peace to recover after a probable long journey.
We were on a mission now; find a polar bear! The sea and ice was scanned by binocular and the naked eye and, as predicted by some folks, we had our first sighting at 15.00. We kept the bear in sight as it moved across the ice at a steady fast pace. Some bears are attracted to ships but this one show no interest in us and it moved away towards the north. However, it was our first bear and that is always a great experience, even for those who have seen one before. We took a north easterly course and along the way we encountered more harp seals, some bearded seals and a ‘spy hopping’ Minke whale.
After dinner we continued on through the pack ice and at 21.00 we found our second bear. It too moved on across the ice and although we didn’t get very close we had good views of the ‘King of the Arctic’ as it crossed the ice with ease. Today is the Summer Solstice and what a way to spent this special day on a ‘Polar Bear Special’.
It is a quiet morning.The Ortelius lies embedded in the loose pack-ice, amidst the ice-floes. Stratus clouds promise a rather stable weather situation. Some black guillemots and Brünnich’s guillemots play in the open water and some stand on the ice, they look as pinguins. A lonely fulmar flies along our ship. Around 08h00 the engines are started and we continue our voyage in this world of water in all its phases: solid (ice)- liquid water-vapour (in the air). At 09h15 Rinie spots two polar bears. The bears, an older female and possibly a younger male, were not afraid of taking a bath in the ice-laden water. After a while, we lost them, but not long later, we saw them again. What followed was an encounter of the close kind: the male bear even came to the ship, reaching to the hull. Meanwhile several ivory gulls flew around, and the glaucous gull was also present. It was already 13h00 when we said goodbye to the bears. In the afternoon two lectures were presented, one by Barbara on the sea-ice ecosystem, the other by Louis, being a general introduction to the Arctic. After diner, at 20h10, we got another big surprise: a bowhead whale swum a short distance from the Ortelius. The bowhead is the rarest of the whales, almost extinct due to the whaling industry. It is a real arctic species, living in association with the pack-ice. In winter they remain close to the southern boundary ot the ice; as the ice retreats during summer, they too move northwards and disperse in the pack-ice. They do not have a dorsal fin. The bowhead can break through the ice and so a fin on the back would only be a hindrance. Their blow is V-shaped. They are the only baleen whale species that gives birth to their calves in arctic waters. Gestation lasts 13-14 months. The calf remains with the mother during the summer and autumn and probably too in the following winter. It takes another 4 years before the female can give birth to another calf. So this low reproduction rate explains also their vulnaribility to human predation. While watching the bowhead whale, we observed also several ringed seals lying on the ice-floes. A lonely Arctic tern flew along, and several screaming ivory gulls passed by, as white ghosts in the long polar day.
When we woke up this morning, we were still completely surrounded by pack ice. It is a very special experience to spend the night on an all-quiet ship in a completely white world. One can only wonder how many people would have spent the night further north of our current position (north of the 81st parallel) or how many people would be further north of us at this moment…
Around 7 am the Captain gave the order to start the engines again and then the search continued. Even though we were spoiled yesterday with the two bears coming really close to the ship, we were not satisfied yet. After breakfast most of us dressed warmly, picked up the binoculars and camera’s and headed outside or towards the bridge. Here several members of the expedition team were already scanning for more bears. The visibility wasn’t really good, but we kept on trying anyhow. Some ringed and bearded seals were seen, one of the latter nicely up close. Later during the morning Rinie gave a lecture in English about breeding behaviour of polar bears and explained the connection between the two bears we saw yesterday. At the same time Arjen gave 10 tips in Dutch to improve our photography skills. After this, we all headed back outside, enjoying the high Arctic wilderness.
