PLA06-15 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 with boarding our comfortable floating home for the next seven days – the M/V Plancius at the pier in Longyearbyen. Some of us were missing their luggage. It was stuck in Oslo and was planned to arrive at around midnight with the next flight. 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 Andrew. 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 Jaanus 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 made our way deeper into Isfjord to the north-northeast. We cruised into Billefjorden and on into Skansbukta, while having our first delicious dinner in the dining room.
As we arrived in Skansbukta, we had a chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery of this marvelous place with all its glaciers, tundra, reindeer, some sea ice and the old remains of former coal mining activities. At about 21:30, Andrew called us to the Lounge where Captain Alexey gave a toast to the success of our voyage.
Thereafter, we slowly made our way back west towards Longyearbyen to pick up the missing luggage at midnight, after receiving the good news from the airline that the luggage is on its way to Spitsbergen. We watched the plane fly into Longyearbyen. Two guides immediately jumped into two zodiacs to make their way ashore. The luggage arrived at the pier, we loaded it into the boats and brought it directly to the ship, where it was lifted onto deck with the crane. While distributing it to the cabins and making several people happy, we headed straight out west along Isfjorden to make our way towards Krossfjord, where we planned on landing the next day.
Brent woke us with the first ‘Wake Up Call’ of the trip at 7:45 but with the Polar Day and 24 hours of daylight many of us were up and about and had been for a few hours.
It was a bit of a grey morning with low cloud cover over the island of Prins Karls Fordland but with flat calm sea conditions it was a great morning to be out on deck looking for birds and maybe even a whale blow or two. Lots of different species of bird were seen during the early part of the morning; Puffins, Brunnich’s Guillemots, Northern Fulmars, Little Auks, Kittiwakes and Arctic terns. Staff were on hand on deck to help with bird identification and after a while many of us were getting pretty good and spotting the different species based on their flight pattern and of course their plumage.
At 10am we were invited in our language groups to attend an AECO briefing, which was in the form of an entertaining cartoon film and Polar bear safety briefing, which was given by Rupert who has many years of experience in dealing with Polar bears. He explained about our safety procedures in case of an encounter on shore, which was very reassuring indeed.
After this there was time for a morning coffee before we were invited down to the Boot Room to collect our rubber boots, which will be essential for our landings ashore on the beaches of Svalbard. Staff efficiently distributed boots to everyone making sure we were ready for our landings in the next few days.
After the boots had been handed out staff on deck spotted a whale blow off to the port side and after some discussion it was identified as a Sei whale, a species that is rarely seen in this area. Captain Alexey did a fantastic job of taking the ship towards the whale and giving us a great view of it as it came to the surface to breathe whist feeding on the copepods that appear in huge numbers in Arctic waters during the summer months. It was a great sighting and a good start to our whale watching on this trip.
Shortly after we sailed right into the Kongsfjorden area where the small research settlement of Ny-Ålesund could be seen off our starboard side. Historically this was a mining community but is now home to a number of research scientists studying flora, fauna, meteorology and atmospherics.
During lunch, Plancius sailed right into the back of the bay and we anchored in a safe position away from the ice that was feeding into the bay from the glaciers. Before we could disembark the ship we needed to know how the Zodiac operations were conducted from ship to boat and back again so Brent gave us a short briefing about this in order to enable safe operations. It was then time to don our life jackets and head to the gangway for our first activity of the trip, a Zodiac cruise into the ice.
The icebergs we found ourselves sailing amongst were stunning blue in colour, a result of reflection of light by the air particles within the ice. There were Fulmars feeding alongside the icebergs and dozens of Kittiwakes lining up along the top of the icebergs preening and resting after feeding as well. The staff did a great job of taking the boats into the ice and along the cliffs to view Glaucous Gulls and of course Arctic Terns diving to feed amongst the ice.
All too soon it was time to head back to the ship and warm up before we were invited to the lounge for re-cap. This is a chance to reflect on the events of the day and look ahead to tomorrow. Tobias talked about the blue ice while Erin explained a little more about the Sei whale; its biology, distribution and behaviour. Brent then explained our plans for the following day and as he did so we had a fleeting sighting of a Fin whale by the side of the ship. Our second whale of the day!
By this time dinner was ready and we made our way downstairs for another fabulous meal prepared by Ralf and Ricky and the galley team.
