OTL08-16, trip log | Cleaning the shore - Polar Bear Special
26.07.2016 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 and ready to welcome us for an exciting journey! 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 second officer Andre 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 Jim 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.
We woke up to the first exciting morning a board the Ortelius, which started with a breakfast buffet. The morning was used to get us all ready for the afternoon by handing out life vests, rubber boots and of course a pair of gloves for our mission, cleaning up Svalbard.
After a mandatory briefing on guidelines, zodiac operations and polar bear safety, it was time to put the preparation into action, time had come for our first excursion. Ortelius entered the beautiful, 10 km long Magdalenafjorden and we did a split landing at Alkekongen. Ashore we did a hike through the tundra to observe the little auks flying to and from their nests, sometimes just above the heads of the observers.
On the zodiac cruise, we explored the fjord and all that it had to offer, which was a lot. We got a good view of the waggonwaybreen (glacier) and got to look at the growlers and their clear, blue colours. Some were fortunate to have a harbour seal swimming past. Northern fulmars were feeding in the water around the growlers. Black guillemots were also seen. A very good first excursion.
After lunch, Jim gathered the group in the lecture room for, a ”Cleaning Briefing”. Now it was time to go ashore on Danskøya, at Danskneset.
Again we had 2 groups, one was cleaning and one was going for a hike. The cleaning group managed to cover a great amount of the southeastern point of Danskøya. Meanwhile the hiking group went exploring, one group followed the coast line and gained a bit of elevation and the more adventures conquered the boulders and little rocks all the way up to an amazing view point.
We all enjoyed a great dinner in the restaurant and to finish up a fantastic, first day in Svalbard, Peter Prokosch, the former head of WWF Arctic Programme, gave an interesting talk in the lecture room about tourism and conservation.
After a calm night cruising to our morning anchorage at Virgohamna, the clouds and light southeasterly wind arose. We split the group in two, one to walk the historic base camp of two ambitious aerial expeditioneers, Andrée and Wellwood from 1896 and 1907. This group also got to view seventeen hauled-out common seals, arctic terns and common eiders cove via the talus and beach cobbles.
The second group zodiac cruised to view a polar bear, female (#74) at fasting rest amidst the grey rocky marine-shore interface. Guests enjoyed this close and safe encounter with the Queen of the North! Fasting laconically, she was a study of rest and repose. Later in the day we heard more at recap about this individuals 12-13 years in this locale from Arjen. After a lovely lunch and a wee bit of a “Kip” (Scottish for Nap), we prepared for our afternoon activities, where the industrious Guest “Clean-up Svalbard” Crew set zodiac sail for Smeerenburg environs to put a huge dent in the mass amounts of rubbish accumulating along the granitic boulder shoreline. An amazing seven cubic meters of litter of all kinds has been collected and transported to the ship for off-loading back in Longyearbyen!
Meanwhile, the hiking groups landed further along the point to visit the ancient 16th century site of a Dutch whaling village of 200 hard workers, rendering the blubber of bowhead whales for paints, oil, lubricants, etc. for the populace of the Netherlands. The backyard pond provided some sandy, surreal stone and mirror reflections.
Concurrent to learning about this site, we also were treated to some fine viewing of territorial arctic terns, barnacle geese, flying snails, kelp on the numerous submergent igneous rocks. Enroute zodiacs headed for return to the ship, were treated to the ethereal backlighting of the low, scudding clouds, as if from the heavens themselves. This divine experience was punctuated with the fleet flying atlantic puffins, Brünnich’s guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes harassed by up to three arctic skua in hot, piratic pursuit! A classic day of Spitsbergen mountain scenery: truncated and rounded peaks, ablating tidewater and alpine glacial retreat and Sumi painting, rock grey clouds lofting about the black guillemot and northern fulmar cliff faces and moss enshrouded elevations.
Recapping our accomplishments was highlighted with polar places provided beverages and a delicious dinner followed.
Our day began with news over the P.A system that the clouds had cleared and blue skies awaited us as we lay at anchor on the north side of Amsterdamøya.
After a few days of moody cloud the team was happy to go and explore the high Arctic in its full sunbaked glory.
As with the previous day, the team was split into a hiking group and a beach-cleaning group. Either way, it was a great day to be out and about. The hikers went ashore first and begun their walk to the snout of a nearby glacier.
Further down the beach the cleaners went to work and quickly filled the remaining cubic meter rubbish sacks.
