PLA06-17, trip log, North Spitsbergen, Polar Bear Special
22.06.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
We gathered from all points on the globe on an overcast, misty and occasionally drizzly summer day in Longyearbyen, capital (and only real population centre) of Svalbard. The rugged hills around were striped with snow, but the day was not too cold. Once off our flights, we were dropped in town where we explored the small settlement, had a coffee 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 and proceed to the lifeboats if ordered to by the Captain.
After we returned our lifejackets to our cabins, we were again invited to the Lounge. Captain Alexey spoke a few words of welcome and proposed a toast to our voyage. Our Hotel Manager Sebastian helped us settle in with more information about how the ship works, and Michael, our Expedition Leader, introduced the Expedition Team, and after a few helpful hints from our ship Doctor, we went to our first dinner on board. There, we sat at tables of six and more, making new friends and wondering what would come in the days ahead.
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. As we were reaching the Western end of the fjord and finishing dinner, Michael cleared the dining room by announcing "Blue whale!" We all rushed back to our cabins for coats and cameras, then found our way outside. The whale's blow was visible from a distance, huge and bushy, with a little bit of a 'V' visible. The whale surfaced about four times, then went down for six or seven minutes, and re-surfaced much closer to the ship. Long, mottled grey and very impressive, the whale 'fluked' (showed us his or her tail) before diving, causing quite a few enthusiastic outbursts from people on deck. We left the whale in peace and continued our way out of Isfjord, to turn South towards Hornsund, the area we intend to visit tomorrow. At last, tired from our travels, we retired to our cabins to rest and get ready for the first full day of our adventure.
After our eventful first evening on board, we deserved and enjoyed a very calm night. Not a wave to be seen on the water; our initial fears of seasickness were as of yet unfounded. Upon hearing Michael’s wake-up call, we nonetheless left our warm, cosy beds gladly: what would our second day have in store for us?
Over night, the Plancius had taken a Southerly course down the ice-free west coast of Svalbard, and after breakfast, we found ourselves in the 25-km long Hornsund. The weather was surprising to many of us as we cruised the large Brepollen (= glacier bay). Snow in June! Unfortunately, that meant that we did not see the magnificant glacier fronts in this area at their very best, but we certainly got an Arctic feeling. Just how the crew managed to spot our first Polar bear – practically white on white – remained a puzzle to many of us. The bear was barely visible behind a lump of snow very near the shore. Too bad the water here was so shallow, that the ship could not really get closer. Since the animal was seemingly sleeping and did very little to hold our attention, we left him in peace, hoping for a more photogenic one soon.
After a buffet lunch, we got ready for a Zodiac cruise in Burgerbukta. Most of us had probably never worn so many layers before, but they were certainly worth having while sitting still in the small rubber boats for about two hours. What the animals lacked in species (we only spotted Brunnich’s guillemot, Black guillemot, Little auks, Kittiwakes, and Fulmars), they certainly made up in numbers and quirky poses. And soon the icebergs and glacier front of Paierlbreen (in the western arm of the bay) and Mühlbacherbreen (in the eatern arm) captured and held our attention. The hues of blue, of grey and sometimes brown. The crackling as the old ice released air trapped for many thousands of years. When our drivers turned off their engines from time to time, we sat motionless and marvelled at the stillness that was only broken by the calls of seabirds.
Just when we thought we had had a packed day, a great whale was sighted in front of the ship just after dinner. This, too, was a Blue whale. Wonderful! – considering there are supposedly only 9000 of these animals left in the world. When the Arctic gives you so many new and exciting impressions, it is difficult to tear yourself away and go to bed. Perhaps the low cloud cover all day was a good thing. How would we have managed if the midlight sun had also lit up the sky?!
The day promised to be very busy and to bring us many unforgettable moments of the Arctic experience. Everybody was quite optimistic and excited despite the 9 knot wind, blowing from the Northwest. Two landings! Two different spots on the coastline of Bellsund!
