OTL09-18, trip log, Around Spitsbergen

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation, Longyearbyen

Embarkation, Longyearbyen
Date: 14.07.2018
Position: 78°13.8‘N, 015°36.2‘E
Wind: NW 4
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

Since Longyearbyen’s foundation as a coal-mining settlement in 1906 by John Munro Longyear, it has been the starting point for many historic and pioneering expeditions. The town has a permanent population of around 3,000 residents but this number increases significantly during the summer with the arrival of thousands of cruise ship tourists ready to explore the archipelago of Svalbard At 4pm we excitedly gather at the pier in order to embark our new floating home for the next ten days – the M/V Ortelius. The Ortelius was at anchor out in the fjord, so at the pier there were members of the expedition staff on hand to take care of our luggage and hand us lifejackets as we were transfer to the ship by zodiac. Soon we were crossing the calm waters towards the ship and the adventure was underway. We made our way up the gangway and were met by hotel team who checked us in and showed us to our cabins. As soon as we had settled into our rooms most of us found ourselves either on the outside decks enjoying the views or in the bar for a coffee or tea. At 5.15 pm we convened in the lecture room on Deck 3 to meet Expedition Leader Ali, who welcomed us on board the ship. Third Officer, Igor, then acquainted us with the safety features of the vessel and with the essential dos and don’ts on board. He was followed by Hotel Manager Szuzanna , from whom we learned about ship routine during our voyage and useful information about mealtimes, Internet/Webmail access and treating the toilets nicely! Soon afterwards it was time for the mandatory safety drill and we gathered in the lounge/bar, donned our big orange lifejackets and went through a roll-call to make sure everybody was there. We were then escorted outside to take a look at the lifeboats but were left confident that we would have no reason to do this again in the next 10 days! At 6.45 pm we gathered in the bar on Deck 6 in order to get to know the expedition staff and meet Captain Mika. Captain spoke a few words and explained that we were welcome on the bridge during daylight hours, which is a great viewing platform for bear searching and also the place to find out from officers on watch what life is like at sea. We raised a glass of bubbly (or orange juice) to the success of our voyage and then Ali told us a little about our future plans before handing over to her team of guides for brief self-introductions. Shortly afterwards we were invited to the dining room to enjoy the first of many delicious meals on board, prepared by Head Chef Heinz and his team. There was a real buzz in the dining room, as we got to know each other and talked about our hopes and aspirations for this voyage. After dinner, there was one final task to complete and that was the collection of rubber boots from the lecture room. Staff were on hand to ensure we got the correct size and fit and were ready to go ashore on Svalbard in the morning.

Day 2: Ny London & Ny Alesund

Ny London & Ny Alesund
Date: 15.07.2018
Position: 78°58.8’N, 011°48.2’E
Wind: NNW 2
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +7

We woke to our first morning on Ortelius entering Kongsfjorden under blue skies and sunshine. Calm waters overnight had made for a restful sleep and we were all eager to head off for our first excursion in the Svalbard archipelago. First, however, a mandatory zodiac briefing as well as polar bear behavior workshop needed to be attended. After a hearty breakfast we all gathered in the lecture room to learn the does and don’ts of how to behave in the zodiacs and how to be a respectful visitor in the polar environment. Shortly after this it was time to head to the gangway for a landing at Ny London. Here was a chance to explore the tundra, learn a little of the history surrounding this failed marble mine from the 1911-1920, and look for wildlife. We boarded the zodiacs 10 persons at a time and skimmed across the calm waters, past icebergs delivered from Kongsvegen and Kongsbreen glaciers and swiftly arrived at the gravel landing beach. Once ashore we split up into several different groups and strolled around past the mining remains, some of us also made it to the fresh water ponds teaming with birdlife, and we all observed the brilliance of the tundra in bloom. Several reindeer were also encountered, and good views were had by most. All too soon it was time to head back to the ship for a little lunch and the short transit across the fjord to Ny Alesund; the worlds northernmost year-round community. A rich history of coal mining backgrounds this town, but it is now home to 15 different international research stations, ranging from the Italy, China, all the way to India. This afternoon we were alongside the pier, thus no zodiac ride until tomorrow. Here was another great opportunity for birding and several “resident” reindeer were easily observed. This was also the only prospect to mail postcards from the high arctic and “shop” in the small souvenir store, with most items boasting 78° N. Expedition guide Ian and Jerry led us out to the airship mast Amundsen had built for the air balloon Norge which he flew over the North Pole before finally crash landing further on in Alaska. The brilliant sun kept shining and we leisurely made our way back to the ship. A brief recap of plans for tomorrow was held in the bar, and Adam cultured us on the marble mining history of E. Mansfield. We headed off to dinner and the ship headed out of the fjord and north. The evening was majestic and many of us headed out on deck to enjoy the scenery and search for whales. A very fine first day!

