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PLA02-24, trip log, North Spitsbergen Explorer - Versatile landscapes, sea ice & wildlife

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Longyearbyen - Embarkation Day

Longyearbyen - Embarkation Day
Date: 06.06.2024
Position: 78°14.2’N / 015°36.9’E
Wind: NW 3
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +8

Today is the today! It is finally time for us to embark upon our arctic adventure! In the late afternoon, we arrived at our ship Plancius, our new home for the next 8 days. She rocked gently against the peer as we climbed the gangway onto the decks. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and didn’t feel like the Arctic. We all checked in on board and were quickly escorted to our respective cabins. We excitedly started exploring the ship and wandering the decks enjoying the views of Longyearbyen.

Once aboard, we were invited to the lounge to participate in a mandatory briefing and abandon ship drill. Thankfully the good weather was maintained and we didn’t get to chilled out on the decks by the lifeboats. After we completed the mandatory abandon ship drill it was time for the ship to leave. At 18:30 the lines were loosed and we were on our way out of the harbour.

Whilst the crew made sure we left the harbor soundly, our expedition leader Jan invited us back to the lounge for the Captain’s Cocktail, where we met our captain Ernesto Barria, our expedition leader Jan Belgers and the rest of his expedition team. We celebrated our expedition with some bubbles and canapes before we were called for the final activity of the day; dinner!

We all filed down to the restaurant for a delicious buffet and an opportunity to meet all our fellow travellers. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the long summer light into the evening before returning to our cabins to prepare for tomorrow’s adventure!

Day 2: Raudfjorden – Hamiltonbukta & Ayerfjorden

Raudfjorden – Hamiltonbukta & Ayerfjorden
Date: 07.06.2024
Position: 79°52.7’N / 012°20.9’E
Wind: NE 2
Weather: Partly Cloudy
Air Temperature: +1

This was our first day of activities. And what a day it was. We got to learn immediately what it is like to be on an expedition and the surprises it can give you. We started the day out with a delicious breakfast in the restaurant and soon after got called into the Observation lounge for our mandatory briefing about zodiac and polar bear safety. Here we learned about all the basics that we should know about having a safe journey in the polar region. Not that you have to worry as you will be with an experienced guide who will take care of the rest.

After the briefing, we made our way to the upper deck to scout for animal wildlife. Most people had their eyes on the coastline for polar bears but to our surprise there was a minke whale that came up not too far away from the ship. We also had many birds flying around the ship including Brunnich’s guillemot, little auks and black-legged kittiwakes. When we got to our destination, we sadly heard that there were two other ships in the bay called Hamilton Bay, so we had to make a change. Plan B was a ship's cruise through Raudfjorden, the Red Fjord named after the red Devonian sandstone deposited here around 410 – 360 million years ago. Going down the fjord we thought for a moment that we had seen a polar bear high up on the hill although this was sadly not the case. Further down the coast, we found some Svalbard reindeer grazing the hills and another minke whale passed by the ship.

When we got to the end of the fjord the weather had cleared up really nicely and gave us exceptional views of the whole area. Including the very end of the fjord right where the glacier ended. Here we spotted a female polar bear with 2 cubs. As they were not close, and our ship couldn’t go further our EL decided to have lunch here and launch the zodiacs in the afternoon to see them from closer.

Having our bellies filled up, we left the ship for our first excursion. Here we got to practice those things we learned in the morning. Everybody did an amazing job. We made our way to the polar bears and on the way had the chance to spot multiple birds from close range. Here we saw many black guillemots, black-legged kittiwakes and the large glaucous gulls. Eventually, the fjord got blocked off with fast ice and the zodiacs couldn’t go further. This is where we observed the polar bear as best as we could. It was possible to see the two cubs playing next to their mother. However, due to the distance, it was not easy to see anything without binoculars that had a very large zoom.

