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PLA03-24, trip log, North Spitsbergen Explorer - Versatile landscapes, sea ice & wildlife

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Longyearbyen - Embarkation Day

Longyearbyen - Embarkation Day
Date: 13.06.2024
Position: 78°14.2’N / 015°36.9’E
Wind: S3
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

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. The day was suitably Arctic with clouds and mist – but with a few sunny patches too. On board we all checked in and were quickly escorted to our respective cabins. We excitedly started exploring the ship and wandering the decks enjoying the views of Longyearbyen.

Once we were all aboard, we were invited to the lounge to take part in a mandatory briefing and abandon ship drill. After we completed the drill it was time for the ship to leave. At 18:00 we cast off and were on our way out of the harbour.

Whilst the crew made sure we left the harbour soundly, our expedition leader Jan Belgers invited us back to the lounge for the Captain’s Cocktails, where we met our captain Ernesto Barria, the 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. Our day was not done yet as after dinner we located the Boot Room and collected our Zodiac lifejackets and rubber boots. We were another step closer to being able to start our off-ship activities.

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: Smeerenburgjorden & Hamiltonbukta

Smeerenburgjorden & Hamiltonbukta
Date: 14.06.2024
Position: 79°49.5’N / 011°54.6’E
Wind: NW3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

We enjoyed and appreciated the smooth sailing during the night. Most of us had never spent a night onboard a ship and for that reason at least some were afraid getting seasick or whatever.

During the night we sailed north following the west coast. We woke up in the Northwest corner of the main island of the archipelago and approached a narrow passage, called Sorgatted between Spitzbergen and Danskøya. The coastline and the shape of the mountains differed completely from that in the surrounding of Longyearbyen, not flat on the top, now pointy. While approaching the passage, a Polar Bear was spotted and suddenly the whole ship was awake, some of us were still in bed at that time because it was not yet breakfast time. The bear was walking on a mountain slope and was quite hard to spot, however, most of us managed to have a look by the use of binoculars. It was great to see how he continuously walked in a slow pace, probably in search for something to eat. Later he went into the Magdalenefjord, and we continued, aiming for Sorgatted.

The passage was quite narrow so details of the coastline, like a small cabin and other landmarks could be seen well. We entered the Smeerenburgfjord, named after the whaling station of Smeerenburg on Amsterdamøya. We found ourselves suddenly surrounded by several glaciers, small bays and pointy mountains - beautiful scenery. We enjoyed being on the outside decks and trying to capture the surroundings in images. While cruising our expedition staff, well trained in spotting bears, was again successful in finding a polar bear, this time high up on a moraine. While it was hard to see, some managed by using the scope. That bear, likely a female with a cub, was not active at all and just resting.

After a good breakfast we continued cruising in Smeerenburgfjord and entered the Bjørnfjord with the huge Smeerenburgbreen. We spent a nice time with enjoying the spectacular scenery, with a lot of wildlife around us, Walrus and King Eiders, just to name the most special ones.

Later in the morning, we gathered in the lounge for our last mandatory meeting. We learned about Zodiac operations and how to behave in polar bear country. We sailed out of the fjord and cruised in between the many islands of the Northwest corner of Spitzbergen and entered the Raudfjord. As it was not a big distance that Plancius had to cover, we dropped the anchor soon after lunch at Hamiltonbukta.

After a good lunchbreak our expedition team offered us a Zodiac cruise in that beautiful bay. There was a lot to see, a glacier, small islands with breeding geese and a steep cliff which was home for thousands of Brünnich’s Guillemots and Kittiwakes. All of us explored the area and in the end returned to the bird cliff where an Arctic Fox searching for food. It was quite hard to spot because it was well camouflaged, not having a white fur, but instead a brown summer coat one. It was not only the scenery, but also the sound at that place which was special.

