PLA05-17, trip log, North Spitsbergen, Polar Bear Special
16.06.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
We gathered from all points on the globe on a beautiful sunny summer day in Longyearbyen, capital (and only real population centre) of Svalbard. The rugged hills around were striped with snow, but the sun heated the rock, and the day was warm. Once off our flights, we were dropped in town and explored the small settlement or went bird watching. From four o'clock, we began boarding the ship, which was our first adventure - we were transferred to the Plancius using the black rubber Zodiac boats that would become so familiar. Once on board, we settled in to our cabins, and later found our way to the Observation Lounge. Once we had all gathered, Chief Officer Janus presented the mandatory safety briefing to show us how to use the big orange lifejackets and how to muster in case of emergency. The briefing was immediately followed by a safety drill, to ensure we knew how to muster in the Lounge, then we were shown how we would go to the lifeboats if ordered to by the Captain.
Following the drill, we were again invited to the Lounge. Our Hotel Manager Sebastian helped us settle in with more information about how the ship works, and Captain Alexey spoke a few words of welcome and proposed a toast to our voyage. We lifted the anchor and sailed from Longyearbyen, through Isfjord and towards open water along the West coast of Spitsbergen just before seven in the evening. Michael, our Expedition Leader, introduced the Expedition Team, and after a few helpful hints from our ship Doctor, we went to the dining room for our first meal on board. There, we sat at tables of six and more, making new friends and wondering what would come in the days ahead.
After dinner, we were called, deck by deck, to the Boot Room, where we selected a pair of rubber boots to use for our landings while on board the Plancius. Finally, tired from the travel, we retired to our cabins to rest and get ready for our first full day of our adventure.
After a nice, calm night cruising southwards, we had not counted on being woken up before the scheduled wake-up call, but we were, and with a great message: the bridge had spotted a Polar Bear near the beautiful glacier front in Brepollen Bay. The Captain was so kind to reduce speed enough for everybody to get dressed and appear on deck before very slowly crawling in on the bear with Plancius. The bear was really relaxed, enjoying a fresh kill, lying down from time to time and standing up to move a few steps and lay down again to enjoy his kill. At one point it showed us that also for bears the saying goes “when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go!” to great joy of the Glaucous gulls and Ivory gull hovering around the bear…
After a while we decided to leave the bear to his breakfast and enjoy our own. After breakfast we had just been invited in the lounge for some safety briefings on Zodiacs, visiting Arctic territories and Polar Bears by Expedition Leader Michael and Assistant Expedition Leader Katja, when once again we were called outside: another bear had been spotted and this time it turned out to be three bears: a mother with cubs! Apparently they had been out and about for some time as the youngsters seemed tired of their play and rested a bit, huddled up next to each other, while mom kept an eye out. With Mendeleevbreen (breen = glacier) in the background and several Ringed seals as well as Guillemots and Little Auks on the ice and almost still water around the ship the scenery of the fjord this morning was just stunning!
By 10.00 am our morning plans had shifted from plan A to B and C, but once again we were called out of briefings for a pod of Beluga whales that had appeared in cracks with open water among the ice that still covered the sides of Samarin Bay. Several white ghosts showed their backs to us, but we also saw a few darker coloured calves.
After lunch our intended morning plan of landing in Gåshamna was executed. We all landed on the stony and snowy raised beach for a short, medium and long hike in Polar Bear country. We saw Arctic skua, Eider ducks, Brant geese and Purple sandpipers and enjoyed the singing of a Snow bunting and the squeals of the small Kittiwake colony up on the rocks – their presence was given away by the green patches of moss on the barren slopes beneath them, too.
By 18.00 we were all back on the ship and enjoyed some free time to rest before we gathered for our first Recap in the Lounge. Hans told us a bit about the Beluga whales that we saw today and Katja talked about collared female Polar Bears.
After dinner we could see many Little auks and Harp seals swimming around us. And then, when most of us had already started our nightly routine, another announcement made us put on all our clothes again: we were sailing over the edge of the continental shelf where the deep-ocean currents get pushed upwards and the upwelling of nutrients creates a very, very good swim-by restaurant for whales. In one busy hour, we saw a Blue whale, tens of Fin whales, Minke whales, Humpback whales (really close by the ship, we could sometimes hear their jaws slam shut as they surfaced from their dinner) and White-beaked dolphins. It was a complete feeding frenzy!
It was past midnight when the Captain finally steered us away from this amazing event, to ensure we would get further North in time for our planned landing for tomorrow. What a great first full day on the Plancius!
The day met us with wonderful quiet, windless and cloudy weather, very unusual for the wind-swept Arctic territories. Breakfast was followed by the introduction to the upcoming landing, given to the guests by our expedition leader Michael. We were all looking forward to meet walruses at a scenic Arctic sandy beach in Poolepynten, on Prins Karls Forland. When all the necessary information was given, the time has come to get ready for the landing.
AECO rules are strict, and we all must follow them in order not to do any harm to fragile Arctic nature. The rules prescribe no more then 50 guests at once to visit our tusky, heavy Northern friends. We had to split in two groups.
