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OTL07-22, trip log, Around Spitsbergen, In the realm of Polar Bear & Ice - Birding

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Embarkation, Longyearbyen

Embarkation, Longyearbyen
Date: 04.07.2022
Position: 78°14.1‘N, 015°37.8‘E
Wind: NW1
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +9

After a long-awaited departure (a few years for some of us) we finally land in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard. The pull of the Arctic; its varied landscapes, history, the fascination of ice, flora and fauna plagued by a harsh climate, the anticipation of encountering wildlife and birds only seen in the Arctic draws visitors from all corners of our planet. Our ship for the next 8 days, the M/V Ortelius, brings us together to explore the pristine environment of the high Arctic. The Ortelius lays at the pier close to the centre of town. The Expedition Team is waiting with a warm welcome despite the drizzling rain. When everyone is onboard and we have had the chance to get a warm drink and meet some of our fellow passengers, we gather in the lecture room for the mandatory safety briefings quickly followed by the safety drill. Before dinner, we come together for an introduction of the Expedition Team, and a glass of champagne and welcome toast with our Captain Mika Appel. The energy is high and the excitement for the upcoming voyage is palpable. After dinner, we all try on and collect our rubber boots, which will keep our feet warm and dry during the adventures of the next few days. After a full day, most onboard, except for some night owls, are ready for a good nights’ rest after all the excitement of the day. While our sturdy vessel makes her way out of sheltered waters to start the journey north, we settle in for a peaceful sleep.

Day 2: Ny London – Ny Alesund

Ny London – Ny Alesund
Date: 05.07.2022
Position: 78°57.2’ N, 012°02.4’ E
Wind: NW2
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +14

The first expedition day of the voyage! At 7:15am Christophe, our Expedition Leader, woke us up via the PA system. Ortelius was entering Kongsfjord, one of the big fjords on the West coast of Spitsbergen. The rules for visiting The Arctic are very strict and require us to attend several mandatory briefings before we do our first landings, so as soon as breakfast was over, we all gathered together in the lecture room for the AECO briefing about the rules of behavior on land, at sea and in the “Zodiacs”. The weather was very cloudy and foggy but, unlike yesterday, there was no wind. The presence of the fog was making our guides a little nervous, because poor visibility on land is always a potential danger: Polar bears are animals very difficult to spot and when it is foggy, spotting them in time is nearly impossible. However, a miracle happened, and the fog disappeared very soon, so our landing did not have to be cancelled. The landing site was called Ny London and it is located on the southern part of an island called Blomstrandhalvoya. A hundred years ago an English businessman, Ernst Mansfield, attempted to establish a marble quarry here, but the venture failed after only a few years. We can still see the remains of machinery and a couple of huts standing there. After we had landed, we divided into three groups and started our hikes. We saw a nest of a Long-Tailed Skua and a couple of reindeers chewing the poor tundra vegetation. Besides we spotted numerous species of birds and got a chance to admire some Arctic flowers blooming in the tundra. The weather turned from foggy to sunny, so sometimes it was really hot, especially when we had to climb up the slopes. At 12:30 we came back onboard for lunch. While we were staying in the restaurant, Ortelius reached the destination of our afternoon activity, and it was not just a landing, but a visit to the village called Ny Alesund. Once a Norwegian coal miners’ settlement, now it has become an international scientific center where scientists from all over the world conduct studies of the Arctic nature. Ortelius did not get alongside the pier, but dropped the anchor, so we got shuttled ashore with “Zodiacs”. The village itself turned out to be a very tiny and cozy place. Besides there were many opportunities to do bird watching. We visited the only souvenir shop and some of us sent home postcards, as Ny Alesund is home to the northernmost post office in the world! We had a good chance to roam freely around the settlement. Also, our expedition guide Michelle gave us a very good walking tour to the iron mast which Roald Amundsen used when making his historic flight towards the North Pole. We got back onboard an hour before dinner where a very nice surprise followed: several Austrian scientists from Ny Alesund came onboard together with us and gave us a very interesting and thought-provoking talk about their studies and the problem of plastic pollution. Later Ortelius picked up the anchor and took a course to the North.

