OTL09-16, trip log | Around Spitsbergen
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 at the "coal pier" 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 in the Kongsfjord, front of the Kongsbreen (glacier), with a gorgeous sunshine. Shortly after breakfast, we gather in the lecture room with Jim for a mandatory briefing on guidelines, zodiac operations and polar bear safety. Then it was time to put the preparation into action and we started disembarking around 10 O’clock. The zodiacs brought us to land at Ny London, an old marble mine on Blomstrandhalvøya. All the remains in Ny London, including railway lines, steam boilers and drills, were used between 1910 and 1920 when the Northern Exploration Company, founded by Ernest Mansfield, invested heavily in geological investigations and some trial mining hoping to find good quantities of high quality marble. The remarkable species seen this morning were a breeding pair of long-tailed jaeger as well as a breeding pair of red-throated diver with two little chicks.
After lunch we went to an information meeting about the research village Ny-Ålesund. It used to be a mining village until 1962 when the last out of several mining accidents took place. At that time the mine was owned by Norway, and eventually the prime minister of Norway had to resign due to lack of safety precautions in the mine. Nowadays the village is inhabited by numerous scientists, especially during summer, along with arctic terns and other wildlife. We had a nice walk around the village, visited the local shop and posted mail at the world’s northernmost post office. Some of us took the short trip to the airship mast where the Norwegian arctic hero, Roald Amundsen, had his final stop before he made the first transpolar flight with the zeppelin N-1 in 1926. Situated close to the mast we heard about the competition between Amundsen and Umberto Nobile and the following tragedy which led to the death of Amundsen in 1928.
Prior to dinner we enjoyed a recap where David gave us more information about the arctic tern. We were impressed by the fact that this small bird, weighing only 120 grams, travelled more than 70 000 kilometers every year. After dinner we proceeded further north, and we were all excited for what the morning after would bring.
The morning wake up call fell earlier than planned this morning. The time was 7.15 when Jim greeted us good morning with the good news of a polar bear in sight. As we sailed through Woodfjorden Frigga spotted the bear walking north along the coast line on Reindyrflya and it was a perfect start to our sunny day.
While we were eating the tasty breakfast, Ortelius entered Liefdefjorden and we arrived at Andøyane.
The zodiacs were launched and we all explored the islands in the fantastic weather. The birds were home. The arctic terns were feeding on the surface, glaucous gulls were on their nests, male eiders were swimming in the fjord, a great skua was sitting ashore, wating for the next meal to appear and the red 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. As if this wasn’t enough, Christophe’s zodiac found us all a female polar bear, resting in the green moss. We all shared a unique time with this bear which seemed not to bothered at all by our presents – very special.
It was a happy team that returned to Ortelius for lunch and the fact that the crew had made us another fantastic meal, just made it all even better. Meanwhile, Captain Ernesto and the team took us further into Liefdefjord and 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 taxifrages and mountain sorrels. The long hikers made it all the way up to the face of Hannabreen. Here we got to touch the glacier itself, a first for some in the team. Before returning to the ship, the adventures took a swim in the Arctic water.
Le grand finale of the day was yet to come. The captain took us even further into the fjord so that we could enjoy a close look at the more than 4,5 km long Monaco Glacier. A bearded seal was hauled out on an ice flow among the brash ice scattered through the bay.
Dinner was great and the dinning room was loud, stories being told about the moments we all just shared here in Svalbard. It was true, we had had another day of beautiful weather and amazing experiences. Now it was time to rest and be ready for what tomorrow would bring.
We had steamed 120 nautical miles north to arrive 0730 hrs at the northern most Svalbard Archipelago’s Seven Islands. The wind was blasting over the backlit and picturesque steep mountains with ethereal down swept cloud caps swirling at Phippsøya. We mounted up our zodiacs and powered into the tempestuous wind waves full of saltwater spray over the bows. Ashore, we divided into our usual three hiking groups, conducting sorties over 6-700 million year old metamorphosed igneous granite round boulders, covered in foliose lichens dried to a blackish pie crust in this polar desert. We saw a probable old Norwegian trapper’s cabin and three walruses were hauled-out on the sandy beach. Enroute, we encountered a territorial pair of arctic jaeger, who nearly landed on guest’s heads in their typical strong nest defense. We also located polar bear scat from a furry meal. While a great landing, many were ready to warm up with a nice hot and tasty lunch. Afternoon lectures on photography by Ben and sea ice with Barbara were enjoyed by all. By 1830 hours, we were entering the pack ice. No more than half an hour and four kilometers in and we saw a female polar bear laying down on the ice our front of the ship. Well, we slowly pushed our way through the white jig-saw puzzle ice pieces and incredibly, she stood up and began to follow her pre-BBQ nose arrow straight to our location. Including coming right up under the bow and down the port side partway and back around down to mid-ships, on the starboard. The foredeck and along the sides, all guests were outside watching intently and filling their memory chips completely with first hand ice bear imagery! After an hour, she decided that we weren’t going to share our dinner and she went her way, and we went inside for our famous BBQ supper. Everyone was most satisfied with this less than common personal encounter with a polar bear!!
Our day began a little different to all others on the expedition so far.
We spent a very special and peaceful night in the pack ice. The previous evening the Captain had shut the engine off and let us drift over night. By the time the engines fired to life in the morning, we had drifted over 5 miles with the ice. Much like some of the early explorers in the Arctic.
