OTL14-17, trip log, Around Spitsbergen and Kvitøya
07.09.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
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 thou-sands a cruise ship tourists ready to explore the archipelago of Svalbard.
Our adventure began with boarding our comfortable floating home for the next ten days – the M/V Ortelius at the pier in Longyearbyen. At 16:00 we were met at the gangway by members of the Expe-dition team who directed us to the ship’s reception where we were checked in and shown to our comfortable cabins.
As soon as we had settled into our comfortable home most of us found themselves either on the outside decks to enjoy the views or in the bar for a coffee or tea.
Soon it was time to gather in the lecture room for several welcome briefings. We were briefed by Second Officer Louis on ship safety and how to prepare for abandon ship procedures, should the worst incident happen on board. Then our Hotel Manager Zsuzannah gave us an overview of Ortelius, our home for the next 9 days.
A drill of the general alarm, which was seven short blasts followed by one long blast was made and we all donned the SOLAS orange life jackets and mustered in the bar guided by crew and staff. After a roll call to assure everyone was present we went out to the lifeboats where it was very windy out on deck as we made our way down Isfjorden. and some of us actually went inside to explore the cosy surroundings!
We returned to our cabins briefly before regrouping with Captain Ernesto Barria in the lounge for a wel-coming toast of champagne or juice. This was also a chance to meet members of the Expedition team who will be guiding us on shore and keeping us safe during our time around Svalbard. The usual social gathering was brought to an end early though as some whale blows had been spotted ahead of the ship.
A great start to our voyage!
We could see a number of blows ahead and to the port side of the ship and they whales were identified as Fin whales, the second largest species of whale in the world.
It was then time to head to the dining room for the first of many delicious meals to be prepared by Gabor and his galley team. Meanwhile, Ortelius made her way through Isfjorden towards the open sea. After dinner, there was one final task to complete and that was the collection of rubber boots and life jackets 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.
Overnight we had sailed north past Prins Karls Forland and up into Kongsfjorden. As breakfast was being served we anchored facing the 14th Julibukta glacier which was to be the location of our morning excursion, a truly magnificent Arctic landscape surrounded us. Before going a shore, we had to attend a further two briefings; zodiac safety and polar bear safety but it was no time at all till the zodiacs were lowered into the water to take us ashore.
This morning’s excursion was split into two halves, with both groups rotating between the two different activities. The first group took a zodiac cruise along the cliff face to see the large colonies of puffins. It was great to be able to see these colourful little birds up close. Meanwhile the other group landed on the beach and took a short walk to the ‘hanging gardens’ to observe the last of the blooming summer flowers. This little cliff face is sheltered from the wind and south facing so the plants here grow taller than any-where else on Svalbard. We also saw several reindeer feeding on the rich tundra vegetation, a cliff face full of nesting Kittiwakes and several Arctic foxes. Foxes are very often found near seabird cliffs and time the arrival of their pups to coincide with ample feeding on eggs and chicks from the birds. We saw both dark coloured foxes which are typical for this time of year as well as an unusually pale coloured one that stood out well against the green tundra allowing people to view it with ease as it ran across the hill side. As we made our way back along the beach we saw some small, but very beautiful, icebergs which were the result of an earlier glacier carving and had been washed up with the tide. For such a small location 14th Julibukta offers such contrast and variety therefore was the perfect way to start our expedition!
Following lunch, we set out for our afternoon landing at Ny Ålesund. This former coal mining village is now a scientific community operating under the Norwegian Polar Institute research governance and is consid-ered to be the most northern settlement in the world. We were given time to wander around the museum, visit the small souvenir shop, send post cards to loved ones and of course learn a little about the history of Arctic exploration and the attempts to reach the North Pole from Ny Ålesund. Back on-board Shelli held a Mandatory briefing for the kayak program. Those who had pre-booked for this opportunity gathered in the lecture room and learned how the paddling program works on board Ortelius. We then were divided into three groups (1,2,&3) all hoping to have the right conditions in the coming days to get out on the water and explore in the kayaks.
