OTL07-17, trip log, Spitsbergen: Polar Bear Special
29.06.2017 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). Third Officer John briefed us on ship safety. 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 to see them.
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 we were called to the lecture room once again to receive our rubber boots, needed for most of our landings. After this most of us went to the outside decks to enjoy the first part of our voyage. We enjoyed the nice weather and the spec-tacular scenery of the entrance of Isfjorden and were surprised by a few distant blows of a Blue Whale. What an exciting first day, and what a start to our voyage!
Our overnight journey was so smooth that it seemed as if our ship was alongside the dock! Follow-ing a leisurely breakfast we attended two more briefings. One concerned safety and environmental protocol in the Arctic, the other related to Zodiac operations. By eleven o’clock we were boarding the boats and heading off to visit the Walrus colony at Sarstangen. On shore we gathered in two groups and each group took turns to see the Walrus close up. Situated on a narrow sandpit, the magnificent animals, about 80 in all, amused and intrigued us with their behaviour and their ap-parent interest in us! Some of them left the main group and swam along the shore in our direction. Adult and youngsters then came within three metres of some of us and we ‘eyeballed’ each other! Along with seeing the Walrus we walk along the beach to the nearby lagoon where several species of birds were foraging and possibly breeding. Two King eider ducks, male and female, swam past close enough for us to see the beautiful marking of the male. Hazy sunshine and calm conditions made this Summer Solstice morning especially enjoyable here in the high Arctic.
In the afternoon we went ashore at Englesbukta and here we split into three groups. Long, medium and leisurely walks were on offer and off we set in three directions. Off shore a Harbour seal was seen ‘porpoising’ close to the zodiacs. A group of 14 Harbour seals were hauled out at the entrance to the lagoon. A terminal moraine, a glacier and a ring of spectacular mountains made for a very enjoyable experience. A very cold wind reminded us that we were in the Arctic, as did the Polar bear and Arctic fox tracks on the beach and nearby mud. At 17.30 we began the zodiac operation returning to the ship. A recap and a briefing was followed by dinner at 19.00. We sailed into Kings bay at 20.00 and reached a glacier around nine PM. A beautiful blue iceberg had the added interest of many Fulmars feeding around it. More spectacular mountains and ‘Alpine scenery’ finished off this long and marvellous day for us.
When we first looked out from the ship on Friday morning, we were 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, occasional snow flurries, cool, and windy. But – we were surrounded by dense sea ice and that meant we might see what we all came for - 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, walruses, and minke whales scattered at low densities throughout the ice-covered areas. For the birders, the possibility of seeing a diversity of sea birds, including such treasures as the ivory gull ensured that all eyeballs and binoculars would be glued together. In fact, the presence of large numbers of birds feeding in the pack ice surrounding the ship suggested that the waters below were rich in food, which would be good for seals and polar bears as well. But, beyond the goal of seeing a single priority species, it was the first opportunity for most of the passengers to simply observe and experience the fascinating environ-ment of the arctic pack ice.
Overall, we were extraordinarily fortunate today, especially considering that the overall visibility was not great. By the time we had finished breakfast, one of the ship’s officers on the bridge had already spotted a distant yellowy spot which, as we approached, became a bear. It was lying down and as we got closer, it stood up and looked at the ship. We could also see he was an adult male but not in particularly good condition. There was little fat on his hindquarters so his hide simply ap-peared to drop down from his hips. The bear was not afraid but it was also clear he wasn’t interest-ed in visiting as he simply began to slowly walk away. Consequently, we didn’t follow him because it is important that we not stress any of the wildlife we have come to view in their natural home.
