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PLA04-19, trip log, North Spitsbergen, In search of Polar Bear & Pack Ice

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation in Longyearbyen

Embarkation in Longyearbyen
Date: 27.05.2019
Position: 78°13’N - 015°36’E
Wind: NE4
Weather: Sunny
Air Temperature: +1

It was a wonderful sunny day in Longyearbyen when we made our way to the port. The little blue ship Plancius was already waiting for us at the pier. We watched how the luggage was craned on board, then it was time for us to walk up the gangway for the very first time. Hotel manager Zsuzsanna welcomed us and the friendly Philippine crew showed us to our cabins. We had some time to explore the ship before we all gathered in the Lounge for an introduction to the ship and a safety briefing by first officer Miia. Then the lines were cast off and we were under way, our adventure had begun. The colourful houses of Longyearbyen grew smaller and we sailed out into the Isfjord. The next program point was the practical part of the lifeboat drill. Equipped with warm clothes and our bright oranges life jackets we first mustered in the lounge and then went out on deck to inspect the lifeboats. Let’s hope that we will never have to see them from the inside again. After the drill we were in for a treat: The Captain’s Cocktail. We met our Russian captain Andrei Zybin and toasted with him and the expedition team to a successful and safe voyage. Shortly afterwards expedition leader Ali announced through the PA system, that a polar bear was spotted on land. Everybody rushed outside. Less than 2 hours into our trip and we watched our first polar bear. It was a male bear who had visited Longyearbyen during the night and was chased off by helicopter. When we saw him, he was walking up a snowy slope under steep cliffs. Unfortunately, he soon disappeared through a saddle, but Plancius sailed around into the next bay and after a while we could observe him from the other side. Still walking with purpose, we could appreciate how fast and easy he moved over the steep and snowy terrain. Dinner was delayed due to the polar bear, but nobody minded, in contrast we were impressed by the flexibility of the kitchen. When we finally sat down for dinner, we thoroughly enjoyed the three-course meal served by head chef Khabir. After dinner one more thing had to be ticket off, we were issued with rubber boots which would accompany us on our adventures and keep us dry and warm. Late in the evening the Midnight sun temped many on the outside decks. The sun wouldn’t set for the next 7 days. With beautiful light and stunning mountains, it was hard to find the way into bed.

Day 2: St. Jonsfjorden and Poolepynten

St. Jonsfjorden and Poolepynten
Date: 28.05.2019
Position: 78°31.1’N - 012°49.9’E
Wind: S1
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +3

Our first morning of the voyage started with the sound of Ali's voice, gently waking us at 07:15. After visiting the breakfast buffet, we were called to the lounge for our mandatory briefings. As we are operating in Polar bear territory, it is essential that we understand the risks, responsibilities and tricks necessary to keep us - and the wildlife - safe. The briefings also explained the Zodiac (small boat) operations, so we were all set to go ashore when we arrived at our intended landing place for the morning. Excited to begin our adventure on shore, we quickly gathered at the gangway and made our way into the Zodiac boats. Ashore, depending on the group we had chosen to join, we set off in different directions across the tundra, searching out views, wildlife and history as we went. The landscape was dotted with the occasional birds and Purple saxifrage bloomed beneath our feet. After more than 3 hours we were back down at the landing beach, with our lifejackets, and we took our Zodiacs to go back to the ship… lunch was calling us! In the afternoon due to the critical sea conditions the landing at Poolepynten was cancelled. However, thanks to the help of the Captain of the ship we had a really nice ship cruise in the area with some really close meetings with walrus. We spent few hours on the decks looking for fauna and taking pictures. At the end of the evening we went to the lounge to join another short animation about how to behave in the Arctic, prepared by AECO, the organisation for Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators and several short lectures produced by the guides on board about walrus and glaciers of Svalbard. At the end of the lecture it was time to go to enjoy and taste the good dinner prepared from the Chef onboard.

Day 3: Ny London and 14th Julibukta

Ny London and 14th Julibukta
Date: 29.05.2019
Position: 78°57.3’N - 012°03.8’E
Wind: SSW2
Weather: snowfall/overcast
Air Temperature: +1

This morning we landed at Ny London on Blomstrandhalvøya, the mining camp of the Northern Exploration Company led by Ernest Mansfield. In early 20th century a marble mining operation was started here, but the dreams of easy fortune were shattered just like the marble during transport back to the UK. We were told that a typical Arctic condition known as permafrost was responsible for the bad quality of the marble. The remains of the mining camp were still visible. After walking around the camp, we split into four hiking groups. We could all see the beautiful surroundings of Ny London with plenty of wildlife to be spotted such as reindeer, ptarmigans and purple sandpipers. After a rewarding lunch we sailed on to the 14th Julibukta where we had a split landing and zodiac cruise along the Bird-cliff and the 14th Julibreen. Under the watchful eye of our expedition staff we could walk around freely within a perimeter. Under the bird cliff mainly occupied by Kittiwakes we spotted an Arctic fox who popped up several times. The fact he (or she) was shedding the winter coat was a clear sign summer is coming to the Arctic. Cruising along the 14th Julibreen we could almost touch the clear blue patches of glacier ice that had calved off from the glacier. After a rewarding day outdoors, under sometimes true Arctic conditions, we had a recap where Ali explained the plans for tomorrow and Helene and Fridrik talked respectively about Reindeer and the Polar Fox. After spending much of the day outdoors, the dinner was very welcome.