Later that afternoon Michael led a short recap where he also explained what the plan was for tomorrow and Bill encouraged us to look and see and really experience our Arctic voyage to the full. Arjen spoke a little more about the mining history of Ny Ålesund, after which it was time for dinner. For many, the day ended outside on deck as we were treated to some magnificent evening light, with an ever-changing sky-line creating some very dramatic reflections in the water we started to make our way north.
The excitement of the day began really early for three passengers who stayed up on the foredeck in excel-lent weather until 2.30am… they were rewarded for their early morning vigil when Ortelius slid gently past 2 walrus on an ice floe.
After breakfast, everyone lined the bridge and outer decks scanning the huge expanse of drift ice for polar bears as the vessel bumped and crashed through the flow. For most, this was their first experience of a frozen sea and cameras clicked frantically. Bearded seals were spotted lying on the ice and harp seals seen bobbing fast through the narrow leads in the ice.
During the morning Arjen gave a full lecture about Polar bears, explaining about their adaptations to the cold environment of the Arctic and about their breeding cycles and behaviour. It was all the information we needed for our first encounter with the Ice Bears. By the afternoon the Seven Islands were in view and we could see our destination for the day, Phippsøya ahead of us. Suddenly a call came over the PA system that a bear had been spotted. Ali had scouted a band of ice and seen a bear sleeping by an ice ridge. Eve-ryone strained with their binoculars and long lens cameras to see this small creamy dot on the icy horizon. The ship slowly closed the distance and the male polar bear was observed huddled quite unconcerned, or oblivious to our presence, on a large block of ice on a floe. After several thousand photographs, during which time it occasionally opened its eyes to watch our progress it finally got up and walked away, then entered the water and swam across a narrow lead between the floes. The light in the early evening was fantastic and we all enjoyed our first Polar bear encounter.
After an early dinner Ortelius approached Phippsøya. Zodiacs were launched and pwe all landed on a beautiful crescent beach curving between two large hills. Three guided walks were arranged…long, inter-mediate and short. The beach area and adjacent lagoon were strewn with interesting driftwood, some natural timber and some worked logs most of which had arrived there via the tidal currents running along the north Russian coast. Intermingled with this debris was a large amount of plastic fishing gear…remains of nets and buoys etc.
The long hikers headed along the edge of a hill and across the low lying stretch of land to try and reach a view point on a small hill. The were lucky enough to see a small group of walrus in the water as they made their way along the island. The snow conditions were a little difficult at times but everyone enjoyed the walk in the lovely evening light.
The groups visited a picturesque 2 bunk small hut on the far shore. This had been beautifully constructed of salvaged wood and was complete with small stove. Outside, lay the jaw bones of a polar bear. The light during this landing was superb. A blanket of cloud covered the upper sky leaving a substantial gap on the horizon for the intense rays of the low sun to sparkle off the lumps of ice floating in the bay.
‘Wonderful’…just wonderful was the reaction of passengers to the landing and to the exciting Oceanwide expedition day.
Overnight the captain had brought the ship towards the ice and when we were woken by Michael we found ourselves in a sea of white. In contrast to recent years there was a lot of ice around Spitsbergen, which we would explore throughout the day. Fields of dense pack ice alternated with patches of open water. Many of us went outside to enjoy this high Arctic scenery and helped the expedition team search for wildlife. Sever-al Bearded Seals were seen hauling out on the ice, many at quite a distance, but sometimes also close to the ship. Harp seals were also regularly spotted, swimming on their backs and popping their heads out of the water to have a look at that big blue ship passing by in their waters. But the main search was of course for the King of the Arctic: The Polar Bear.
After yesterday’s sighting, we were keen to see more of him on the ice. Just before lunch Michael made the announcement we were all waiting for. Arjen had found a bear and we were heading towards it. In the beginning, it was obviously still far away, which gave many of us the possibility to grab a quick bite from the pasta buffet, but soon the Captain parked the ship next to the ice floe where the bear was walking. The bear looked like he needed some lunch too, he wasn’t too fat at all.