The waters of Bellsund near Ingeborgfjellet – our first landing spot – keep many surprises, such as shallows and stones, so Plancius could not approach too close to shore and dropped anchor in a distance of almost two nautical miles from it. This distance we covered on Zodiacs. It was a long ride, as the drivers had to be very careful and instead of driving directly to the landing spot make zig-zags because of underwater stones.
On land we were offered three options – a medium walk, a short walk and a slope climbing in order to watch the bird colony. Some of us preferred to take a walk in the tundra, watching Reindeer, Barnacle geese and also visiting the Camp Millar hut, that used to belong to the Northern Exploration Company. A century ago this company was investigating this area in search of a gold vein, but found nothing. Another group preferred a short and slow walk closer to the landing spot – it is always a pleasure to step on the soft carpet of mosses of the tundra and enjoy watching wildlife without being in a hurry. The third group had to storm the steep and slippery slope of the mountain in order to get closer to a colony of Little auks – small black and white funny birds. It was hard and sometimes even dangerous, but those who chose this adrenaline-raising adventure trip were rewarded with a scenic view, opening from above, and a chance to take plenty of good pictures of Little auks. These people were not the only living beings who were aiming at the bird colony. The competition to them were two Arctic foxes! Of course, the foxes were not interested either in a scenic view or in taking pictures. Eggs – these are what attracts them! It’s the end of June and that means that it is time for the Little auks to lay eggs and start waiting for the chicks to come out. Arctic foxes are also looking forward to this time, because eggs are their favorite dish. It’s cruel, of course, but such is life.
Two and a half hours on land gave us all a unique opportunity to get in touch with Arctic wildlife, see Reindeer, geese, foxes, and Little auks, as well as the vegetation (mosses, lichens and small Arctic flowers). When it was time to go back to the ship, we gathered together at the landing spot and started being driven back by Zodiac. The way back was even more difficult than the way there, because the wind increased and there was even more swell, and the tide reached its lowest level, which also increased the chance to meet some underwater stones.
Our lunch turned out to be just a break between landings. While we were taking a breath and enjoying our meals, the captain was heading Plancius towards Bamsebu. The distance was very short, so very soon the anchor was dropped.
The first thing we saw at Bamsebu was pretty terrifying: thousands and thousands of beluga whale bones. Long ago people were hunting these white marine mammals here and boiling their blubber. Fortunately it didn’t last long. Anyway, the bones are still here and now they are protected and preserved probably as a reminder for future generations never to try to repeat this experience.
Again we divided into several groups: medium walkers, leisure walkers and very leisure walkers. The last (but not the least) ones were offered a walk along the coastline around the landing spot, the second ones were guided a short loop to the hut and around it and the medium walkers set off to make a bigger loop along the coastline and tundra. The tundra walk turned out to be an adventure and a challenge. The end of June is snow melting time, so the ground is full of water and very difficult to walk upon. On one of the legs close to the end of the route some of us started to get stuck in the mud. Seems like the tundra got angry with being disturbed, and was trying to have it’s revenge on us by holding our boots and not letting us go for a while. Anyway it all ended up well and no people got hurt. The guides were very helpful and were doing their best to help us to get out of the mud trap.
By dinner time we came back on board. Plancius lifted anchor and headed north. Late in the evening, when we were sailing pretty far from the coast, another big surprise was revealed to us. We spotted a whale! Blue whale! The biggest animal living on our planet! The whale was very friendly and gifted us with a chance to watch him swimming, rolling and diving very close to the ship. AECO rules do not let us stay with a whale for longer then 30 minutes, so when the time was up we had to leave this wonderful animal. Nevertheless, soon another couple of blue whales was spotted. Most likely it was a mother with a calf. It was already after midnight when we, tired but happy, went to rest in our cabins. Unforgettable day!!!