Some people were already on deck when Brent made the wake up call at 07:00, announcing that there were several whales around the ship: Minkes and a Fin whale. It was a sunny and stunningly beautiful morning in Liefdefjord. The Fin whale stayed close to the ship for some time, making a series of shallow and deep dives to feed. It was marvellous to be close enough to see the white coloured left side of the jaw, which is unique to the fin whale.
While we enjoyed breakfast a scout team set off to investigate Andøyane, the ‘Duck Islands’. They are a series of low-lying islands, which, once the winter ice has melted, are inaccessible to foxes and therefore popular with birds as a safe place for nesting. They are also a frequent haunt for polar bears, which can easily swim between the mainland and the islands.
At 9.30 we set off in the zodiacs to explore. We were greeted by myriad birds: long tailed ducks, grey phalarope, sandpipers, elegant Arctic terns and piratical skuas. There were red-throated divers, eiders and several magnificent king eiders. On one of the more snow-covered islands we spotted several polar bear tracks but no bear. On our way back to the ship we encountered a walrus in a small bay and were able to approach close enough for photographs. Back on board Plancius, we could see two more walrus a few hundred yards from the ship. They were concentrating on feeding and dived for more than five minutes at a time between periods at the surface.
We weighed anchor and continued to the bottom of Liefdefjord where the fjord was still frozen and the impressive Monaco glacier calves into the sea. On the fjord ice we saw both bearded and ringed seals. We scoured the coast and the ice with our binoculars, searching for the polar bears we knew must be there. We had seen their footprints, there was abundant food for them, but where were they? There was no sign of a bear, but we had the very unusual sight of a reindeer walking out on the fjord ice.
The scenery was breath-taking in all directions. The snowy mountains reflected in a mirror-calm fjord, dotted with ice. Loose groups of kittiwakes and small skeins of little auks were the only things that broke the reflections.
Returning to Woodfjord, we turned south to investigate the eastern branch of the fjord. Old Red Sandstone cliffs resulted in pinkish debris fans and murky water. On the lower slopes of the mountains we spotted a handful of reindeer grazing. Once again, the inner parts of the fjord were still frozen and we pushed through the ice, which was about half a metre thick. Eventually, our searching was rewarded when one of the many pieces of creamy-coloured driftwood began to walk and resolved into a polar bear! It was still some distance away but unmistakable. We watched for more than an hour as it pottered about, standing, walking, then lying down to rest.
What an exciting day! After dinner we turned north, leaving the bear as a little ivory speck in the vast fjord landscape behind us and began to head towards the open sea and polar pack ice.
A glistening ice scape met the drowsy eyes of the early risers this morning. At 05:00 the sun was shining and the scenery surrounding the ship was nothing short of incredible. However, by the time Brent and Wilson made the 07:45 wakeup call the fog had rolled in and the visibility had dropped considerably. Brent and Captain made the practised decision to keep ploughing on through the fog, and a good decision it turned out to be: By 10:00 the fog had cleared, once again revealing this magnificent frozen sea scape.
While enjoying the unique view unfolding before us many of us took to the decks with our cameras and binoculars, scanning every which way in the hope of finding the elusive Polar bear. Although the bears were proving hard to find, there was an abundance of seals hauled out on the ice. Every which way we looked there were large Bearded seals. What’s more, the sea birds were a continuous and lively sighting. Kittiwakes, Little auks and guillemots both flew around the ship and bobbed on the surface of the sea below us.
Today also gave us a chance to catch up on some knowledge. We have already seen a lot of wildlife on this trip and this morning was a chance to hear more from our expert guides about what we’d seen. Ali introduced us to many of the bird species and how to identify them, while Erin gave us an insight into the big blubbery Walrus we had encountered on our Zodiac cruise yesterday morning.
As the day progressed the sun kept shining for us as we continued looking for bears. We were spotting bears’ footprints in the ice tantalizingly frequently, but still no bear. Nevertheless, the sunshine, the seals and the birds were keeping us more than happy. And if that wasn’t enough the lovely Hotel Staff treated us all to a special hot chocolate on the top deck at 16:00. While the eager spotters continued their search with hot chocolates in hand, Sarah began her interesting and on topic lecture ‘How Vikings Navigated in Fog’.