We turned around and made our way back following the coastline looking for more interesting things. And to our luck, there were many to be found. We saw king eiders which are normally hard to find together with the common eider. Some people saw seals in the water, and everybody had the chance to see the group of 4 reindeer walking up the hill. There were birds like the Arctic skua and the rock ptarmigan. Although these elusive birds were not easy to spot for everybody. All in all, a quite exciting cruise especially for our first one.

Getting back on the ship everybody changed and sat down while drinking something warm. However, we were called out soon after by our EL mentioning that there were white whales outside. Belugas! And not just one. No, we had around 40 individuals swimming at the coastline in two different groups. What an extremely lucky situation as the belugas were not just passing through but were actually feeding. They came up very often and the backs were easy to spot. They even came out with their heads here and there which is not very common to see. An incredible moment that made the EL and everybody else late for our daily recap for a good reason.

During the recap, Jan explained to us what the plans were for the following day and how the hiking groups would work. Everybody would soon find out what it all really meant choosing one of the groups but in any case, one thing is certain. As learned in the morning, in an expedition there is a big chance we will get surprised with wonderful things.

Day 3: Liefdefjorden – Texas Bar & Monacobreen

Liefdefjorden – Texas Bar & Monacobreen
Date: 08.06.2024
Position: 79°36.5’N / 012°43.1’E
Wind: N 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: -1

Liefdefjorden – the fjord of love – that is how this fjord's name translates from Dutch. Plancius entered it early in the morning and slowly moved towards our morning landing site, which has an even stranger name – Texas Bar. Texas is tens of thousands of kilometers away from here, and the nearest bar is more than a hundred kilometers away in a straight line. What’s the mystery? It lies in the fact that there is a small hut on the shore, used by locals as a base camp during their hunting trips, and also just as a place to rest. The wall of the hut proudly bears the inscription “Texas Bar,” and inside on the shelf, there is a row of empty bottles of strong alcohol.

Our guides landed on the shore much earlier than us. As the threat of encountering a polar bear is ever-present, to ensure that there are no furry predators nearby, thorough scouting is required. Zodiacs darted back and forth along the shore, the guides in them armed with binoculars, studying the shoreline and various folds in the terrain. After that, being already on the shore, they explored several suspicious corners and, having made sure everything was calm, gave the go-ahead for us to join them.

We were to wait for boarding the Zodiac near the gangway. Our lovely doctor Annelou orchestrated the entire process, allowing groups of ten people to descend the gangway and take their places in the boats. Besides that, she made sure our life jackets were worn and fastened properly.

Two minutes of a swift ride – and here we are on the shore! The first thing to do was to take off the life jackets and put them in large white bags. Nearby the bags with life jackets lay cases for rifles. It would have been very interesting to peek into at least one of them, but it was strictly forbidden. Besides, the rifles were already loaded and hung by the guides on their shoulders.

We divided into groups according to our interests. Those who wanted to take a leisurely stroll along the shore, with the opportunity to take photos, joined the leisurely hikers' group. Those who wanted to walk a bit farther but not test their endurance joined the medium hiker’s group, and those who wanted to climb higher and walk farther formed the long hikers group. When all of us were ready for a walk, each group went its own way.

The weather was quite favourable. It was cool but not cold. A fresh wind was blowing but not strong enough to pierce through our clothes. The sky was cloudy, creating soft light and providing the opportunity to take quality photos. Nevertheless, patches of blue sky occasionally appeared in the clouds, and the sun’s rays joyfully broke through them to the ground, delighting us with bright light.

The old, slushy snow was dotted with traces of wild animals in places. One could see the tracks of reindeer, arctic foxes, birds, and even, in some distant spots, the huge paw prints of a polar bear. The snow was melting rapidly, and numerous streams ran down the slopes everywhere.

Where the ground had already freed itself from the snow cover, small purple clusters of flowers could be seen – the purple saxifrage, the very first flower, heralding the arrival of the late Spitsbergen spring. Tiny purple petals opened up, eagerly absorbing the cold northern sunlight. After all, these and other Spitsbergen plants have so little time. During the short summer, they must bloom and bear fruit, so as soon as the snow melts, the plants waste no time. By September, the snow will fall again, and they can sleep until June.