The bear, a young male, was probably just sent off by his mother after 2 years or so of being looked after by her and he was still struggling to hunt on his own. For bears, this is always the most difficult time in their lives, when all of a sudden mother isn’t providing for them anymore. But fortunately, he was in the right location, so most likely he would get better and better at finding seals. The bear was mildly interested in the ship, but also a bit afraid. He kept on looking at us, putting his nose in the air to have a better smell (probably Gabor’s Bolognese sauce…), but in the end decided he couldn’t eat us, so he moved on again. For us this was the sign to move on as well as we didn’t want to stalk the bear, he seemed to need all the energy he had for survival.
It was very noticeable that it was getting late in summer as the sun never really got far above the horizon. This meant that the whole day the light was really nice and warm. While in the morning there were still quite a few clouds in the sky, during the day it cleared and we could enjoy this late summer Arctic light even more. The afternoon was spent searching further for Arctic wildlife and the captain twice tried to bring the ship closer to Bearded Seals on the ice, but they are always very alert (for a good reason), so both times they slipped into the water.
At recap Michael explained us the plans for the following days. Due to heavy ice and dense fog reported by the other Oceanwide ship, the Plancius, who was further east, it was decided to not go to Kvitøya, but go back through Hinlopen Strait. This would offer us a better chance at having good landings and wildlife opportunities. After this Arjen showed some ice charts from the past year to show the strange ice situation this year and in the past year and put it in a global and long year context.
After dinner, we were called out again as several Fin Whales were seen. The light had got even better as the sun was very low over the horizon. It was nice to see these giants again with the spectacular backdrop of the Nordaustlandet scenery.
After this, some of us stayed outside to enjoy the late evening light a bit longer, while others had a drink in the bar, had a look at their pictures or went to bed. What a spectacular day in the high Arctic it had been again!
Once again, we woke up to a bright and sunny day. After colleagues on the Plancius had informed us that Kvitøya was engulfed by fog and ice yesterday, we had set our course towards the Hinlopen Strait and travelled back southwest. Shortly after breakfast we arrived by the island of Lågøya where we planned to go ashore to see the walrus and try to catch a glimpse of the rare Sabine’s gull. At the shore, we were al-ready greeted by a couple of walrus swimming in the water curiously glancing over at us and the passing zodiacs. A number of Artic terns ornamented the blue skies.
Three hiking groups were formed and walked along the rocky beach alongside a lagoon, which was cov-ered in seaweed and had lots of Purple sandpipers feeding amongst the weed. Our goal was to reach the walrus haul out on the northern tip of the island, Purchasneset, a nature reserve named after Samuel Pur-chas (1577-1626), an English compiler of works on travel and discovery.
Once ashore we were really lucky to be able to observe not on Sabine’s gull but a small group of them near the shore, a rarely seen bird in Svalbard.
On top of a small ridge at the side of the lagoon we came across some patches with bigger rocks, old graves, most likely those of European whalers from the 17th and 18th century. We then formed a single file between two guides to slowly approach to the walrus haul-out at Purchasneset. We silently got a bit closer and watched around 50 walruses huddling together on the beach, listening to their occasional grunting sounds. All of the animal we were seeing were males as the females and their calves are out on the ice floes to the north and east of Svalbard at this time of year.
After this wonderful calm, landing we returned to the Ortelius for lunch and continued our journey further south. At 3 pm we were invited to the lounge to listen to Bill’s energetic talk on whaling history. He tells a good story and really brought to life the slaughter of the whales and the hardships faced by the whalers themselves. Our navigation took a little longer than expected so after discussions between the Captain, Expedition team and the catering department it was decided to serve an early dinner at 6 pm to allow us to go ashore after dinner once again.
By the time we had finished eating we were anchored off Kinnvika in the Murchisonfjord on the western side of Nordaustland and the Expedition team were already making their way ashore to scout for polar bears. There is an old abandoned research station with several buildings, which was erected by Finland and Sweden in 1957/58 to observe geophysical phenomena in the Arctic. Since the buildings are still in good condition, they can still be used by scientists who visit this region, with the last big research expedition taking place in 2007/08.
As usual we split into three groups with different hiking options for the evening. Ali and Shelli took the long hikers up to the peak above the bay and enjoyed fabulous views over the bay and inland to the ice cap of Nordaustlandet. We hiked through the vast polar desert landscape in the golden evening sun looking onto the rocky coastal plains where a number of reindeer were grazing. Taking a closer look at this seemingly empty polar desert, we found many different plants hidden between the rocks, the Svalbard poppy as well as the small green leaves of saxifrages past their blooming season.