We all would have liked to stay but our expedition team was planning one more activity today, which was a ships cruise in the southern part of the Raudfjord. As we cruised the sky cleared to glorious sunshine with no wind. Plancius sailed south while a lot of experienced eyes kept watching in any possible direction. They found another polar bear, this time walking along the shoreline. With a bit of help we all managed to find the right spot. The light was perfect and the ship stable and we all watched as it entered a bay and escaped out of sight.

We continued our trip in direction of Raudfjordbreen. The landscape looked like a magazine advertisement for Spitzbergen, blue sky, no wind, white snow and a huge glacier. It was also the feeding ground for a lot of bird species, including Kittiwakes and Guillemots, to name only two. It was a great evening and for that reason the recap postponed twice, as it was much too nice to go inside. In the end, Jan offered a recap after dinner, and we learned the plans for tomorrow.

In the late evening hours, we went out of Raudfjorden in direction of our next adventures.

Day 3: Liefdefjorden – Texas Bar & Monacobreen

Liefdefjorden – Texas Bar & Monacobreen
Date: 15.06.2024
Position: 79°32.0’N / 012°34.4’E
Wind: NE2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

After a sunny and almost warm ending of our first day, we woke up with more appropriate Arctic weather. No sun, but clouds, a bit greyish and cold. Luckily, no wind so it didn’t feel so cold.

As it was weekend, our Expedition Leader Jan had decided it was a good moment to visit a bar. Texas Bar was the place we went and here we were offered different level hikes. A sportive one, a medium one, and a leisurely one for the guests that wanted to spend more time on photography and who would enjoy a gentle pacing.

Texas Bar was built in 1927 by Hilmar Nøis and Martin Petterson, Norwegian trappers who erected several other similar huts in the surrounding area. The name Texas Bar was randomly chosen and has nothing to do with being a real bar. However, in recent years guests and trappers started leaving bottles of liquor behind and now its bottle collection wouldn’t go amiss in a real bar.

The area is rugged and steep and has a lot to offer. We encountered breeding Arctic Skuas, and spotted a Ptarmigan and several beautiful flowers and mini trees such as the Arctic Willow.

After a proper leg stretch it was time for lunch as we needed to be ready soon for our afternoon Zodiac cruise at Monacobreen. This immense glacier was named by Prince Albert of Monaco back in the early 1900’s when he visited on a gentleman’s expedition. Aside naming Monacobreen he also named several other areas and glaciers in the area.

We boarded our Zodiacs and soon discovered how truly wide this glacier is. It is approximately 5km wide and stretches more than 40KM inland. We saw many bird species with Arctic Terns and Kittywakes the most numerous, but also Arctic Skuas and Glaucous Gulls. Here and there we also spotted Bearded seals and some boats even saw a seal “spyhopping”. This behaviour is more common with whales and dolphins, but this seal clearly didn’t mind copying this behaviour. Later we found some more seals resting on ice flows close to the glacier. The cold had gotten to some of us so after about 2 hours we returned to the ship.

The day wasn’t over though. Because soon after we had enjoyed our warm showers, Jan announced the sighting of the white whale - the Beluga! Initially we saw a few, but soon we saw dozens and it was estimated that we could easily have seen more than 200 individuals.

And just when you think dinner is over and it is time to relax or sleep, Jan came on the PA system again 😉. This time 3 polar bears had been spotted from the bridge. Close to shore were dolphin carcasses and this had attracted some hungry polar bears. Unfortunately, the bears weren’t close to the carcasses as they were higher up resting after probably eating for many hours. Yet we could clearly see the bears and despite them being a bit distant, these bears already accumulated the total number of polar bear sightings to 7 individuals in only 2 days.

What a great day we had again! Time to sleep as tomorrow awaits another exciting day! Good night!

Day 4: Hinlopen Strait - Alkefjellet and Torellneset

Hinlopen Strait - Alkefjellet and Torellneset
Date: 16.06.2024
Position: 79°35.1’N / 018°39.6’E
Wind: SE5
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +1

Overnight we repositioned the ship towards the Northeast side of the largest island of Svalbard. Early in the morning we entered the Hinlopenstrait and by 7:00 we had sight of one of the most impressive rock formations of the Svalbard archipelago, Alkefjellet which translates from Norwegian as "Mountain Guillemot" due to the large number of these birds nesting on its cliffs.

