PLA06-16, Trip log | Polar Bear Special
24.06.2016 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 on the marina to board the Zodiacs that would take us to 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 Delphine our Expedition Leader, and right after, 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 and their baggage onboard 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 into the distance. Our trip had started and there were all happy faces everywhere we looked.
Later on, our Hotel Manager Andre joined us in the lounge 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. Right after the rest of the expedition team were introduced and Captain Evgeny gave a toast to the success of our voyage.
Towards the end of dinner we heard an announcement saying there was a large whale breaching in front of the ship! We all dressed up and gathered on deck to witness such interesting display, especially for a large whale. As we approached closer we realized that this large whale was indeed a Blue Whale, the largest animal that ever lived on the Planet! And there was not only one, as minutes later there were two more blue whales showing up. What a great way to start a new adventure!
We went to bed hoping that it was tomorrow already…
The first full day of this voyage on the Plancius. We had an easy start, the wake-up call was not before 07.40 am. But the rest of the day we had a very full program. After breakfast and deck by deck everybody was called to come to the boot room to collect their boots for this trip. It took some time, finding out which pair of socks were the best and what colour of black you liked the most but we managed to get everybody in boots before the next event was starting.
In the restaurant Delphine held the mandatory briefing about the Arctic Guidelines, Polar Bear safety and zodiac operations. It was lot of information given for one hour’s time. But not for nothing, this afternoon the first landing by zodiacs is on the program.
After lunch we entered Raudfjorden on Northwest Spitsbergen. It is a fjord about 20 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide with a number offside bays with calving glaciers.
During the ships cruise into the fjord there were eyes scanning to all sides. We found several Reindeer on the hillslopes. On the sea ice in front of the glacier at the end of the Fjord we found several Bearded Seals and Ringed Seals. Two Ivory Gulls were flying around and in a small flock of Eiders we found several King eiders.
After the ship dropped anchor and Delphine give a little talk about the place we are going to visit, it was time to get ready for our first landing. Everybody had a choice, doing the long, medium or leisurely walk. There was still a lot of snow on the landing place so that created the opportunity to use the snow shoes. The zodiacs brought us to the shores of Bruceneset, a part of the fjord that was utilised by whalers in the early 17th century. Close by the landing site we visited an old hut that was built by Norwegian Trappers somewhere in the first half of the 20th century.
After the surrounding was secured and safe, the snow shoes strapped on, the three groups formed, we all took off for a nice walk. Two pairs of migrating Pomarine Skuas were one of the highlights of the walk.
Back on the ship it was time for dinner, so recap was postponed until after dinner.
What a way to wake up: Instead of the usual wake-up call, we got a “We-sighted-the-first-bear-call” at 7am. Overnight Plancius had travelled around the northern tip of Spitsbergen and sailed south through Hinlopen Strait. Here we headed for the remaining fast ice northwest of Wilhelmøya. The ice is like a meadow on the sea. Under its surface diatoms, ice-algae, grow; they feed zooplankton which feeds fish which feed seals which in turn feed polar bears, the obvious reason why we were here. How correct this this is was shown when we not only saw one, but eight polar bears! One of the bears was walking along the ice edge (and later lay down for a snooze). One mother with a first year cub showed remarkable patience while she was hunched motionless over a seal hole ready to jump should any seal appear. Another mother with an older cup was walking in binocular distance and several single bears were spotted on the fast ice, all joined by the sole goal to hunt for seals.
Since Plancius parked at the edge of the fast ice in Bjørnsundet for the morning there was ample opportunity for everybody to watch the bears through binoculars and the scope that staff had set up. We were also entertained by the appearance of some Harp seals, flocks of Brünich’s guillemots, Black guillemots, Ivory gulls and even a Long-tailed skua.
As we pulled away from the fast ice Katja gave a talk about polar bears, how they stay warm, how they reproduce and what threats they face. As the talk ended we had reached the southern side of Wilhelmøya and another mother and cup were sighted, as well as a single bear and a walrus on an ice floe. We could watch them through binoculars but unfortunately the shallow depth of the water meant that we couldn’t approach them any closer.