It was a beautiful evening and despite the late hour we were all reluctant to return to the ship as the evening light was perfect but by around 10 pm we returned to the ship, ready to sail further down the Hinlopenstretet.
We woke up to clear skies and calm water. After the previous days at sea in the ice the kayakers were ready to get out on the water. We met with Expedition guide Shelli in the morning to outfit into the kayaks, adjusting rudder pedals and get kayaks assigned as we would be getting into the boats from the zodiac whilst on the water. This was a new experience for all of us, aside from the guide and our safety driver. Conditions at the ship were a bit wavy but with a few minutes of zodiac ride we found calm water near shore and the general landing site.
The main feature of the landing site was a large walrus haul out, as well as a rich nesting site for many birds including the Sabine’s gull. As we neared location several walrus were spotted in the water and Shelli gave advice as to how we would best safely view them in the kayaks.
Everyone loaded into the kayaks quite easily and once we were all on the water we were given some advice on paddling technique, and practiced how to “raft up” in the case of overly curious wildlife. We set off in route around the coast. A few icebergs made for the first photo opportunity, and although they were grounded we were advised to keep our distance in the case they broke apart.
Several walruses were sighted swimming towards us and we rafted up, gently drifting in the current. The walrus gave us only a slight look of indifference and continued on their swim. Likely in pursuit of a morning snack, however we felt humbled by their size and presence being so close to the water. We paddled along the rocky shoreline with a few Sabine’s gull, arctic tern, and kittiwakes overhead.
Nearing the sight of the main haul out, we quieted our voices and headed a bit further out from the coastline to not stress the walrus, as one of the hiking groups were also heading down to have a view.
It was an all-encompassing experience to have the sights, sounds and smells of the haul-out from the kayaks. After another half hour of paddling we headed into the shore to meet up with Expedition Leader Michael and have the chance to see the walrus from land. Leaving Shelli and our safety driver on the beach we tromped off with our bigger cameras and bigger smiles, happy to have had the peaceful experience out in the kayaks on such a fine arctic morning.
Overnight we had sailed south through the Hinlopenstretet, passing the west coast of Nordaustland which is the second largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. Nordaustland contrasts dramatically with land-scapes elsewhere in Spitsbergen as around 80% of it is comprised of icecaps and glaciers, with the Vestfonna and Austfonna ice caps totalling 8,450sq km. Once again, we were greeted by bright sunshine as we dropped anchor in front of Torellneset which was to be our morning landing site.
First away were the long hikers, aiming for a distant ridge in a hope to get a better a view of the Marie-breen glacier, they were closely followed by the medium group and lastly the keen photographers and gen-tle walkers. We meandered across the wide-open landscape, looking for any flora or fauna that might sur-vive the harsh and barren environment of a ‘polar desert’. We took time to stop, listen and simply enjoy the sights and sounds from our vantage points, something many of us find hard to do in our busy lifestyles back home. Each group also took turns to approach the two walrus herds on the beach that, like us, were basking in the glorious sunshine.
The herd were displaying classic thigmotaxis behaviour (bodies close in contact) which is distinctive of wal-rus haul outs, they do this to help conserve heat. A wide range of ages seemed to be present from the old scarred heavy tusked to the young short tusked in this all male gathering. Others were in the shallow water scratching and rolling and a few curious induvial swam right along the shoreline to our group to take a better look at us. After a beautiful morning at Torellneset we made our way back to the Ortelius where a delicious lunch was waiting for us.
