PLA05-15 Trip Log | North Spitsbergen - Polar Bear Special
30.06.2015 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Since Longyearbyen’s foundation as a coal mining settlement in 1906 by John Munro Longyear, it has been the starting point for many historic and pioneering expeditions
Our adventure began as we gathered in the rain at the floating dock to wait for an exciting Zodiac ride to M/V Plancius, our comfortable floating home for the next seven days. Once onboard we made our way to reception where our Hotel Manager Andre and his assistant Heidi greeted us and the hotel staff showed us to our cabins.
Once everyone was confirmed to be onboard we gathered in the lounge to be welcomed by Brent our Expedition Leader and his assistant and trustworthy translator Christian. Andre soon joined us and gave a quick talk to describe the layout of the ship and inform us of all the interesting things we would need to know for our stay aboard. The most import was of course the location of the coffee and hot chocolate machine.
Our Chief Mate Janus presented a mandatory safety briefing before the lifeboat drill which provided an opportunity for dressing up and getting to know each other as we huddled together like orange-breasted sea birds on the deck, peering into lifeboats.
With all guests, their baggage and the Pilot safely on board, we departed shortly after 1800 and as we cruised into Isfjord we spotted several fulmars, black guillemots an Arctic skua and even our first Atlantic puffin!
After a short while we returned to the Lounge where the rest of the expedition team were introduced and Captain Alexey gave a toast to the success of our voyage.
Before we were called to dinner it was advised that we take necessary precautions against sea sickness as the conditions were forecast to become a bit rougher as we sailed out of Isfjord and into open seas on our journey north. This proved sage advice and despite best intentions, several of us decided it would be more advisable to leave dinner early.
A few hardy souls braved the conditions and remained up in the bar for a while longer before retiring to their cabins to get some sleep prior to tomorrow’s activities.
After a bumpy night we awoke to relatively calm conditions; we had arrived in Krossfjord, a northern branch of the mighty Kongsfjord. Due to the wind conditions this was the only area available to us to attempt a landing.
After the first sumptuous breakfast of our trip we spent some time out on deck, awed by the impressive and windy scenery we were sailing through. Shortly after 1000 we were called inside for the first of several compulsory briefings. We all watched and listened attentively as the AECO animated briefing was shown on the TV screens before Rupert took centre stage and gave an informative talk about Polar Bear safety.
A short break followed before the handing out of our rubber boots began. Deck by deck we were called to the boot room where we got to try on many different pairs of boots before settling on one which might safely see us through the trip with dry feet.
Some of us managed a short time outside in the very windy conditions before lunch was announced and we made our way to the dining room.
The wind was certainly in control of our plans this afternoon as the Captain navigated Plancius into several fjords looking for conditions that were calm enough to attempt a landing.
Blomstrandhalvøya proved to be our best and last chance to attempt a landing and after slowly and carefully embarking the zodiacs we were shuttled ashore mid-afternoon.
Blomstrandhalvøya is the site of an abandoned marble quarry which was set up by the Englishman Ernest Mansfield and was in operation for only a few years in the early 1900s. We separated into several groups with two groups heading further inland to stretch our legs and to attempt an approach towards some reindeer before wandering back through the historic remains. The last group were content to spend their time investigating the remains of the mining operation and searching for flowers which are just coming into bloom.
The wind had dropped slightly as we returned to Plancius however the swell still remained and as we sailed out into the open seas again Plancius once more began to roll.
After an interesting recap where we learnt about Glaciers from Andrew and Tobias and Brent informed us about our plans for the next few days it was time for dinner and a quick visit to the lounge before we retired to our cabins for the night, ready and eager to see what tomorrow would bring.
The weather was again inclement as Brent made his morning wakeup call. With low cloud and a moderate wind outside we sat down to breakfast as several of the guides took two Zodiacs to scout around Andøyane (Duck Islands). While they were out a Polar bear was spotted from the bridge and upon confirmation by the scouting staff we lowered the rest of the Zodiacs for an impromptu Zodiac cruise.
Once very warmly dressed we boarded the Zodiacs and slowly made our way to land, hoping to get some protection from the wind and the waves it was generating.
After a very well-staged approach to the bear we were able to spend a good half hour observing it from quite close as it dug a small shelter in the snow and settled down to doze the morning away. He was not at all disturbed by our presence thanks to our relative silence and barely noticed our departure.
After re-boarding Plancius it was straight to the showers for some of us to warm up as the Captain sailed us into Woodfjord to the fast ice, hopeful to spot another bear.
The weather did not cooperate with heavier rain and fog obscuring our view so we changed course and made our way to Leifdefjord to hopefully see the Monacobreen glacier.
