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PLA06-18, trip log, Spitsbergen - Polar Bear Special

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Embarkation – Longyearbyen

Embarkation – Longyearbyen
Date: 15.06.2018
Position: 078°14’N / 015°35’E
Wind: NW 6
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

Longyearbyen is situated at 78° north and, as such is one of the world’s most northerly settlements. It grew up as a coal mining town but now is home to around 2,000 residents who live and work here all year round. This number temporarily swells during the summer months with the arrival of thousands of visitors on cruise ships.

Some of us had arrived a day earlier than our departure day on board Plancius and had time to explore the town and maybe take a day trip but many of us arrived at the airport during the afternoon and after being met by Ali at the airport we had some time to visit the town before making our way to the port to join our ship for the coming trip.

By the time we arrived at the floating pontoon the weather had changed considerably with strong wind and snow. It was going to be an interesting Zodiac ride to our ship Plancius that was anchored in the fjord. Sasha and Laurence got us into our lifejackets and we boarded the Zodiacs.

It was very bumpy and wet as we made our way to the ship and conditions at the gangway were challenging but our drivers ensured we all got on board safely, if a little wet.
From the gangway we were shown to our cabins by the very welcoming hotel staff and found our luggage already there. We had some time to familiarise ourselves with our cabin before we were called to the Lounge for the mandatory safety briefing which was given by our 3rd Officer Luis Oroceo. This gave us all the information we needed about safety on board the ship and prepared us for the lifeboat drill that was to follow. We heard the abandon ship alarm and gathered at the muster station, the Lounge, wearing our big orange life jackets, the only time we hope to be wearing them. After the roll call we were taken out to the lifeboats to see where they were located and how we would embark if required.

We lifted the anchor and were making our way out of Isfjord heading north. We met in the Lounge once again and had a briefing from our Hotel Manager, DJ who explained some of the procedures on board Plancius, our home for the week. It was then a chance to meet our Expedition team who will be guiding us safely during our voyage here on Svalbard. We have an international team on board with a wealth of experience both here in the Arctic and Antarctica Our Expedition leader, Michael Ginzburg gave us a little more information about our plans for the trip. He showed us an ice chart and it was clear to see that the pack ice is a long way north this year so in order to find the bears we hope to see on this trip then that is where we must go.

The hotel staff served us champagne and canapes before we met with our Captain Evgeny Levakov who explained a little bit about our forthcoming trip.
It was then time for dinner, which was a chance to meet with our fellow passengers.

With 24 hours of daylight many of us enjoyed some time out on deck during the evening spotting Fulmars, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and the tiny Little auks. It was a very pleasant evening on board.

Day 2: Raudfjorden

Raudfjorden
Date: 16.06.2018
Position: 079°44’N / 012°08’E
Wind: Calm
Weather: Partly Cloudy
Air Temperature: +8

When it no longer gets dark outside, your body clock nonetheless tells you when it’s time to sleep, but rather than rely on our body clock to also wake us again, it was Misha’s voice we heard at 7am: welcome to a beautiful day on Arctic waters; the breakfast buffet would begin soon. The morning’s programme was full of mandatory briefings: how to behave in polar bear country; how to get in and out of the Zodiacs safely; and what is expected of the members of AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators). After all, we would like take part in responsible and sustainable tourism in Svalbard and elsewhere. Once we had collected our rubber boots from the boot room, we were ready to go, so how about a first landing?

By this time, the Plancius had arrived in Raudfjorden, named ‘the red bay’ after its surrounding red rocks, in the northwest corner of the island of Spitsbergen. We had anchored in a small harbour called Alicehamna after the two yachts (Princesse Alice I and II) of Prince Albert I of Monaco, who in 1898, 1899, 1906, and 1907 conducted oceanographical research in the archipelago. Once the Zodiacs had shuttled us to shore, we divided into three groups, going on long, medium, or leisurely walks, and set off in our respective directions. The beach offered many geological curiosities until we reached Raudfjordhytta, a hut built by the trapper Sven Olsen in 1927. Some walkers reached the hilltop Brucevarden named after a Scottish polar explorer, where the guides pointed out some cultural heritage in the form of a stone cairn, a fox trap, and the grave of the trapper Eirik Zacharriassen Mathilas, who died of scurvy in 1908. When the guides were not pointing at things under our feet, they were pointing at the landscape around us or into the air. The few species of Arctic birds are present in large numbers of individuals, so it’s worthwhile learning to recognise a few of them. In the morning’s calm waters, the Zodiac ride back to ship was so much more pleasant than the embarkation the day before; we could get used to this.

