OTL11-16, trip log | Around Spitsbergen
08.08.2016 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 the pier of Longyearbyen. Our stay on board started with a safety briefing done by our chief officer Sam 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!
After that we got a warm welcome in the bar 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 then gathered around our expedition leader Troels 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 Przemyslaw 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. Tired after the long journey and the new impressions, the bunks were quickly found while the ship sailed into the open sea towards the North.
After the really nice clear weather yesterday this morning we had an overcast sky and a very light drizzle. Hardly any wind though and is didn’t feel cold at all. Overnight the Ortelius had sailed from Isfjorden around Prins Karlsforland to the entrance of Krossfjorden and Kongsfjorden. Our location now is a small bay in Krossfjorden named after the French 14th Juli Bastille Day. A glacier which bears the same name ends in this bay. On one side of the bay there is the terminal moraine deposited by the glacier. The other side is a steep slope with a large kittiwake colony and a bird cliff with nesting brünnichs guilemots, puffins and glaucus gulls. Near the coast below the kittiwake colony the soil is so enriched by the bird droppings that a lush vegetation can grow. This is the hanging garden of the 14th of July Bay. A part of the group started off with a landing near the kittiwake colony to see that lush Arctic vegetation, the rest joined a zodiac cruise to explore the glacier front. Although the glacier itself is retreating the forward motion of the ice makes the glacier front calve into the bay. Many smaller and larger bit of beautiful blue glaciers ice floating in the water are the proof of that. Due to this calving we need to keep a sensible distance from the glacier. By lunchtime all zodiacs are directed back to the ship.
During lunch the ship repositions to a former mining settlement Ny Ålesund in the Kongsfjord (Kings Bay). Although the mine is long since closed after a severe accident the mine owner, Kingsbay Company, still runs the village which is now the world’s northernmost research settlement. Many countries have research facilities here focusing on a variety of science fields like glaciology, ecology, environmental sciences just to name a few. Ny Ålesund is inhabited year round but most people only work here during the Arctic summer. Our Chinese guests payed a visit to the Chinese Yellow River Research Station to see their research projects and to do some field experiments themselves one of which was empirical test of polar bear absence at the shore line. Luckily this proved to be the case. After having explored the settlement and buying souvenirs and postcards Frigga and Arjen led a trip to the airship mast which still remain from Amundsen’s flight to the North Pole with the airship Norge and Nobile’s repetition of this flight with the Italia the next year. The Italia crash landed on the ice which led to the largest Arctic rescue operation to date, where Nobile was rescued first by an airplane and the rest of the crew was only later picked up by the Russian ice breaker Krassin.
Once back on the Ortelius we had a short recap of the day in the ships bar. Stefanie gave a talk on glaciers and rocks after which Frigga explained about the close relation between tundra vegetation, reindeer and geese and sea birds. Michael than concluded the recap reminding us about bear safety and the reason why the staff carries rifles and why we should always remain in a close group while on land.
After dinner the course is set for tomorrow’s destination, Liefdefjord.
Waking up in Liefdefjorden, the flat, barren Reinsdyrflya passed on our starboard side. Going deeper into the fjord, we could see why the predominant geological formation is called Old Red – there were beautiful red sandstones lining the fjord. After breakfast we went for a zodiac cruise to explore the Andøyane (literally, the Duck Islands) – low-lying islands with lots of bays and lagoons where we found Pink-footed geese, skuas, Glaucous gulls and a few seals. A Red-throated diver flew overhead, and some of us were lucky to even spot a Hooded seal!
After returning on board we proceeded deeper into the fjord. The expedition team had decided to go for a landing at Idabukta, and soon the scout zodiac was on its way. Upon landing, we found ourselves surrounded by spectacular scenery: After climbing up a small tundra ridge, there were marvellous views towards the glacier Monacobreen and the jagged dark mountains to either side of it. We divided into three groups, the hikers climbing the lateral moraine to get stunning views of Idabreen while the photographers immediately took to the tundra flowers – with flowering Moss campion, saxifrage species, and Mountain avens – and the ice that had been washed ashore.
Afterwards, Ortelius moved in closer towards Monacobreen, and we gathered on deck to take in the beautiful scenery. The overcast sky accented the blue tones in the ice, there was hardly any wind blowing, and we witnessed a few skuas harassing kittiwakes. Much to soon it was time to say good-bye again but the day wasn’t over yet – Ortelius steamed north, and at 22.45 hours we crossed 80 degrees North. Soon after we were treated to views of the small island of Moffen where there were walrus hauled out on the beach. While we retreated to our cabins digesting a full day of adventures, Ortelius was already on a new course towards Phippsøya, our first goal for tomorrow.