Day 3: Fuglesongen – NorskØyane – Moffen

Fuglesongen – NorskØyane – Moffen
Date: 06.07.2022
Position: 79°50.8‘N, 011°23.1‘E
Wind: NE4
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

Our morning starts off beautifully. The sun is out, a chilly breeze is blowing, but the ocean is relatively calm, which is exactly what we need for our morning landing at Fuglesongen. The name of our destination means “Bird Song”, referring to the Little Auk colony on this island. The size of the colony here may be in the order of several tens of thousands of breeding pairs. In contrast to all other birds in Spitsbergen, Litte Auks have their nests under large boulders on steep scree slopes, which are very often inaccessible. In Fuglesongen the colony is relatively accessible, although the landing itself is on a steep beach with large, slippery boulders, which is making the terrain very difficult for walking. All of us need some support from one another to make our way up the slope and we have to be extremely careful not to fall or twist an ankle. Fortunately, the terrain becomes easier due to the soft moss beds at the bottom of the Little Auk colony. We have to climb some massive boulders to find a spot on the edge of the colony, but when we find a good spot to sit down, and remain silent and still, it is absolutely incredible how close we can get to the little birds. Many thousands of birds together are responsible for a remarkable level of noise and their shrieking calls are hilarious to listen to. Observing their behaviour and witnessing the large flocks swarming in and out, makes for a sight to behold. Nature always calls for us to slow down and be present. Having the opportunity to be immersed so intimately in the world of these little birds is wonderful and humbling, also for those among us that are not keen bird watchers. After approximately 1-1.5 hour at the colony, we make our way back to the landing site and with the low tide and very slippery rocks need some time to get everyone onboard the zodiacs in a safe manner. But we all make it back to the ship in one piece, tired yet grateful. During lunch the Ortelius repositions only a short distance to anchor in a more protected area on the South side of Indre NorskØya and Ytre NorskØya, where we are planning for a zodiac cruise in the afternoon in search of wildlife. Unfortunately the wind is picking up and the swell that is rolling in from the open ocean increases in height, which makes a safe and comfortable zodiac cruise no longer possible. As some of the zodiacs are lowered already, the expedition team decides to scout for a calmer and more suitable landing place instead. But unfortunately they can’t find one and Christoph needs to cancel our afternoons’ excursion. Every downside has an upside however, as this means that we are able to make headway towards Moffen Island and the pack ice further North for the following day. At the end of the afternoon, before reaching Moffen the expedition team delivers a long recap to enrich us with extra information on some of the sights we have seen over the past days. Barbara gives us interesting information on some of the smallest creatures in the Arctic ecosystem; comb jellies. Then Sasha tells us about ‘his’ King of the Arctic, the Svalbard reindeer. Laura gives us tips on how to enjoy the Arctic to the fullest. And Charlotte finishes up with some more detailed information on the wonderful little auks we saw in the morning. When recap is finished and we all make it to the bridge and outer decks, Moffen Island comes into sight. It is an unusual little island, only 4-5 square kilometres, completely flat and is home to one of the best-known walrus colonies in Svalbard, that find ideal feeding grounds on the shallow sea bottom around Moffen. The island has been declared a nature reserve, which means we have to keep a minimum distance of 300 meters from the shore line. Besides the walruses, arctic terns are breeding in large numbers, together with a few pairs of Sabine’s gulls that are extremely rare in Spitsbergen. Moffen was the first place on the north coast of Spitsbergen to be re-colonised by Walruses after their near-extinction through several centuries of intense hunting, so to see more than hundred animals lying on the beach and in the shallow waters near shore is a very promising sight. The light is beautiful and we enjoy the view on the island and the walruses from the ship for some time, before we continue our journey to the sea ice. Our hospitality crew and another wonderful dinner await us.

Day 4: Pack-ice!