While we were relocating Andrew and Tobias gave a talk about glaciers and their formation and as they finished we were approaching some more fast ice. This didn’t deter the Captain and he deftly piloted Plancius through the rotten ice as the cloud lifted to reveal the spectacular scenery of Liefdefjord. A Bearded seal was spotted and thanks to the Captains skill and our quiet ship we were able to get spectacularly close viewings of this enigmatic animal.
Soon it was time to turn around and head out of Woodfjord and north to the Pack Ice.
As we sailed north through slowly quieting waters we made a quick stop at Moffen Island, a well know spot for Walrus to haul out. Unfortunately Moffen is a specially protected area so we were only able to approach to 300m and utilise our binoculars to see these large animals.
It seemed like we had only just got to sleep when Brent’s enthusiastic voice called us out onto decks, we had spotted our second bear of the trip!
It had been spotted moving over and swimming amongst the drifting sea ice. so after following it from a respectful distance for about half an hour we left it to continue its journey while our nearby sister ship Ortelius moved in to follow it further into the ice.
After a short nap it was time for breakfast while the staff scanned the surround area for signs of more wildlife. Their efforts paid off as another bear was spotted in the near distance, sniffing the air and moving in a deliberate and determined manner.
Again the Captain expertly manoeuvred the ship through the ice to shadow the bear from a distance. We were interested to see where he was travelling to and soon enough it became obvious with approximately a dozen seals hauled out and sleeping on the ice about a mile ahead.
Over the next few hours we were treated to an amazing display of predatory behaviour as the bear utilised its arsenal of tactics to get as close to the sleeping animals as possible, swimming under the ice from air hole to air hole, using the topography of the sea ice to hide its approach and always maintaining a fixed focus. Unfortunately for the bear but fortunately for the seals, he was not able to approach close enough to mount a final dash and instead nonchalantly decided to walk through the middle of the seals, watching as they all scurried for the safety of the water.
Lunch was once more well attended and afterwards, Rupert gave an extremely interesting talk about Polar bears, showing many beautiful slides as he divulged their behaviours and life cycle.
After a day of watching the passing scenery we made our way to the lounge for recap where Erin spoke about Ringed seals and Andrew explained how icebergs were formed and where the ones we were seeing might have originated from.
As a special treat a BBQ was held on the top deck of Plancius with complementary drinks. It was a merry affair well befitting our luck with the bears so far on this trip.
As a special after dinner treat a few Walrus were spotted sleeping on the ice and again the Captain piloted the ship closer so we could get some stunning photos before most of us decided to retire for the night, eager to get as much rest for tomorrows activities.
The early morning saw us approaching the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet, the nesting place of approximately 60000 Brünichs guillemot, Black guillemot, Kittiwake and Glaucous gull. The large dolerite cliffs are the perfect nesting site for these birds and directly after breakfast we boarded the Zodiacs for a cruise along their base to get closer views of these iconic animals.
For over an hour we drifted along with the wind as the fog slowly lifted to reveal the towering spires and interestingly coloured nesting ledges and slowly melting snow. It was simply amazing to see so many birds coming and going, filling the air with their calls, while Glaucous gulls attempted to find food by pulling the smaller guillemots off their ledges in search of eggs.
Towards the end of the cruise Beau spotted an Arctic fox running amongst the cliff gullies high up on the slope. We gathered in a group and watched him for a while and as Andrews zodiac approached the area his zodiac managed to spy another fox which was also on the hunt for food.
After a bumpy and somewhat wet return to Plancius we set sail further down the Hinlopenstretet towards the pack ice at its southern entrance. We encountered the ice sooner than expected and after a few hours sailing amongst the flows Brent and the Captain found a suitably large and stable piece of ice and the Plancius was parked into it. After the gangway was lowered the staff went out to scout a path and in groups of ten we set foot on the floating ice to take a few happy snaps and enjoy this unique experience as the Captain and several staff conducted ‘bear watch’ from on board Plancius.
Soon enough it was time to sail north again to try our luck one more time in the pack to the north of Svalbard. A recap by Tobias about the geology of Alkefjellet was cut short as a mother and pup Walrus were spotted sleeping on an ice floe in front of the ship. The captain again demonstrated his skill as we approached to a respectful distance and observed the pair relax in this stunning environment. The mother was cautious but unconcerned at our clicking cameras and awed whispers and after an adequate amount of time we slowly drifted away to continue our journey north, quickly ducking into Wahlenbergfjord to see if we could spot any more bears on the fast ice. There were lots of seals but unfortunately no large fluffy moving bits of ice.
Once more we woke to the ship gently crunching through the surrounding ice. All eyes were out on deck, eager to be the first to spot another bear. Slightly after 1000 one was identified slowly walking amongst the blocks of ice towards the ship. It was obviously curious about this approaching blue and white behemoth.