When we woke up, we found ourselves in the northernmost islands of the whole Archipelago, in fact the northernmost islands in the whole of Europe: the Seven Islands. These seven small islands are really remote and have a polar desert climate. Hardly any vegetation grows here and wildlife is sparse. We went ashore on the largest of the seven: Phippsøya. When we were ashore most of us were a bit shocked by all the garbage found on the beach and started collecting them. All this garbage washed ashore, brought up with one of the final branches of the Gulfstream. All garbage collected was eventually brought back to Ortelius and will be delivered to Longyearbyen where it will be shipped back to the mainland. On land we split up in four groups. Frigga took one of the groups for a Zodiac-cruise and the others had a walk on this island. All of us had a look at the many species of lichen found on the rocks. But the highlight for all was the group of around 30 Walruses hauling out on the beach and swimming in the water. It turned out to be a herd of females with calves, a relatively new sight to Spitsbergen. After being hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century they make a strong comeback since being protected. First the male Walruses returned, like the ones we saw on Moffen, and now the females and calves are returning as well. We all had a good look at them, and some of the Walruses swam over to have a good look at us as well. After a visit to this herd, we had a short walk over the island to enjoy the barren landscape shaped by the harsh climate of the high north.
During lunch the captain turned the ship due north, in search for the pack ice, which was to be found quite a few miles north of the Seven Islands. During the afternoon the Ortelius lecture theatre opened with lectures about sea ice by Michael, the human history of Spitsbergen by Frigga and Barnacle Geese by Arjen. Shortly before dinner we found our first ice, all the way up at 81º10’N. Now the hunt was on… For Polar Bears that is, the King of the Arctic, which we hoped to find on the ice. Soon the first mayonnaise-coloured blobs were found and indeed, when we had come a little closer it turned out to be a mother with a cub. Even though the cub was only one year and eight months old it was already nearly the same size as the mother, clearly it would grow into being a big male. Sleeping a lot, but also walking around a little, it was a really nice first encounter the Polar Bear.
As there was enough to see at this place, the captain positioned the ship into the ice and shut down the engine. This would be our position for the night. And for dinner… Even though it started snowing, the restaurant team had prepared a nice BBQ on the helicopter deck. The more hardened amongst us enjoyed this meal outside, in between the two Polar Bears, the steadily falling snow and even a snow man. Most of us however preferred the warm inside of the bar to enjoy their meal. Rolando, our bartender kept busy until late this evening, while we were still adrift in the ice.
Nice weather, some sun and not too windy. Today a whole day in the pack ice is planned. There are polar bear around as we have seen yesterday evening. The staff looks out for more bear from the bridge. The pack ice is beautiful under the blue sky.
Soon the first bear was found on the ice. The Ortelius was maneuvered through the open leads in between the ice towards the ice field on which the bear was seen. Although we do take the Ortelius to the vicinity of the bear we keep our distance. The initiative to approach must always be with the animal. The bear does approach the ship however and stays with us for some 20 minutes before it decides to leave. Not too long after a second bear was seen elsewhere in the pack ice. This time a female bear. She stayed with the ship for quite some time but at a careful distance. On the ice were also what seemed to be the leftovers from an earlier kill. This was still more or less guarded by the bear. Around lunch time we left this bear.
Time as well to look at the stunning ice-scape around the Ortelius. Pack ice is just a very pretty and also interesting environment. Most of the ice north of Spitsbergen in this time of year is first year sea ice with a thickness up to one meter (3 ft). The only thick (multi-year) ice now left in the Arctic is found in the Canadian Arctic and above Greenland. This implies that not only the ice extent is getting less and less, but also the total volume of the Arctic sea ice is shrinking rapidly.
Around the ship we see many bird flying over the ice. Most abundant are kittiwakes and fulmars, but also many pomarine and arctic skuas, ivory gulls and glaucus gulls were seen. The kittiwakes catch small fish from under the ice as soon as the ship breaks a piece of ice.
