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PLA04-18, trip log, North Spitsbergen Polar Bear Special

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Embarkation – Longyearbyen

Embarkation – Longyearbyen
Date: 04.06.2018
Position: 078°13’N / 015°36’E
Wind: WSW 4
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

Longyearbyen is situated at 78° north and, as such is one of the world’s most northerly settlements. It grew up as a coal mining town but now is home to around 2,000 residents who live and work here all year round. This number temporarily swells during the summer months with the arrival of thousands of visitors on cruise ships.

Some of us had arrived a day earlier than our departure day on board Plancius and had time to explore the town and maybe take a day trip but many of us arrived at the airport during the afternoon and only had a short time to visit the town before making our way to the port to join our ship for the coming trip.

We were met at the gangway by Ali, the Assistant expedition leader on board who embarked us 10 at a time up the gangway where we were taken to Reception to be checked in by our Hotel Manager Michael and his assistant Gabor. From here we were shown to our cabins by the very welcoming hotel staff and found our luggage already there.

We had some time to familiarise ourselves with our cabin before we were called to the Lounge for the mandatory safety briefing which was given by our 3rd Officer Luis Oroceo. This gave us all the information we needed about safety on board the ship and prepared us for the lifeboat drill that was to follow. We then had a briefing from our Hotel Manager, Michael who explained some of the procedures on board Plancius, our home for the week.

After the hotel briefing we heard the abandon ship alarm and gathered at the muster station, the Lounge, wearing our big orange life jackets, the only time we hope to be wearing them. After the roll call we were taken out to the lifeboats to see where they were located and how we would embark if required.

Out on deck we found ourselves departing the pier and on our way out of Isfjord heading north. We met in the Lounge once again to meet with our Captain Evgeny Levakov who explained a little bit about our forthcoming trip and then we toasted our voyage with champagne.

It was then a chance to meet the rest of the Expedition team, who will be guiding us safely here in Svalbard for this trip. We have an international team on board with a wealth of experience both here in the Arctic and Antarctica Our Expedition leader, Michael Ginzburg gave us a little more information about our plans for the trip. He showed us an ice chart and it was clear to see that the pack ice is a long way north this year so in order to find the bears we hope to see on this trip then that is where we must go.

It was then time for dinner, which was a chance to meet with our fellow passengers before our last task of the day which was to collect our rubber boots and zodiac life jackets from the boot room.

With 24 hours of daylight many of us enjoyed some time out on deck during the evening spotting Fulmars, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and the tiny Little auks. It was a very pleasant evening on board.

Day 2: Raudfjorden

Raudfjorden
Date: 05.06.2018
Position: 079°55’N / 011°05’E
Wind: NE 5
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

We woke to our first full day on Plancius with quite strong winds, grey clouds, and choppy seas. We had come North and then turned East overnight, and were now on the northern shore of Spitsbergen Island. In the morning, we started early with our Expedition Leader Michael (Misha) giving us a Polar Bear briefing, and now we all understand how important it is to follow the correct behaviour when a bear is sighted, whether on shore or on ship. He followed up with a briefing on the Zodiacs, our little black rubber boats that we will use for cruising and landing. Excited now to put our new knowledge to use, we hurried to our cabins to get ready for our first landing, at Alicehamna.

We all gathered at the gangway, where Doctor Nicolette helped us sort out our equipment before sending us down the gangway. We all made our way to shore and landed on a sandy and gravelly beach with some kelp and driftwood. Strange to see so much wood on the shoreline of a place with no trees; it comes from both the Atlantic Ocean, where the Gulf stream brings it North, and from the Siberian forests via the Arctic Ocean. We gradually got ourselves organised on shore, and split into Fast, Medium and Slow groups, each group lead off by one of our Expedition Team. All of us went past the Trapper's hut used by Stockholm Sven (now used by the Sysselman), admiring the creativity involved in building from driftwood. From there, we headed up the hill to Stockholm Sven's grave and incredible views, it wasn’t a bad place to be laid to rest. The longer walkers headed down the other side of the hill to walk along the beach inside the bay where snow conditions proved to be a little challenging with an icy crust and soft snow underneath. Everybody got a good look at some Purple Sandpipers and Grey Phalaropes along the beach before heading back to the ship for lunch.