This morning we arrived at the Northwestern side of Spitsbergen and the lookout for bears started right after breakfast. We checked the shore lines while sailing the narrow channels of Smeerenburgfjorden. At 09:30, Katja gave us an interesting lecture about Polar bears, their natural history, their love lives, and the threats that they are facing nowadays.
Later on 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 half of the fjord was still covered with fast ice (the sea ice that is still attached to land), and there we saw them! Polar bears! There were two fairly visible and there were two more far in the distance.
The Captain managed to bring the ship among the sea ice and get closer to one of the bears; it was in a hunting mood, concentrated in what was under the ice, waiting for a seal to pop up. After a while it moved towards a piece of ice and lay down, it was time for its morning nap. Once the bear decided to count sheep, it was our time to move on and head North toward the sea ice edge. The sun had come up and the light was astonishing.
After lunch the search continued, most of us were on deck enjoying the pleasant weather, we saw seals on the ice and a couple of Minke whales. In the early afternoon, Gina from Sunrise Birding kindly opened up her presentation about the sea birds of Svalbard to everyone, and we all enjoyed learning about the different types of birds that we can encounter throughout our trip. The ice was very dense but the Plancius squeezed and passed through the open channels in between thanks to the skilled navigation of our Captain Alexey. Later on we had another surprise when Michael announced a Walrus on the ice. Plancius approached slowly through the ice and we had the chance to have closer view of the small tusks and take a lot of pictures.
After dinner we came out on deck one more time and the search continued. On the horizon we could see fog approaching and we all hoped it would go away, as we had another exciting day in the ice ahead of us.
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. About 07:15, Sebastian brought the good news that he had found a Polar bear in front of Raudfjorden. This bear was a bit thin and far from the open water. We couldn’t get closer, so we left the bear alone to keep wandering on the sea ice.
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 direction we looked there were large Bearded seals, and the sea birds were a continuous and lively around the ship. Kittiwakes, Little auks and guillemots both flew around the ship and bobbed on the surface of the sea below us.
Of course, being in the pack ice didn’t mean that we could rest, and after lunch the expedition team offered a Zodiac cruise along the pack ice edge. While sailing, we 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 ice. Several Pomerine skuas were also shadowing the feeding birds, eager to harass the successful ones and claim a meal of their own.
After everyone was back aboard and the Zodiacs had all been lifted back onto the ship, the day also gave us a chance to catch up on some knowledge. We have already seen a lot of ice on this trip and this afternoon was a chance to hear more from our expert guides about what we’d seen. Lynn introduced us to the different types of ice in the world, and especially sea ice.
At 19:30 we were invited down to the aft deck for our special Arctic BBQ, where staff had prepared a real feast of meats and salads and with complimentary drinks the party soon got underway and dancing continued late into the evening. A great end to a great day. 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. 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.
After yet another nice breakfast, we were all invited to come ashore on Amsterdamøya, to visit the remains of the 17th century Dutch whaling station Smeerenburg (“Blubbertown”). The house remains were still covered in meltwater, but the foundations of the blubber ovens were easy to see from a safe distance. We split up into three groups: a leisurely group that had a field lecture on the archaeology of the town, a photography/birders group and a group that chose to stretch their leggs a little on a medium hike. The snow and meltwater prevented the last to go around the little lagoon, but returning along the same beach was not a bad thing, since it enabled us to use our hands to pick up some of the plastic garbage that had been washed ashore. We were keenly watched by a Harbour seal in the water, who was probably wondering what on earth we were doing.
On the other side of our landing beach all three groups in turn were led to the small Walrus haulout. The males were very relaxed and did not mind us coming in up to 30 m, enabling marvelous pictures of these magnificant animals.