The wake-up call was done as announced at 07:00 by our energetic expedition leader Jan; by 7:30 breakfast had started. Our day would start with a Zodiac cruise along the cliffs of Alkefjellet offering a unique perspective of these cliffs to our passengers. Therefore, at 08:30 the expedition staff started to prepare the Zodiacs and all the materials and accessories needed for the cruise. One by one, ten zodiacs were launched from the aft deck using the ship's crane. Once all was checked by the staff and crew drivers, they approached our gangway and started to embark us in groups of up to 9. In this way, a small fleet of rubber boats started its approach to the southern side of the cliffs, an area where it is possible to see a waterfall dropping its water into the ocean. However, due to the time of the year, the waterfall was frozen and impossible to distinguish among the snow that still is covering the place.

Our first impression was of the giant columns of rock. What we were seeing was a cross-section through central parts of an intrusion composed of doleritic basalt. This intrusion has its origin in an ancient volcanic eruption sometime between 150-100 million years ago during the Jurassic or Upper Cretaceous. The sudden injection of the material created the columns we saw while the precise form of the rocks is due to its chemical composition. During our cruise was possible to see a horizontal layer of sediments with a clearer color. These sediments have their origin in the Permocarboniferus, a time before the intrusion of the doleritic basalt.

The cliffs are about 100 meters high and are populated by around 70,000 pairs of Brünnich Guillemots. There are also some hundreds of Glaucous Gulls and Kittiwakes and a couple of fox dens. Sadly, during our visit we did not see any of the curious foxes that live there.

Our cruise went ahead in light snow with great light conditions and a very calm sea. We enjoyed the activity very much and the last Zodiac was back to the ship around 12:00. As we were hoisting the last one on board, the sky started to turn from a dull grey color into a beautiful cobalt blue.

After a good meal, we sailed further towards the southwest area of Nordaustland, the second largest island of the Svalbard Archipelago. Here on the eastern side of the Hinlopenstrait, we found the small cape of Torellneset. Our navigation towards this cape was uneventful and our nightmares of finding it covered with ice disappeared as we approached the area. We had two reasons to visit this place. The first was to explore the unique landscape that this place offers - the polar desert. The second was to have a closer look at a colony of walruses that haul out on its gravel beach.

Under perfect weather and sea conditions, we landed at the south side of the cape. The impact of the landscape kicked in quickly. Barren and devoid from any features, the polar desert is perhaps the closest we are likely feel how it might be to visit another planet. This landscape is composed by horizontal layers of very old sediments that can be dated back to the Permocarboniferous. The keen eye can discover easily fossil-rich rocks everywhere. We divided into four groups as we have been doing it for our walking activities. The first was the leisurely group, led by Jan and Koen Jongerling. The second was the sportive group, led by Matthias and Koen Hoekemeijer. Then we had two medium groups, one led by Sasha and John while the last one led by Tiphanie and Eduardo. Each group had the chance to walk around the landing site for about an hour. All were deeply moved by the landscape, barren and desolate. Eduardo described it to his passengers as a magnificent desolation.

Eventually all the groups converged close to the place where the walruses were piled together. In silence, each group approached the walruses respectfully and enjoyed some time close to the animals. We managed to see several dozens of these Queens of the Arctic, displaying their tusks and their noise repertoire.

We returned to the ship around 18:00 and soon, dinner was announced. After dinner we enjoyed our daily recap with Jan, informing guests about the plans for tomorrow and Matthias and Tiphanie, describing many interesting facts about Walruses such as their physical properties and the noises they produce.

Our day ended sailing under extraordinarily good conditions towards the Seven Islands, the place intended for our activities tomorrow.