After lunch we sailed further to the South, passing a walrus on an ice floe that was hiding its eyes behind a flipper, maybe to hide from us or was it just hungover? A scenic blue iceberg made the cameras click frantically. As we reached the ice around Rønnebeckøyane and Mackøya we saw more bears. In front of a glacier front was a mother and a cub, another bear was climbing over the rocks at Mackøya and a fourth one we watched diving into the water several times in an effort to catch a seal. However, as far as we could tell he wasn’t successful. Developing fog made further observations difficult. Just before the recap a young bear was spotted moving fast over and in between ice floes. It certainly was on a mission and we got only glimpses of his well-rounded backside.
The real highlight of the day, however, came after dinner when a mother with her cub and a male bear got close to the ship. We watched them jump over ice floes, look curiously at the ship, sniff the air and then slowly disappear in the distance. It felt like a gift to watch these animals and their behaviour so close in their natural environment. With these bears and a few that were only visible through the scope the total bear count today was 21 polar bears!!!!! What a fantastic day in the ice.
Early bird passengers awoke at 6.00am to a stunningly beautiful morning as Plancius cruised steadily towards the distant glimmering ice cliffs of Bråsvellbreen on Nordaustlandet. The true scale of this magnificent ice cap [Third largest in the world] was difficult to comprehend. The scale only became apparent when the ship was close. The impressive 30-40m vertical face of ice extended over 170 kms to the north east.
At 9.30 Zodiacs were launched and passengers were ferried to the shore near the walrus haul-out on the ‘polar desert’ of Torellneset. Three groups were organised – two medium walks and short walk. All were given time to observe the almost 100 walrus dozing in a grunting, belching, and tactile heap on the shore at the point. A few curious walrus cruised and dived excitedly in the sea offshore. Cameras clicked incessantly. The expedition leaders explained that the gravel landscape was the remains of an ancient raised beach formed when the ice sheets retreated. This was a most interesting landing. The area was festooned with wooden debris and tree-trunks which had drifted along the Russian coast from Siberia.
Lunch… and a course set to the north for our next adventure destination…the Alkefjellet bird cliffs. Unfortunately we were forced to abandon the plan to have a Zodiac cruise due to the strong wind and high waves. Instead the captain carefully steered the ship close inshore to give passengers a superb close up of over 100000 thousand Brunnich’s guillemots sitting on ledges on the cliff face. Others either filled the sky or floated in large groups on the undulating sea. The geology was magnificent. Huge multi-facetted dolerite formations sandwiched between horizontal bands of pale limestone providing excellent ledges for the nesting birds.
Today Delphine`s wake-up call was even more enthusiastic although it was as early as 7am.
We arrived at the Seven Islands and got in position in front of Phippsøya. A scout boat left the Plancius to check the shore for possible landing sites as well as for walrus and polar bears. Unfortunately the wind got stronger and the sea state rose so that we had to leave the Seven Islands without landing.
A resting polar bear on a snow slope was seen by most as we sailed out into bumpy waters.
We set a course to the North West in order to reach the pack ice. While sailing, Sebastian gave an inspiring lecture about the amazing polar explorer and pioneer Roald Amundsen, who started some of his adventures on Svalbard.
Soon after we reached the ice the awaited polar bear call set the whole ship in motion. It turned out even better than everybody expected. Two beautiful bears feeding on a seal. The bigger one went off as it seemed to be full and left the smaller bear feeding on the rest of the kill. We stopped and drifted alongside the bears’ ice floe, keeping a safe distance for the bear. We were able to enjoy the majestic Ursus maritimus in its natural habitat, sea ice and the ocean, for over an hour.