The high cliff rising above the shore served as home to many birds. From time to time, one could hear the cackling of barnacle geese and pink-footed geese. They had recently arrived and now were scurrying back and forth, occasionally landing to feast on last year’s grass and gather moss in their beaks to later line their nests with it. Brunnich’s guillemots, so similar to penguins, also flew back and forth. Somewhere high above, a glaucous gull – a pesky predator – wailed mournfully. And far away, the black-legged kittiwakes were chattering – cheerful gulls that love to nest on vertical cliffs.

We wove among large boulders, crossed snowfields, and, finding a spot with a beautiful view, contemplated the northern nature.

We also found time to peek into the hunting cabin with the sign “Texas Bar.” Spartan conditions, bunk beds, and a minimal set of kitchen utensils. No matter what, it’s better than staying in a tent. Here, a bear won't get in, you can light the stove, and the wind doesn’t blow through. A guest book lay on the table. Some of us made entries in it.

But the time for our landing was gradually coming to an end. We returned to the shore and put on our life jackets again. Goodbye, “Texas Bar”!

While we were having lunch, our ship Plancius moved to the far end of Liefdefjorden and stopped near the Monaco Glacier. After lunch, according to the plan, a Zodiac cruise along this glacier was to take place. While we were dressing warmly, our guides were lowering the Zodiacs into the water.

Whether the wind had strengthened, the proximity of the glacier played a role, or because you don’t move much sitting in the Zodiac, it seemed significantly colder here. We moved slowly along the front of the glacier, examining the huge masses of ice, cracked in places. Here and there, one could see bearded seals resting on ice floes. Unfortunately, they were quite far away, but through binoculars, one could see them quite well. Black-legged kittiwakes and Arctic terns, having chosen some ice floes, turned their heads watching us. The terns also chirped threateningly.

After about two hours, we, frozen but satisfied, returned to the ship. In the evening, Jan, our expedition leader, gathered us all in the main lounge and told us the plans for the next day, which promised to be no less interesting! Let's see what it brings us.

Day 4: Hinlopen Strait & Sorgfjorden

Hinlopen Strait & Sorgfjorden
Date: 09.06.2024
Position: 79°58.1’N / 017°16.2’E
Wind: SE 4
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: 0

We all enjoyed a great quiet night on board PLANCIUS sailing to our next activities. During the “night” we sailed along the north coast of Spitzbergen towards the east, entering the Hinlopen Strait, aiming for Alkefjellet. There the plan was to do a Zodiac cruise along a spectacular bird cliff, however, already from a distance we saw that it would not be possible to reach that place due to the ice conditions in that area. It was a beautiful quiet morning, sunshine, no wind and a lot of drift ice around us. Our expedition team decided to spend a couple of beautiful hours in the pack ice in the Hinlopen Strait in search of wildlife and by doing so, enjoying the great scenery.

For the afternoon Plancius sailed north, heading for Sorgjorden. The name was used since the 17th century as a reminder of the troubles that whalers had in this area due to ice or competitors. There a landing at a place called Eolusneset was planned. Once landed we split up in groups, offering different levels of hiking. Hiking was at that time only possible with snowshoes due to the flat and heavy snow-covered ground.

Right next to the landing site was a hill covered with huge rocks and a cross on the top. The cross was erected by a skipper of AEOLUS, a Norwegian sealing ship that was chartered by several expeditions to Spitzbergen which was trapped in the ice in Sorgfjorden in 1855. Behind we found an area with 30 graves, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, from the period of Western European whaling. The number of graves grew over the years as it was the same few selected places that were in use as burial grounds during the whaling era. All groups went pasted this most interesting feature of that area. Jan, our expedition leader, told us, how it looked underneath the snow, however, we had to come back later in the season because there was at least 40cm of snow.

Behind that hill was an old trapper hut, which looked from a distance quite intact, however, coming closer, the side facing the shore was broken and the hut was filled up with snow. It was amazing how tiny the hut was, however, for the trapper it was not the main hut, it was a hut, used only for days and not for weeks, so used as stepping stones for covering a bigger area. The sun was shining, and we all enjoyed the time on shore.

