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PLA05-22, trip log, North Spitsbergen, In search of Polar Bear & Pack Ice

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen
Date: 22.06.2022
Position: 78°12.4’N / 014°09.6’E
Wind: N 3
Weather: Partly Cloudy
Air Temperature: +8

Many of the guest arrived at Longyearbyen on the day of embarkation. Throughout the afternoon the luggage was shuttled from the key out to Plancius on anchor in the bay. By 4pm there was an eager line of guests waiting to embark on the Zodiac journey! Our luck with the weather meant that we could save our wet zodiac journeys for later in the trip. Once on board the evening went by quickly as we were busy with familiarisations, safety briefings, cocktails with Captain Torry Sakkariassen and of course a lovely first dinner. As we set off out of Isfjord in the evening, and northward towards our first scheduled activity of the trip, there was time to enjoy the views of the flat table-topped mountains in the late evening light.

Day 2: Smeerenburg glacier and Smeerenburg Landing

Smeerenburg glacier and Smeerenburg Landing
Date: 23.06.2022
Position: 79°49.7’N / 011°21.7’E
Wind: NE 6
Weather: Partly Cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

We were woken by the sweet voice of our Expedition Leader Pablo at 7 o’clock sharp. Waters had calmed a lot since the previous evening and continued to do so as we sailed into Smeerenburg fjord right after breakfast. A Minke whale was spotted before we reached our anchoring position in front of the Smeerenburg glacier. Conditions were benign and all of us enjoyed a lovely zodiac cruise. There is plenty of movement in the glaciers around Svalbard which results in the occasional calving, as displayed by the Smeerenburg glacier. We had a great view of this from the zodiacs, which highlights the importance of keeping our distance from the glacier fronts. After lunch we all had a quick rest before we landed at Smeerenburg. A fascinating historic site and as a bonus a nice large group of Walrus lounged around on the point. While half the group were visiting the walrus, Marcel told the other half about the history of Smeerenburg, “Blubber town”. After the switch there was enough time left for a nice walk. Pablo set off in a fast pace leading the hiker’s group while others took a more leisurely pace. Conditions were tough with muddy terrain but nevertheless it was nice to have some exercise and challenge in our day. Those who did not want to walk stayed at the beach with some of the guides or decided to take a shuttle back to the spectacular views from Plancius. Recap was done by Marcel, Keechy and Elodie. Marcel elaborated on the stories of the overwinterings in Smeerenburg and showed some images of what it looked like in the early 17th century. Keechy explained a bit more about Walrus and Elodie had an interesting recap which introduced us to how glaciers work. Dinner was served shortly after Pablo explained plan A for tomorrow. The bridge issued a warning about the weather during the evening and the first part of the night as the conditions of the wind and waves were likely to increase. However, before we entered the choppy conditions, we had a look at our first bears. A mother and two cubs were hanging around on a snow patch on the far corner of Idre Norskoya. We only had a quick look at them so we would not disturb then but nevertheless a good start to the trip, it was still only day one!

Day 3: Mushamna landing and zodiac cruise with bear sighting at Antenøya

Mushamna landing and zodiac cruise with bear sighting at Antenøya
Date: 24.06.2022
Position: 80°28.7’N / 014°28.7’E
Wind: ESE 7
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +1

Good morning, good morning on another beautiful day on the Plancius! While we were getting ready for our landing at Mushamna, a Minke whale was spotted, swimming by the ship. The landing also started well, with two ivory gulls flying around the site! We split up in three groups, one went for a long walk up the hill, one for a walk along the beach, and one free roaming on the beach. We also had a group enjoying the calm waters from a kayak. The water acted like a mirror, reflecting the surrounding mountains and glaciers. Although the landscape looked barren, we did see many nice plants: Mountain avens, Svalbard poppy, Tufted saxifrage and we walked through a ‘forest’ of Polar willow. The freezing and thawing in the area also led to beautiful stone rings, a form of frost-patterned ground. Around the corner from the beach where we landed there were two trapper huts, one of which was built in 1927 by Hilmar Nøis, who built several huts in the area. The second hut was built in 1987 by Kjell Reidar Hovelsrud in 1987, a relatively big, modern hut that he used for overwintering and trapping until 1994. On the long walk we also found an old wooden trap that was used to catch foxes. Our plans in the afternoon were slightly disrupted by a bear sighting close to our planned landing site at Worsleyneset. The captain spotted this bear at Antenøya from a distance of 3 km! We circled around the island to get a bit closer and while doing that, we saw another Minke whale and a seal. While a landing would have been too dangerous, we were able to get the zodiacs in the water and go for a cruise, under close observation from the bridge. Whilst moving towards the island, the polar bear was spotted swimming to the peninsula, where he climbed on to the land. We approached the bear carefully and, from a safe distance, we observed him from the zodiacs. The polar bear was male and seemed well fed and healthy, walking along the beach. What an amazing sighting to finish of the day! In the evening we passed by Moffen on our way to the northeast. The flat, low-lying, moraine island is hard to spot on a day with rough seas.