Pack-ice!
Date: 07.07.2022
Position: 81°26.6’ N, 016°47.4’ E
Wind: W3
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +7.3

Having sailed north-eastwards all night, we made our way into the pack ice right at around 7 o’clock on this wonderful sunny day in the Arctic. For many of us it was the first time to see this very special icy environment, frozen ocean water, an endless changing landscape. We had to sail all the way up to 81º18’N, north-west of the Sjuøyane (Seven Islands), to reach the sea ice edge, but it was well worth it. Many of us spent a lot of time outside in the sun, enjoying this high Arctic scenery and joined the expedition team in their search for wildlife. At 8:30 our Expedition leader Christophe already announced the first wildlife sighting, a bearded seal sleeping on an ice floe! Bearded seals are the largest of the northern phocid seals. They have an extremely elaborate, long set of whiskers that give the species its name. The seal did not feel disturbed as we approached slowly with the ship and we all were able to have a good look at it. We also observed groups of Brunnich’s guillemots and little auks, heading out to sea and others returning to forage among the ice floes. Especially remarkable was the large numbers of kittiwakes. They were following our ship, looking for young polar cod, that had been exposed by moving ice floes. Several ivory gulls were spotted during the morning, a very rare ice-associated gull with a white plumage, black legs and a yellow bill! The whole food chain was present in this very productive area, but where was our top predator? The sea and ice was scanned by binocular and the naked eye and at 11 o’clock the expedition team found a polar bear! 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 showed no interest in us and it moved away towards the North. Perhaps it was on a hunting mission. Even though we saw the King of the Arctic only in the distance, it was still nice to see him in his natural habitat, the sea ice! In the late morning we also reached the northernmost position of our journey: 81º27’N, woooow!!! After lunch another announcement of our Expedition leader made us dress up very quickly: the super-rare bowhead whale had been seen! This ice-loving whale species has no dorsal fin and is therefore easy to distinguish. Only a few of us saw the blow and the fluke of this very shy animal, as it disappeared quickly. In the late afternoon Barbara gave a lecture about the ecosystem of sea ice. 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. At recap time Charlotte explained us more about the bearded seals, Hella about the rare bowhead whales and of course we have been updated about tomorrow’s plans from Christophe. After dinner, many choose to retire to the bar to celebrate what has been an incredible day exploring the sea ice.

Day 5: Sorgfjorden and Kinnvika

Sorgfjorden and Kinnvika
Date: 08.07.2022
Position: 79°56.4‘N, 016°45.2‘E
Wind: W2
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +9

As we wake up to Christophe’s beautiful French accent with his wake-up call at 0715 we know it is going to be a good day! The sun is shining, and everyone is looking forward to stretching their legs. The expedition team prepares for departure and prepares to land the zodiacs on the beach and half load their rifles to scout for Polar Bears. The first guests arrive at the beach at 0930 all geared up and wrapped up warm. We split into two groups; the hike and intermediate and off the hikers went to the top of the hill to see over the view over the bay. Sorgfjorden is where in 1693 the most Northern battle where three French warships attacked 40 Dutch whaling ships. At the top of the hill lies a cemetery with some graves of the dead whalers. We also encountered a fox trap which was very intriguing to see. Once at the top of the hill, we noticed a walrus in the water near our zodiac, Christophe ran down to make sure the walrus did not puncture the zodiac with its sharp tusks! The walk took us past the ocean and across the beach covered in driftwood. We spotted many species of flowers and two long-tailed ducks. At 1130 we started our voyage back to the vessel for some much-needed tea and lunch made by the wonderful chef team. Lunch done and dusted, we prepared at 1430 to arrive to Kinnvika, Nordaustlandet, the true Polar desert. With the drivers shuttling everyone to the beautiful barren landscape, the expedition staff prepared the shore. The hikers kept in one group, followed by the medium and the leisurely groups. The next moment we heard from the doctor over the radio ‘there is a Polar Bear onshore, 500 metres from us!’ Wow! We all eagerly looked in our binoculars as we watched the polar bear walking along the shore and thankfully away from us. After assessing the bears’ behaviour and assessing it was ok, we continued with our walks. We walked past several huts which are now used by researchers, however in the past they were used by trappers in the 19th century. Whale bones and carcasses littered the outside areas. Walking in this bay felt like walking on the moon, however when you looked closely, many species of chickweed, saxifrage and lichens covered the desert floor. Our fantastic guide Sascha spotted two arctic skuas and the birders were more than happy with this appearance. At 1830 everyone was back on the ship as the cold crisp wind started to increase. A fantastic dinner of lamb shank and lasagne was enjoyed by all.