In the afternoon a mother with a cub was spotted some distance away. The captain managed to steer the ship closer to these bear. Than it became clear that it was not just a single cub, but two. Even for the staff and crew this is not something very common. The mother bear was clearly curious about the big blue ship in the ice. She approached the ship with the two cube trailing behind her. A really pretty sight. Both the mother and the cubs looked well fed and healthy. Unfortunately, something on the ship must have scared her so after just a short time she and the cubs left us. By now it was time to start sailing south again because we had some distance to cover to reach tomorrow’s destination. Further south the pack ice quickly became less dense but there was still a good chance to see more bear. Despite a good effort no more were found. But today was a fantastic day in in the polar pack ice.
After a night with rough sea, the morning began not much less turbulent.
Alkjefellet was our “plan A” destination in the morning. A bird cliff with about 60.000 pairs of nesting Brunnich’s guillemots. Unfortunately we had to skip the zodiac cruise alongside the cliff, as we had 30 knots NNW wind. Even though, the captain and his team navigated the Ortelius as close as possible alongside the cliff, to give us a chance fto get a glimpse on the birds. We carried on and chased our luck with “plan B” at Wahlbergbukta. High swell and strong wind forced us to let go “plan B” and give it shot with our “plan C”.
In the afternoon, we arrived in Vibebukta and found save conditions to go ashore.
The Ortelius anchored quite far out, which meant a 15 min zodiac drive to land on the beach.
Vibebukta welcomed us with its characteristic raised beaches and high amount of fossils.
We started gathering all findings for classification and before we started our three different hikes towards the inland glacier.
We crossed a huge polar dessert with little oases found wherever little ponds, mud holes or several hundred or even thousands year old whalebones were found.
Interesting was the fact, that the whalebones were found on all terraces even the ones higher up and far inland. A hint of how much this area was raised throughout the time.
The long hikers reached the first high terrace after crossing a bit of snow and were granted with an breathtaking view on the glacier, the bay, the huge polar desert and the tiny looking Ortelius.
The medium hikers walked inland along a river where they had the chance to take a closer look at the oases around whalebones and traveling 300 million years back in time through the history of the rocks they were walking on.
The leisure walkers took there time for extensive photography and bird watching besides turning and flipping each and every stone to see if a marine creature is hidden in it.
During dinner the Ortelius brought us closer to that magnificent glacier we could already see from the distance across Vibebukta. After dinner most of us went to the outside decks to enjoy the views on the spectacular Bråsvellbreen, part of the nearly 170 km long glacier front of the Austfonna.
Some of us followed Troels advice and got out of bed at 5 a.m. when we sailed into Freemandsundet, the sound between Barents- and Edgeøya, to look for bears. They were not disappointed as no less as 13 were found on both shores!! Some of them also very close to our intended landing site for the afternoon, Sundneset, but we would worry about that later.
After everybody woke up and had breakfast we went ashore at Dolerittneset (or Kapp Lee as it is often wrongly named) on the northwestern side of Edgeøya. On shore we split up again in four different groups. All of us had a look at the remains of the Pomor-hunters from the 17th century and the surprisingly rich tundra, especially compared to what we say the day before in the Polar desert. This was also noticeable on the several Reindeer we saw grazing on the tundra, they looked well fed. The tundra coloured a little yellow by the Yellow Bog Saxifrage, but also already by some of the leaves of the Polar Willow, a clear sign of the approaching autumn that will start in only a few weeks here.
Back on the beach we had a few Walruses waiting for us, but they clearly had a rough evening the day before as all we saw them do was scratch themselves every now and then and occasionally lift their head to look at us. In contrast to the group we found at Phippsøya, these four animals were all males. It was extra special to see them on this site, as only a few meters away the tundra was littered with hundreds of bones of their relatives who had been slaughtered probably in the 17th century.
During lunch the captain sailed the ship back into Freemansundet, to the northern side, Barentsøya. As the early birds had already seen, a landing at Sundneset was definitely out of the question, with one bear right at the site where we intended to land and no less as eight bears just around the corner. Even for the guides it was a really special sight to have this many bears grouping together on a spot with hardly anything to eat. Even though most bears where a little away from the coast, Troels decided to launch all ten zodiacs and go out for a zodiac cruise to have a bit a closer look. After seeing several bears up close in the pack ice, seeing them on land seemed a bit odd. They didn’t look as fat as the ones on the ice and instead of eating a whale, they tried to fill their stomachs with some vegetation. Some bears made it really far up the ridge, while others were relatively close to the shore and gave us a bit a better look. After a while the bear at our ‘plan A-landing-site’ was moving a little, so we drove the zodiacs in that direction. When we came there, the bear was laying down again higher on a cliff, chewing on something unknown. On the same cliff a small number of Black Guillemots were breeding, as well as some Glaucous Gulls and a lone Barnacle Goose was seen as well.