After a few more hours of searching, Rinie spotted another distant yellowy dot lying motionless in a small pit dug into a snowdrift that had formed on a small ridge of ice. With great patience, Captain Barria skilfully moved the Ortelius to about 150 m or so from the bear. In fact, the ship’s approach was done so sensitively, the bear continued to sleep soundly after we arrived, apparently unaware of our presence. For well over an hour we studied the sleeping bear and wondered when he might get up and be a bit more active. We also knew that when bears sleep during the day out on the sea ice, they normally don’t wake for 7-8 hours, much like a human. Rather than disrupt the natural behaviour of the sleeping bear, so we could see him walk about, we briefly considered leaving him undisturbed and going to investigate a third very distant bear that appeared to be scavenging on something. However, we knew he had to wake up sometime so, since we were so well positioned, we decided to be patient and simply wait. Then however, we got a big surprise. A minke whale sur-faced and blew beside the ship, dove, and surfaced to blow again … right beside the bear! Com-pletely startled, the bear jumped up, looked at the ship, and then walked slowly over to within a few metres. The roar of camera shutters was almost deafening. After 20 minutes or so of being a star, he wandered over to a nearby crack in the ice and lay down to demonstrate how a bear still-hunts for a seal. After hunting for about another 20 minutes, he stood up and slowly walked away from the area. As he walked, we could see he was a full adult males with scars on his neck from fighting with other males over females in the breeding season and he was in fairly normal body condition for a male bear at this time of year.
Overall, these two bears provided some outstanding viewing along with some interesting insights into their life on the sea ice. Along with the abundance of birds, including an ivory gull and an arctic skua stealing a fish from a tern, several seals and, of course, our friendly minke whale, it was a wonderful first day in the sea ice.
Morning doesn’t predict for us any good weather condition for next few hours, thick fog around ship and cloudy sky, but luckily just before lunch we had almost clear sky above us and endless ice. After lunch temperature on open deck reach 12°C, it was like a Mediterranean cruise around pack ice, few guides took of warm clothes and put on shorts. Mean while, guides spotted for us laying on sea ice Bearded Seal. Long, fat, “sausage”-shaped adult male with small head and long whiskers, star-ring at our ship not far away than 30 meters, after 20 minutes of taking pictures we set course at far north to spot more Polar Bears Before dinner 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 information about evolution and behaviour of those amazing animals, next after the lecture Dejan with Lilian invite us on open deck to have a cup of cinnamon hot chocolate with rum and tasty cookies. Before dinner we had a recap by Marijke and Mick about spotted Bearded Seal and Northern Fulmars, Rinie also give us some more detailed information about fu-ture plan for our stunning voyage.
We awoke whilst already approaching Magdelenafjord and this was a promising start of yet anoth-er beautiful sunny day. Soon a few walruses were spotted as they created puffy bushy blows at the entrance of this magnificent fjord. We made a landing at Gravenesodden for a scenic walk towards the glacier. A few minutes silence was held during which the sound of birds, glacier and even the barking of a distant polar fox were heard.
In the mean time, on the other side of the fjord, some of us were landing at the foot of a huge colo-ny of Little Auks. It was a bit of a climb up towards this impressive colony but it was definitely worth it. The lichens and mosses made for a rather soft walk up, passing through some areas of snow, whilst overhead tens of thousands, if not more, Little Auks were greeting us with their chatter. When we reached the area of the first boulders we could see these tiny auks with some impressive close-up views – how pretty they were, with their white-eye stripe and dark heads. They were nest-ing amongst these boulders and there was quite a bit of Auk traffic going on and things seemed quite organised. However, now and again a giant Gloucus Gull disturbed the Auk-order and caused chaos resulting in all the Little Auks taking flight into the air. There were also many polar fox tracks in the snow, but they must have been hiding somewhere, undoubtedly making good use of their camouflage. We admired all the sounds and the coming and going of all the auks.
After outmanoeuvring some shallow rocks, a scenic drive brought us back to the vessel where a lunch buffet was served. After lunch the Ortelius continued transiting towards Sallyhamna and Holmiabukta. Some pretty impressive scenery was on show here. But we also admired the small copepods, which were on display in a small aquarium on the bow. They were only just collected by Arjen whilst he had been towing a plankto-net behind his zodiac. How many of these tiny creatures were found in such a small sample! It was a real eye opener for most of us and especially the little jellies made an impressive display!