After a filling breakfast everyone’s mind turned to the main focus of the day, finding polar bears. The expedition staff organised themselves into a bridge roster to look for bears. They joined the Captain and his officers in search of the King of the Arctic.
Due to very dense ice pack conditions, the call was made to leave the pack and head further east along the ice edge. Due to the heavily packed ice the ship was only able to 2 knots whereas in open water we were able to move at 11 knots.
While we headed further east, the expedition staff and Sandra Walser presented lectures on seals of Svalbard and photography.
Just before lunch the Captain worked his magic again and found another bear. Initially the bear showed little interest in the ship, however, after our lunch, the bear came to life and walked over and visited the ship, much to the delight of the passengers, staff and crew.
After this most special encounter, the fog rolled over the ice and it was time for us to turn south and head for our next destination in Hinlopenstretet.
Nothing beats a morning at Alkefjellet. After an enjoyable breakfast we all started our zodiac cruise among the thousand of Guillemots breeding at the 100 meters tall, steep cliffs at this magical place in Hinlopenstretet.
The light looked beautiful to the north and towards the south we had a good look at the waterfall of melt water draining the Odinjøkulen ice cap.
The guillemots were busy as ever, flying to and from the cliff while the glaucous gulls were keeping a close eye from above. Fighting kittiwakes in flight were falling from up high and also a great skua and an arctic skua were spotted.
It was raining with bird guano and some got hit by it, just lucky, that this means good luck.
The cruise finished off with a look at the Pyntbreen and back at the ship, the hotel staff welcomed us with hot chocolate and cake!!!
After lunch we had about two hours sailing before we reached Palanderbukta. Excited and ready for new impressions, we landed at Zeipelodden on the soft limestone beach. In 3 groups we explored the beautiful desserts of Nordaustlandet with a great view out over the bay, which had a few growlers shining blue in the distance. The Svalbard poppies were flowering in both its white and yellow morphs, together with many of the other arctic plants. Also the frost patterned ground caught our interest and making for a very special landscape to hike in.
The day had been full of adventures and now it was time to meet for the daily recap, before the hotel crew spoiled us once again, with a fantastic dinner.
Sailing under cloudy skies south in the Hinlopenstretet we arrived at Kapp Waldburg for our morning landing. Here black-legged kittiwakes nest in profusion on the ancient sedimentary ledges of a box canyon. Scouting the area, we discovered two polar bears near our landing and so prudently decided to zodiac cruise instead of hiking. This provided great views of Svalbard reindeer, up to five arctic skua chasing kittiwakes with beaks full of nesting vegetation, arctic fox exploring the lunch options at the cleft cliff mouth and an inquisitive polar bear too. At least four bears were spotted mostly relaxed within the glacial moraine remains complex. Common eider flocks greeted our ten zod loads at the Freemanbreen Glacier faces as the Captain brought the ship nearer for our return for lunch.
Afterwards, we proceeded south to Edgeøya at Dolerittneset where historic walrus processing occurred. We enjoyed a long hike to the ridge top and a medium walk to see more reindeer, ivory gull, snow buntings and of course, many male walruses resting on the hut beach.
Overnight we sailed 170 nautical miles around the Southern tip of Spitsbergen and into Hornsund. Looking to keep things interesting, Josef woke us up with his version on the daily wake-up call. We were all pleasantly surprised with the weather when we finally emerged from our cabins. The plan for the morning, explore the icebergs and glacier of Burgerbukta. There was an air of expectation as we boarded the zodiacs for our exploration. We were instantly greeted with massive pieces of amazing ice as they floated through the mist that lay over Burgerbukta. The zodiacs picked and weaved their way through this amazing icescape until we reached the massive terminal face of Paierlbreen. The scale of ice and rock that lay before us was hard to comprehend. Jim estimated the height of the ice cliffs to be close to 90m high. As we turned and headed back the ship we passed gliding fulmars, black guillemots, arctic skua, kittiwakes and a solitary puffin!
With the fog setting in and limiting vision almost completely, we sailed to Brepollen. It was here, Jim made the call to turn and head west to the continental shelf in search for whales and better visibility.
As we have come to learn by now, the plan B worked out almost as well as the plan A. Dense fog obscured the view and prevented any possibility of landing in the Bellsund area. Thus Ortelius sailed north, destination Isfjord in the hope of clearer conditions. During the passage news reached us that Isfjord too was blanketed. Expedition Leader Jim came up with a fog-proof plan and just after lunch we stepped ashore in Russia (or may be that should be Ukraine) at Barentsburg.
This mining town on the edge of Grønfjord is home to 400 souls of whom 80% are Ukrainian. Our walk around the settlement took us through a cultural time warp. A bust of Lenin stared out above the over-grown town square; a smoky power station provided sickly yellow light inside the bar were 78% cocktails are available. The bar is located next to the hospital, just in case.
Some passengers ventured to the edge of the town and found little auks and a fox, others spent time in the museum where exhibits ranged from polar bears to Soviet era medals. All returned to the ship after this, our final landing, to prepare for Captain’s Cocktails. We raised a class with Captain Barría to celebrate the end of a very successful voyage. Cheers!
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 flight and a bus took us to the airport at 6 am. The rest of us 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: 1,232nautical miles / 2,282 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!