Following Sarah’s lecture we piled back onto deck to enjoy the gorgeous evening before returning to the lounge for the evening recap. As Recap came to an end Brent began telling us about our plans for the following day as well as for this evening – we were all headed to the top deck for a special dinner! Brent also mentioned the importance of staying quiet should a Polar bear be spotted. Indeed there was good reason for mentioning how important this was because unbeknown to us the crew had spotted a bear directly in front of the ship.
It certainly didn’t take us long to grab our cameras and jackets and pile back out onto deck to enjoy the marvellous views of the large and healthy looking bear. We snapped away with our cameras as the bear limbered about the ice before taking to the water for a swim – all the while being followed by a curious and foolhardy seal! We continued watching the bear from the top deck for well over an hour as we tucked into more great food from the galley team. Many people stayed up well into the night to enjoy the endless sunshine on this glistening sea scape. It had been a truly wonderful day.
The day began with thick fog obscuring the cliffs at Alkefjellet, although we could clearly hear the cacophony of birds from beyond it. We had heard from two other ships in the area that they had hardly been able to see the cliffs at all, making any bird-watching very marginal. We decided to look for ourselves, anyway, and found the conditions to be better that what we had heard. Keeping other boats in sight, we eased through the rafts of Brünnich’s Guillemots towards the gathering noise coming from the cliffs. A short time after the ship was out of sight, the cliffs loomed into view, and we were glad to see that visibility was a good deal better than we had expected it to be.
We moved slowly along the cliffs, from south to north, looking at the countless rows of guillemots facing inwards on the narrow ledges where they lay their eggs. We didn’t see any eggs, but it won’t be long until the females start laying. For now, most of the birds had claimed a space, though there were still many holding-on to remnant patches of snow, waiting for it to melt and expose the ledges beneath them. Birds dropped from the cliffs above us as we moved along, catching themselves a few feet above the water and speeding low over our heads and out to sea. Birds returning to the cliffs sped over us from the other direction, pulling up with feet and wings spread to jostle their way between others crowded onto the ledges. The low cawing hum of the guillemots seemed like a pulse running through the cliffs, punctuated here and there with a staccato laugh, which, higher in the column of swirling, diving birds, was gradually overwhelmed by the shrill call of the kittiwakes. Even for those not normally interested in birds, the sheer number of them along these cliffs, spread out on the water and filling the air above our heads could not fail to impress. So much life and sound, layered over the seemingly dank, cold rock added another dimension to it, giving the sense that it, in turn, was alive.
The towering pinnacles of rock gave way to steep gravelly slopes covered in sparse vegetation and patches of snow that can be a good place to see Arctic foxes. As luck would have it, a fox appeared about 150 metres above the shore, running across one of the patches of snow with a guillemot in its mouth. Angling down across the slope it buried the bird amongst some rocks and then went back up to try and catch another, looking for birds that had underestimated the fox’s reach and nimbleness on the peripheries of the ledges where they lay their eggs.
After everyone was back aboard and the Zodiacs had all been lifted back onto the ship, we sailed north past Cape Fanshawe, and into Lomfjord to search for bears that might be roaming the area. Unfortunately, the fog was too dense, so we headed on, along the northern shore of the Hinlopen Strait towards Murchisonfjord, where we intended to land after dinner for a short walk around the buildings at Kinnvika. However, after everyone was ashore fog began to descend on the place, causing concern due to the fact that we knew bears had been seen nearby recently. Due to that, and because we couldn’t see much of the area anyway, we decided to go back to the ship, whereupon we sailed west, out of the Hinlopen Strait and towards the low-lying, isolated island of Moffen from which we intended to turn north back towards the pack ice.
The bouncing and crunching of the ship let us know that once again we were in the pack as Wilson made the wakeup call this morning.
Of course, being in the pack ice didn’t mean that we could rest and so after breakfast some of us took to the decks to look for our next bear. While looking we also took the opportunity to photograph the Kittiwakes and Glaucous gulls as they dove into the water to pick out the Arctic cod that were exposed as Plancius ploughed through the pack ice. Several Pomeran Skua were also shadowing the feeding birds, eager to harass the successful ones and claim a meal of their own.
Tobias and Wilson gave interesting presentations mid-morning with Tobias talking about the geology of Svalbard in the Dining room while Wilson spoke about the general history of the Arctic to the Chinese contingent in the lounge.