Day 3: Reinsdyrflya, Worsleyneset & Monacobreen

Reinsdyrflya, Worsleyneset & Monacobreen
Date: 16.07.2018
Position: 79°41.1’N, 013°50.8’E
Wind: NE 3
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +10

During the night we changed our position from Kongsfjord to Liefdefjorden which translates to ”Love bay” in the Dutch. Today’s morning plan was a landing in Worsleyneset, but we had to change it because around 7 o’clock from public announcement system we heard great information that a Polar bear had been spotted! Hotel Department prepared for us tasty breakfast and after thirty minutes we were ready to board zodiacs and cruise along the shore to observe the Polar bear from a safe and closer distance. It was an amazing view. A huge young male lay quietly near shore at Reinsdyrflya, from time to time he raised his head looking in our direction. After one and half hour zodiac cruise, we left our fluffy friend on shore and returned to Ortelius with great pictures and big smiles. Once we were onboard Ortelius, the Polar bear finally moved . . . he decided to swim across Woodfjord to eastern side of fjord. We were able to observe a swimming bear; however, we could only best detect him with our binoculars. At 12:30 Szuzanna and Sava invited us to dining room for lunch. During lunch time we ship cruised up to the end of Liefdefjorden to Monacobreen, the biggest glacier in fjord. The glacier is named after Duke Albert I. of Monaco; he led the expedition that mapped the glacier in 1906. The afternoon plan was to zodiac cruise the 4km long ice-face. During the cruise we admired beautiful scenery with hundreds of birds: Kittiwakes, Arctic tern, Black guillemots, Arctic skuas and Glaucous gulls. We observed a very curious Bearded seal swimming around some of our boats. After great time out in the zodiacs we headed back to Ortelius, and before dinner Ali, Sara and Adam gave us more information about seal identification, Bearded seals, and Polar bears. Ali presented us with more information about plans for next day, but it wasn’t the end of attractions for today. After dinner at 21:40 we pass the 80°N parallel, close to Moffen island. We headed back out on deck or to the bridge to see a big group of Walrus digesting on the sandy beach and the rare Sabine’s gull was spotted flying close to the shore amongst the Kittiwakes and Glaucous gulls. A full and rewarding day.

Day 4: Phippsoya & Parryoya and then North to the ice

Phippsoya & Parryoya and then North to the ice
Date: 17.07.2018
Position: 80°40.7’N, 020°42.6’E
Wind: SSE 2
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