While being away in several groups we had also the possibility to perform a moment of silence, just staying in a comfortable position without any movement. It was so calm and peaceful. The sportive group covered a larger distance, however, all groups met at the landing site at the same time in order to go back to PLANCIUS. We enjoyed the evening onboard while sailing north.

Day 5: Phippsoya & pack ice

Phippsoya & pack ice
Date: 10.06.2024
Position: 80°41.4’N / 020°35.1’W
Wind: W 3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: 0

We’ve sailed north overnight. The landscape outside has changed. There’s fog, a stiff wind and it feels so much colder than previous days. The northerly wind is running for hundreds of miles over a frozen pack ice before reaching us and we can tell by the outside temperature and chilling effect of the wind. Is hard to hold onto cameras or binoculars unless well wrapped up. We are in Phippsøya, one of the Seven Islands, north of the Svalbard archipelago.

Lost in the fog, an unusually dark iceberg. What is that? Walrus! A number of these charismatic blubbery seals has climbed on an ice flow. They are crammed on top of it. The piece of ice seems to be defying physics by keeping together under such weight. They look at us, heads bobbing about and suddenly one of them gives up and jumps in the water, the others follow. The walrus keeps an eye on us from the safety of the water, an environment where they are no longer limited by gravity and their weight, in the water they are no longer slow and clumsy…instead these huge animals are nimble and agile in the sea.

Our initial plan was to land here and had several hiking options planned but, the fog is making a landing too dangerous. We are after all in prime, Polar bear territory, and it would be impossible to spot one approaching in these conditions, as always, everything is done to prevent a bad encounter with a bear. As important as passenger safety is to look after the safety of bears and not expose them to a potential confrontation. For this, scouting and good visibility are essential. We wait. We waited some more and ultimately, the decision was made to leave Phippsøya and we set course north for the pack ice. On our way, we see more walrus hauled out on ice floes.

For a few hours Captain Ernesto weaves Plancius along leads in the drift ice, there’s a patchy fog that makes for variable visibility and difficult wildlife spotting. One of the expedition guides, KJ gives us a very detailed polar bear presentation and in the middle of it, surprise! A rare, bowhead whale surfaces right next to the ship and all passengers get distracted from their lecture. That was special, this is a species listed as ‘Depleted’ in the Marine Mammal Guide, with only 12000 individuals estimated in the Western Arctic.

We continue enjoying our ship cruise along the ice edge and then all of a sudden, the moment we have all been quietly hoping for, the PA system comes alive and our Expedition Leader, Jan brings up the good news… A polar bear has been spotted in the distance.

As we watch through binoculars into a receding fog, we see this beautiful animal resting in the ice, back towards us. It is so relaxed and seems to be laying next to a large stain. Perhaps he/she had a kill earlier and was full after finishing its prey. We all get the chance to see the animal rest, roll around, sit with his back towards us picking up a scent upwind. Eventually, he/she leaves slowly, walking away from us and into the fog…what a sight, this was a beautiful time!

To wrap up an unforgettable day, tonight is barbecue night, a large variety of food is served, salads, roasted veggies, meats of all kinds, roasted cheese, drinks, you name it. After dinner, tables are put to one side and music makes an entrance, we are so happy we can do other than dancing until late. What a day!

Day 6: Pack ice & sailing the continental shelf

Pack ice & sailing the continental shelf
Date: 11.06.2024
Position: 80°18.8’N / 008°42.3’E
Wind: N 4
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +11

Overnight we drifted close to the pack ice, meandering with the waves close to the last position registered last night. The visibility at the break of the day was also limited due to low clouds and grey skies. Overall, the day started slowly on board and a few people were already in the observation area. They were early hoping to spot some wildlife around the ship.

