PLA07-16, Trip log | Polar Bear Special
01.07.2016 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 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. Later on, 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. 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 that there was a large whale in front of the ship! We all dressed up and gathered on deck. 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 four 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. 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 mandatory briefings were supposed to start. By that time, the bridge called that the sea ice was visible at the horizon. Great to see the light sky above the ice and the dark grey colour of the sky above the water. In the early days seaman used the colours in the sky to navigate along the ice edges.
The mandatory briefings were postponed to a later moment so that everybody could enjoy the approach towards the sea ice. Big groups of Little Auks and Brünnich’s Guillemots were foraging between the first pieces of ice. Several groups of Harp Seals were spotted around the ship coming up from the water.
Delphine planned a new talk at 12.00 in the lounge to inform everybody about the plans, the route and ice navigation. But as often happened, at that time some wildlife was discovered.
On the floating ice going up and down by the swell a Walrus was found. Very carefully the captain managed to get the ship closer and closer. Quite difficult because the little pieces of ice included the one the Walrus was laying on. Too much movement and he would disappear into the seawater. But he stayed on and we had a great view.
Lunchtime had arrived. The lucky ones that had a quick lunch picked up a passing Ross’s Gull. An adult in full summer plumage. Very rare around Svalbard and especially in this time of the year.
At 14.00 Delphine gathered everyone in the lounge to explain the ice situation at Svalbard this early summer and how navigation in ice covered waters work, so that everyone could understand that we were doing something quite exceptional already by venturing into the pack ice! Katja followed with a lecture about “ice in the Arctic”, where she explained the various type of ice encountered here. During this lecture we passed by a beautiful blue coloured iceberg, so time for a break and to get outside. The lecture was finished a little later.
In the meanwhile we were still sailing along the edge of the sea ice, several Ivory Gulls were spotted by the observers on the bridge wings.
In the late afternoon Michael did his lecture about sea ice and the food chain around it.
The first recap of this trip. Ab showed some of the bird species we saw today and explained how to recognize them in the field. Bill’s talk about looking, seeing and thinking was about a painting of the sea and Delphine explained the differences between baleen and toothed whales. This after yesterday’s perfect sighting of the Blue Whales.
I think most of us were still at desert after a perfect diner when the Polar Bear was found. A big one, on a kill just at the ice edge. Again the captain took the wheel and managed to get Plancius in a perfect position to see and photograph the bear. After more than an hour the bear decided it was enough, and went to sleep. What a perfect end to a perfect day at the edge of the sea ice.
In the morning Plancius was in the sea-ice north of Spitzbergen and we experienced for the first time real Arctic weather. Spoiled so far with good visibility, this morning we sailed through typical Arctic fog, which forms when warm water meets cold air masses. Not a good omen for our polar bear search in the sea-ice. However, conditions improved and soon we spotted a bearded seal on an ice floe. With its big moustache it looked like a friendly old man.
Soon after we saw a mother bear with two cubs from last year. They were probably one and a half years old. Unfortunately the mother and cubs were not very interested in us, but we managed to get a good look at them as the mum led her small family to the side of the ship over the ice floes. She was wearing a radio collar, a device that helps to track polar bears. Around 200 bears in Svalbard have been equipped by the Norwegian Polar Institute with these collars. The bears wear them for 2-3 years then they either fall off or the bear has to be recaptured. Just before lunch Sebastian gave an interesting presentation about Amundsen and his expeditions to the North and South Pole. Amundsen came to a mysterious end when his plane disappeared in the Arctic while he was trying to rescue another Arctic traveller, Umberto Nobile.
Crunching further through the ice we found something very special, a mother bear with three cubs. Usually they have one or two cubs, but three is very rare. The cubs were quite small as they were born just this year. While the mother was trotting ahead, her brood was playing and rolling around in the snow, just like the kids they are. Sometimes they had to run to close the gap, jumping into the water or across leads. After some delightful moments we watched them disappear in the distance, three little bums and one big one. Just half an hour later as we turned the ship our paths crossed again. All four were piled up on an ice floe watching us intensely as we sailed by.
In her polar bear lecture Katja tried to explain what we had seen yesterday and today. She also talked about the special adaptation of bears to the cold, how they find their food and what threats they face.
By then the visibility had decreased drastically and the decision was made to head south and out of the ice, so today we reached our furthest north position of 81°09.433`N / 016°51.323`E.