During lunch the Plancius travelled only a short distance across Raudfjord to Hamiltonbukta named after a Swedish naval officer. Again, we landed and split into three groups. Because of the loose cobbles along the shore and the deep snow covering them, the going was much more difficult, but the groups managed just fine. Everyone was feeling sufficiently adventurous. There were old bear tracks in the snow following the coastline, but we did not see a bear. If we had, we would not have been able to land, or we would have need to retreat from the beach immediately. Instead the local wildlife comprised a small group of friendly reindeer greeting the long walkers on the one end of the landing site and a bird cliff with breeding kittiwakes and Brünnich’s guillemots at the other end. We spotted fox tracks and old fox traps, but Mr Fox himself did not make an appearance. Well, that’s something to look forward to.

Back on board, we were treated to our first recap of the trip. During recap, Misha usually introduces the Plan A for the coming day – subject to change – and staff members pick up on things that we had seen or experienced during the landing and add some additional information. Ali talked about three common Arctic birds: the Black legged kittiwake, the Northern fulmar, and the Little auk, then Laurence reviewed cirque glaciers and some general aspects of past ice ages in Svalbard. Recap is then followed by dinner: we certainly felt we had earned us ours today!

Day 3: Phippsoya

Phippsoya
Date: 17.06.2018
Position: 80°41’N / 020°46’E
Wind: SE 3
Weather: Partly Cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

After the now usual wakeup call by Misha, it was time for breakfast and coffee (not too much!!) to get us started. Overnight, we had sailed North, and now we were coming into position for our intended landing on Phippsoya, one of the Seven Islands (Sjuoyane) on the far North above the main island of Spitsbergen. Phippsoya was named after Constantine Phipps, a British Naval Officer who led an expedition to Spitsbergen in 1773, onboard HM Ships ‘Racehorse’ and ‘Carcass’.

The guides first left in two Zodiacs to scout the area of the landing site, which has been known to be quite ‘Beary’ in the past, then when the immediate landing site was considered safe, we all headed down the gangway and to shore to explore. Different hike options were offered, and the long hikers left first, taken by Marie and Misha to see how far they could get on this low, gravelly island. A medium hike with Ali, Laurence and Adam departed second, aiming for the Department of Mines hut on a distant beach. The leisurely hike then strolled off with Frigga’s fascinating stories already started, and Lynn and Johnny on escort duty. All of the hikes were challenging in their own way, with deep snow, driftwood, and large, awkward pebbles underfoot in most places, meaning everybody had to be careful to avoid a slip or spill. There were several raised beaches visible along the walks; this ‘terracing’ is caused by the changes in sea level, with each terrace reflecting a time when the sea level was at a different, higher level than now. We had chance to see some interesting formations within the pebbles, with many showing interesting patterns of feldspar veining. This happens when the rock is subjected to intense heat and pressure during metamorphism, and the feldspar melts more readily than the surrounding rock. It is then injected in sheets between the surrounding rock and cools leaving the veins that we saw.

The landing started out bright if chilly, but the weather began to deteriorate a bit, with a large drop in air pressure suggesting significant change coming. Low clouds formed and flowed over the hills of the surrounding islands, and the wind picked up enough for us to feel the bite. Our various groups gradually returned to the landing site, and the Zodiacs shuttled us back to Plancius where a well earnt hot lunch was waiting for us. Once we were all back on board, the Captain turned the ship North, and we started sailing towards the sea ice.

After lunch, most of us had a ‘polar nap’, either intentionally, in our cabins, or unintentionally, in the lounge. It was also a time to review photos, catch up on some reading and talk with friends. Later in the afternoon, Marie presented a talk about Polar bears, showing some good images and telling interesting stories about how they live in Svalbard, while Johnny spoke in Mandarin in the dining room. Afternoon tea had us all back in the bar for coffee & cookies, and that lead naturally into Recap. Misha started off, giving us his plan A for tomorrow, which was simply to find the ice and search for bears. We all approved of this, and it lead in to Ali’s talk, as she gave us pointers on how to spot Polar bears. After this, Adam gave us the history of the Beaufort scale, explaining how and why this nautical measurement came into being.

