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PLA02-23, trip log, North Spitsbergen, In search of polar bear & pack ice

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Longyearbyen, embarkation day

Longyearbyen, embarkation day
Date: 01.06.2023
Position: 78°12.60’ N 15°32.6’ E
Wind: NW 2
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +2

Many of the guest arrived at Longyearbyen on the day of embarkation. Throughout the afternoon, guests were arriving at our new home for the coming days: Plancius.

Once on board the evening went by quickly as we were busy with familiarisations, safety briefings, and a mandatory lifeboat instruction.

As we set off out of Isfjord in the evening, and northward towards our first scheduled activity of the trip, there was time to enjoy the views of the flat table-topped mountains in the late evening light.

Then, after departure, we had an introduction to the ship from our hotel manager. This was followed by captain’s cocktails, were our expedition leader Ali also introduced herself and shared the plans for the voyage. After a lovely first dinner on the ship, most of us went to enjoy the views outside while the ship was cruising, or went to bed early, after this long day.

Day 2: St Jonsfjord & Poolepynten

St Jonsfjord & Poolepynten
Date: 02.06.2023
Position: 78°31.2’N / 011°07.9’E
Wind: Calm
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: 0

We woke up to beautiful sunshine and calm waters as we sailed towards the first landing site of our trip. Before landing, Expedition Leader Ali briefed us on Polar Bear safety and then we set off to do a variety of hikes and gentle walks at St Jonsfjord.

The long hikers walked up the moraine and steep hill to get excellent views of the glacier. The middle groups enjoyed watching the Svalbard Reindeer, the smallest sub species of reindeer, grazing on the hill. They also saw snow buntings, purple sandpipers, and ptarmigans. The leisurely walk group enjoyed views of eider ducks near the fast ice and had a moment of Arctic silence to listen to the sounds of nature, water, and ice all around them.

In the afternoon we sailed to Poolepynten where, although the wind and waves picked up, we were still able to set off in groups to visit the walrus.

The walrus, which are the only species of pinniped that have tusks, were hauled out on the beach in a big bundle of blubber and were growling and sleeping, and some were splashing in the water. The older males had impressive long tusks and many of them were flushed with a pink colouration, something they do that to regulate their body temperature.

In the evening just as most people were settling down to go to bed we had an exciting call from Ali on the bridge to say there were whale blows in the distance. We slowly sailed closer and discovered that these large blows belonged to the biggest animal in the world, the blue whale. One of the whales surfaced several times in front of the bow before leaving us. This was a very special first whale species to spot as blue whales are a rarity and even for many of the guides it was only their first or second encounter with them. It was a very spectacular end to a very successful first full day of the trip.

Day 3: Fjortende Julibukta and Lilliehöökbreen

Fjortende Julibukta and Lilliehöökbreen
Date: 03.06.2023
Position: 79°02.3’N / 011°07.9’E
Wind: Calm
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

Another beautiful day in Svalbard, we made the most of the morning, with a split landing. Spending time onshore hiking across the tundra, seeing the wild flora starting to emerge, with some beautiful purple saxifrage. High up on the cliff face we observed kittiwakes in flight, and heard their loud calls. On the ground we were lucky enough to spot a few arctic foxes, even a brief chase was observed with one of the foxes still having half of its white winter coat. Very high up on rocks a few Svalbard reindeer could be seen grazing.

During the zodiac cruise, the Fjortende Julibukta glacier could be enjoyed from the water, together with lots kittiwakes resting on the smaller ice floes. Cruising along the shoreline it was possible to see numerous Brünnich’s guillemots nesting together, barnacle geese and a number of puffins too.

After a short transit and a delicious lunch onboard, all of the zodiacs were lowered as the expedition team prepared for an afternoon zodiac cruise. We spent over two hours exploring the bay, getting a sense of the sheer size of the Lilliehöökbreenglacier, photographing the varying shades of colour and the different ice formations. There were plenty of birds to see including, common eider ducks, king eider, long-tailed ducks, arctic terns, snow bunting and northern fulmars. Many of us experienced true Arctic silence as the zodiac engines were turned off. We could hear the crackle and popping of the ice as the air escapes, and really enjoy the stillness and the reflections of the surrounding peaks. The perfect end to another fantastic expedition day.

The kayakers enjoyed exceptionally calm paddling conditions during both the morning and the afternoon, taking in the same sights and surroundings from the comfort of their kayaks.

Day 4: Day in the pack ice

Day in the pack ice
Date: 04.06.2023
Position: 79°09.6’N / 008°12.1’E
Wind: NW 3
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: -2

After a couple of days of full activities, we came to search for the pack ice.

The spotters in our bridge saw the first ice during the early morning and we started to navigate into it at around 07:30 in the morning. Conditions were very good; the sea was calm and there was no swell. Although the sky was partially clouded with grey clouds over the horizon, we still could see some interesting wildlife. We managed to see many birds, spotting numerous ivory gulls and guillemots flying around our ship, a couple of arctic skuas and also many flocks of kittiwakes and arctic terns among others.

An interesting sight we had in the morning was a low tangent arc below the Sun This formation due to long hexagonal columns of ice crystals shone for a good half an hour before other grey clouds cover it. It is worth to notice that this is a rare sight in the sky and that Pieter, Eduardo did not hesitate to share their excitement with those around pointing it out to other guests, colleagues and crew on board.

The excitement of the day increased during the late morning and during the whole afternoon due to the expectation of our guests to witness the sight of a polar bear. Consequently, all our guides made a big effort to spot one of these elusive creatures. They spent many hours spotting for bears either from the bridge of our ship or from the outside decks. All these efforts made our guests aware of how hard is to spot polar bears in the vastness of the arctic pack ice. Hence our guides, bridge personnel and guests, played for long hours the game of seek and hide with the potential bears that could be walking in the area.