Once again our quietness paid off as the bear decided to approach quite close to Plancius for an investigation before continuing to follow the ice edge and make his way to the back of the ship. After quickly relocating ourselves at the stern we managed a few more photos before the bear decided we were not that interesting and continued on his way, ploughing through the deep snow and swimming across the open leads and off into the distance. This suited our plans quite nicely as it was time to turn south for our planned afternoon landing at Smeerenburg, the site of an early Dutch whaling settlement that was established in the early 1600s.
After lunch and a short rest, two lectures were put on. Chris was in the Dining room to talk about Polar bears in German while Andrew spoke about the natural processes that drive climate change in the Lounge.
After these talks were finished we made our way outside once more to view the passing scenery. We were sailing through Smeerenburgfjord and the surrounding mountainous islands which helped to give Spitzbergen (pointy mountains) its name.
Once the ship was in position the Zodiacs were lowered and we were ferried ashore under lifting clouds. After arriving onshore we were guided towards three Walrus who were sleeping on a nearby sandy beach before walking back through the remains of the Dutch blubber ovens and old house foundations.
It was interesting to picture how this area would have looked all those years ago and the polar quiet added to the stunning scenery as a patch of blue sky highlighted the beach we were walking along.
Those of us who were in the second and third wave received a special treat on the way in to shore as there were several very curious walrus in the water. As we drifted along they showed open curiosity at these floating rubber things with the bright moving animals who were staring at them.
We soon left the Walrus to their business and continued to shore where we were also shown the sleeping Walrus and looked around the historic remains while the people onshore boarded the zodiacs to repeat our experience with the swimming Walrus.
After a quick recap we sat down to another sumptuous dinner as the Captain set sail for Magdalenefjord, a picturesque fjord with several stunning glaciers that flowed into it from between the surrounding peaks.
Desert was served in the lounge and as we feasted on the delicious Crème Bruleè we lined the decks to marvel at the scene surrounding us.
Plancius had sailed south overnight and out towards the Svalbard shelf so we could conduct the first planned activity for the day, whale watching.
For most of us this activity started with a cheerful announcement from Brent and Christian informing us that we were approaching two Blue whales, the largest animals to have ever existed on Earth.
We spent a good hour weaving around as we watched these huge animals rest at the surface for short periods before diving to continue feeding at depth. What a magical way to start the last day of our journey!
As we sailed further south several more Blue whales were spotted as well as Minkie whales and several pods of White Beaked dolphin.
Andres’ voice reminded us that the time we had all been dreading had arrived, it was time to settle our accounts. It was a relatively painless process as we were called by deck to reception where Heidi and Andre processed our bills.
After lunch we were approaching our afternoon landing site; Alkhornet, the location of a very nice bird cliff, interesting geology and hopefully a few reindeer.
Due to another ship leaving the site we decided to continue our cruise into Isfjord and hunt for the illusive Beluga whale while we gave them time to depart. Unfortunately we were not lucky however it was nice to be able to cruise into a small side bay and admire the passing scenery.
It wasn’t long until we were in position to be shuttled ashore and after a short ride and a bit of a steep climb we split into several groups and roamed the tundra looking for Reindeer, birds and foxes. The Reindeer were not so hard to spot however they were hard to leave as most were very curious and followed the groups as they moved around. Towards the end of the landing Christian spotted a fox running across the tundra and as luck would have it, it decided to go and sit in the rocks above our landing site! This allowed most of us to get a good view before we had to make our way back to the beach and onto the Zodiacs for (hopefully) our last shuttle.
After quickly getting changed we joined Brent and the team in the lounge for a farewell cocktail and a toast from the Captain to our very successful voyage. It is hard to believe that it was only seven days ago that we embarked Plancius!
A final dinner followed before we were called deck by deck to return our trusty rubber boots before we returned to the bar for a festive evening, remembering of course to pack our bags before retiring for the night.
This morning we arrived back in Longyearbyen. After 8 days we were back from where we had started, and it was sad to say good-bye to all the beautiful places we had visited, and to disembark Plancius, the ship that had been our comfortable, cosy home for an unforgettable journey to the White Continent.
But at the same time we were richer in memories and knowledge about the Arctic and its wildlife. We had had incredible experiences, taken hundreds of pictures and made new friends. We shared unique moments, we talked and we laughed with each other. This trip will last us a lifetime – in our memories, in our imaginations, and in our dreams.
Thank you all for such a wonderful voyage, for your company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be!
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Nazarov, Expedition Leader Brent Houston and Hotel Manager Andre van der Haak and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.