After a few minutes we decided to head back to the ship and set sail through Storfjord, towards our destination for the next day, Hornsund on the west coast.
Beautiful weather like yesterday. The Ortelius is now in the Hornsund. This is the southernmost large fjord (inlet) on the west side of Spitsbergen. This night we rounded Sørkapp so we are on our way North again. The morning programme is a zodiac cruise in Burgerbukta. This fjord or bay is divided in two parts, Austre and Vestre Burgerbukta. From the ship we could already see the most glacier ice in Austre Burgerbukta so this bay is obviously the best choice for the zodiac cruise. With hardly any wind and a very mild temperature it is very comfortable zodiac cruising this morning. The glacier and the high mountains which surround the fjord are even more spectacular under the clear blue sky. The water is filled with smaller bits of glacier ice which produce a constant tinkling and popping sound caused by the trapped air in the ice. Glacier ice is formed first from snow which is later compressed into firn and gradually into solid ice, the oldest ice being the hardest.
During this process much of the air in the snow escapes, but some remains trapped in is compressed in the ice. The glacier front was rather active this morning with several small calvings during our visit. Several larger pieces of ice, some over ten meters high are the proof of recent larger calvings. On the ice several bearded seals were seen. After lunch the captain took the Ortelius further into the Hornsund. About halfway in we went in the south facing side fjord called Samarinvågen. Near the glacier front two humpback whales were seen feeding in the plankton rich mixed fresh and sea water in front of the glacier.
The afternoon landing was in Gashamna. This is a large flood plain with a braided river system is the site for two English early 17th century whaling stations. One on the very east side and one on the far west side. Much of the remaining archaeology has been washed away by the river but there are still some blubber ovens to be seen. A more recent Norwegian trappers hut has been built in one of the ovens using bowhead whale skulls as a part of the construction. The area around the station is still much greener than the surrounding terrain because of the added nutrients from the whale blubber. From the station a hike was made up the ridge to the west of the station towards the spit of the bay. At that moment dense fog came in so we had to go back to the Ortelius. After today’s recap it was time for a special dinner. Our Chinese students and several volunteers made excellent dinner including 1050 Chinese dumplings. This was also a good time for hotel manager Robert to introduce his hotel department who have been working hard all the time to keep everyone happy and fed.
Later this evening we set course to the edge of the continental shelve off Spitsbergen where we hope to see some larger whales. If only to fog would lift, which it most likely will do because the water will be some two degrees warmer at that point.
Indeed, the fog lifted, but only around midnight. A few die hard whale watchers stayed up for a long time and were rewarded for their effort by the sighting of a few Fin Whales. I guess most of us were only dreaming of whales at that point.
After breakfast we boarded the Zodiacs for a landing at Ingeborgfjellet in Bellsund. Here we had a real high Arctic experience, with a Little Auk colony on the scree slopes, Arctic Foxes running around and calling all the time and Spitsbergen Reindeer grazing on the lush tundra. We all had time to sit down and watch all of these animals up close or from a little distance. After a while most of us got cold and we headed back to the Ortelius to have lunch.
After lunch we headed out for one last time, this time to Midterhuken. Here the guides positioned themselves on some higher points and we were allowed to wander a bit on our own on the lush tundra underneath another bird cliff. It was nice to be able to do our own things for a while. Some had a look though binoculars or even a telescope at the birds at the cliff, while others took pictures of the scenery or other things of interest and other people just sat down on the tundra and had some quiet moments for themselves. Towards the end of the landing these quiet moments were interrupted by a lot of screaming. Strangely enough there were quite a few people crazy enough to take part in the Polar Plunge and had a little swim in the cold Arctic waters.
Back on the ship we were called by Robert to settle our ships account and also to return our rubber boots. After we enjoyed the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail and a sumptuous last supper aboard. The time after dinner was spent packing or having a last drink with our new friends in the bar. Around midnight we already said goodbye to some of the guests, the others went to bed for a last night of sleep on the ship.
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 8:30 am for our last zodiac ride ashore to Longyearbyen. 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: 1146 nautical miles / 2122 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!