During the afternoon a few small pieces of sea ice were being spotted, and finally, around 10 pm, we came to the ice edge. It was truly an edge – as far as we could see, a long line marking ice to the North and open water to the South. The Captain took us into the ice for a short period, then the ship came back out into open water, and we sailed beside the ice overnight, making it much more quiet and conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Day 4: Ice

Ice
Date: 18.06.2018
Position: 081°59’N / 016°09’E
Wind: SW 5
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

In the morning, we all woke full of suspense and enthusiasm. The decision to go north to the ice edge had been met with applause just a few days earlier, and now we had arrived. This just might be the northernmost day of our lives, and our chance to see the mythical polar bear in the pack ice. A day of a lifetime.

This year is an unusual year for sea ice, the sea ice has been broken up and dispersed by the winds and melted away all around the island very early, and the edge of the main Arctic Ocean pack is at a mindboggling 82ᵒN. It was never a given thing that we could reach that far north, no matter what an office planned itinerary would say on paper. To head North, you need good weather and hope of finding reasonably good ice when you get there, and it all came together at the right moment. The strong winds from the weeks before had somewhat settled, and a little part of the ice edge had seemingly come down a bit giving us some hope to reach it in good time. The ship has to stay clear of the ice in the night in order to not get trapped as so many polar explorers before us, so when morning came we headed along the edge of the outer brash ice, scouting for a good reason to drive our ship into the ice. A good reason being a small yellow dot in our binoculars, hopefully turning out to be a big furry animal in its natural habitat when we get closer. And not once or twice, but three times Misha called us all out on deck, because there was something bear-like in the very far distance. On the first call, it turned out be a false alarm. It is not easy spotting a bear in between the mixed up ice floes, and sometimes it simply turns out to be the underside of an ice floe, showing dirty brown algae. However, once we escaped the swell of open water and found ourselves in between slush ice and ice floes, a sense of calm immediately came over the ship. It was a world of its own there on top of the world. An environment that seems so desolate and hostile form far away, suddenly holds life and serenity when you find yourself in the middle of it. We saw a rare Ivory gull and a Ringed seal pup, as well as three confused species of small birds that had flown too far north and now sat uncertain on the deck of our ship. More expected, kittiwakes were ever screeching through the air around us. The second potential bear call was not a false alarm, a Polar bear was in fact in sight. He was however on his way away from us, deep into ice where we could not follow.

Third time was a charm. A bear was spotted by Frigga, seemingly lying still on a piece of ice. As we got closer, making our way softly through slushy ice, we could see her lifting her head looking at us, not disturbed at all. We halted the ship at reasonable distance, and the whole ship was quiet as we were observing the top predator of the arctic food chain digesting and resting in her world. Then she suddenly got up, deciding to have a look at her new large blue neighbour. She strolled a long our starboard side, ending up right behind our aft, checking out our scent and now and then calmly lying down on the ice. It is safe to say we were all impressed by natures wonder.

Day 5: Hinlopen Strait

Hinlopen Strait
Date: 19.06.2018
Position: 079°34’N / 018°34’E
Wind: SSE 2
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +3

We woke to the sight of land and a stiff breeze whipping whitecaps off the water, a Beaufort 6 (thanks Adam!). During breakfast we entered Hinlopen Strait and continued south towards the towering cliffs of Alkefjellet. The wind eased to a gentle Force 3-4 as we drew alongside and we dressed warmly for a Zodiac cruise. As the Zodiacs were launched a sharp crack and deep boom rang out as thousands of tonnes of ice calved off the nearby glacier draining into the Buldrevågen Bay. The first boats headed into the bay shortly after and weaved through the icebergs, taking in the startling blues of ice many thousands of years old. We also saw the fantastic geology in the surrounding cliffs. The base of the cliffs was visible as a bright cream line; 260 million year old limestone which was laid down in a shallow tropical sea at a time when Svalbard was located at just 25°N. This layered limestone is sharply interrupted by a much darker band of Dolerite, an intrusion of magma emplaced some 140 million years later when Svalbard had migrated to 65°N.

Once out of the bay we tucked in under the cliffs and the full scale of the bird colony became apparent. The sheer cliffs were accompanied by the raucous sounds (and smell!) of 200,000 guillemots, Glaucous gulls, kittiwakes, and geese making their nests. We were also lucky enough to see a couple of Arctic foxes scouring the slopes beneath the cliffs for snacks, even saw one making off with an unguarded goose egg.