The plan for this afternoon was to land at Vibebukta but as we approached we were greeted by a sea of glistening icebergs and several herds of charismatic walrus that seemed intent on putting on quite a show for us by playing around the bow of our boat, so a decision was quickly made to abort the landing in favour of a zodiac cruise. This decision was met with enthusiasm by the expedition staff and passengers alike so we quickly dressed accordingly, with sunglasses in abundance and boarded the zodiacs. The area in front of Vibebukta was filled with chunks of ice ranging from fist sized through to bergs the size of multistory tower blocks. This icy landscape was the result of a warm summer that had in turn prompted a series of mass carvings from the Bråsvellbreen cliff face. As always in good sunlight, the kaleidoscope of blues in the ice did not fail to astound, coupled with a myriad of different shapes and sizes, it was undeniably a visual smorgasbord for the lover of ice! As we cruised amongst the ice we spotted a few walruses, some enjoying the sun whilst resting on an ice berg whilst others played in the water.
On returning to the ship it seemed agreed by all that this afternoon was one of the highlights of the trip thus far, only to prove that flexibility is key to a successful expedition!
During dinner, the Ortelius started to cruise the ice cliffs of Bråsvellbreen, which along with the adjacent Austfonna makes up the largest ice cap and glacial system outside of Antarctica and Greenland. The ice cliff is 170km in length making it the longest in the Northern Hemisphere and we could not have wished for more glorious weather in which to enjoy it.
After devouring another sumptuous meal, we were encouraged to wrap up warmly and head outside to marvel at this natural spectacal. We spent the next couple of hours slowing making our way along the ice cliff, giving us plenty of time to appreciate its sheer size and splen-dour. We watched as huge quantities of melt water cascaded from the glacier in a series of grand water-falls-truly spectacular. Drenched in the most perfect evening light, the glacier almost seemed to change colour before our eyes as we gazed in total wonderment. Just as we thought the evening could get no bet-ter, Zsuzanna announced that they would serve hot chocolate and Kuala on the top deck to warm us up, what better way to finish a truly memorable expedition day!
The afternoon was a kayaker’s dream. Glass calm water, a gentle sea swell, icebergs and walrus to the edge of the horizon. Kayak Group 2 gathered, thrilled at the chance to experience such an afternoon.
We launched the kayaks in tandem with the cruising zodiacs and were off and away. We didn’t have to transit far from the ship and within moments of loading in the zodiac we were quickly in our kayaks and paddling. The day was warm and with the abundance of ice around we were again advised to stay away from “the BIG ones”. The rolling swell shifted the mass of each berg revealing still only part of the physique of the ice. We could from a distance detect walrus hauled out on several bergs. Distinguished not only from sight, but also from their bellows and grumbles to each other. It was the sort of magic quiet-loud that only the polar regions can produce. The ice popping, water shifting, and wildlife poetry.
Making a big wide loop around a band of brash ice and towards the ship we continued to paddle in the afternoon light. In the distance, the mighty Brasvellbreen glacier shimmered, beaconing us closer. However, timekeeping is obligatory, and we were summoned back to the ship. It hardly felt like two hours of paddling but indeed we had profited the maximum of the excursion time. With wide grins and sun kissed cheeks we headed back onboard to share our stories of the afternoon.
In the early morning Ortelius sailed into the Freemansund channel between Barentsøya and Edgeøya. It was another beautiful morning with sunshine and very little wind.
Before breakfast we sailed past a place known as Kapp Waldburg, where there are some small canyons which are home to large colonies of Kittiwakes. It is often an area where Polar bears are found during the summer and sure enough we had the first long-range bear sighting of the day. The bear had actually been swimming and emerged from the sea and moved quickly up the hillside.
The speed with which the bear was able to travel over rough ground was astonishing, even to experienced guides and was a good remind-er about the danger of coming across bears on shore. This was not our planned landing for the morning so we continued across the sound as the guides had spotted two other white dots on the opposite hillside.
As we neared the coast we could see one bear sleeping on the grassy slope and another higher up on the ridge. At this time of year any bears stranded on islands like this are likely to be hungry as they can’t feed on their preferred food of seals, which are only found on the pack ice. One of the bears got up and ap-peared to be grazing, eating vegetation just to fill its stomach a little. We would not be landing here!
The ship then motored further along the coast and closed in towards the north Freemansund shore at a location known as Sundneset where we hoped to spend the morning. As we approached the anchorage the guides were scouting the shore form the ship and another bear was sighted high above a band of cliffs. It was sleeping in the shelter of the rocks and too close to the landing site so once again a safe landing here would not be possible. Those passengers with long lens cameras zoomed in for interesting shots of it nestl-ing in the rocks.