Day 4: Pack Ice, Day 1

Pack Ice, Day 1
Date: 30.05.2019
Position: 79°57,4’N - 011°29.4’E
Wind: E1
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +5

It was already a lovely and sunny morning as Ali woke us up with her daily call on the ships speaker system. It was just a little above 0°C outside of the ship and the Expedition team was already scanning the horizon to find us a wandering Polar Bear. There was almost no wind in the morning and many of us went out on the decks, excited to what we could see during the day. We all had our binoculars with us and helped scanning the scene. As we reached the edge of the pack ice we had a wonderful and rich breakfast in the dining room which was served by Zsuszsanna and her lovely team. Captain Andrei was taking the ship slowly closer to the pack ice. We were on a more northerly position than we before expected by the ice charts Ali showed us in the briefing the previous day. That means that the ice edge due to the wind conditions was moving northwards. During the day in the early evening, just before re-cap we reached 80° North. On this position we were just about 1000km from the north pole. The expedition team was working hard in several shifts during the whole day to scan the ice permanently. We saw a lot of birds around the ship. Guillemots, Skuas and Ivory Gulls. And a special guest came along very close. Walrus. They were hauling out on the ice floes laying in the sun. They were absolutely relaxed and so the ship came really close to these big seals of the northern hemisphere. A good chance to get the cameras set. But the Polar Bears seemed to be on vacation and not willing to show up. The time passed by as we spend most of the day outside and enjoyed the bizarre scenery of a huge icy desert laying in front of us. In the late afternoon Ali and Captain Andrey decided to leave the ice edge behind and try something different. The bridge team turned the ship around and we started sailing south to the opening of Raudfjord. There we were hoping to see some fast ice in the middle of the fjord and to get a good chance to see a Polar Bear around. The sun was still high up on the sky when the day turned to end slowly. Even though there were some seals on the distant ice there were no polar bears hoping to feed on them. Before dinner the ship was returning to the ice edge of the pack ice and Captain Andrei tried to keep the ship´s bow in the direction where the wind came from. The reason was that the Crew planned an Arctic Barbecue for us on the back deck of the ship. They tried very hard, but the wind became even stronger in the evening and so the decision was made to have an inside barbecue. We enjoyed the delicious food and went to the lounge for a good drink after that sharing our experiences of the day. Still one more day in the ice ahead of us and very happy we went to bed. What a day.

Day 5: Pack Ice, Day 2

Pack Ice, Day 2
Date: 31.05.2019
Position: 80°04.2’N - 010°17’E
Wind: E7
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: 0

On this Friday, the 31st of May we woke up around the edge of the pack ice. Our position was well above 80 degrees north and we could just barely see the mountains of Svalbard in the south. The weather was fierce, and though not optimal for cruising it gave us an idea how relentless the Arctic wind can be. Even when the gusts blew their worst dozens of brave passengers endured the cold to keep searching for Polar Bears in the seemingly endless landscape of the pack ice. During the morning Katja gave a presentation about polar bears and after several hours of scouting over the drifting ice to the west we turned east again and by 1500 Ali decided that we would make a try at finding wildlife around the fjords and islands at the northwest corner of Svalbard instead. A couple of hours of sailing in open water passed quickly with a presentation about Longyearbyen’s rich history by Vide. Around 17.00 we entered an area called Fair Haven which is almost like a small archipelago in itself. The beautiful scenery of the Fuglesongen, Klovningen and Norskoyane islands was an ease on our eyes after a few days in the strong white highlights of the icy wastes. Captain Andrei and Expedition Leader Ali decided to set our course for Fuglefjord and the mighty Svitjod Glacier but our cruise suddenly got interrupted as our very own Dr Veronique spotted a Polar Bear walking along the coast!!! As bear encounters go this was a great one. The young male was very active and displayed beautiful behaviour as he meandered, climbed and sniffed his way in a set of old bear tracks possibly left behind by a lovely smelling female bear. An intense photo session that lasted well over an hour ended by the bear going into the water to swim across the fjord. When bears are in the water it is our responsibility to keep them safe, so we turned the ship to leave him to continue. It was a lovely encounter for all of us and a great relief for the expedition team that had worked so hard over the previous days! This successful day was rounded off by a lovely cruise through the passages of the northwest corner and after we passed the many glacier fronts of the Smeerenburg fjord we eventually made our way to the Smeerenburg Glacier situated in Bjørnfjorden – The Bear Fjord. A most magical Arctic evening that left all of us – guests, staff and crew alike – full of strong impressions. A night to remember.