The day began with a wakeup call from our Expedition Leader Ali, followed by a call to breakfast by our hotel manager Szuzanna. A hearty breakfast was served and enjoyed as the Expedition team departed the ship early to scout the site of our morning landing, Phippsoya. The team left the warmth of Ortelius and headed off towards the island of Phippsoya. With a fresh breeze in their faces, they rounded the headland to the intended landing site in a sheltered cove next to an old trapper’s hut. Phippsoya stood out amongst others of the ‘seven islands’ group, with a small cover of cloud atop the mountains. As the expedition team scouted this island that was known to have had a bear here recently, the last remaining patches of snow could be seen amongst the boulder strew landscape. Ali was quick to notice a cream coloured blob on a patch of snow above the trappers’ hut, as other staff trained their binoculars towards it, it was soon confirmed that the blob was indeed a waking polar bear. The black button nose could be seen with dark coal like eyes, as the bear began its early morning stretch regime. The days plan dynamically changed, and instead of a landing, a zodiac cruise was planned as soon as breakfast had finished. We boarded the zodiacs eager at the prospect of seeing a bear and were not disappointed. The bear, a young male aged between 3-5 was very lucky, as in the small bay where he was residing was a whale carcass. The prevailing wind and current causes all matter to be deposited in the bay, as we could see on the beach. An array of timbers to old fishing nets and floats adorned the area near to the hut, but among them stealing the show was our bear. The carcass had washed up at least 8 days previously as one of the staff had been to the island and seen the bear feeding on the carcass (which was significantly bigger, now it was the bear who was bigger and the carcass tremendously smaller). The bear continued to enjoy its breakfast as we marvelled at this young king of the Arctic tearing at the flesh and pawing at the carcass to free up more edible chunks of whale. After the cruise we headed back to Ortelius and enjoyed a warming lunch. As we ate the clouds were blown away by light airs and we would be enjoying a sunny afternoon among the seven islands. We carried out a landing at the nearby Parryoya, a tropical like sandy beach with clear blue water led us to the head of a small bay where we could then roam in a large area. The expedition staff had scouted the area and were stationed on the perimeter of the landing range monitoring the landscape for any bears. We enjoyed the freedom of the landing; some sliding down the snow slopes, while others enjoyed a hike to a viewpoint, or a stroll along the beach. After an afternoon of sun, sand, scenery and Arctic views we headed back to the ship where Ali told us more about the bear we had seen and of the plans for tomorrow. Adam spoke of the two Royal Navy Officers; Constantine John Phipps and Sir William Parry after whom the two islands we had visited were named. Now we were headed north to the ice, we went to sleep in anticipation of the new frozen world we would wake to in the morning.

Day 5: North in the ice

North in the ice
Date: 18.07.2018
Position: 81°33.2’N, 015°55.5’E
Wind: SSW 2
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +2

Overnight the captain had brought the ship to the edge of the pack ice, which was notablly higher in latitude than previous years, with it only being found past 81 degrees north. Waking up in the fringes of the northern pack ice is a fairly unique experience; one few will ever be able to experience. The morning started with a little low-lying fog and mist which hindered visibility, but nonetheless most of us went outside after breakfast to enjoy this special high Arctic icescape. Several seals were seen, either swimming in the water or hauled out on ice floes. Most of the swimming ones were identified to be Harp seals, while most of the seals on the ice were Bearded and Ringed seals. Around us we saw many Kittiwakes, who took advantage of the currents Ortelius was making as she pushed ice floes away, exposing small Polar cod. Glaucus gulls in turn took advantage of that, trying to steal these small fish from the Kittiwakes. To their great delight, the birders on board spotted a few Ivory gulls passing by the ship during the course of the morning. As the morning progressed, the visibility improved. The Expedition guides were on the Bridge and outside decks with binoculars scanning every lump of ice and shadow to see if it was a bear. With such clear conditions, the search radius was huge, it was challenging for everyone. The hotel staff kindly served a mid-morning treat of hot chocolate (with a little Rum tipple for those who wished) on the outside decks. Later this morning at 11am, many people headed to the lecture room where Sara presented an ‘Introduction to Polar Photography’, she thus provided some useful tips on how to improve our pictures. On Sara’s recommendation, many people headed back out on deck afterwards to play with their cameras and get acquainted with some of the techniques she spoke about. The search for bears by the Expedition staff of course continued during and after lunch, but it seemed luck was not to be on our side today! At 3pm there was a trio of mini lectures by Iain, Shelli and Ali, their chosen subjects being Sea Ice, Arctic Whales and Polar Bear. It was truly fascinating to learn more about the wonderful environment and wildlife we had been experiencing over the past days or so. The educational material only added to our excitement about some of the other things we could see in the forthcoming days. At recap Iain spoke a little bit about the avian behaviour we had witnessed with the Kittiwakes earlier in the day, followed by Szymon who spoke about glaciers and of course Ali shared the plans for the following day. During dinner we moved into open waters as we headed south again, it was the perfect opportunity to relax, look at pictures or enjoy a drink at the bar.