Roberts lunch announcement was followed by the announcement of Rinie that another polar bear was found. Just visible in the fog one was seen roaming on the ice. The Captain immediately changed direction and tried to approach the bear without disturbing it. Unfortunately this bear appeared to be on a mission and was not interested in the ship. So after following it for a while, we decided to let it be and continue our search in northeastern direction. A little later, the visibility had improved considerably, another bear was found. This bear, a young male, seemed to enjoy staying right in the middle of a huge ice floe. It looked like he had a dead seal with him, which might be the reason for that. Many of us had already given up hope that we could get this bear also close to the ship, the floe was too large and too thick to sail through, when Rinie told us the Captain would bring the Ortelius a bit deeper into a lead, hoping to get downwind from the bear. We hoped our smell would make him curious and might get him towards the ship. Well, was he right!! As soon as the bear smelled us, he came almost running towards the ship and only stopped when he was a few meters away from the bow. Fortunately the Ortelius has quite a high bow, so we could safely watch this magnificent King of the Arctic. After a while, the bear had figured out he could not open this ‘can of food’ and moved away from the ship again, leaving behind a group of very happy passengers and many full memory cards.
Slowly it was time now to turn the ship south, as we wanted to be back on land tomorrow. In the afternoon Rinie repeated his Polar Bear talk in Dutch and Mick gave a talk about all the birds we have been seeing the past days. Both were very well attended as it is always nice to know a little more about the things we had seen.
After these talks another bear was found. She was a little scared of the ship, but also curious. She made a loop around the ship when she probably smelled the meat on our BBQs and her curiosity took over. But soon we apparently turned out to be too scary and she quickly made her retreat. Some birdwatchers had in the meantime found a Sabine’s gull who honoured the ship with a brief visit. Unfortunately for those who were looking at the bear it didn’t linger and didn’t return either. Now it was time for the famous Ortelius Arctic BBQ on the helideck. Still surrounded by sea ice we enjoyed another good meal prepared by our chefs. At the end of the BBQ the last bear made another appearance, but again she didn’t dare to come too close.
After three days of exploration in the pack ice it was time to head south back to Spitsbergen. After another filling breakfast both staff and passengers were fuelled for their next adventure. Alkefjellet.
Rinie gathered the team in the bar and briefed them on the morning plan. After quickly changing, everyone headed for the waiting zodiacs.
As the zodiac’s turned and headed for the towering basalt cliffs feelings were running high. Alkefjellet is one of the most incredible bird cliffs in all of Spitsbergen. Home to numerous bird species it hums with the constant chatter and noise from the 100 000+ residents. The Brünnich’s guillemot is the most numerous of all the birds that call the vertical cliffs home. Numbering over 60 000 pairs, they almost blacken the sky as they come and go from their nesting sites. Amongst the Brünnich’s guillemot nests are scatterings of black guillemot, kittiwakes and the ever threatening and dominating glaucous gull.
Cruising along base of the cliffs we were witness to brief moments of life amongst the chaos. A glaucous gull predating on a passing guillemot, kittiwakes sitting silent among all the noise, collisions, squabbles and fights between the numerous guillemots’ that call Alkefjellet home.
Towards the end of the excursion, Louis called over the radio with news that a polar fox had been spotted at the south end of the cliffs. Those there in time witnessed a mottled coloured fox carry a guillemot along the cliff terraces and off over the ridge.
All to quickly the zodiacs returned to the ship for lunch and a rest while the Ortelius repositioned for the next adventure.
After emptying memory cards and filling up on lunch, we were all ready for an opportunity to stretch our legs after so many days in the ice.
Our afternoon plan was to explore the surrounding landscapes on Faksevågen.
After a brief from Rinie, the teams dressed and headed to the zodiacs from another adventure. Self-determining, the passengers split into groups based on the amount of adventure and sweet they felt like for the afternoon.
Once ashore, the guides prepared their firearms, a necessary precaution against the ever-present reality of polar bears.
Quickly organised, the hikers headed of with Mick, Pernille and Christophe. Those seeking less of a calorie burn headed up the hill with Arjen, Barbara and Ben and those seeking information and insight joined the illustrious team of Louis and Rinie.
Faksevågen didn’t fail to deliver on all fronts. Throughout our time ashore we were treated with all sorts of wildlife encounters. Reindeer, snow bunting, purple sandpiper, sanderling, pink-footed goose and rock ptarmigan were all sighted numerous times.
Our time ashore passed quickly and soon it was time to return to the Ortelius for showers and a recap with the expedition staff. After dinner, many choose to retire to the bar to celebrate what had been an incredible day exploring Spitsbergen.