In the interest of spontaneity, it was decided that we would make the most of the good weather and part take in a polar plunge.
During lunch we repositioned the ship further east to Raudfjorden.
Our plan was to make use of the good walking conditions and explore Buchananhalvøya.
With the groups all landed, we headed off in search of adventure. The long hiking group headed toward the Chauveaubreen (glacier) and then finished up with a quick summit near the beach. The medium hikers headed over the peninsula for a view of Klinckowstromfjorden and the short hikers thoroughly explored the beach near the landing site.
Once we were all back on board, we turned and headed north for the ice.
Our day started quietly; Ortelius was surrounded by fog and pack ice. How beautiful and not a normal start to the day! Unfortunately the fog did not cleared away after breakfast and for searching the king of the Arctic - the polar bear - we need better visibility. So we decided to go out of the sea ice in open waters to sail quicker in direction north-east in the hope of better weather and good ice. In the meanwhile Josef was giving a talk in German about “Plastic in the Ocean”, certainly a fitting topic to this cruise. At 11 o`clock Peter Prokosch, the chairman and founder of “Linking Tourism & Conservation” gave a lecture in English about his visions for the future of the Arctic. He introduced the Arctic in general, the Arctic Council and the powerful five nations who signed in 1972 the Bear treaty for protecting the polar bear. In the Arctic you can find the largest un-fragmented areas, untouched nature, that we need to protect! Further east we entered the sea ice again, the ice conditions looked good, the visibility better but we still had consistent fog. So began the bear watch with all eyes and binoculars searching for the animal we all hoped to see. Just before lunchtime we spotted a lovely young bearded seal on an ice flow close to the ship. This seal species is the largest of the northern phocid seals. They have an extremely elaborate, long set of whiskers (or vibrissae) that give the species its name. Several species of birds followed us attracted by the broken ice and the chance to find food. Kittiwakes and glaucous gulls, northern fulmars, Brünnich’s guillemots and little auks were the most numerous. Later in the afternoon Barbara gave a lecture (in English and German) about the sea ice ecosystem. 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. In the evening, during the daily recap, David introduced the ice-loving seals (bearded seal, ringed seal, harp seal) and their distribution. Mick talked about the biology of the northern fulmar and Ben taught us what brings luck on a ship and what you better not do…So stop whistling, take along some cats and eat up your bananas!
No bears today - true - but we never give up (!) and tomorrow another day in the pack ice is waiting for us, hurray!
The night passed quietly and calmly and by wake up call we were once again entering the Polar pick ice. An icy wind along with rain made it feel very Arctic like indeed. Although the rain made it difficult to see anything our first Polar bear sighting was at 08.40.
Hunkered down out of the wind this now was more interested in sleeping that in looking at us. Occasionally he raised his head to check us out and after about half an hour he decided to find another sheltered spot and moved on across the ice. We too moved on and continued our search for wildlife on the ice and in the sea.
Several bearded seals and an occasional harp seals were seen swimming and guillemots, gulls and fulmars surrounded the ship throughout. Our first ivory gull was seen briefly.
Jim gave his ‘The Story of Flying to the North Pole from Spitsbergen’ presentation and this was followed by lunch at 12.30.
There was time for a short nap after lunch but soon not one but three bears were found on the ice. There had been a recent bearded seal kill and the bare bones were left on the ice while the bears lay down nearby. One of them approached the ship but lost interest and passed us by heading west. As it passed on the port side we had a good view of this fine young male from about 20 metres. Two ivory gulls were feeding on the seal carcass.
The whole recap was devoted to Polar bears and their biology / life history. After dinner a bear was seen swimming across the ship’s bow heading west, not an unusual sight, given that the Polar bear is classified as a marine mammal.
During the night the Captain had taken us out of the ice and brought the ship south towards Hinlopenstretet. In the morning we found ourselves at the northeastern entrance of this straight between the main island Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in a small side fjord called Murchisonfjord. After breakfast we were taken ashore at Kinnvika, an abandoned Swedish/Finish research station from the geophysical year of 1957-58. We could visit a few of the huts, including the work shed and the sauna and then we took of for a walk through the Polar desert. It was really great to wander around in this very desolate landscape where hardly anything grew. Surprisingly several Spitsbergen Reindeer were seen, who made us wonder what they would eat, considering the very sparse vegetation. Some of us were convinced they were surviving on stones… One of the groups had a very nice encounter with a Reindeer calf, who set off to explore its environment without supervision of the mother. After a closer look to that multicoloured group of strange beings, it decided that it was saver to stay with mother and it run off again. The weather changed with the minute, with sunshine, drizzle and even snow following each other in minutes.