Day 6: Alkefjellet & Torrellneset

Alkefjellet & Torrellneset
Date: 19.07.2018
Position: 79°34.2’N, 018°37.7’E
Wind: ESE 3
Weather: fog
Air Temperature: +4

An overnight transit from the northern pack ice saw us arrive at the stunning cliffs of Alkefjellet for our morning excursion - a zodiac cruise underneath arguably one of the most scenic places in Svalbard. Great pillars and pedestals of dolerite rise vertiginously from a plinth of marble; limestone metamorphosed through contact with molten volcanic rock over one hundred million years ago. The glacial cap above issues forth ice and debris where it cuts through lines of weakness amongst the buttresses. Naturally stepped, these pillars and cliffs provide ideal homesteads for the sixty thousand plus pairs of Brünnichs Guillemots who reside here. It is an avian domain teeming with life. Constantly moving, the unmistakable aroma of ammonia and a cacophony of echoing bird calls. To be deep in amongst it is a sensory overload! But of course, with plenty of prey, comes predators… It is usual to see the predacious Glaucous Gull strutting malevolently on the fallen boulders at the base, readily willing to pick off a stray chick and consume it whole. Or the slightly less common Great Skua, often seen harassing the rafts of Guillemots out at sea - a terror from the skies! Less common still is the Arctic Fox. It’s not that these animals aren’t relatively commonplace under the cliffs of Alkefjellet, but they are often hard to pick out - especially at this stage in the summer where observation is nigh on impossible due to their mottled brown and cream fur. To pick out these three hunters amongst the chaos that is Alkefjellet is pretty special. As staff, we couldn’t wish or hope for better. So, when a Polar Bear was spotted high on the cliffs, a pretty special day turned into something rather unique. I’ve heard tell of Polar Bears on the cliffs of Alkefjellet but never had the opportunity to see it for myself. And though it was high above our heads, the bear was easy to pick out as it scrambled from ledge to ledge, scouring the crag for accessible eggs. It would occasionally vanish from sight behind a block only to reappear moments later and at one point we held our collective breath as it slid hesitantly down a snow patch. And then it moved onwards and upwards until it was the perfect silhouette against the deep azure of the arctic sky, a truly breathtaking experience. An excursion along the coast at Alkefjellet is without doubt a highlight of any trip to Svalbard; a spectacle like no other. To be fortunate enough to add a bonus bear to the mix turned an unforgettable moment into something far beyond that. Something that will certainly stay with us for a long time. Despite thick fog curtailing our afternoon activities, it is hard to put a dampener on this most amazing of mornings! Post prandial entertainment came in the form of a ships cruise along the mighty Bråsvellbreen. A colossal calving ice front which drains the western part of Nordaustland. Austfonna and Vegafonna combined constitute the third largest mass of ice on earth after Antarctica and Greenland. The ice front continues onwards to the east for a further one hundred and seventy kilometres. Statistics aside and despite the low, atmospheric cloud, an idea of the scale of the icecap was obvious from the ship as we cruised through its offspring en route to Freemansundet and another day of adventure!