Dinner was very special today since we all had dinner outside, we enjoyed a great BBQ. This activity included music and dancing in the aft outside deck of our ship. Party lasted until 10 PM and both guests, crew and staff had a great time enjoying the music of many classic songs of rock and roll. Despite all our efforts, we all went to sleep without having any sight of polar bear hoping that the next day would bring us this rare and spectacular arctic sight.

Day 5: Day in the pack ice and polar bear sighting

Day in the pack ice and polar bear sighting
Date: 05.06.2023
Position: 80°02.7’N / 011°18.0’E
Wind: NW 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: -4

After the BBQ-party yesterday evening, we got an early wake-up call at 6h30! Our Expedition Leader Ali announced a polar bear sighting! Excited by the news, everyone rushed to the decks (no running though ;-) in order to get a view on the bear. And there it was, sniffing the environment with its nose and sometimes tasting the air with its tongue. It was not too far away, yet too difficult to tell whether it was a male or female. After about 20 minutes it laid down for some time before slowly moving away from us. The ship tried to get closer but the big ice floes of the pack ice were holding us back.

While the ship made an (unsuccessful) attempt to approach the bear from another direction, Annelou gave an interesting lecture on sea ice and its formation. Surprisingly, how many types of ice exist!

In the meanwhile, bearded seals started to show up. Their main features are a chunky body with a small head which has long whiskers. Beautiful creatures.

At 11h the Expedition Staff started giving some mini lectures. Ali talked about polar bears, Emily lectured about the impressive migration of Arctic Terns and Elizabeth gave us some insight in photo identification and GPS tracking of marine mammals.

Lots of birds could be spotted around the ship. Kittiwakes really liked the disturbance of water caused by our ship. We regularly saw them catching some fish, probably polar cod. Other birds that flew next to the ship were Brünnich’s guillemot, little auk, glaucous gull and of course the arctic tern.

After a glass (or two...) of hot chocolate with some rum in the afternoon, a brown-reddish animal presented himself: a male walrus with large tusks! It was lying on a (already quite dirty) ice floe. The ship circled around it and our journey proceeded.

The day ended nicely with some evening sunshine.

Day 6: Ytre Norskøya and Fugelsongen

Ytre Norskøya and Fugelsongen
Date: 06.06.2023
Position: 79°51.0’N / 011°32.2’E
Wind: Calm
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: 0

We woke up to spectacular sunshine and views of mountains and ice as we approached Ytre Norskoya. The long hikers set off to reach the summit of the island where they were treated to a spectacular view and enjoyed seeing and photographing the little auks. The people on the medium walks had a lovely encounter with snow buntings, a walrus on the ice, and even a yellow wagtail flying by. The leisurely walkers had great views of a seal resting on a rock next to the shore and took a stroll to a small peninsula on the island.

Originally our plan for the afternoon was to visit Smeerenburg to see the historic remains of the blubber ovens left on the site by the whaling industry. However, due to there being a large amount of snow covering the remains and the graves of the whalers, Ali instead took us to the island Fuglesongen (meaning birdsong) to visit the little auks that are soon to be nesting there. The weather continued to be beautiful, and we had brilliant views of the little auks flying in big flocks, resting on the rocks, and even mating. These tiny seabirds breed here from June to August and spend the rest of their lives at sea. They certainly charmed us with their distinctive calls and their cute penguin like appearance. We also took a zodiac cruise to see the little auks flying from the water and some boats were lucky enough to see seals and a puffin.

Day 7: Tordenskjoldbukta and Alkhornet

Tordenskjoldbukta and Alkhornet
Date: 07.06.2023
Position: 79°39.3’N / 011°05.2’E
Wind: NNW 3
Weather: Calm
Air Temperature: +3

In the morning we arrived in the stunning Tordenskjoldbukta. Such a huge tundra and a nice beach to land on. It was quite snowy in the beginning, so we had to climb up a bit but then we had this nice overview and already spotted the first reindeers. During our walks (long, medium, or short) we were able to see them even closer. These animals are good to approach as long as we stay quiet. On our way back we could see a red-throated phalarope. Some of us saw a carcass of an arctic fox.

During lunch, we cruised from Tordenskjoldbukta to Alkhornet. At Alkhornet we saw even more reindeers walking along the pinnacle. In the gras there were walking some pink-footed geese. The long hikers were quite close to a rockfall at the bird cliff, this was a bit scary. After a lovely walk some of us joined the polar plunge. The air temperature was around 4 degrees and the water temperature around 1 degree. Some of us decided to be a little bit crazy and go for a swim, while the others could slide down to the landing site.

Back on the ship, warmed up again we joined the expedition team to captain’s farewell and the slideshow. After the slideshow we had our last dinner onboard. Different to all the other evenings it was plated. The food was just delicious.

Day 8: Arrival back into Longyearbyen

Arrival back into Longyearbyen
Date: 08.06.2023
Position: 78°12.60’ N 15°32.6’ E
Wind: NNW 3
Weather: Calm
Air Temperature: +3

Around midnight, we arrived in Longyearbyen. While we enjoyed a last breakfast on board, our suitcases were taken off the ship. It is a sad moment to disembark from Plancius, which has been a comfortable and cozy home during this unforgettable journey. We have shared many unique moments, seen a range of rarely sighted wildlife, and made new friends. Loaded with fond memories we now must head home.

Thank you all for travelling with us on this voyage, for your enthusiasm, support, and good company. We very much hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!


Tripcode: PLA02-23
Dates: 1 Jun - 8 Jun, 2023
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Plancius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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