Day 6: Alkefjellet – Torellneset - Bråsvellbreen

Alkefjellet – Torellneset - Bråsvellbreen
Date: 09.07.2022
Position: 79°34.3‘N, 018°54.6‘E
Wind: N5
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +5

We had been at anchor for much of the night, but in the early morning the engine was started, and the anchor heaved. We woke up in Hinlopen strait and our outing this morning was a zodiac cruise along the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. The original name of this place was ‘Mount Guillemot’, for obvious reasons! About 60.000 breeding pairs of Brünnich’s Guillemot use this dolerite intrusion to lay their cone-shaped egg on narrow ledges. Both parents sit for 32 days and feed the chick for three weeks, until the day arrives when it has to jump down from the cliff. On these cliffs, the birds have found a natural fortress to help defend against predators. However, we could see a glaucous gull eating a guillemot. We were not even halfway along the cliff when a polar bear was spotted swimming in the water. We kept our distance and the polar bear decide to climb on to land. It was a young animal which climbed up the steep slope to get some eggs. It was an incredible experience to see it climbing and searching for food. After a while, the bear went back into the water and we left it alone, so as not to disturb it. We continued our cruise along the base of the cliffs, then headed back to the ship where a well-prepared lunch was awaiting us. In the afternoon, we had Torellneset on our program, an Arctic beach which is used by walruses to haul out. We hoped that they would be at home and or wishes came true, not just a few but approximately 200 walruses laid upon heaps on the beach and in groups in the water. To minimize our impact, we had split up into two groups. The first group went ashore while the others remained on board. We gathered on the landing site and slowly we moved towards the walruses. What an experience to see, hear and smell these great creatures of the North. Laura had taught us that multi-sensory experiences will make better memories, so most likely we will never forget this. During the visit of the first group, the wind had changed and picked up a bit and after the second group was on land, the zodiac drivers brought all the landing gear to the south side, our new departure site. Back on board we gathered in the bar for coffee and cake, and recap. John is a birder by heart and could not hide his enthusiasm when he was telling about the Brünnich’s guillemot. Barbara explained something more about the life cycle of a walrus, and how they eat so many of her favorite clams. Time flies and around 19.00h, we were invited to an Arctic dinner: BBQ out on deck. Again, the kitchen crew had shown their skills by serving delicious food and on top of that: free drinks! As a backdrop, we had the magnificent glacier Bråsvellbreen, which is a part of Austfonna, the second largest icecap of the northern hemisphere and a light drizzle to make the feeling even more arctic. What a day, what a day…

Day 7: Freemansundet – Dolerittneset (Kapp Lee) – Diskobukta - Storfjorden

Freemansundet – Dolerittneset (Kapp Lee) – Diskobukta - Storfjorden
Date: 10.07.2022
Position: 78°06.5‘N, 020°45.1‘E
Wind: NW 5
Weather: sun and 1/8 clouds
Air Temperature: +6