After a short break, we came into Hamiltonbukta, but local conditions meant that we could not anchor where we wanted. Michael and the Captain considered the options, and the Captain repositioned the vessel to just off Buchannanbukta. With very little delay, we had our Zodiacs back on the water and we were ready to go again. This landing was on a small curved beach with low snowy hills behind. There was a bit of tundra showing through the snow, and we followed these trails on our various walks up the hill. The icy snow and meltwater forced us to redirect our various paths as it had in the morning, but conditions allowed us to manage longer walks, and we divided the group into smaller, multiple "Medium" groups. Up on the small summit ridge we could look down onto the fjord on the other side and indeed had 360° views of the surrounding mountains and Plancius in the fjord. We all had time to enjoy the views and take plenty of photographs before heading back down the hill to the landing site.

Back on board, we headed up to the Lounge for a drink and our first recap, where Michael gave us an AECO (Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) briefing, explaining how the association manages Arctic tourism for the benefit of both the environment and people like us. He then outlined our plans for tomorrow, when we will really begin our search for Polar bears. That evening, many of us stayed in the bar and had a quietly social night, downloading photos and making new friends.

Day 3: Andoyane and Monacobreen, Woodfjorden

Andoyane and Monacobreen, Woodfjorden
Date: 06.06.2018
Position: 079°41’N / 013°57’E
Wind: NE 5
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

As we were woken this morning we were sailing into Woodfjorden, where we planned to spend the day. Our first planned destination in the fjord was Mushamna where we could see a small trapper’s hut on the shore. This particular hut is still used by a trapper to this day, using it as a base to hunt foxes and seals. The conditions on shore weren’t ideal so Michael and the Captain made the decision to head further across the fjord and see what we could find elsewhere.

At the western side of the fjord are a series of islands known as Andoyane, the Duck Islands, which are often good for finding polar bears during the summer months. On approaching these islands in Liefdefjorden the staff were all out on deck on the lookout for polar bears and anything else that might be around. We circumnavigated some of the islands and suddenly a call came from a passenger with a telescope that a bear had been spotted on a very small island but it wasn’t just one bear it was a mum and her cub. What a great start to our search! They were still some distance away and we always have to approach mothers and cubs extremely carefully. We watched her walk across the island with her cub and then she entered the water and started swimming closely followed by her youngster. They were heading for a bigger island that would offer more protection. We tracked their progress with binoculars and the cub could be seen riding on it’s mothers back at times.

At this point a staff zodiac was launched and Ali and Marie set out to try and keep track of the bears when they came out on land while the ship repositioned to the other side in order to launch the rest of the boats. They managed to track them along the ridge of the island and then they disappeared over the hill. The search was back on! The zodiacs were launched and a with one group of zodiacs going one way and the other going in the opposite direction we hoped to find the bears on land again. Unfortunately, no bears were seen on the cruise but it was an excellent chance to appreciate the harsh condition that Arctic wildlife endures.

The cruise allowed us opportunity to see the island from up close and to get a feel for the environment, it was great to see various birdlife including Common Eider, Arctic Terns, Glaucous Gulls and an Arctic Skua.
After the cruise many had the chance to see the zodiac recovery operations from the water to the upper deck, this was followed by a well earned lunch and some warmth within the Plancius.

After lunch we continued further into Liefdefjorden and enjoyed a ship’s cruise along the front of the glacier of Monacobreen, it gave us the opportunity to fully appreciate the scale by viewing from the ship and see how the movement of glaciers has shaped the landscape. The glacier was named after Prince Albert I of Monaco and it was an impressive sight with blue icebergs floating in front of the ice cliffs and floating out into the fjord.

After spending some time taking photos it was time to head back out of the fjord and continue on our way in search of more bears. At 5.30 we heard a very nice announcement from our hotel manager, Michael that Happy Hour was starting in the bar so it was a cheery atmosphere as Charlotte’s rum punches were sampled and enjoyed! Recap followed the Happy Hour with Michael outlining our plans for tomorrow, Ali talking about women in the Arctic, particularly Christiane Ritter who came here with her trapper husband in 1933, Lynn telling us about ice and Frigga helping us to identify some of the more common birds we are likely to see here.

After dinner we were passing Greyhook, where Christiane Ritter lived with Hermann for a year and we could see the hut standing desolate on the shore. Many of us were glad to be in the comfort of Plancius…

Day 4: Hinlopen Strait

Hinlopen Strait
Date: 07.06.2018
Position: 079°42’N / 018°02’E
Wind: NNW 8
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: -1

We had all enjoyed a gentle night of sailing and as we were woken up by Michael this morning we found ourselves in very Arctic conditions with some snow and increasing winds. We had entered the top part of the Hinlopen Strait and beginning our search for polar bears. Staff had already been on scouting duties since 6am.