A little after twelve, everybody was back on the ship (all tags were green again) and a tasty lunch buffet was prepared for us. During lunch the Captain set off to Magdalenenfjord where we left the ship once again to go on a Zodiac cruise. On our way to the glacier we saw some Common eiders and King eiders as well as a few Harbour seals (which is not a very common sight in this part of the world). The glacier itself has a really nice ice front with a lot of cracks as it is sliding down the mountian, but it was also quite clear that it is melting: there were very few bits breaking off of the front and the bay was nearly clear of mini-iceberg (“bergy bits”). We could clearly see how far the glacier once reached thanks to the still visible moraines that were once in the middle of the glacier, where various glacial tongues met to form a bigger glacier to fill the fjord. On one of these moraines we spotted an Arctic fox. On our way back toward the ship, we decided to cruise along the shore of Gravesneset where many early whalers and sailors have found their last resting places in the 17th-19th centuries. Near the burial sites we met again some Walrus, this time two of them were swimming in the water: coming up snorting from apparently quite a deep dive to the fjord-bottom and diving down again with a friendly (we hope) tailwave.
The evening was complemented with a good meal in the restaurant and some after-dinner-whales on our way down from the outer Northwest corner of Spitsbergen southwards.
As was becoming typical of this trip, Michael woke us with the good news that the weather was again very pleasant and would allow for another fantastic expedition day. As we enjoyed our morning coffee in the lounge the sun beat through the windows, encouraging many to venture out on deck and savour the warm Arctic air and stunning scenery. After a hearty breakfast it was time for Michael to outline the plan for this morning, which was to be a landing at Gjertsenodden in St Jonsfjord.
We landed on a flat sandy beach, where vast tracts of moraine left behind by a retreating glacier have formed a rolling and hilly terrain behind. Due to the wonderful light conditions these snow topped mountains were displaying a true mosaic of colours which highlighted the faults and folds of the landscape. Katja and Frigga set off with the long walkers, aiming for a distant ridge, then the medium group set off and lastly the keen photographers and slow walkers ambled off to do their thing. There were a few reindeer on the slopes including a young calf and one of the groups even managed to get a glimpse at an Arctic fox before it darted up the hillside. For the birders amongst us there was great excitement at spotting the Svalbard rock ptarmigan and the sounds of the many Snow buntings singing all around were enjoyed by people on all three walks. Most of us had a look at the very small trapper's hut which was just set back from the shoreline, looking out over the fjord, but one thing was for sure we all took time to stop and enjoy the fabulous views and wonderful Arctic weather we were being blessed with!
All safely back on board we enjoyed our last lunch on the Plancius; meanwhile the ship made her way south to Alkhornet which was to be our afternoon landing site.
Alkhornet is situated at the entrance of Trygghamna fjord and the name refers to the shape of the mountain, which is thought to resemble a horn. Trygghamna has been described as ‘Spitsbergen in a nutshell’ because the area has most of the features that attract visitors to the Arctic: beautiful mountains, glacier scenery, rich tundra, reindeer, a bird cliff and historical relics from different periods and this is exactly what we were greeted with. This perfect Arctic picture was only enhanced by glorious sunshine and blue skies. The serenity of the scene before us was only briefly disturbed when an Arctic skua decided to launch a viscous attack on a passing reindeer that it considered a possible threat to the nest it was guarding. This truly was the perfect site to end our trip with as it seem to encapsulate the ‘best of the Arctic’.
As soon as everybody was back on the ship, it was sadly time for the Plancius to lift anchor and head towards Longyearbyen.
No sooner had we got a hot drink to warm ourselves was it time to head back up into the lounge for our final recap and briefing. After a toast from the Captain, there were thanks to all of the people who made the trip so enjoyable, and all the information we need for our disembarkation. Our last dinner 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 anchor in Longyearbyen, sad to know we will be leaving the ship. Our last breakfast seemed too early in the morning, but was very much appreciated, as we don't know where our next meals will be coming from!! We were back at the port of Bykoya in Longyearbyen, and it was time to leave the ship for the last time. On the dock, we found our luggage and sorted ourselves into the 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: 900.0 nautical miles | 1,666.8 kilometres
Furthest North: 80o08.18’N/011o23.43E
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!.