Since we left the area SW of Bråsvellbreen last night, we have cruised SSW down to Freemansundet. Here we approached the mouth to Storfjorden at 7 o’clock, and at the last bit of southwestern Barentsøya beautiful landscapes and good wildlife showed up – including many grazing reindeer and 4-5 polar bears wandering on the slopes. It was planned to have a landing at Sundnesset in Sundbukta at the Southwestern point of Barentsøya, but a couple of polar bears strolling around the place made the difference and changed the plans! Turning south we relatively soon reached Kapp Lee and our next planned landing site, Dolerittneset at NW Edgeøya. Here we already from Ortelius spotted a big polar bear male walking behind the landing site, but as he was walking away and disappeared into the valley to the South of Dolerittneset, the staff shortly after went scouting and cleared the site for a landing. At around 10 o’clock the Zodiac shuttle started, and even there was a bit of wind towards land and some swell, we had a very nice landing in an interesting place. The landing (10:30 – 12:30) was made as a so-called ‘perimeter-landing’, and guides were posted in the landscape around Dolerittneset to guard all of us while enjoying the magnificent scenery. In the sunny weather we were welcomed by some curious Walrus’ in the sea in front of Dolerittneset, which were on their way to feed in the sea or to the big haul-out on the beach just in front of the remarkable, octagonal Norwegian trappers’ cabin (called ‘The Carousel’) from 1904. In total we estimated that more than 200 walrus were seen here and in the waters around Kapp Lee. Further, the wildlife observations included species like Arctic Fox, Reindeer (> 25), Red-throated Diver, King Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red Phalarope and Snow Bunting with fledged chicks. The flora was also remarkable and rich, and includes many species and a vegetation cover, which is not found in many places in Eastern Svalbard. Species like Svalbard Poppy and Spider Saxifrage were found. At this fine site, we could also study the remains from several periods of hunting and trapping activity during the 1700 and 1800. This included several ruins after huts made by Russian Pomors and a lot of bones and other remains from both sea and land mammals. Well on board the Ortelius it was decided to go for Diskobukta as the afternoon landing. Here there is a trappers cabin (‘Villa Disko’) from 1929 and a nice walk to a canyon behind it, where a couple of thousands of Kittiwakes are breeding. However, the scout showed, that the bay nearest to the supposed landing site at the hut was too shallow and rocky to go for at low tide, so landing was given up. Hence, at 16:30 the course was set for Sørkapp and Hornsund in the SW part of Spitsbergen. The cruise to the south to Diskobukta resulted in an observation of a female Polar Bear with two cubs and several groups of Walruses on travel in Storfjorden. The Polar Bear total for the day exceeded 10 individuals! At 17:00 Michelle gave a lecture on the king of the polar region – the Polar Bear. And before a wonderful Sunday dinner we also had a recap catching up on a couple of subjects from the sunny and clear day in the pack ice north of Svalbard (7 July) on the Ivory Gull and Sabine’s Gull (John) and on the special feature of ‘Fata Morgana’ in the Arctic (Laura). During the afternoon and night, when Ortelius was cruising south in Storfjorden towards Hornsund on the SW part of Spitsbergen, both guest and staff members enjoyed the fine weather at deck watching for sea mammals and seabirds. A couple of unidentified whales and more than 50 walruses were spotted at the end of this fine day.

Day 8: Gåshamna – Brepollen - Burgerbukta

Gåshamna  – Brepollen - Burgerbukta
Date: 11.07.2022
Position: 76°56.8‘N, 015°49.2‘E
Wind: N2
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +5