There was some brash ice and icebergs in the main part of the strait, which isn’t great ice for finding polar bears on so we then turned to our port side and entered the $$%% fjord where we could see some more promising looking ice. The wind and weather conditions weren’t ideal and with a wide band of broken brash ice stopping our progress further into the ice we cruised along the edge of it before turning back into the main Hinlopen Strait where the wind was increasing and reaching over 40 knots at times. It was very definitely Arctic conditions!

During the morning the visibility improved greatly and staff were scanning every stretch of ice in search of polar bears but it was challenging with the increasing wind, waves and broken brash ice.
At 10.15 Maria invited us to the lounge for a presentation about polar bears, their behaviour, breeding and feeding. It gave us a very good introduction to these iconic Arctic animals that we are all hoping to see during this voyage. There are around 3,000 polar bears around Svalbard and Franz Josef Land but their range and territories are huge so finding them is always going to be a challenge.

After lunch Michael, the hotel manager opened up the ‘Ship Shop’ so we could indulge in some retail therapy, buying postcards and T-shirts as a memento of our trip. Meanwhile the staff were still on watch on deck and on the Bridge scanning the ice with binoculars in search of a bear. Their job was ever more challenging as the winds continued to increase during the afternoon but the search continued as the Captain navigated through the ice and around the islands on the western side of the Hinlopen Strait.

At 4pm their efforts paid off and as we were sailing along the ice edge of s stretch of fast ice in %%$$ there was a call over the PA system that a bear had been spotted on the ice, a distant bear but still a polar bear. It was in a location close to the land which meant that Plancius couldn’t navigate any closer but staff on deck with binoculars, telescope and cameras ensured that we all had the chance to see the bear or at least take photographs of the general area it had been seen in and then zoom in to get out own ‘pixel’ bear. This process wasn’t helped by the wind and waves making the ship move and binoculars wobble as it gusted to over 50 knots at times but it made us all appreciate the environment that these polar bears live in as well as the efforts of the guides to find a bear for us!

Later in the day we were invited to the bar for Happy Hour with Charlotte and then for re-cap where Michael explained our plans for the coming days. With a huge storm system in the northern part of Svalbard and the pack ice a long way north he had discussed options with the Captain and they had decided to head south to Freemansundet and around Svalbard in the hope of finding better weather and polar bears on the ice that is still present in these areas. Ali then talked about what to look for when scouting for bears including some photographs from the afternoon which really confirmed how difficult they can be to spot but also how hard the staff were scouting to find them!

After dinner with the winds still blowing at over 40 knots we found ourselves sailing through some stretches of ice which were impressive to watch as they moved up and down on the swells of the sea. Many of us braved the cold and wind to take photos before warming up in the bar afterwards. It had been a truly Arctic day here in Hinlopen Strait!

Day 5: Freemansundet

Freemansundet
Date: 08.06.2018
Position: 078°12’N / 021°26’E
Wind: W 2
Weather: Cloudy
Air Temperature: +1

The day began at 07:30, when Misha woke us to calm seas and no wind. We had arrived at the Eastern end of Freemansund, the narrow passage between Barentsoya and Edgeoya, leading us back to the South eastern coast of Spitsbergen. This narrow channel has a very strong current, and combined with the previous strong winds, we did not know where the ice might be compared to our last ice chart. Because of this, the Captain was on bridge from very early in the morning, commanding the ship and looking for a good way through the ice. Expedition staff were also up early, on the lookout for wildlife on shore, the ice or the open water around us.

Our morning started with people out on deck on wildlife watch, then later in the morning we took advantage of the good conditions to land at Sundnesset, at the western end of Freemansundet on Barentsoya. We again broke into groups, and set off on walks, exploring the area. There were a surprising number of whalebones up high, on the ancient raised beaches, and the extra nutrients made this a good location for flowering plants. Purple saxifrage was flourishing, and there were plenty of reindeer grazing on the grasses and other vegetation. Most of us spent some time approaching the reindeer, to watch them as they grazed, and a few of us even got near to a newborn calf. Along the shoreline, King eiders were visible from shore, and Barnacle geese nested on rocky outcrops, flying up higher to graze near the reindeer. The wind picked up a bit while we were ashore, blowing in sharp gusts and chilling us down at the end of our walks. By the time we reached the lifejackets, we were glad to be heading back to the ship for hot drinks and hot food.