So, the Ortelius proceeded west to try the landing site we had hoped to go to in the afternoon and on the way over we had an incredible encounter with a bear swimming close to the ship in the 4 knot fast flowing channel. This was the fifth bear of the morning. By this time the wind had increased as we came out of the relative shelter of the sound and with 28 knots blowing onto the landing site the Captain and Michael de-cided to set sail across Storfjorden to see what the afternoon would bring.
In the meantime, Bill delivered a very well received Looking - Seeing - Thinking lecture ‘The meaning of the sea in paintings’ covering a wide variety of sea paintings from the Renaissance to the 20th century.
This was a thought-provoking presentation which gave detailed explanations of the use of visual renderings of the sea to communicate a wide range of emotion. It was a very well received lecture and enjoyed by everyone who attended.
12.30 lunch as usual but then, towards the end of service, at the coffee stage, a new cry came over the PA system…Whales!
Everyone then ran for cameras and made their way to the fore-deck. Three fin whales had been spotted…2 in the far distance and one, quite close to the ship. A fourth appeared even nearer just below the bow. These whale sightings continued and the ‘whale lecture’ was postponed for a while…why talk about it in the lounge when you can see the real thing outside. In amongst the Fin whales were some of the smaller Min-ke whales, all feeding on fish and krill found in the oceans at this time of year.
Finally, during the afternoon staff member delivered a series of short lectures. Arjen spoke about whale identification, how to tell a Fin whale from a Humpback, Ali talked about Reindeer and Sara gave a com-prehensive talk about Walrus. Just as she was getting towards the end Ali interrupted her to say that we had whale soup ahead of the ship….
It was something totally unusual, something stunning…as Michael reported a line of whale spouts extend-ing across the horizon at 10 miles range. Blows appeared everywhere as gradually Ortelius approached. Fin whales, more Fin whales, Humpbacks, more Humpbacks and excited groups of White beaked dolphins darted across the ocean. The sight was astonishing. We travelled for over 2 hours through the feeding area and although the weather deteriorated during the afternoon the sight was still amazing to see.
By early evening we had left the whales behind and so gathered in the lounge for re-cap where Michael outline plans for tomorrow, Sasha told us the tale of the friendly Polar bear that made its home in Pyra-miden for the winter and Arjen screened the short movie he had made during our time in the ice with Po-lar bears. We have been very lucky on this voyage so far.
Looking…seeing…thinking…this was totally memorable experience for all passengers and crew.
Days like this answer the question ‘Why travel with Oceanwide Expeditions?’
And then our luck with the weather ran out... When we woke up today all we could see outside was grey and water. It was foggy and when the fog lifted it started to rain. And it never really stopped during the whole day.
However, this wasn’t going to stop us! Overnight the captain had brought us to Hornsund, the first larger fjord on the southwest coast of Spitsbergen. Hornsund is one of the most spectacular areas of Spitsbergen. Named by Jonas Poole, an English whaler in the 1600’s after his crew returned to the ship bearing a deer’s horn, it is a place of deep, high sided fjords, active glacier fronts and crenellated ridgelines. King amongst which is the mighty Hornsundtind, third highest peak on Spitsbergen and a sprawling mass of towers and buttresses.
After breakfast half of us got dressed in waterproof clothes and got into the zodiac for a cruise towards the Paierlbreen in Burgerbukta, Hornsund. Hornsund is known for its steep mountains and dramatic scen-ery and the low clouds added to the drama of this landscape. We started our cruise along the steep sides of the bay and stopped regularly at the many waterfalls coming down the cliffs. Really impressive and a nice sight. At the end of the bay the glacier front was waiting for us. We had already heard or seen several smaller calvings, but what happened next wasn’t really expected. Half of the glacier front collapsed, huge icebergs appeared from underneath the glacier and in the end a bit the size of a small apartment block slowly broke off and started to turn and eventually collapsed as well. All this was seen from the zodiacs (and also by some of the people who stayed on the ship) from a safe distance, even though we did see and feel the waves that were caused by the ice. The second run, with the other half of the group was even wet-ter as the first. But even there the mood onboard was good and most people enjoyed the spectacular scen-ery of Hornsund.