Day 7: Freemandsundet & Storfjorden

Freemandsundet & Storfjorden
Date: 20.07.2018
Position: 78°03.0’N, 019°53.0’E
Wind: SSW 6
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +7

The morning started out bright and sunny, and the hills of Freemandsundet were easily viewed. A strong wind was blowing from the southwest up to 45 knots, whipping up waves and chop; and although it made a remarkable sight it was not safe for zodiac operations, thus we sailed past the plan “A” landing at Kapp Waldberg. The canyons filled with nesting Kittiwakes could still be observed from Ortelius and we steadied our binoculars on the teaming clouds of birds. As we continued down the fjord, now settling into a new plan and a fresh cup of tea, the Expedition staff were still scouring the hills for additional wildlife. The call went over the address system that a Polar bear had been spotted on the northern shore half way up the hillside. We bundled up, binoculars and zoom lenses in hand and headed out on deck. Shortly four other bears were spotted. A sow with two cubs and a second solitary male. What we didn’t expect was the drama that soon played out. Whilst the sow and cubs were wandering the highlands possibly chewing on vegetation, one of the males below suddenly jumped into action and began sprinting across the lower span of tundra directly towards the sow and cubs. It was a striking site to witness just how quickly this bear traversed the kilometer or so between them. He was in fast pursuit of the small family. The mother soon realized the danger they were in a started a quick uphill evasive route in the opposite direction, lighter on her feet, but with the cubs in tow they were moving quicker than the male in chase, but it seemed he would not give up anytime soon. It would be a long day for that poor sow. We continued southwest towards Kapp Lee, but the wind, swell and now fog proved unsuitable for getting off the ship here as well. Even with the limited visibility we could see that the walrus were not “home”, consequently it was not worth the risk of battling the seas. Ali, Sara and Adam put on a triple topic lecture covering “Ice Maidens of the North”, Superstitions of the seas, and the Beaufort scale, which afterwards upon looking outside we could now make an educated statement regarding the conditions of wind and sea. The ship slowly crossed Storfjorden towards the main island of Spitsbergen and a little more shelter. Lunch was served in the dining room, but attendance was thin as many passengers were feeling the “motion of the ocean” and took to the comfort of their cabin. In the early afternoon we had made it across and outside of Agardhbukta, nevertheless this side of the fjord is heavily glaciated and the coastal waters shallow and poorly charted. Although the wind had decreased the swell had grown. Decidedly, we would stay on the ship this afternoon, enjoying the views of 1,000-meter mountains and glaciers swooping down to the sea. This area is well known for whales, so those who hadn’t tucked into a polar nap kept a keen eye out for blows. At 3pm a documentary film was shown on climate change, tea was set out and we spent the time reading, editing photographs, and striking up conversation. As true expeditioners we were being tested by the elements the arctic had to throw at us, however unlike those of centuries past we had the comfort and safety of Ortelius. One can hardly protest and can only feel humbled by this commanding polar environment. The sun broke out in the late afternoon and Sava and Raquel hosted “Happy Hour” before recap; where we learned of tomorrows plans, a bit about reindeer biology from Sara and Ian spoke of the forces behind the making of lenticular clouds which graced the skies outside this evening.

Day 8: Burgerbukta & Gåshamna

Burgerbukta & Gåshamna
Date: 21.07.2018
Position: 76°58.8’N, 015°53.2’E
Wind: SSW 5
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +7