Lunch was appreciated and warmed us up again, so it was back out on deck searching. Misha had heard from another vessel that there was a bear in the area, so we went looking, and found one on the inner edge of the sea ice. A fit looking bear, he or she was at first laying down on the sea ice, closer to the shore than to us. The animal then gradually woke, and walked slowly along the ice, probably looking for food. We watched for a while, but the bear lay down again and appeared to go back to sleep, so we left to check out a couple of walrus. There were two together, on a very small ice floe. Laying head-to-toe, they were younger animals with half-grown tusks who barely raised their heads to check out the big ship passing so close to them. After sailing past the walrus, we returned to see what the bear was doing. By this time, the bear was down again, rolling around, lying down properly, standing up, and finally settling in for another rest that looked like it was going to be a long one.

At that point, we headed South, across Freemansundet looking for walrus, bears, and any other wildlife we could find. The evening was beautiful, with still, calm, mirror-like seas, beautiful light over the mountains of Spitsbergen, and incredible reflections of the mountains of Edgeoya in the waters around the vessel. There was a lot of fast and pack ice blocking our access to Edgeoya, so after sailing along the coast admiring the views, we turned for the Southern end of Spitsbergen, sailing across Storfjorden towards the southern tip of Spitsbergen, aiming for Hornsund in the morning.

In recap, Maria provided an interesting outline of the Svalbard reindeer, a special subspecies, with some interesting adaptations. Detlef followed, speaking on the local geology and how it was formed, and then Ali helped us understand some of the amazing birds we have been seeing as we travelled. After dinner, we were in open water, steaming South west in brilliant sunshine and calm seas, thoroughly enjoying the weather.

Day 6: Gäshamna

Gäshamna
Date: 09.06.2018
Position: 076°57’N / 015°45’E
Wind: 1
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

During the night we had sailed right around the southern part of Svalbard and were heading up the west coast sailing to Hornsund where we planned to spend the day. Our day started with a wakeup call by Misha followed by another hearty breakfast to prepare us for the days activities.

As we entered the main fjord system of Hornsund we turned to our starboard side and made our way to the anchorage off Gäshamna where the expedition staff went ahead to the beach and scouted for bears amongst the many areas that they can hide in the area.

Once the area was declared safe the zodiacs then took everyone ashore where we then split into our usual hiking groups.

Ali and Julia led the long hike along the beach to a narrow gap between the rock cliffs. There lying on the gravel was the carcass of a very unexpected bird, a Eurasian crane that had obviously been blown off course during its migration and ended up on Svalbard. There is no way a bird like this would survive up here so sadly this was its final destination. From here the group continued along the coast past the ruins of a Pomor settlement. The Pomors were from the White Sea in Russia and came to Svalbard in the 17th century in order to hunt and fish. They made themselves very comfortable here with well-made huts with brick stoves and chimneys, the remains of which we can still see today. They long walk then took them through some interesting rock structures that felt like the surface of the moon before going up the steep rocky slope to an excellent viewpoint where everyone enjoyed the tranquillity of the location. Some Arctic Silence.

Lynn, Adam, Misha and Frigga took the medium hikers on a similar route around the coast to the Pomor remains and to enjoy the views to the far shore and bay beyond. The horn of Hornsund standing out clearly across the fjord making for dramatic scenery. Detlef and Maria took the short hike and enjoyed plenty of time with the remains of the whaling industry on the beach and along the shore line to the cliffs on the beach. It was the Dutch and the English who came here whaling and the remains of the blubber ovens and the whale skulls could be clearly seen sticking out of the snow.

Shortly after landing we were treated to the sight of 4 Beluga in the bay including a calf. They are often found in these large fjord systems and we were lucky to see them quite close to the shore. A bird cliff near the beach gave us the chance to hear the noise produced from a large number of Kittiwake that nest there.

The ship repositioned during lunchtime to Burgerbukta, an inner bay of Hornsund, Wedel Jarlsberg Land. This area was named after the court photographer of Count Wilczeks expedition to Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya in 1872.
At 2pm 10 zodiacs were put in to the water and in 2 groups we began an enjoyable cruise of the fjord to the Paerlbreen glacier. The cruise gave us the opportunity to see up close some beautiful blue ice bergs calved from the nearby glaciers and we could also hear the popping as the trapped air was released. At the front of the glacier there was thick brash ice and many of the drivers switched off their engines and drifted in the ice enjoying the quiet and just the cracking of the ice all around. On the Western side of the fjord we could see the tracks of a polar bear that continued for some time but unfortunately, we didn’t find the owner of the tracks!! An array of reddish colours could be seen in the rock as we headed towards the glacier which were caused by iron deposits within the rock. A couple of groups were lucky enough to see a Bearded seal on the ice but these are quite shy creatures and it didn’t stay on its ice floe for too long!