Back on the ship it was time to get dry and to warm up and have lunch. Most of our clothes weren’t even dry again when Michael called us out again for a landing in Gåshamna on the southern side of Hornsund. Here it was wet again, but this time we could go for a walk to keep us warm. A stop was made at some remains of blubber ovens from the whaling in the 17th century and then we split up in different groups. No long hike today as the mountains that could be climbed were all hidden in clouds. But also on the lower plains there was enough to see: some flowers, remains of Russian Pomor hunters and of course still this spectacular (all be it wet) scenery of Hornsund.
The highlight came towards the end when a Humpback whale swam along the shore, giving a good show for all that were still ashore. Back on the ship it was time to get dry again and come to the bar for our daily briefing and recap. Special guest this time was Zsuzsan-na, our Hotel Manager, who had to tell us about questionnaires, settlement of bar bills and disembarka-tion. However, before that we still had another exciting day of landings ahead of us, with even the possibil-ity of a swim… After this Lydia told us some facts about the Kittiwakes we had seen during the trip and Mi-chael came with the best news of the day: the BBQ was inside (no reason to get wet one more time today) and the drinks were for free! So, we all headed towards the dining room to enjoy this special Arctic meal.
A beautiful drizzly glaucous morning mist wrapped around the hills and peaks of Burgebukta. The ship nav-igated into the fjord and we prepared for a morning of paddling. Dressing up warmly in the kayak gear, hoods and gloves on we departed the warm ship to load up in the zodiacs and then the kayaks.
It was Group #3’s turn in the boats and we were quick to proceed with the activity as we had prepared everything the day before. However due to yesterday’s wind never went out. This morning, hardly a ripple was on the wa-ter aside from zodiac wake. We loaded not far from the ship on the eastern side of the fjord away from other traffic and proceeded to paddle towards the large glacier Paierlbreen. We first met a lovely little water fall and several small bergy bits to entertain our camera lenses and our spirits. As we paddled closer towards the glacier we could see massive chunks of ice heaving off the glacier face. It was quite the event to witness and we were very content to be safely away, yet still observer this spectacle. As we were a small group we had optimum time in the morning to paddle and whilst the zodiac cruising party exchanged on the ship, we continued on in the relative quiet. Just kayak, paddler and ice.
Together we took the opportunity to make some group photo amidst the ice and also sing a cultural song in front of the glacier on glass calm waters. We had just turned back towards the ship when a massive alanche came down from the hanging glacier on the western shore. Thankfully again we were at a dis-tance and observed with reverence, not terror the amount of gravity, ice and power. As we slowly re-grouped and paddled toward the ship the rain set back in. We welcomed the opportunity to head back to warmth of the ship, but were thankful for such a placid morning in amongst the ice and wildness of the Arctic.
During the night, we had sailed from Hornsund in the south further north to Bellsund, named after the bell shaped mountain at the entrance to the fjord. The plan this morning had been to go ashore at Ahl-strandhalvøya, better known as Bamsebu where the remains of the beluga whale industry can be found along the shore.
Piles of white bones from the white whales could be seen from the ship and before too long we were in zodiacs and making our way to the landing site next to the hut. The huts itself is well main-tained and has a romantic symbol on the door; a little red love heart!
Once on shore we headed off in our different hiking groups, no long hike but some medium length walks along the beach and across the tundra. All the groups had time to look at the relics from the whaling indus-try piled up on the beach and along the shore we found a Lion’s mane jellyfish and some other smaller jel-lies. Up on the slopes everyone had good views of reindeer as they made their way across the rich tundra. At this time of year they are beginning to gather together for the rut, the mating season here on Svalbard. The males had great antlers and were closely following the females. There were still lots of flowers still booming, especially the Bog saxifrage and Moss campion and it was lovely to see greenery and flowers after a few days up in the ice and the polar desert of the northern islands.