Day 5: Sjuøyane & Pack Ice

Sjuøyane & Pack Ice
Date: 17.06.2024
Position: 80°41.9’N / 020°26.5’E
Wind: NW2
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +3

We again crossed the 80° North meridian at around midnight, but this time with the intention to keep going north until we reached the pack ice. One the way we planned to visit The Seven Islands (Sjøyane) to see if a landing was possible.

As it turned out, in the open pack ice in the vicinity of The Seven Islands, a female Polar Bear with cub was spotted. Jan was on the PA even before the wake-up call to let us know. We made our way to the outside decks and watched through binoculars or the telescope. They were obviously resting, so to ensure that we did not disturb them, we kept our visit fairly short. What a super way to start the day! We were buzzing at breakfast.

We could see the Seven Islands under the clouds, but as we turned to approach them, we were immediately enveloped in a thick bank of fog. Jan and the Captain persevered, and we slowly made our way eastward, until the ice and the fog made it clear that no landing was possible. At that point we turned back to the north to try to find the edge of the ice pack. Along the way J.K educated us on the Ways of the Polar Bear with the assistance of one of us, Gert Polet, who works for the World Wildlife Fund. He showed some of the techniques used by Polar Bear researchers including the ability to extract DNA from the bear’s footprint. He showed a video of a tracked female bear who had travelled on the sea ice edge from Svalbard out through Franz Joseph Land to islands off Siberia – and back. Amazing.

As the afternoon continued, the day remained windless. This was both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, we made our way over the mirror-like sea past the floating sculptures of ice floes. It was again like being on another planet. But there was no breeze to blow away the fog. We kept a hopeful lookout as John gave his talk on The History of Svalbard and were rewarded with a brief sighting of a Bearded Seal.

The galley and dining rooms teams had prepared a special treat, so we dressed warmly and gathered on Deck 3 aft for a barbeque dinner including hot spiced wine. As soon as we had finished the expedition team got busy clearing the tables to create a dance floor. Unfortunately, neither the heat of the barbeque nor the energy of our dancing was enough to chase away the fog, but it was delicious fun. Plancius set her course westward overnight in search of clearer skies and pack ice.

Day 6: Pack Ice & Sailing the Continental Shelf

Pack Ice & Sailing the Continental Shelf
Date: 18.06.2024
Position: 80°41.9’N / 020°26.5’E
Wind: SW3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +3

After the BBQ last night, we appreciated the late wake -up call this morning. Jan informed us that we were sailing along the pack ice age. How exciting! After a hearty breakfast we headed up to the lounge and the outer decks. Unfortunately, we found Plancius to be bathed in fog which moved in and out at intervals. The crew and staff worked hard to spot wildlife for us as the fog density changed. Later in the morning we watched an interesting documentary about using spy cameras to watch polar bears. The footage was amazing!

After the documentary we spent some more time out on the decks or in the lounge watching the ice go by. At one moment we were clear of the ice but then we ran into a new field of ice that was much thicker. The ship slowed to less than 2 knots, grinding against the ice floes as she pushed her way through to the clear ocean on the other side. It was exciting to see Plancius challenged, and we all rushed out on deck to enjoy these final moments in the pack ice. Upon escaping the ice field, we began to pick up speed and started steaming our way south on a mill pond sea. As we pushed south the fog slowly cleared and we could see the way ahead finally. The sun even started peeking out and suddenly it was like we were in a different world, and it felt much more summery outside.

After a quick lunch many of us took to the decks again. There was a variety of bird life passing us by including flocks of Little Auks, Guillemots, Northern Fulmars and even one Puffin! In the late afternoon we were called back to the lounge for our final event of the day which was a climate change lecture by our AEL Eduardo. His lecture was fascinating and gave us a lot to think about.