After we returned to the ship we had a short rest and then re-cap, where Michael outlined our plans for tomorrow, Maris told us a story about ice, air bubbles and kittwakes and Frigga explained more about the whaling industry on Svalbard. This was followed by a well earnt BBQ served on Deck 3 aft. The warm food was just what was needed while we enjoyed the spectacular scenery and reflected on the trip so far.

Day 7: Poolepynten and Alkhornet

Poolepynten and Alkhornet
Date: 10.06.2018
Position: 078°26’N / 011°56’E
Wind: E 3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +2

During the night we had sailed north past the entrance to Isfjord to the strait between Prins Karls Fjordland and the mainland, known as Forlandsundet.

As we woke up and went for breakfast the Captain anchored Plancius off the gravel point known as Poolepynten. Our mission for the morning was to visit the Walrus that often haul out on the low-lying spit of land and even from the ship we could see that they were at home. After breakfast we were invited to a briefing about our approach to viewing Walrus and our procedure for the morning was explained.

The first group was soon ashore with the guides and we made our way along the beach which was covered with driftwood, most of which has come from the forests of Siberia and travelled around the Arctic region on the circumpolar currents. We could see Arctic terns gathered by the pond having just arrived from Antarctica to breed for the summer season. We saw some birds mating, certainly getting ready for the short season ahead.

As we got closer to the Walrus we made a line which was controlled by the guides and we slowly made our approach. We could smell the Walrus before we could see them and as we lined up between the navigation marker and the hut we could see over 60 Walrus, all males lying together in a pile. The females and calves are currently out on the sea ice to the east and north as the calves are born in May and June. These males were mostly just sleeping and scratching but occasionally one would try and climb over the pile and those being squashed by 1500kg of blubber would grunt and grumble, raising their tusks and giving us a very nice show. There were a few Walrus in the water and one made its way into the sea by rolling over like a sausage, an easy way to move a large volume of blubber. We could see young males and older, mature bulls, distinguished by the lumps on their necks, ‘bosses’ and by much longer tusks. It was a real privilege to be able to spend time with these marine mammals and enjoy watching their interactions in the group.

After everyone had enjoyed their time slot with the Walrus we all were back on board in time for lunch and then it was time to settle accounts with Michael, our Hotel Manager to pay for all the drinks, megabytes and souvenirs as we sailed south once again for our final landing of the voyage at Alkhornet.

We went ashore just after 4pm and, as usual we split into our regular walking groups with the long hikers heading up the hillside to the bird cliffs while the medium hiking groups all headed off in different directions to explore the tundra area below the huge Horn of Alkhornet. The cliffs are home to thousands of Kittiwakes and Guillemots and we could see and hear the birds as they flew to and from the colony and settled on their nest sites high above. The guano they produce allows rich tundra vegetation to grow on the lower slopes which in turn provides food for Reindeer and geese and also ensures there is enough food for Arctic fox during the summer months in the form of eggs and chicks.

All groups enjoyed the views of the bird cliffs and watched the Kittiwakes gathering grass to build their nests on the cliffs high above. Some were lucky enough to have close encounters with the Reindeer grazing on the vegetation and some even had a glimpse of an Arctic fox as it made its way back to its den in the rocks. One group even saw a couple of very young cubs sneaking out of the den as the female came back to feed them. These encounters are pure luck and chance.
All too soon it was time to head back down to the landing site but the excitement wasn’t over for the afternoon as some brave souls took a Polar Plunge, taking a swim in the freezing waters of the Arctic! Well done to everyone that too part in this!

Back on board we were invited to Captains Cocktails which was a chance to meet with our Captain Evgeny Levakov and share his memories of this voyage which has brought us Polar bears, albeit distant and all the other wildlife that Svalbard has to offer. It brought us 50 knot winds in Hinlopen Strait and glassy calm conditions in Freemansundet. We had the full range of weather and experiences and we hope that you take some very happy memories home with you.

Total distance sailed on our voyage:
Nautical miles: 977nm
Kilometres: 1809km

On behalf of everyone on board we thank you for travelling with us and wish you a safe journey home.

Details

Tripcode: PLA04-18
Dates: 4 Jun – 11 Jun, 2018
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Plancius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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