After long day at sea from Freemansundet to Hornsund, visibility conditions did not show much improvement this morning, but we decided to go outside anyway. After breakfast the expedition team prepared for a zodiac cruise in the western branch of Burgerbukta, in hope that the fog would clear by the afternoon’s planned landing at Gåshamna. The first minutes of cruise were a little romantic; sleet, strong wind and choppy sea prevailed, however we were all too happy to just be off the ship, never mind a little water. Soon, under the guidance of our drivers we reached shelter from the steep mountains inside the fjord, and circumstances changed in just few seconds. Beautiful light conditions, an immense rainbow formed over the fjord and calm seas prevailed. Our destination was Paierlbreen – a huge valley glacier at the end of the fjord. The landscape around us was astounding, several huge blue icebergs, astonishing rock formations of steep cliffs and waterfalls, as well as flocks of Kittiwake gulls decorating the ice. After 2 hours of cruising it was time for lunch. During lunch Captain Mikka set a new course to Gåshamna (Goose Bay), a scenic bay surrounded by high mountains, with the highest peak in Hornsund – Horsundtind (1429 meters). Expedition staff offered us a landing in Gåshamna with several hiking possibilities. Contemplative, medium, medium photography and a long mountaineering hike on one of the peaks. Those who took the long hike profited in a view from the top which was quite breath taking. Almost clear sky on the summit, we could see the whole Hornsund up to Brepollen. Those who took the medium walks had time to explore the historical Pomor sites as well as the English land based whaling station in the bay. Remnant whale bones and blubber deposited in the ground still lend amble nutrients to the soil, thus creating small satellite biospheres of flora to the stark glacial outwash landscape. The skies continued to clear and soon we headed back to the ship where the hotel department was preparing for us an outside Arctic BBQ dinner. We all bundled back up and gathered on the helideck behind the bar and proceeded to a great feast with grilled ribs, steaks, sausages, salads and mulled wine. The evening sun shone down upon us and to the beat of some classic tunes of age we soaked in the charm of the day.

Day 9: Poolepynten & Tordenskjoldbukta

Poolepynten & Tordenskjoldbukta
Date: 22.07.2018
Position: 78°26.3’N, 011°55.6’E
Wind: SSW 3
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +9

The morning started with our usual wakeup call from Expedition leader Ali, we made our way to breakfast in eager anticipation of the planned activities that lay ahead. Good news came over the ships address system that, “YES!” the walrus that we had been looking forward to seeing were at their haul out site at Poolepynten. This point of land is a favoured site for these marine mammals as it is easily accessible and the location provides a plentiful supply of nearby food, soft sand and relative shelter. We split into two groups for the landing. This allowed for premium viewing in smaller numbers, as well as not to overwhelm the walrus with our presence. Once ashore we walked with our guides to the animals, at a certain distance far beyond the minimum 30 meters we were instructed to form a line and slowly walked in unison towards the herd, stopping periodically to observe and appreciate these giants of the Arctic without disturbing them. We all enjoyed an hour with the walrus before heading back to the Ortelius where we had lunch and prepared ourselves for the afternoon activity. The afternoon saw us on shore at Tordenskjoldbukta where we had a choice of hiking options. We were able to see several of Arctic species on our hikes ranging from Eider ducks to Snowbunting as well as Arctic Skua. The highlight of the day for many was the chance to see some Svalbard Reindeer. We were also back in the tundra in the land of plants and flowers, taking in some of the last blossoms of the season: Arctic mouse-ear, moss companion and a variety of saxifrage,. For those of the required ‘mens rea’ a polar plunge from the beach was offered with towels provided, several took the opportunity to swim including our Doctor, Jodie. We all returned back to Ortelius after a full day of activities and enjoyed a farewell cocktail with the Captain and Expedition Team before dinner.

Day 10: Longyearbyen

Date: 23.07.2018
Position: 78°13.8‘N, 015°36.2‘E
Wind: SW 2
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +10

What an adventure it had been that was now coming to an end. In the wee hours of morning, Ortelius sailed towards Longyearbyen on Sunday night. A dozen or so were headed to the airport for an early morning flight and the majority would depart in the morning, after a last night in our cabin, which had come to feel like home, it was time to move on. We put our luggage in the corridors as asked, so the crew could take it off the ship for us. After one last wake-up call and one last breakfast on board, it was time to say goodbye. Goodbye to our ship and its crew and staff, and to our new friends. Arrangements were made to stay in touch and farewells were said. We could look back on an extraordinary trip, and all of us had many memories of wildlife and spectacular scenery during our days at sea, Zodiac-cruising activities and shore landings. Finally, we handed in the keys to our cabins, picked up our luggage from the pier and made our way into town or to the airport for our onward journeys. May we meet again somewhere, someday! 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: 1,225 Nautical Miles On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Mika Appel, Expedition Leader Ali Liddle, Hotel Manager Szuzanna and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.

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