During the night Ortelius repositioned from the North-Western part of Edgeoya to Hornsund, a picturesque fjord in the southern part of Spitsbergen Island. The entrance to Hornsund is on the West coast. The morning was foggy and cloudy, but not windy at all. The plan was to land in Gåshamna [gos-ham-na], a nice place which was once used as a basecamp by whalers. When we got ashore, the first thing we saw were the enormous skulls of bowhead whales scattered around the beach; a sombre reminder of the sad events of the past. Now the bones serve as home to arctic vegetation and continue to provide mosses and flowers with nutrients, even hundreds of years later. We divided into three groups: a longer hike, a moderate walk and a birding walk. The birdwatchers took a circular route over the moraine, where a pair of arctic skuas were guarding their nest and purple sandpipers were playing in the streams. Kittiwakes and even a few fulmars could be seen nesting in the cliffs behind. Meanwhile, the two walking groups climbed up a small hill where there was a viewpoint with a beautiful view over the fjord and the surrounding mountains. Also visible were the remains of a Russian Pomor settlement. Although today only the footprints of the buildings remain, it was nevertheless very interesting to see. We had to be at the landing site by 11:30, because during the briefing the evening before Christophe, the expedition leader, announced that there would be the opportunity for a polar plunge at the end of this morning’s landing! A few brave souls did take part in our polar plunge, even though the water was very cold, but what a memorable experience! After lunch Ortelius headed to Brepollen – the inner part of Hornsund – for a ship cruise. We were standing on the open decks spotting different species of birds and watching Arctic skuas chasing Kittiwakes. Of course, the main objects of our contemplation were the magnificent and stunning glaciers surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. Shortly after 3 PM, Ortelius dropped anchor in Burgerbukta and we got ourselves warmly dressed for a Zodiac cruise. The weather remained overcast, but it was even better, because the lighting was perfect for looking at the icebergs and the glacier at the end of Burgerbukta. We were riding Zodiacs among the icebergs spotting wildlife, mostly birds, including two highly unusual white morphs: one of Black Guillemot and another of a male Common Eider Duck! Some of us saw a Bearded Seal on an ice floe, but it was very shy and went into the water before we could approach closed enough to take pictures. Others spotted a Ringed Seal in the water, and at the very end of the cruise some of us were lucky enough to spot a Humpback Whale. Before dinner we gathered together in the bar on deck 6 for a daily recap and also to get the plan for the following day.

Day 9: Recherchefjorden - Longyearbyen

Recherchefjorden - Longyearbyen
Date: 12.07.2022
Position: 77°29.9‘N, 014°42.2‘E
Wind: S5
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

Today, after a scrumptious breakfast of French toast, we planned to land at Bamsebu, however the weather made it impossible to land because of the waves and high winds at the gangway. Christophe made a new plan and Captain Mika and the officers moved the vessel to Recherchefjorden, one hour away. Here it was much calmer and better protected from the wind. It was decided to do a perimeter instead of a walk so all the guides made a boundary, and everyone stayed inside this area to roam freely and feel safe within. The view of the glacier was spectacular, with the mountains looming over us and the dark and stormy skies above. An Arctic Fox was spotted by the Expedition Team! Wow, finally the last piece of the Arctic puzzle was complete! Some very cute and fluffy Common Eider chicks swam along the shore with their female parent just before it was time to leave. At 1230 the passengers were assisted into the zodiacs just in time for a 1300 lunch. Unfortunately, we had to start our passage back to Longyearbyen, but that does not mean we can’t see whales on the voyage back. The guides are spotting high and low for blows in the hope of showing our wonderful guests a whale or two before they disembark tomorrow morning.

Day 10: Disembarkation Longyearbyen

Disembarkation Longyearbyen
Date: 13.07.2022
Position: 78°14.1‘N, 015°37.6‘E
Wind: WSW3
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +13

Unfortunately, every trip comes to an end. Disembarkation starts early in the morning. The crew takes care of our luggage, so all that remains is to say our goodbyes to our newly made friends, fellow travellers and all the welcoming faces of the Ortelius we have come to know so well. The Ortelius lays at anchor in the middle of the bay, so we embark the zodiacs for one final time, before saying goodbye to the expedition staff at the jetty and the buses take us away. Some of us may have some days left in Svalbard or mainland Norway, others may have to get back to work when coming back home. Regardless, we all take home many great memories, thousands of photographs and new friends made. The Arctic is an incredible and unique part of our planet, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to observe and soak up this pristine and fragile environment! Thank you all for joining us on this remarkable adventure, for your great company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be! Total distance sailed: 1,022.6 Nautical Miles On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Mika Appel, Expedition Leader Christophe Gouraud, Hotel Manager Volodymyr Cherednychenko and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you!

Details

Tripcode: OTL07-22
Dates: 4 Jul - 13 Jul, 2022
Duration: 9 nights
Ship: m/v Ortelius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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