Jan our Expedition Leader, did his wake-up call at 07:30, half an hour later than usual given that today we would be planning to stay at sea with no activities outside the ship. With his energetic voice, he announced the new day as well as some of the parameters describing the outside conditions such as air temperature, water temperature and wind speed. Today we had a chillier morning and consequently, these parameters were very low compared to previous days.

We even saw a few icicles that formed along the railing of the ship.

Watching all this silently was Mathias who from the outside of the Bridge was watching since half an hour earlier, looking for wildlife with his binoculars. The sea was calm and looked dark grey and to our regret, no wildlife had been observed by Matthias.

As the clock ticked after the wake-up call, our ship burst with life. Shortly before breakfast was announced, there were already many guests with their cameras, looking around and making pictures of the landscape around us. To port side the sea extended limitless, undisturbed, while to starboard side, we had a big extension of pack-ice floating undisturbed. We sailed along this ice, during a good part of the morning until 12 when captain started to put an end to our visit to this region, given that we still plan to do two activities tomorrow, we started sailing back to the mainland of Spitsbergen.

The morning went by quite quickly and we were all amazed to see at least some wildlife of this region of the world. Perhaps the most interesting sights were those of Ivory Gulls, a beautiful kind of seagull -completely white- which is a kind of the holy grail of the enthusiasts and professional bird watchers. During the morning, guests and staff managed to spot three of these rare animals and even at the beginning of the afternoon, one came flying very close to the port side of our ship, at the height of the bridge.

During the afternoon we had the chance to hear two very good presentations. One was made by a guest, Dr. Udo Engelhard a climate scientist. In this presentation he emphasised about the importance of understanding not just climate change, but instead, becoming an active citizen demanding for the election of the right politicians to take the right decisions in the governments as well as in the economies of each country, aiming for a collective and not individual view of the problem. His talk was very provocative and left many -if not all- the participants with a big impression.

Later another presentation was given by our staff member, Paolo about the history of Svalbard. In his lecture he explained how this archipelago was first seen as a place to extract commodities such as whale oil, skins, and furs but later became a leading place to protect nature, and where scientists come to try to understand more about the climate, the ocean and the atmosphere of our planet. Today this is a place of vital importance into the understanding global warming and climate change. Paolo also spoke about the Treaty of Spitsbergen, a treaty signed by many countries that establishes the politics in the archipelago still today.

Last but not least, as we were preparing for our daily recap, our staff and the bridge spotted some distant whale blows in the horizon. As we came closer with our ship for a better view, we discover a numerous group of fin and minke whales as well as a possible humpback whale. The whole group consisted of about 30 individuals and they were feeding along the surface, just directly above the place where the continental shelf starts. The display we had was very memorable and as we started to enjoy whale watching, several dolphins appeared in the scene as well, joining the feeding whales. The dolphins charmed many of our passengers with their displays and we could see clearly their dorsal fins, their backs, heads and flukes. This spectacle lasted for about 30 minutes without interruption, making it hard for us to know where to see -there were whales appearing everywhere in front of the ship.

Dinner came shortly after the ship reassumed its course set by our officers and our heading went back to the south south-east. After dinner we had our daily recap and this time we were lucky to not be interrupted by wildlife. Thanks to that, Jan shared the program for tomorrow as well as supplemental information about what we did in the high arctic, the northernmost point of our course and the number of nationalities on board including crew, staff and passengers (30).

After Jan's recap, we learnt many incredible facts about walruses with Matthias. He was followed after by Tiphanie who did a brilliant recap about the different sounds and vocalisations of walruses. Finally, Eduardo closed the day making a short reflection about the fragility of our planet when seen from deep space, making it appear as a pale blue dot.

Day 7: Poolepynten & St. Jonsfjorden

Poolepynten & St. Jonsfjorden
Date: 12.06.2024
Position: 78°26.0’N / 011°56.3’E
Wind: NW 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

Good morning, M/V Plancius, today was already our last day. Time does really fly when you’re having fun!