After a hearty lunch and plenty of hot chocolate to warm up again we headed south and into Wahlenberg Fjord. We tried our luck at spotting Polar bears on one of the last patches of landfast ice in the whole Svalbard archipelago. No bears were to be found, but a few seals were spied in the distance making the most of the remnants of sea ice. We could also see the vast Austfonna Ice Cap in the distance, complete with a large set of overhanging lenticular clouds. Austfonna is the largest body of ice on Svalbard and is the third largest in the world, only the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are larger.

In the afternoon we had a medley of presentations: Ali told us all about the guillemots and foxes we had seen along the cliffs of Alkefjellet that morning. Lynn gave a presentation on sea-ice, covering its formation, the many different types, its importance as a driver of ocean circulation, and also its function as a home to wildlife. Laurence talked about the sea floor beneath our feet in the Arctic Ocean and some of the secrets that mapping has revealed. Sasha headlined with a presentation about nautical terms, their origin, their use aboard Plancius, and how he came to learn them.

Happy hour was announced and was cause for much celebration. During the festivities Mischa began a recap of the days events and talked about plans for the following day; a visit to Smeerenburg and a search for Walrus and more polar bears. Frigga then gave us an introduction to the rock cycle, explaining how different processes had emplaced three completely different rock types within a few hundred metres of each other at Alkefjellet. Finally, Sasha regaled us with a very amusing story about a polar bear from his time living in Pyramiden.

Day 6: Smeerenburg and Smeerenburgbreen

Smeerenburg and Smeerenburgbreen
Date: 20.06.2018
Position: 079°43’N / 011°01’E
Wind: SW-2
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +4

It was blue and sunny when we woke, and we had beautiful views of the northern end of Spitsbergen on our port side. The ship had made its way from the Hinlopen Strait region around the top of Spitsbergen to Smeerenburgfjord, which runs North-South between Spitsbergen and the islands of Amsterdamoya and Danskoya. We were heading for Smeerenburg, or "Blubbertown", at the Southeast tip of Amsterdamoya.

It clouded over quickly, but there was no wind and it was comparatively warm, the seas were calm, and we were aiming to go ashore. Smeerenburg was a Dutch whaling base from the early 1600s, with seven Dutch companies from seven different towns, and a Danish company - all working on the same small strip of land. This was the beginning of the original oil boom, where we harvested whale and walrus oil by slicing it and rendering the blubber in the large ovens we can still see the remains of today. These black asphalt-like accretions are the mix of whale oil and sand, used to form the outside of the ovens. Smeerenburg is also significant in that it was the first place Europeans intentionally overwintered, with seven men staying over the winter of 1633-34, guarding equipment. The following year, another seven men also overwintered, but they did not survive the harsh conditions. Svalbard claimed many men working here, with 101 graves discovered so far up on the slopes of the island.

The other big attraction of the island is the walrus haul-out near the ruins. There were around 10-15 walrus on shore today, so we coordinated the various walking groups to visit them separately. Most of us got the story of the history of Smeerenburg from Frigga before marshalling to walk quietly to the walrus. Walrus are very susceptible to disturbance, they don't like noise, have poor eyesight and a good sense smell, so we approach slowly, quietly and so that our smell does not get blown towards them. These were all males, resting on shore between going feeding. They mostly laid around, occasionally raising their heads, snorting or scratching themselves with their flippers. Their impressive tusks can be up to one meter long, and are used to haul themselves out onto sea ice, thus their scientific name Odobenus rosmarus, which translates to "toothwalker with pink skin".

Back on board, we were a bit late for lunch, but Hotel Manager DJ, Chef Khabir and the team took it in their stride, serving up another tasty and warming buffet for us. After lunch, we took our time with hot drinks, short rests and time in the bar checking our - and everybody else's - photos, while watching the scenery pass by outside. We sailed Northeast and had a look at some islands that can be promising for bears, but we didn't find any, and the fog came down.
Back in Smeerenburgfjord, we sailed South past Smeerenburg and to the edge of the glacier that feeds in from the very end of the fjord - Smeerenburgbreen. There, we launched our Zodiacs and went cruising. It was a still afternoon, and a little foggy, making it a fabulously atmospheric trip. The glacier face, approximately 40 meters high, had released quite a bit of brash ice recently, and we went into the floating icefields. Turning off our engines, it was amazing to listen to the sounds of the ice crackling all around us. The glacier itself was full of surprisingly bright blues and turquoises, with rich, dark colours in the deep cracks and shadows. After exploring through a few little islets, watching kittiwakes, terns and Black guillemots feeding, and visiting another section of the glacier, it was time to head back to the ship. At recap, Misha got us excited about his plans for our last day on board, then DJ explained how the trip must end soon - but finished on a high note, letting us know dinner would be a BBQ on the back deck.