Following on from our copepod adventure, we boarded zodiacs for a scenic tour along the glacier and around a string of tiny islands. Some polar bear tracks were visible on the island’s coastline but we could not find a bear. Instead, we enjoyed the ice formations and the delicate Arctic Terns, which were feeding close to the coastline. Eider ducks were pairing up preparing for another busy breeding season. Glaucus Gulls and Barnacle Geese were also seen and some of us were lucky to see a Bearded Seal. Back onboard the day ended with an Arctic Barbeque!
The passengers awoke to the reassuring steady throb of the engines and dull clunk of occasional ice flows hitting the hull as Ortelius approached the edge of the drift ice for another day of bear patrolling. The sun blazed from a crystal clear sky and sparkled from the jumbled blocks slowly drifting in a perfectly calm sea.
After breakfast passengers festooned with binoculars and various sizes of cameras lined the decks facing in every direction, hoping to be the first to spot a bear. Rinie and Ian, both with powers of impressive concen-tration, stuck to their posts the longest. Ian with the odd break for coffee and Rinie to use the bridge win-dows as a mirror to apply multiple layers of sun cream on his already brown face.
Cameras focused on the empty vastness of the panorama and on the abstract patterns created by the shat-tered flows as they cracked apart, tilted dramatically, and swept past along the side of the ship. Every now and then a seal was spotted. The most impressive being a couple of close encounters with bearded seals, which resulted in excellent photographs from the constantly clicking passengers.
Mick delivered a lecture in the morning titled ‘Birds of Svalbard’ whilst Ian followed up in the afternoon with a thought provoking presentation ‘ Polar Bears and Climate Change’.
At ‘Sounds of the sea’ quiz by Marijke at recap had everyone entertained followed by Rinie and Ian with a presentation on ‘Polar bear hunting techniques’. It was another relaxing Oceanwide Expeditions day with passengers entranced by the zigzagging aesthetic patrol through the ever changing textures of sea ice and stimulated by the series of educational lectures.
Waking up to the roughest (or to put it more appropriately, least calm) seas on the trip did not spell well for our intended morning of whale-watching. But it turned out to be not so bad actually. The whales were there and were for the most part calm and showed no clear avoidance of the Ortelius. All in all we saw at least 2 Blue Whales and 2 Fin Whales, one of the latter seemingly a bit smaller than the other, so being able to tick off two of the largest animals the planet has ever seen in one morning is not the worst way to start a day.
The idea was to do our last landing at the Alkhornet but in the end the wind just did not allow for the required landing conditions. Upon considering our options, we decided to go for the so-called Colesbukta instead as it would be more sheltered. Formerly a small Russian mining settlement but now abandoned, this site is a graveyard to its buildings and structures as well as the final resting place of some of its former workers, for there is a graveyard with some seventeen graves a little distance from the sea. It is also home to an array of fascinating creatures and while we appreciated the reindeer and the birds, the superstars came in the shape of a family of Arctic foxes with tiny little cubs. We approached them slowly and in parts, meaning they did not see us as a threat and so we got good looks at them, making this afternoon a mix of what makes Svalbard such a special place; one of great wild nature and remains of the people that came up there to make use of it.
Our wonderful vessel Ortelius arrived slightly sooner than usual in port as some of our passengers had an early morning flight and so this had to be accommodated. While some slept, or tried to af-ter our inspirational week together, staff and crew were busy unloading bags and assisting passen-gers as well as loading provisions in preparation for yet another wonderful Arctic adventure. The rest of the passengers left around 9 AM and were met with a series of buses ready to take them into town for a little exploration of what has to be the most northerly settlement of any size in the world. An amazing adventure was now over but hopefully it served to create appetite for even more!
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: 644 nautical miles
Furthest North: 80°09.8’ N / 012°17.7’ 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.