Day 6: Smeerenburg and Magdalenafjorden

Smeerenburg and Magdalenafjorden
Date: 01.06.2019
Position: 79°43.5’N - 011°00.9’E
Wind: SW6
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +3

This morning we woke up in Smeerenburgfjorden, ready to land on Amsterdamøya, an island where the historic Dutch whaling town of Smeerenburg is located. There we could see, just sticking out of the otherwise snow-covered ground, some of the ovens that they used to melt down the whale blubber in order to produce whale oil. We walked along the beach looking for other things of interest, some going on longer walks inland. Thankfully the morning was a sunny one with views of magnificent mountains in every direction. A walrus had been seen swimming just off shore and then decided to haul himself onto an ice floe not far from the landing site and he seemed happy to lay there and rest as we observed from both zodiacs and land. In the afternoon the course was set towards Magdalenafjorden, another historic area with remains from the whaling period, this time mainly English whalers, but also some incredible jagged mountain scenery as well as glaciers squeezing between the peaks flowing down towards the sea. When we landed at Gravneset, the tiny peninsula in the middle of the fjord, some headed on a hike towards the Gullybreen glacier, while others hung around nearby, enjoying the surroundings and looking for birdlife. After a little stroll the zodiacs came to pick up everyone to observe a group of walrus that had found a nice little beach to rest and digest upon. Some even caught a little whiff of the walrus… A nice wrap-up to the day was the daily recap where as usual Ali shared the plans for the next day and Tom took us back into the time of the whalers, sharing details of how it was like to be in Svalbard some 400 years ago. The Plancius then set course South, as the midnight sun lit the way!

Day 7: Alkhornet and Skansbukta

Alkhornet and Skansbukta
Date: 02.06.2019
Position: 78°09,1’N - 012°57,8’E
Wind: SE1
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +5

The morning started a bit earlier than expected when Ali announced that there where Belugas in the fjord. The lucky ones choosing to get up got a nice view of the white whales swimming around the boat. After breakfast we had a fantastic landing on Alkhornet. The mountain that more than 60,000 pairs of Brünnich’s Guillemot and Kittiwakes call their home. I think all the staff agreed it was the best landings they had ever done on Alkhornet. After landing we started walking towards the mountain where we got a close up with a group of reindeer. The reindeer were standing still and grazing and did not seem to notice the group of people that approached them. Many of us also enjoyed 5 minutes of Arctic silence, and it was nearly magical just listening to the thousands of birds around us. The silence also lured another animal out, and some of us got a very close view of an Arctic fox in summer fur. The fox was just running playfully around in the snow, and it did seem a bit surprised when it finally noticed us. At the end of the trip the bravest off us decided to really take advantage of the nice weather and go for a short swim. Crazy but brave! After a nice lunch we continued cruising into Isfjorden (The icy fjord). In front of Borebreen we discovered a group off 40 walruses laying on the ice. When we were all staying on the decks the galley team surprised with their special hot chocolate. I think we all very appreciate the nice warm drink with Sambucca! We continued cruising through Isfjorden, towards Ekmannfjorden while we enjoyed the magnificent glaciers and waters so calm that we could use it as a mirror. We are starting to feel that the trip is coming to an end when we are returning our lovely boots that have kept us dry for this last week. Later in the evening we were invited to Captains Cocktails which was a chance to meet with our Staff Captain Ernesto Barria and share his memories of this voyage which has brought us amazing glacier fronts, polar bears, walruses, foxes, reindeers and lots and lots of birds. It brought us 30 knot winds in Forlandssundet, but mostly we had calm conditions and sun. It has been a long week, and we might not remember all that we have seen, so it was very nice that Daniel had put together a slideshow of pictures for us. So, we could really sit down and think through all that we have experienced and it have been a lot. We have shared some amazing experiences and we hope that you take some very happy memories home with you.

Day 8: Back to Longyearbyen

Back to Longyearbyen
Date: 23.05.2024
Position: 78°13’N - 015°36’E
Wind: SE1
Weather: sunny

After a lot of commotion during the night from to the people who were on the 2:30 am flight, we woke far too early, at anchor in Longyearbyen, sad to know that we would be leaving the ship soon. Our last breakfast on board was much appreciated, as we didn’t know where our next meal would be coming from. After seven days of pampering we were back at the port of Bykoya in Longyearbyen, and it was time to say good-bye to the crew, the expedition team, but also to new-won friends. On the dock, we found our luggage and boarded the bus. A last farewell from expedition leader Ali and we dispersed, each of us setting off on our travels and flights, sad to be leaving, but full with impressions of the wonderful landscapes and wildlife of the Arctic. Total distance sailed on our voyage Nautical miles: 715 nm - Kilometres: 1345 km On behalf of everyone on board we thank you for travelling with us and wish you a safe journey home.

Have you been on this voyage?