Poolepynten is a very interesting place not only because of a chance to meet walruses, but it also because of the wood! Yes, it is possible to find wood in the Arctic. The coastline is full of big ancient wooden logs, brought here by oceanic currents from Siberia. Amazing and unbelievable, that wood is able to drift such long distances! A long time ago, this drift wood was used as construction material by Russian Pomors for them to build their huts and cabins. Our all-knowing enthusiastic guide Frigga provided everyone with detailed information about it.
To reach the walruses we needed to walk a few hundred meters along the coast. When approaching, everybody had to keep silence and follow the instructions of the guides, given by them not with words, but with gestures. And here they are! Enormously big, heavy lazy “toothwalkers”, sleeping with tusks pointing in the ground, in the sky and in each other. A couple of them were actually bathing right next to the coastline. After 10 minutes of watching these wonderful (and stinky) creatures we had to slowly walk back to the landing spot.
As soon as everybody was back on the ship, Plancius lifted the anchor and headed North. At the same time lunch was served.
When the lunch was over, the scientific and educational part of the program began. Katja and Hans, our outstanding scientists, one after another gave us two lectures. Katja was speaking about Polar bears. From her lecture we knew how they are born, how they grow up, how they hunt, where they migrate, when they mate and give birth. Besides, Katja revealed to us a secret, how Polar bears do not get cold, by explaining the structure of their fur, skin and the layer of fat under it.
Hans spoke about whales. It was a requested lecture after the crazy whale safari the previous evening. Hans gave us a detailed explanation of what we saw the previous evening: what colour are the flippers of Humpback whale, how big is a Blue whale, how to distinguish it from a Fin whale. Also we learned why Sperm whales pretend to be drifting wood logs, which species of dolphins we have in the Arctic, and many other interesting things and facts. We were not surprised that the evening Recap was interrupted by a Sperm whale swimming by.
After the dinner Plancius passed by a scientific vessel whose mission was to search and tag whales. Looks like our “Polar Bear Special” has also become a “Whale Special”.
This morning we entered Raudfjorden on Northwest Spitsbergen. It is a fjord about 20 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide with a number side bays with calving glaciers. About three quarters of the fjord was still covered with fast ice (the sea ice that is still attached to land). At first, there was a fog that had joined us very early in the morning, but as soon as we entered the fjord it cleared up, the sun shined, and a fantastic landscape opened to our eyes. There were another two ships in the bay looking for Polar bears like us. We scouted the fast ice and checked the slopes of the mountains thoroughly to find the king of the Arctic. Later on it was time for us to approach the Arctic sea ice and Plancius headed Northeast. We sailed alongside the pack ice and we passed the 80° N, an impressive achievement!
In mid-morning we heard the announcement we had all been waiting for from Michael: “we have spotted a Polar bear!". We dressed up warmly and came out on deck while the ship slowly approached the bear in the ice. It was a single bear that at first when it saw us it started coming to us, but then, it decided that we were not that interesting and stopped to rest on the ice. Plancius kept approaching slowly until we were at a close distance and everyone could enjoy the view and take many pictures. The bear was relaxing on the ice. For much of the morning, we stayed next to the bear, and by lunch time we slowly made our way out of the ice.
After lunch the search continued, and we continued to sail alongside the ice edge. The fog, that came and went, gave a dramatic atmosphere and we felt like the old explorers.
In the afternoon Sebastian gave a talk about Roald Amundsen, a great talk which was a full review of all Amundsen's expeditions throughout his life, his early years, the Belgica Expedition, the Northwest Passage, the South Pole Expedition and the rest of his adventures. Just before Recap, the bar offered a Happy Hour to celebrate our first day in the ice and the fantastic sighting of the Polar bear. After dinner we continued the look out, sailing by the edge of the sea ice, and suddenly there was an announcement that a Bowhead whale had been spotted!
Bowhead whales have been almost hunted to extinction, and they haven’t been seen in this area for many years, now it seems that few individual are starting to come back to Svalbard. We came out on deck and we could see the “footprints” on the whale swimming under water and heading to the ice. We could not see the whale, but it was fascinating to witness the presence of theses rarely seen giant mammals. It was time for a good rest and to recover our energy for a new exciting day tomorrow.
Last night Plancius left the sea ice and had a smooth transition back to Spitsbergen for a visit to Amsterdamøya (øya = island). The ship woke up with a view of Smeerenburg on the South side of the island. After breakfast the landing started with the birdwatchers being the first group to arrive on the beach. This group went for a birdwatching walk with Hans to the West side of Smeerenburg, where they observed several species of waders. The other passengers visited the remains of the former Dutch whaling station Smeerenburg, where Frigga gave an explanation about the archaeology on the site. Afterwards all groups made their way back to the landing site. Upon arrival at the landing site, four Walrus had appeared near the island, looking at what we were doing on shore from a distance.