Today we planned a landing at Poolepynten. A beautiful sandy stretch of land formed by tidal movements and influences from the currents. The shape is almost triangular and despite it being a made up of sand there is still a lot to see. The first thing that seems to be out of place is the sheer amount of wood that lies spread all over the place. Knowing that trees don’t grow in Svalbard the question that was quickly raised was; “Where does all this wood originate from”? Expedition Leader Jan explained that this driftwood mainly comes from the Russian continent. The trees are cut in the dense forests of the Taiga and once the branches and leaves have been removed, they’re sent to processing factories through rivers such as the Lena. Most trees are caught, but some aren’t and they end up in the ocean. Transported by the currents it takes 2-3 years before they reach the beaches of places such as Svalbard. The beaches are full of driftwood, so for early explorers, but also current trappers and hunters this wood offers easy opportunities to build shelter cabins and trapper huts.

Aside all the driftwood, Poolepynten also offers a large variety of wildlife. We saw many Arctic terns, Purple Sandpipers and some Snow Buntings. And before we forget it, Poolepynten also is a popular haul out for the impressive walrus. Today we had a nice group of walrus on the beach and others looked like they were posing especially for us in the water. The tusks of the walrus can be up to 1 meter in length and males can weigh up to 1500KG. That is a lot of blubber! They are the second largest seal species after the Antarctic Elephant seals.

After visiting the walrus we spent more time exploring this vast stretch of land. We encountered some reindeer which allowed us to come quite close, offering us great photo opportunities and we saw beautiful colored little flowers. What a beautiful morning!

After lunch we planned another landing. This time the plan was to hike at St. Jonsfjorden with a possible view of Gaffelbreen, a beautiful glacier just around the corner.

Our last zodiac shuttle was a proper expedition ride. Bumpy with some splashes coming over the bow, but it was a lot of fun as usual. On land the groups were divided in several hiking categories. From leisurely to a bit more sporty. During the hikes we had some close encounters with more reindeer and also ptarmigans were spotted. One of the medium hikes ended at the far most point of the beach where the glacier became partially visible.

However, there wasn’t more time to get closer as some guests had set their minds on doing a polar plunge. This is tradition during our trips as people really want to experience a dive in the ice-cold arctic waters. With a water temperature close to 0°C it was a real polar plunge and the brave ones who did it let some oooh’s and aaaaah’s escape when they entered the icy waters. But they all did it and they received a well-deserved applause from the less brave spectators ;).

At night a special dinner was served. The dining room was buzzing with chatter and laughter while we enjoyed our last dinner together. After our main course, Hotel Manager Aleks took the microphone and introduced to us his entire hotel team. Behind the scenes many of our crew are working hard to make the expedition a success and it is always great when they receive the appreciation they deserve.

Then it was time for dessert and yet more prosecco. At 21:00 Jan expressed his thanks one more time to the crew members and the captain spoke inspiring words before raising his glass. In the meantime, Sasha’s slide show had finally been exported. His beautiful images and videos of the trip made us realize once more how wonderful and special our trip had been. Some of us went to bed after, some went out on deck and others decided to enjoy Raquels’ services one more time ;).

Good night M/V Plancius, it was an intense but fantastic day!

Day 8: Disembarkation

Date: 13.06.2024
Position: 78°10.12’N / 014°19.28’E
Wind: NW 3
Weather: Light showers
Air Temperature: +8

All too soon we arrived back in Longyearbyen and it was time to say our goodbyes. The staff and crew took care of our luggage placing it carefully on the dock. We had our last breakfast aboard the Plancius then gathered the last of our things and headed for the gangway. We said goodbye to the whole team onboard and alighted the bus waiting for us to start the long journey home.

Thank you for your enthusiasm and support, but most of all for joining us on this exploratory North Atlantic voyage. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!

Total distance sailed: 932.5 nautical miles

Farthest north: 80°51’14.21N / 019°26’33.65E

On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Ernesto Barria, Expedition Leader Jan Belgers, Hotel Manager Oleksandr Lyebyedyev, and all the crew and staff of M/V Plancius, it has been a pleasure traveling with you!


Tripcode: PLA02-24
Dates: 6 Jun - 13 Jun, 2024
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Plancius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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