Lunch was served shortly afterwards and in a surprising end to the feast Brent announced that we were approaching another bear! All of us were quiet as we ran to grab our cameras and sneak out on deck to get the best position we could find. Over the next twenty minutes the Captain manoeuvred the ship closer to the curious bear, who also approached the ship as well, no doubt wondering what this big funny smelling iceberg was doing here.
While cautious, he was not at all afraid and moved around, stopping frequently to sniff the air to try and determine what we were. After a while the bear’s curiosity was satisfied and we watched as he wandered off into the distance, jumping and swimming between floes and continuing onwards deeper into the ice.
After a warming drink back in the Lounge the second part of the BBCs Frozen Planet was screened. We watched the delightful cinematography depicting spring life in both the Arctic and Antarctic as Plancius bounced her way south and out of the Pack Ice.
Later in the afternoon Erin presented a very interesting talk on how Whales have adapted to survive the deep depths that they dive to. Wilson again gave a talk to the Chinese, this time talking about his polar adventures in Antarctica and the Arctic.
Throughout the afternoon the wind increased to 25kn and caused the ship to start to move more. After recap and as a special treat and to avoid the worsening conditions, the Captain decided to sail through the spectacular Smeerenburgfjord, passing several islands and exiting at the southern entrance, which involved some very good navigation.
Throughout the evening we sailed further south to our destination for tomorrow, keeping an eye out for any whale blows from the lounge before retiring to our cabins for the night.
Well the morning of the 24th of June was a very early one or maybe it was a late night as at 1:15am Brent woke us with a call over the PA system to inform us that we had whales near to the ship and that one of them was confirmed as a Blue whale. Many of us got dressed, grabbed our cameras and made our way out onto deck. Almost immediately we could see and hear the huge blows of the largest animal ever to have lived on earth. With a body length of up to 30m and weighing up to 150 tonnes these animals are indeed enormous and we had a great viewing of them as they came to the surface to breathe.
The blow can be up to 10m in height and this is followed by the long blue back and then end with a tiny dorsal fin, a thick tail stock and sometimes we get a clear view of the fluke. It was a chilly encounter but a very memorable one.
Back to bed and it didn’t seem long before Wilson was waking us up again ready to start our final day of the trip. It was a bit of a grey, overcast morning but conditions were calm and the bouncy seas had been left behind.
After breakfast the first task of the morning was to settle our accounts, yes all those drinks at the bar do need to be paid for, and then we were ready for our short walrus encounter at Poolepynten. We were split into 3 groups for the landing and were taken ashore to land about 300m away from where the walrus were hauled out on the beach. Walrus don’t have very good eyesight but they have good hearing so we had to approach quietly with the guides assessing the behaviour of the animals to define our viewing position. Once in position we were able to observe the animals resting on the beach and take as many photos as we wanted. There was a mix of males, females and some young, protected in the middle of the group and apart from some occasional grunts and some fin waving there was not too much action. This is a sign that the animals were relaxed.
After our allotted time we walked back to the landing site and made our way back on board for lunch and our re-positioning cruise around to the final destination on the trip, Alkehornet.
As we approached the area we could see a very distinctive horn shaped peak rising up into the mist with green tundra slopes running gently down to the shore. After a short briefing about the landing we made our way in our groups to the Zodiac deck ready to go ashore. The landing was on a small pebble beach but once we were up off the beach we found ourselves walking on a beautiful green Arctic tundra with buttercups, saxifrage and willow at our feet.
The first group went off up the hill towards the cliffs where Kittiwakes and Brunnich’s guillemots could be heard on their nests on the steep cliffs. On the lower grassy slopes a few reindeer could be seen grazing on the summer vegetation so we made our way carefully at the slope to ensure that everyone got a good view of the male on the slope and the females that had been resting on a snow patch.
Each group had over an hour to enjoy the spectacle of Alkehornet before making their way back to the beach and back to the ship in time for a short re-cap and Captain’s Cocktails. This was a chance to toast our voyage and thank everyone for their work in making this a special Polar Bear Special.
The farewell dinner gave us a chance to meet the hotel and galley staff and share our memories of our trip. The last activity on board was to return our rubber boots to the boot room before retiring to the bar for a drink or to our cabins to pack.
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.