PLA05-16, Trip log | Polar Bear Special
17.06.2016 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 pier to board M/V Plancius, our comfortable floating home for the next eight days. Once onboard we made our way to reception where our Hotel Manager Andre and his assistant Katrin 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 Andrew our Expedition Leader. 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.
Our Chief Mate Arthur and Third Officer Warren 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 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 and Brunnich’s guillemots. As we sailed away we could see Longyearbyen getting smaller and disappearing from our eyes. Our trip had started and there were all happy faces everywhere we looked.
After a short while we returned to the Lounge where the rest of the expedition team were introduced and Captain Evgeny 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 we were sailing out of Isfjord and into open seas on our journey north.
The first morning on the ship, the first seven O’clock wakeup call from Andrew. After breakfast we had in the lounge the mandatory AECO briefing. That showed us all the information about the do’s and don’ts in the Arctic, the place where we will spent the next week. Also we got a briefing about safety and behaving when there is a Polar Bear in the area and how to approach a group of Walrus on the shore.
In addition this morning the rubber boots were handed out. Deck by deck everybody was called to come to the boots room on deck three to collect their rubber boots. We were not even half way with this job when there came an announcement through the P.A. system. A group of Walrus in the water close to the ship! So that slowed us a bit down for a little while. Outside it was beautiful, cruising with the ship in Magdalene Fjorden. Despite the wind, a little bit of fog and snow most of us went outside to see the glacier and the breath taking scenery.
After lunch we reached a little bay called Gully Bukta on Albert 1 Land. Just around the corner on a sandy beach was a group of Walrus. A so called Haul-out, a place where the Walrus come on shore to rest and to warm up. It was time for our first mixed landing and zodiac cruise of the trip. Everybody was prepared, the conditions were good. The group was split up in three smaller groups. Group one first visit the group of more than twenty Walrus, group two went for a little walk and group three started with a zodiac cruise. After more than enough time we changed so we all could enjoy all three of this afternoons activities.
Back on board it was recap time, at the end of every day we have a little recap the Staff informs you about the plans for the next day, gives information about some of the things we saw and encountered and can answer all the questions that might come up.
This evening we had a ship cruise in to Raudfjorden, all the way to the glacier at the end of the fjord.
At the end of the fjord there were some Ringed Seals on the ice in front of the glacier. A small group of reindeer was found on the snow covered slopes and we saw several bear tracks. So they are here, now we just have to find them!
In the morning we launched 10 zodiacs in order to take all passengers out for a zodiac cruise along the islands of Andøyane. During the launching operation a Minke whale was briefly seen. The Islands looked very inviting and we were awarded with many Eider ducks including the magnificent Kind Eiders. A few long-tailed ducks were also seen and the smaller Red Phalaropes kept our eyes sharp and in focus. There were several tracks of polar bear but we did not see any on the islands. After a chilly transit back to the vessel several gallons of hot chocolate and coffees were eagerly consumed.
After lunch we approached the Monacobreen (breen means glacier in Norwegian) glacier where we could see all the different shades of blue ice. A curious juvenile Minke whale approached the MV Plancius and we were able to admire its sleek and gracious style while it glided effortlessly through the water.
There was a small nick in its dorsal fin so we will forward the photograph to fellow scientists for photo-identification studies. A Bearded seal also popped up next to the vessel still showing a very wet ‘beard’ and there were numerous Reindeers dotted along the slopes.
The vessel then left the Monacobreen glacier to start its transit towards Hinlopen Strait. In the afternoon, several lectures were on offer whilst the team also continued scanning for polar bears.
The first lecture of the day was given by Michael and it was about the sea ice as a living habitat. It was impressive to learn the amount of life that can life underneath the ice.
The second option was given by Geert (from Windroos) and it was about pack ice, water and sky off Spitsbergen. This was certainly another interesting way to learn more about the place we are visiting and how currents and ice interacts with it.
During recap at 19:00, Ab taught us interesting facts on King Eiders while Marijke gave us new insights on the Minke whale. Information on glacial ice and fast ice was also provided by Sebastian. The search for the illusive polar bear continues…
The day dawned early for some passengers who woke at 4 for the first sighting of ice.
A trickle more joined before breakfast, all warmly wrapped against the elements and festooned with cameras large and small.
Excitement mounted during the morning as Plancius quietly and so smoothly slid into the Hinlopenstretete…we were bound for the fast ice and hoping for encounters with our target species…polar bear.
With an almost musical metallic grinding and bumping Plancius cut and pushed a route into the jumble of flows. Eager eyes strained through multiple lenses for the first glimpse of a cream coloured furry creature. At last, a call on the tanoy from the eagle eyed bridge team, ‘bear at 11 o’clock at about a mile distant. Location 78.28.64 N
22.29.07 E …cameras clicked frantically. Another call…another bear, ship turned to a new direction, cameras clicked. Another call, this is beyond belief yet another bear…three in quick succession. Everyone was happy! How could it get better? Well it just did…first, the bridge spotted a large male and smaller bear feeding on a seal, then a mother with 2 cubs then what we thought would be the best sighting of all, a mother and large cub feeding on a another seal. 10 in total. This was a stunning experience.
Plancius turned south and at 12.30 reached the maximum of 78.23.61 N / 22.36. 02 we encountered a group of walrus on an ice-flow and in the water. This provided ‘icing on the cake’! In the afternoon the vessel then sailed back up the Hinlopenstretete in perfect weather, brilliant sunshine and flat calm and just before
Dinner entered the ice once again, and experienced a fabulous encounter as a bear walked to within a few metres of the port side of the ship. More bears were spotted further off…a total of nine at the location. 20 BEARS IN TOTAL TODAY…this was a very special polar bear special!