Day 4: Landing at Faksevågen in Lomfjord and zodiac cruise at Alkefjellet

Landing at Faksevågen in Lomfjord and zodiac cruise at Alkefjellet
Date: 25.06.2022
Position: 79°46.1’N / 018°10.3’E
Wind: SE 6
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +3

At 7am, we were woken by the smooth voice of Pablo, our Expedition Leader: “Good morning everyone, good morning, the air temperature is about 2°C, the weather is amazing and there is not a single cloud in the sky. Plancius has sailed during the whole night and we are now inside Faksevågen, a small fjord on the west side of Lomfjord, in the area of Hinlopen Strait.” For this morning we have different possibilities of activities: a long hike with Pablo and Elodie to a plateau that offers amazing views of the fjord, the glacier and its meltwater plain; a middle hike with Keechy to a nice lookout to take the time to look at the plants and birds; a walk along the beach with Beth for the keen birders and finally a kayaking trip to have a closer look at the coast. Faksevågen Fjord is a great area to observe the High Arctic Tundra and its little “Svalbard Forest” no higher than a few centimetres. The Willow Tree is one of the five trees of Svalbard species and grow no more than a few millimetres per year. We could also observe Purple Saxifrage, a small, beautiful pioneering plant that is common in Svalbard but also in the Alps. We also found Mountain Avens with its yellowish white flowers that thrive in this very harsh environment. The long hikers had the opportunity to observe reindeer: a male, a female, and her calf. The Svalbard Reindeer is the only reindeer in Svalbard, it is smaller than the ones we can find in Scandinavia and they are not domesticated. Two Rock Ptarmigans were observed by the middle hikers group. The female was difficult to see because she was very well-camouflaged. At noon, we all are back on the ship and Plancius started sailing toward the North to reach the afternoon’s destination: Alkefjellet, which means ‘Mount Guillemots’ (for obvious reasons!). By 3pm all the Zodiacs were in the water and we were ready to explore this amazing place with our guano-proof clothing. During the summer months, it is thought that approximately 65 thousand Brünnich’s Guillemots nest on this 100-meter-high cliff and occupy every centimetre of cliff ledge which is wide enough for a nest, and narrow enough to deter the Arctic Foxs. The females lay one pear-shaped egg in June and then both parents will sit on the nest for a month and feed the chick for another 3 weeks until the chick jumps down the cliff (and might be eaten by an opportunist Glaucous Gull who usually stay in the close surrounding!). After a bumpy and wet ride back to the ship, we were welcomed by a well-deserved hot chocolate. For the recap, John, one of the passengers and a keen birder, explained some very interesting fact about Brünnich’s Guillemots. Beth spoke about the geology behind some of Svalbard’s landscapes that we have seen and Elodie told us more about a unique landscape feature that is quite common in Svalbard: raised beaches. Finally, Pablo explained the plan for tomorrow: exciting adventures in sight, we are heading North! What an amazing day in the High Arctic!

Day 5: Wildlife at the edge of the pack ice

Wildlife at the edge of the pack ice
Date: 26.06.2022
Position: 81°27.6’N / 017°53.4’E
Wind: SW 5
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

Good morning Plancius! Rise and shine! After breakfast we were ready to go with a plan A, which was to land on Phippsøya island, one of the group of Seven Islands or Sjuøyane. But the landing was cancelled due to the weather conditions; very thick fog which made us feel as though we were inside a ping pong ball. Our Expedition Leader came with plan B so the ship took a course up north to Rossøya island to check the ice and weather conditions around the island. Meanwhile we had a great presentation on history called “The race to the North pole” by Marcel. It soon turned out that the fog was not going to let us do anything on Phippsøya island because it was impossible to make sure that we could provide safety, while we are on land, since the expedition team could not scout the landing site and surroundings on presence of the Polar bears. So, as on a real expedition, we were faced with an unpredictable situation with unfavorable weather, and we had to deviate our plan. Therefore, we turned to plan C which was to continue up north to the pack ice in search of wildlife and to have a taste of the real Arctic with the ocean blanketed with sea ice. After lunch at 1230 we start to see the sea ice. Soon we were extremely lucky to spot 3 Bowhead whales, a couple of ringed seals and a rare Iceland gull! The fog lifted a bit so we could all enjoy the pure beauty of the Arctic. All expedition guides and guests were on the outer decks sharing their experiences of seeing very rare mammals and birds as well as the incredible “landscape” - the sea covered with sea ice. At 15.30 we had great presentation on Sea ice by Elodie, which raised plenty of questions and many discussions, which is a very important part of the education process. Then we proceeded with recap and plans for tomorrow. During the dinner we changed our course to north-west along the pack ice and we were rewarded with another sighting of a Minke whale, Bowhead whale, seals and walrus on the ice. Today the regular dinner was replaced by BBQ on the outer deck with music and a festive atmosphere. It was absolutely amazing to be the only ship in this area with the endless field of pack ice and whales passing by. The most Northern position we reached was 81°24,667’ North 017°52,608’ East. Goodnight Plancius. Tomorrow will be another day, full of new discoveries.