Back along the shore Sasha spotted an Arctic fox hunting along the inland area by the lagoons. It was being chased by an Arctic skua and then a Great skua even though their chicks have already fledged from the nest. It was a very dark, chocolate coloured fox and was brave enough to approach a couple of the groups quite closely giving everyone some lovely photo opportunities as it scavenged along the shore. What a great end to the morning here at Bamsebu.
During lunch, we made our way across Bellsund to our final destination for this voyage, Camp Millar. The weather conditions were still in our favour and there were no white dots along the shore as we reached our anchorage position in the bay. The staff went ashore to scout the area and despite it being a long zodi-ac ride in we were soon on shore and heading off on our various hikes.
The long hikers were heading out over the hill to reach the huts at Camp Millar itself but didn’t get very far as they soon came across an Arctic fox feeding around the antlers of a reindeer. A couple of keen photog-raphers dropped out but the hikers continued and had a lovely walk across the wet tundra with reindeer all the way to reach the huts. The view up into the mountains and along the coast were stunning and it was a really nice landing to end the trip.
Meanwhile back near the landing site the foxes were putting on a fantastic show for everyone coming quite close and seemingly enjoying the attention. They were all quite young foxes and very pale in colour and they were wonderful to watch as they scavenged around the area.
At 4.45 many people gathered to take part and witness the Polar Plunge, a chance to take a swim in the icy waters of the Arctic. Amid screams and laughter there were plenty of participants willing to brave the plunge so well done to you all! The journey back to the ship was almost like a Polar Plunge as the wind had increased and everyone got a bit of a soaking on the way back but it was a memorable trip back….
Back on board and after hot showers for some it was time for those end of trip activities; paying bills and returning boots and lifejackets!
By 6pm we were called to the lounge once more for Captain’s Cocktails, a chance to toast a very successful voyage and share our memories with our fellow passengers. It has been a fantastic trip with some wonder-ful and varied encounters with Polar bears as well as some memorable meeting with walrus, foxes and reindeer. There have been some natural challenges of wind and ice but we have always managed to find a Plan A, B, C or even D and given that we were often above 80° N it is hardly surprising that we encountered ice and wind…..
After the farewell dinner, many of us gathered in the bar for farewell drinks! Cheers everyone!
In the morning a mash up medley of kayakers from all groups 1,2,and 3 joined up for a final paddle. A truelly international group, hailing from China, Phillipines, Austria, Sweden, Spain and Alaska.
This would be a bonus second paddle for the voyage. We set off into a light breeze of 7-8 knots, but easily found shelter along the shores of Ahlstrandhalvøya. As this was our second time with the kayak program it took us no time loading into the boats and the systems now seemed familiar. Cruising the coastline, we came across one of the first hiking groups out on the tundra, but quietly paddled onward. Several small groups of Common Eider ducks bobbed on the water.
We navigated around several small rocky points to find our-selves in another cove. This time two different huts were sighted both from different eras. The newer hut looked quite cozy with a new stove pipe sticking up proudly from the roof, as well as a stock pile of wood ready for use. The other hut, older and a bit more rustic blended in with the landscape and provoked the feeling of conscious isolation.
The wind was picking up a bit and we decided to turn back around to be on time for lunch and the after-noons excursion. We opted for the quickest route into the zodiac which was actually to go to the beach ra-ther than be blown around in the wind and waves. Upon reaching the shore we spotted a nice Harbour seal perched on a rock. He/She did not seem to give us much thought and was just as curious to look at us. A nice way to end the excursion.
When Ortelius arrived at the port of Longyearbyen it was hard to believe that the expedition had come to an end – it seemed like yesterday that it had all begun. We have sailed around the archipelago of Svalbard and up into the Arctic pack ice although not quite as far as Kvitøya. We’ve seen Polar bears throughout our journey, from that first polar bear encountered on the ice near to Phippsøya to the 5 polar bears within the space of a few hours in Freemansundet. The walrus, ice, whales and late summer light have all been very memorable. We’ve met people from all over the world all of whom have come together to experience the Arctic environment at first hand and it has been a truly unforgettable expedition.
Thank you all for such a wonderful voyage, for your company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!
Furthest North: 81°11.06‘ N 020°54.16‘ E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barria, Expedition Leader Michael Ginzburg, Hotel Manager Zsuzsanna Varga and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.