All returned back to Placius to enjoy lunch onboard while the ship lifted anchor and made her way to Magdalenefjord. The ship arrived in the fjord early afternoon, and the calm weather conditions allowed a Zodiac cruise along some of the glaciers in the fjord. During the Zodiac cruise large groups of Eiders and King eiders were seen up close. At the end of the fjord, we reached the glacier, and while staying at a safe distance to it, all could enjoy an impressive view. On the way back to Plancius a stop was made under at Little auk colony. Thousands of Little auks were flying in and out the colony and the calls of these birds could be heard all over the fjord. After almost two hours on a Zodiac one gets a bit cold… and the hotel staff was standing at the gangway with gluhwine and hot chocolate for when we got back onboard.
But the day hadn't ended yet! Barbeque time!! On Deck 3 outside, the grill party was set-up. Passengers and crew enjoyed a diverse barbeque and some drinks. The party continued on the dance floor into the evening against the scenic backdrop of the Magdalenefjord. Toward the end of the evening a Minke whale decided to visit Plancius making it a perfect ending of a long day in the Arctic with many new impressions.
Today we are back cruising the edges of the pack ice to find some wildlife. The weather gods are very cooperative this morning: no wind, overcast (which is really nice if you consider the amount of reflected light that might otherwise have interfered with our binocular search) and not too cold. It didn’t take long for the first Walrus to be seen on a floe. In total about seven Walrus were seen, each king of their own floe, followed by a Minke whale in the water to the portside of the ship. Around eleven o’clock we got sight of several Bearded seals, also soloing on floes. Except for one: she had company of a pair of little alks that were tucked away underneath her, in a little hole in the ice, just between the waterline and the thin snowy layer on top of the floe (and the female Bearded Seal, which was then renamed Birded Seal). As the search for a Polar bear continued in the morning, we passed the beautiful sailing vessel Rembrandt van Rijn, that seemed to appear out of a fog patch as if by magic.
After lunch our search continued, but apart from beautiful white floes, blueish pressure-ridges and many Little auks and an occasional seal, we were unsuccesful in locating a bear on the rim of the pack ice. A good time for Hans to treat us on a nice talk about Arctic Birds.
This morning, Michael woke us gently with word the weather was a bit flat, but that was a good thing! Used to the rhythm of ship life, we all took our time, having a coffee while looking out of the Lounge windows, going outside to feel the day, and having a good breakfast before our landing. Michael outlined the plan for the morning, with Gjertsenodden in St Jonsfjord where we would land. Another vessel, the sailing ship Noordelicht, was there, another Oceanwide ship, this one with only 18 passengers. We landed on a flat sandy beach with vast tracts of moraine left behind by a retreating glacier forming a rolling, complex and hilly terrain behind the beach. Katja set off with the long walkers, aiming for the furthest ridge, then the medium group set off, and lastly the self-described 'bird harassers' and slow walkers ambled off to do their thing. There were a few reindeer on the slopes, and the views were fabulous. Most of us had a look at the very small trapper's hut, with an outhouse with a view perched on a point looking out over the fjord. An unusual find for the voyage was Svalbard rock ptarmigan spotted high in the hills, but the sounds of the many Snow buntings singing all around were enjoyed by people on all the walks.
Back on board, and after the usual big lunch, the ship got very quiet while most of us had a little rest in our cabins. Meanwhile, the ship's officers sailed the Plancius South, to Tordenskjoldbukta, a landing in the tundra, with impressive mountains behind and tall sandy-coloured rock formations along the shore. As soon as we landed on the beach, we went up a small incline, and waiting over the ridge were several reindeer, looking at us as we got ready for our walks. We set off in our groups to explore again, following short raised lines of rock, crossing small streams and sinking in a bit on floating moss platforms. There were plenty of different birds, with Eiders flying by and Purple sandpipers along the shoreline. Reindeer followed us on our walks, watching us with as much interest as we watched them with. Unfortunately, we had to go back to the ship after too short a time ashore, as we have to head to Longyearbyen again.
Once back on board, we had very little time before we were back up in the Lounge for our last Recap and Briefing. After a toast from the Captain, there were thanks to all of the people who made the trip so enjoyable, followed by all the information we need for our landing in Longyearbyen. Our last dinner on Plancius was full of talk and laughter, and we moved from the Dining room to the Lounge, enjoying our last night on board, but still remembering to pack our bags for their early departure from the ship.
We woke far too early, at dock in Longyearbyen, sad to know we will be leaving the ship. Our last breakfast seemed far too early, but was very much appreciated, as we don't know where our next meals will be coming from!! We were at the dock at Bykoya, and it was time to leave the ship for the last time. On the dock, we found our luggage and sorted ourselves into the right busses. We farewelled our new friends and set off on our travels and flights home, sad to be leaving, but also looking forward to our next adventures.
Total distance travelled: 1009.0 nautical miles | 1868 kilometres
Furthest North: 80o15.87’N/010o37.25E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, the Captain, Crew and Staff on board MV Plancius: It has been a pleasure travelling with you, and we hope to see you again!