Day 6: Gråhuken landing and Polar bear sighting

Gråhuken landing and Polar bear sighting
Date: 27.06.2022
Position: 79°39.3’N / 011°05.2’E
Wind: S 4
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +5

After breakfast we went ashore to visit the where the team of three spent the year that is written about in the “The women in the polar night”. We were all amazed by the conditions these people lived in but many thought about whether they could do the same thing. Following the visit to the hut we made a hike choosing from a medium length hike or a longer hike. Whilst walking along the hill or the beach we collected plastic rubbish and learnt about antique fox traps, driftwood, and the animals we saw on the beach. Too soon it was time to return to the ship and we were soon back in the warmth of the ship in time for lunch. Indre Norskøya. Wow! We left the ship for a zodiac cruise and soon we saw a mother Polar Bear with two cubs asleep on the rock above the beach. Many guests made images that must become this year’s Christmas cards. Just as we were thinking of leaving the site, we saw a male Polar bear in the water swimming towards a whale carcass. Nothing was distracting the bear from his mission, and he swam with purpose. He clambered from the water and began devouring the meat. The mother moved the cubs along the coast where they entered the water and set off on a hasty retreat to another island. As we left the site, we were downwind from the carcass, and we got a smell of it and it was something else. We wondered how he could make such a meal of the smelly meat. It was a wonderful highlight to the trip. Fuglesongen To finish our afternoon excursion, we crossed the bay in slightly more challenging conditions to reach our final site of the day. We battled the wind, cold and waves to reach the cliffs to see the colony of Little Auks. It was fascinating to sea these little birds taking off in flocks to head out to sea to feed. What a fantastic way to end a superb day of Polar outings.

Day 7: Morning landing at Alkehornet and afternoon cruising Billefjord and Skansbukta

Morning landing at Alkehornet and afternoon cruising Billefjord and Skansbukta
Date: 28.06.2022
Position: 78°24.6’N / 015°49.6’E
Wind: W 2
Weather: Partly Cloudy
Air Temperature: +8

Hello Plancius, good morning! Rise and shine! After breakfast we were ready for our landing in Alkhornet, in the entrance of a fjord called Isfjord. More than 10 reindeers and calf were waiting onshore for us. We took the first group for a long hike, and the second group went for a middle hike. Both in the same direction, but the terrain was a little tricky, with uneven ground on the tundra. Those group had the opportunity to see the reindeers from close by and calfs eating in this incredible place with a big cliff towering over us and the sound of guillemots flying around. The second group spotted an Arctic fox resting in the grass, so the first group decide to re-route to get a better vantage point to see the Arctic fox. After a spectacular calm landing of wonderful wildlife and landscapes, it was time to return to the ship, have lunch and prepare for the next activity in Billefjord. After lunch we were ready to start the ship cruising in to Billefjord, cruising in front a historical place, Pyramiden. Named due to the shape of the mountain that forms the backdrop to the town. Pablo let us know about the history of the town whilst we enjoyed the views from on deck in the sun. “The mining started in 1911, but success was limited. In 1926 the property was sold to Russia and then in 1946 it was taken over by the Russian state-owned company Trust Arktikugol, together with all other Russian interests in Spitsbergrn. By 1989 there were 715 men, 228 women and 71 children living in Pyramiden. Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998, the reasons lay in poor coal reserves. The government in Moscow did not have any interest in supporting the Russian periphery in the 1990s”. We continued the cruising, with some short talks from Beth and Elodie elaborating on the glaciated and magnificent mountainous landscape which surrounded us. After the ships cruise in the sun, at 5.30 we put a couple of zodiacs in the water and had a zodiac cruise in Skanbukta. Here we could see perched on a beautiful cliff, the puffins, fulmars and a blanket of Jacob’s ladder flowers. We came back to the ship to a wonderful dinner and Capitan’s cocktail, the welcome back cocktail.

Day 8: Arrival back into Longyearbyen

Arrival back into Longyearbyen
Date: 29.06.2022
Position: 78°14.5’ N, 015°32.6’E
Wind: Calm
Weather: Rain
Air Temperature: +6

Early this morning, we arrive in Longyearbyen. While we enjoyed a last breakfast on board, our suitcases are taken off the ship. It is a sad moment to disembark from the Plancius, which has been a comfortable and cosy home during this unforgettable journey. We have shared many unique moments, seen a range of rarely sighted wildlife, and made new friends. Loaded with fond memories we now must head home.

Details

Tripcode: PLA05-22
Dates: 22 Jun - 29 Jun, 2022
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Plancius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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