Frozen from the chill, the next lecture took us into the world of the sea ice and its meaning for the arctic food web. Just after the lecture, as most people on board were relaxing and having coffee in the lounge, an almost historical event made us storm outside. Shortly after the whale call the second call announced “It is a bowhead at 11 o´ clock”. A sighting that even left the guides speechless, as none of them ever had seen a bowhead north of Svalbard before. We were able to follow several dive sequences until our attention was again put on a polar bear swimming and roaming on a big patch of ice. Well, who else can report back home, how she or he was distracted from looking at an extremely rare whale by the fifth polar bear of the day? Not so many, I guess.
What an exciting day to reach the farthest north point of our travel at 81°00,252`N, 016°24,246`E.
During the night, the officers on the bridge took us from the pack ice and all the way back to the mainland of Spitsbergen. We entered the great Woodfjord early in the morning and were aiming for the sheltered bay of Jakobsenbukta.
Once ashore we split into our 3 hiking groups, Delphine and Seba took the long hikers on a walk into a glacier valley, at some times this walk turned almost into a swim, due to lots of water and soggy snow, however they managed to get well into the valley and enjoy a fantastic view. The medium walk was together with Kasper, Katja and Andrew, and went for a high look out, to be able to take in the fabulous scenery over Woodfjorden, Bockfjorden and the bay. Up high, we enjoyed a session of silence, we all sat down and listened for a few minutes to the sound of nature. The short walkers enjoyed the beach together with Michael, Bill and Ab, this group started collecting garbage that has washed up on the beach, and the amount of it was staggering. The guides ended up dragging 2 cubic meters of garbage with them back on board, to bring it back to Longyearbyen.
Over lunch the officers brought the Plancius toward the famous Monaco glacier. At the glacier, we all battled the windy conditions on the gangway, and set out on a cruise in the Zodiacs. During this cruise some of us went ashore on an island that became ice free in the last few years and we all cruised as close to the glacier and some big icebergs as safety allowed us.
At dinner there were several that had a special treat, birthday cake! In the evening we could enjoy the longest day of the year from the lounge, while sailing out of the fjord system and towards the south. But before coming out, we enjoyed the view of Ritter hut, the place where the German lady Christiane Ritter spent a whole year experiencing the wilderness of Svalbard.
This morning’s wakeup call saw us still sailing south towards our afternoon’s destination of Tordenskjöldbukta.
After breakfast Kasper regaled us with tales of Longyearbyen and the local area, explaining the intricacies of small town living and what the challenges people face over the darkness of winter. The hour flew by as we sat enraptured with his skilful and enthusiastic delivery and it came as a surprise when Andre announced that it was now time for us to start paying our bills. To ease the burden Delphine presented another talk on Polar bears, this time focussing on the effects that pollution from Europe has on the bear population in this area.
Soon enough lunch was announced and afterwards we all donned out outdoor clothing again as we prepared to board the zodiacs one last time and go ashore at Tordenskjöldbukta.
We split into three groups and set out on our various adventures, enduring a brief period of cold rain that dampened our waterproofs but not our spirits. The long and medium walkers covered good distances, spotting reindeer in the distance, the long walkers were lucky enough to have several approach closer and pose for our cameras. A pod of Beluga were spotted swimming along the shore and also several quite pretty birds were spotted on two of the lakes in the area. A large blow was also seen a long way out in the bay.
After a good two hours of walking we returned to the beach where, under strict instructions to clean our boots properly, we boarded the zodiacs back to Plancius.
After freshening up we convened in the lounge for Captains cocktails, where Captain Levakov came down and shared a few more words of wisdom before toasting a very successful voyage. Soon enough it was our last meal on board and as a special treat we were introduced to the hotel department staff to much cheering and applause.
After that it was time to finish packing our bags and preparing for our next adventure.
After 8 days we were back from where we had started, Longyearbyen. 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 have had special and incredible experiences, taken hundreds of pictures and made new friends. We shared truly 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:
1031 Nautical miles
Furthest North Point: 81°00,252`N / 016°24,246`E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Evgeny Levakov, Expedition Leader Delphine Aurès, Hotel Manager Andre van der Haak and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.