Adding a few layers, we all trooped back through the dining room to the BBQ deck, where we filled up on chicken, ribs and all the trimmings, and especially on Charlotte's warm spiced wine. An amazing ending to a fabulous day, it was wonderful to share good food with friends and family while admiring the incredible Arctic scenery around us. We stayed at the glacier face until the party was over, enjoying the long Arctic evening.

Day 7: Tordenskjoldbukta and Poolepynten

Tordenskjoldbukta and Poolepynten
Date: 21.06.2018
Position: 078°17’N / 012°53’E
Wind: NW-1
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +7

During the night we had encountered stronger winds than expected so our arrival to the Plan A destination of St Jonfjord was changed to Plan B so that we could have a longer landing. We were taken ashore at Tordenskjoldbukta which is a lovely flat area of tundra where Reindeer can very often be found. As soon as the anchor was dropped the Zodiacs were heading ashore with the staff scouting party and before long we too were going ashore for our hikes.

We divided into our usual 3 groups with a long hiking group heading off along the coast with Adam and Marie while two medium hiking groups went in slightly different directions to explore the tundra and find some Reindeer. The leisurely stroll group had a goal of Reindeer too but also had plenty of time to enjoy the flowers on the blooming tundra. Lynn and Ali pointed out Purple Saxifrage, Tufted saxifrage, Yellow whitlow grass and the Polar willow.

The medium hiking group with Frigga and Sasha had gone inland first and enjoyed the rich tundra and found a group of very relaxed Reindeer that slowly walked towards the coast which gave the other group and the leisurely hiking group the chance to get some good views of them as well. The long hikers enjoyed a lovely coastal walk with great views of fabulous rock formations, including sea stacks and cliffs, most of which had nesting Glaucous gulls and Barnacle geese sitting on them. A Reindeer skull, complete with a huge set of antlers and backbone was found and it had probably been eaten by and Arctic fox. Continuing along the tundra they all had the chance to see some live Reindeer as well as an array of birdlife (Snow bunting, Barnacle goose, Purple sandpiper, Eider duck, Kittiwake and Great Skua).

All too soon it was time to walk back to the landing site where the opportunity to swim in the freezing cold Arctic Ocean was apparently very appealing to some! Around 25 swimmers braved the chilly waters, much to the entertainment of everyone else, so well done to our Polar Plungers!!

During lunch we repositioned to Poolepynten for our final landing of the trip. The first group was soon ashore with the guides and we made our way along the beach which was covered with driftwood, most of which has come from the forests of Siberia and travelled around the Arctic region on the circumpolar currents. We could see Arctic terns gathered by the pond, having just arrived from Antarctica to breed for the summer season.

As we got closer to the Walrus we made a line which was controlled by the guides and we slowly made our approach. We could smell the Walrus before we could see them and as we lined up beyond the navigation marker and the hut we could see over 40 Walrus, all males lying together in a pile. The females and calves are currently out on the sea ice to the east and north as the calves are born in May and June. These males were mostly just sleeping and scratching but occasionally one would try and climb over the pile and those being squashed by 1500kg of blubber would grunt and grumble, raising their tusks and giving us a very nice show.

There were quite a few Walrus in the water as well which gave us a great show as they came to check us out and then play fight amongst themselves. We watched one make its way into the sea by rolling over like a sausage, an easy way to move a large volume of blubber. We could see young males and older, mature bulls, distinguished by the lumps on their necks, ‘bosses’ and by much longer tusks. It was a real privilege to be able to spend time with these marine mammals and enjoy watching their interactions in the group. Both groups enjoyed some fabulous time with the Walrus and the sun even came out at the end of the landing.

Back on board we had time to warm up before returning our rubber boots to the boot room and then getting ready for Captains Cocktails in the Lounge. This was a chance to toast the success of our voyage with the Captain, Evegeny Levakov, and also thank the Expedition team for their hard work on this voyage. They took us on some great hikes on Svalbard and they searched the pack ice for our very special bear and we will all remember that icy afternoon for the rest of our lives.

Total distance sailed on our voyage: Nautical miles: 1106nm | Kilometres: 2048km

On behalf of everyone on board we thank you for travelling with us and wish you a safe journey home.

Details

Tripcode: PLA06-18
Dates: 15 Jun – 22 Jun, 2018
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Plancius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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