After we all made it back to the ship, lunch was already waiting for us and after lunch Joseph helped the German speakers to take better pictures and a little later Christophe told us a lot about the Brunnich’s Guillemot. This was very useful, because we were about to set off on a zodiac cruise along the cliffs of Alkefjellet. This place with steep cliffs rising up from the sea holds at least 60.000 breeding pairs of these alcids. For birders and non-birders alike this was a really spectacular sight. Thousands of birds on the cliffs, and even more flying around in front of it. And if that weren’t enough, several more thousands were swimming all around us. This place was really something spectacular. Even though the sea was a bit rough and some of us actually got a little sea sick, most of us kept on looking everywhere. The warning not to look up with open mouth was taken more serious after several of us got hit by bird droppings. On either side of the colony there were also things to see. On the northern side a nice glacier dropped off the cliff into the sea, while at the other side a big waterfall did the same. After almost two hours of cruising it was time to head back to the ship, for yet another splendid meal. During the evening we started our return journey, next destination: Liefdefjord.
Just after 6 in the morning, Jim woke us up over the PA-system with the delightful message that the weather gods were working in our favour. Meaning Liefdefjorden looked better than ever as we were approaching the Monacobreen.
Ortelius was full of life with all of us out on deck taking in the beautiful views as Captain Ernesto parked us up in the mirror calm water in front of the more than 4,5 km long Monaco glacier.
Whilst eating breakfast, we repositioned to Texas Bar. Here we had three different hikes on offer; short, medium and long. No matter which adventure you picked, you got to enjoy the beautiful landscape, the view over the fjord and flowers like mountain avens, tufted saxifrage and mountain sorrels. The long hikers made it all the way up to Erikbreen. Here we got to step foot on the glacier itself, a first for some in the team.
Jim made sure everyone got to explore the Texas Bar, Norwegian, hunting hut from 1927 before, either heading for a swim in the sun or going back to the ship. It was not Texas, but almost as warm a day.
Again, the crew had an amazing lunch ready for us to enjoy before we arrived at Andøyane and launched all of the zodiacs to go on a cruise in the fantastic weather, calm waters and peaceful surroundings. We could all look back at Monacobreen, which still looked huge – even from a distance. The birds were home. The arctic terns were feeding on the surface, glaucous gulls were on their nests, male eiders (common and king) were swimming in the fjord, a skua was sitting ashore, waiting for the next meal to appear and the grey phalaropes were to be seen along the shoreline, feeding and swimming around in little circles. The female phalaropes seemed to have left for warmer climes. It was a great cruise to finish an unbelievable day. However, the day was still young. The late afternoon was used on enjoying the scenery, from the bridge or out on deck by some. Others were resting in their cabins after an early start and then there were the ones having a refreshment in the bar.
It was time for recap where David educated us on the Arctic Tern, Arjen updated us on the ice situation in the Arctic and Ben taught us how to ”talk like a sailor” for when we return home and want to impress friends and family.
The dining room was high on happiness as we enjoyed dinner together before some retired to their cabins and others meet in the bar where stories were told and laughs shared as Ortelius was sailing south. What a perfect day in the Arctic.
With smooth seas we cruised under cloudy skies all night over 400 km to arrive by 0700 hrs on the east side of Prins Karls Forland. Our goal was to visit Walrus hauled-out at Poolepynten and indeed at least 30 were present in their big-tusked, lazy boy lounging posture on the upper shingle beach. Groups learned about this Pinniped’s bio-ecology in Barbara’s shipboard lecture, as well as got some good views of both blue and fin whales off the bow. On shore half of the group was treated to tundra wildflowers, arctic birds and old whale bone and human wooden artifacts on the upper beach berm. After a great late lunch back on board, we got another close view of a mid-sized blue whale on the Ortelius’s starboard. Later afternoon, we had hoped to visit Alkhornet, but 30-35 knot winds prevented a safe landing. Adapting to the elements, we ship cruised slowly into the Grønfjord and had closer look at the Russian mining settlement Barentsburg. This little "city" is inhabited by about 400 people. As we were entering Isfjord again, we enjoyed the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail and a sumptuous last supper aboard. Then it was time to give back our lovely rubber boots and have a last drink in the bar! Bon Voyage to All!
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 at the "coal pier". 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:
1,004 nautical miles / 1,859 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!