As we steamed further south, we eventually made our way to the continental shelf where we started to see all sorts of animal activity. First, we were joined by White Beaked Dolphins all around the ship and then we started to see big blows of whales. Next thing we had a group of fin whales around. Their blows were huge without any wind. One even came right close to the ship! It was so exciting! We spent the rest of the evening looking for whales and for the grand finale we were treated to a blue whale! It was huge! We all watched it slowly swim by and considered what a wonderful day it had been. What will we see tomorrow?

Day 7: Ship Cruise & Alkhornet

Ship Cruise & Alkhornet
Date: 21.07.2024
Position: 78°1320’N / 013°51.6’E
Wind: NE4
Weather: Partly cloudy

All night long, our ship Plancius, gently rocking on the slow oceanic waves, sailed along the west coast of Spitsbergen, rounding the elongated island of Prince Karl Foreland, the westernmost island of the entire archipelago. In the morning, we had planned a landing at a place called Poolepynten – a perfectly triangular sandy cape. The morning was sunny, with a fresh, at times overly fresh, northernly wind blowing, and the water had a turquoise hue.

While we were having breakfast, the expedition team launched the Zodiacs, loading them with all the necessary equipment for our landing. The sailors lowered the gangway... and then the first wave that washed over the platform at the bottom of the gangway swept all our plans for the morning into the sea. The thing was, the rolling was slow but quite significant and strong, causing our expedition leader to have doubts about whether to take the risk. A Zodiac approached the gangway, but only for our guides to further confirm that the operation was unsafe – the Zodiac would rise on the wave and then drop when the wave retreated. The amplitude of the oscillations was almost around 1.5 meters. No, tempting as the prospect of walking on the sand and seeing walruses for the second time during the trip was, it was not worth it.

Jan, our expedition leader, made an announcement over the PA system, informing us that the landing was cancelled. Of course, we were all a bit disappointed, but alas, such are the whims of Arctic nature. We just must accept them. We raised the anchor, lifted the gangway, returned the Zodiacs to the stern of the fifth deck, and Plancius gradually picked up speed, heading towards Alkhornet, where we had an afternoon landing planned.

The passage took three hours, but the morning's misfortune ultimately worked in our favor because it allowed us to shift our lunch to an earlier time and, consequently, to land at Alkhornet earlier than originally planned.

The landing went smoothly – the ocean swell did not penetrate this part of the fjord, so our Zodiacs glided on the water without any issues. On shore, we divided into several groups and set out to explore the area. There was a lot to see. There were historical sites, such as the remnants of blubber ovens and several graves of unfortunate whalers who never returned home from this dangerous trade. The main attraction was, of course, nature. The peak of Alkhorn itself was a gigantic vertical cliff, home to thousands and thousands of Guillemots, Kittiwakes, and Northern Fulmars. Below it lay a picturesque section of tundra, covered with a true carpet of moss and grass. Naturally, there were reindeer as well. How could they ignore such a wonderful pasture? Some reindeer allowed us to get very close and even approached us out of curiosity. Some of us were even luckier and managed to see a whole litter of Arctic Foxes. The tired mother either sat still or wandered among the rocks, while the kits ran around her in circles, playing tag with each other.

Time, though we had more of it than initially planned, inexorably came to an end, and we returned to the ship, where a farewell dinner, the captain's speech, and a slideshow with highlights of our expedition awaited us.

Day 8: Disembarkation

Disembarkation
Date: 20.06.2024
Position: 78°14.0’N / 015°37.4’E
Wind: SSE3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +5

All too soon we arrived back in Longyearbyen. Almost half of us were staying aboard for the next voyage but for the rest it was time to say our goodbyes. The staff and crew took care of our luggage, battling the strong, gusty wind and rain to transport it by Zodiac to the dock. We had our last breakfast aboard the Plancius then gathered the last of our things and headed for the Zodiacs ourselves. The drivers did an excellent job of keeping us as dry as possible. We said goodbye to the whole team and took the buses waiting for us to start the journey home or to our next adventure.

Details

Tripcode: PLA03-24
Dates: 13 Jun - 20 Jun, 2024
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Plancius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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