In the night our ship was sailing to the northwestern corner of Spitsbergen to reach the Smeerenburgfjorden in the morning. Ortelius stopped just next to an island called Amsterdamøya where we were hoping to visit the walruses. Unfortunately only two of them were sleeping on the beach and it was foggy. Therefore we decided to continue our journey in direction to a very nice medium-sized glacier at the end of the fjord. On the way we spotted a skinny polar bear, walking fast on the beach. The bear had the number 74 written on the butt because scientists are monitoring this female. She is about 12-13 years old and is mostly staying in the area the whole year around. Just before our expedition team wanted to offer two talks, belugas were seen in front of the ship. So we rushed out on deck and enjoyed the great sight of 10 adult white whales. Back inside the ship we learned in a lecture given by Rinie about the polar bear hunting strategies (in English) and Louis talked about humans and climate change in the bar (in Dutch). This morning ended with a scenic view on the Smeerenburgbreen. This glacier is no exception to the general retreat of glaciers in recent decades, and the innermost part of the fjord is accordingly blank on sea charts, making navigation difficult if not impossible. After a great lunch we sailed through the Sørgattet, a narrow passage in between Danskøya and Bjørnhamna, there we met our female bear again! Later in the afternoon our expedition team offered us two excursions in the Magdalenefjorden. The bird lovers amongst us met a colony of little auks at Alkekongen, these auks are certainly the most numerous and cutest birds in the Arctic. The second excursion offered started at Gravneset. There at the “Trinity harbour” English whalers were running a shore station until about 1623. Remains of blubber ovens and a graveyard are amongst the remains that are still visible at the surface. Some of us had a good leg stretch to the glacier front or just stayed next to the cultural heritage. Back on board Arjen talked during the recap about the bear number 74 and Mick let us listen to the song of the little auks. With a buffet dinner and a good bear – no sorry beer – in the bar, this fantastic day ended.
Almost nothing last forever and we had come to the last day of our amazing, Polar Bear Special Voyage. We woke up to a foggy morning on the West coast of Svalbard. However the sun was doing its thing, trying to make its way through the grey fog as breakfast was eaten. When we started our excursion around 10 o’clock, we saw the ship disappearing behind us as we drove through the fog in a convoy of 5 zodiacs. After a few minutes in the "gray zone", Poolepynten revealed itself, bright and welcoming. When the last zodiac landed we where able to see Ortelius from the beach. It was clearing.
Rinie had organized two groups, the first one going straight to the walruses hauled out by the Sysselmannen’s hut towards the east end of the point. The second group went on a mellow, peaceful beach walk towards the western end of Poolepynten. Here we found purple saxifrage among the Siberian driftwood scattered over the beach. It was a great opportunity to photograph the nice flowers sticking out of the sand and to stretch the legs in the foggy conditions. In the inlet some of us had the joy of the most widespread, most northerly and smallest of all of the divers; the red-throated diver. Camouflaged in the sand, several purple sandpipers were searching the beach for an insect brunch.
Half way through, the groups alternated and everyone got to enjoy and spend a solid amount of time with the stars of the beach, the walruses. It was hard to tell how much blubber exactly, were in the pile, but probably close to 20 walruses. What a sight! The size of these fascinating animals was apparent. A great heavy body and a little head with small, black eyes. From where we stood, we could easily see the big lips, the stiff whiskers and of course the long, white tusks. Once in a while, one would put its flipper up in the air, pleasing all of the photographers.
We were even fortunate enough to observe a walrus swimming in the water close to the beach and haul it self out up onto the sand. Satisfied on food and our walrus encounter, it was time for relaxation after lunch.
For our last landing, we went to Tordenskjoldbukta. In 3 groups we discovered the coastline, the tundra, and the rich bird life it had to offer. No matter what direction we were looking, we would see the reindeer grazing away. With the beautiful mountains in the background and the fresh water lakes, the scenic landscape was just amazing.
Unfortunately we had to go back to the ship. Before we all joined Robert, Sava and all of the hotel crew in the dinning room for the very last dinner of the voyage, we all gathered in the bar for the Captains Farewell Cocktail. Passengers, the expedition team and, of course, Captain Ernesto Barría all toasted for a great trip and for lots of fantastic moments.
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:
829 nautical miles / 1,535 kilometres
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!