We awoke off Alkefjellet on the west side of Hinlopenstretet which separates Ny Friesland and Olaf V Land from Nordaustlandet. ‘Auk Mountain’ is so named due to the tremendous number of Brünnich’s guillemots (an estimated over 60,000 pairs) breeding along the face of these basaltic spires. This is one of the best places in Spitsbergen to view birds at close proximity. We spent two hours zodiac cruising the splendid cliffs of ‘Auk Mountain’. As we progressed north there were increasing numbers of Brünnich’s guillemots, glaucous gulls and kittiwakes. The constant coming and going of the guillemots was truly dizzying as they flew back and forth to the scant ledges on which they lay their eggs. We speculated on how they avoided crashing into one another in mid-air. We noted that some missed the landing spot and had to, somewhat shamefacedly, as we imagined, try again. The rich accumulation of bird droppings greatly improves the vegetation while the birds themselves attract arctic foxes, and a lucky boat that saw one for a short period of time before it disappeared behind some rocks. Some of us spent time photographing a splendid iceberg with Brünnich’s guillemots on top. None of us could doubt that Alkefjellet represents one of the finest bird cliffs anywhere in the world.
At around 14:30 hrs we arrived at Sorgfjorden, ‘the fjord of sorrow’, probably named for an episode in 1693 when forty Dutch whalers were attacked by three French men-o-war. Thirteen Dutch ships were captured and many whalers killed. The wind dropped and the afternoon turned to be sunny and beautiful, the group split into several smaller groups as some opted to snowshoe over the snowy plains on a longer walk, while others chose to take a shorter walk to view the sizeable group of walrus hauling up on the beach and the historical sites of interest. The keen birders went on a Quest to find Ptarmigans.
It was nice to be on land after a while on the ship and be able to do some exercise in such astonishing place. A few walrus were also spotted swimming in the ocean, their prominent whiskers and massive tusks rising out of the water.
There wasn’t a better way to finish the day than with a BBQ outside on the back deck on a beautiful sunny evening. It was another amazing day packed full of historical interest and spectacular wildlife.
Last night Plancius was heading up North towards the sea ice above Svalbard. Long before breakfast started the first of the keen observers were outside already. Ice everywhere around the ship and with the ice, the acceptations became higher. Before breakfast we had already seen several good species, the first Harp Seal for this trip, good numbers of Ringed Seals and Bearded Seals. So the food is there, now we need to find the king of the ice again. It took us not long, around nine thirty we found the first one. Seba discovered a faraway bear. But like always the captain managed to get the ship closer and closer to the walking bear. After less than one hour the second bear was found with the ships telescope which has now been proved to be very useful to find Polar Bears. But not always, like with finding the third bear of the day. We were standing at both bridge wings scanning sideways with the telescopes when the captain came outside with the announcement of the day “Guys there is something swimming in front of the ship”.
We looked and there it was, Polar Bear number three of the day. Just passing in front of the ship at about one hundred meters. At this time the two lectures of this afternoon were just started. So most people went inside to join one of them.
After a quick announcement through the PA-system the outside decks again were filled with cameras, binoculars and smiling people. Like the other two bears this morning this bear walked slowly away from the ship and disappeared on the immense ice flow. Time to get back to the lectures.
The lectures were given both at the same time, one in the lounge. A lecture in English about Polar Bears by Katja and one in the dining room in German about the history of Whaling around Spitsbergen by Gerd of the Windrose group.
But shortly after they started again two more bears were found. And everybody was called outside to once more enjoy the sighting of the Polar Bears. The conditions outside were still perfect, no wind, blue skies and the best view of the world.
The birdwatchers on the ship got their bonus of the day, after several Ivory gulls an Iceland Gull flew around the ship. We also reached our farthest North position at 80° 57.821N / 013° 52.817 E!
We had a drizzly start of the day but nevertheless a few people were braving the weather to look out for whales. Battling the foggy patches and drizzly rain, our efforts were finally rewarded when a tall blow was seen slightly ahead of the Plancius. The dive sequence, showing characteristics of a baleen whale, soon confirmed that we were now accompanied by an immature fin whale. The whale was rather curious and made some close passes – by then all hands were on deck admiring this powerful swimming whale. Fin whales can swim up to 45 km/hour although this was one was swimming slowly but making frequent directional changes – as in pursuit of food at greater depth.
There were several lectures taking place during the morning: Bill gave a lecture on the history of Whaling around Svalbard and Katja gave a lecture in German about Polar Bears.
It was during the polar bear lecture that a huge blow was seen on portside and a quick scan left no doubt that we were dealing with the biggest whale on this earth: the mighty blue whale. The whale crossed our bow and the massive U-shaped head was seen breaking the surface just before we could hear the immense sound of the blow. Black Guillemots, Puffins, Fulmars, Brünnich’s Guillemots and several Great Skuas were accompanying us during this morning passage to Alkhornet.
The weather significantly improved and by the afternoon we landed on Alkhornet where we enjoyed the company of many reindeers. Some of which came as close to 2 metres from us and we were briefly wondering who was watching who? Barnacle geese in breeding pairs were spread out along the coast. Some pink footed Geese were also seen passing overhead in big and small groups. Even though the kittiwakes nest on the highest edges on the cliffs we could hear them from far away – they were also observed to be collecting bits of moss to use as nest materials. The weather was calm and out at sea we saw a Minke whale and fin whale glide by. Upon leaving Alkhornet another Minke whale briefly approached the vessel. In the evening we gathered on the lounge and then in the dining room to say goodbye to Captain, the expedition team.
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 North.
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!
Total distance sailed on our voyage:
963 Nautical miles
Furthest North Point: 80°57.821 N / 013°52.817 E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Evgeny Levakov, Expedition Leader Andrew Bishop, Hotel Manager Andre van der Haak and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.