In the early evening Delphine asked everybody to come to the lounge for the mandatory AECO briefing about Arctic guidelines, the do’s and don’ts in the Arctic. We also learned about safety using the Zodiacs, the little rubber boats for our landings and the correct behaviour in polar bear country.
Passengers awoke to a clear bright day, spirits were uplifted immediately as they wandered the decks before breakfast. Excitement mounted as Delphine announced that the first activity would be a Zodiac landing at Palanderbukta on Nordaustland.
A lively boat ride to land near one of the smallest huts imaginable, standing in splendid isolation on the limestone shingle beach next to a lagoon. Everyone split into three walking groups. ‘Foxes, Reindeer and Saxifrage’ according to their walking ability and desire. Something for everyone at this location…a polar desert, fantastic feeling of space, raised beaches, interesting geology, fossils, flowers, birds, reindeer, bear tracks, permafrost circles etc.
Up anchor, then lunch, and off to the next spot… Torellneset, a reliable walrus haul-out at the bottom eastern end of the Hinlopen Strait. Walruses were there – en-masse, so anchor down… Zodiacs lowered for a staff scouting group to check the landing area. Beach pronounced ‘All clear’ then an exciting splashy transfer ride for all passengers to the shore to be divided into three walking groups. This landing was a fantastic experience as a large number of walrus were lying on the beach at the haul-out position. Other groups, intensely interested in the Plancius passengers, swam past close inshore. This was an ideal photo opportunity even for those with ‘normal’ sized cameras. Once everyone was back on board, Captain Levakov sailed Plancius along the edge of the Austfona ice cap [The third largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland] to the spectacular cliffs of Bråsvellbreen. The ice stretched in an unbroken wall for over 100 miles to the north east. What an amazing end to another superb and varied Oceanwide Expeditions day.
As usual the day started with Delphine´s wake-up call at 7:30. With a beautifully calm sea, a birders dream awaited us right after breakfast in the Hinlopenstretet which separates Ny Friesland and Olaf V Land from Nordaustlandet.
Alkefjellet, a long cliff being the nesting ground of about 50.000 pairs of Bruinnichs Guillemot as well as for Black Guillemot, Glaucous gull and Kittiwake.
As the weather was nice, all ten zodiacs were launched for a cruise alongside the cliffs, while the Plancius was slowly cruising in safe distance alongside the cliff for those who decided to stay on board. We spent one and a half hours zodiac cruising the splendid cliffs of ‘Auk Mountain’. As we progressed north there were increasing numbers of Brünnich’s guillemots, glaucous gulls and kittiwakes. The constant coming and going of the guillemots was truly dizzying as they flew back and forth to the scant ledges on which they lay their eggs. We speculated on how they avoided crashing into one another in mid-air.
We explored the little bays formed by the rock and got even a spectacular glimpse on a Glaucous Gull eating a Guillemot on the water. A very surprising sighting, as it was an adult Guillemot. But the biggest excitement was brought to most of us by a close sighting of a polar fox roaming around the slopes on its search for eggs.
After lunch we started off to a landing at Faksevågen, a tundra landscape with hills of up to 250m elevation. It did not take long after the different groups started their hikes before the first reindeer sightings were announced via radio. Several different polar bear tracks haven been discovered as well as a several Ptarmigans feeding around their nest.
FOG! That was what we woke up to, thick, grey and heavy, it covered everything around us and left us with a feeling of being in a cloud. That feeling got stronger when looking at the sea, completely calm and oily. After breakfast and a short briefing, we still went out to explore the calm waters inside the glacial bay of the great Monaco glacier. In the small boats we all went out to explore the brash ice and icebergs that came floating out of the fog. The colours of the ice and the magical light through the fog made this into a great experience. Coming back on board for lunch, the captain set sail toward our next destination, the trapper station of Mushamna. But again, fog, maybe even thicker than this morning, covered the bay and Delphine had to change our course further towards the ocean, hoping to find better visibility out there.
This choice payed off in a very good way, because it took us to Gråhuken and the cabin famously used as the overwintering station of Christiane Ritter, the German artist and writer. We were able to land and even sit inside the hut she and her husband lived in for a year 80 years ago, even the expedition team was excited about this, so much that Bill made yet another gimmick and dressed up in his finest and greeted the visitors as “Christiane McRitter”. After a short leg stretch, we went back to the landing site and just in time, because again, the fog came rolling in! In the evening the hotel team had prepared a great BBQ event on the back deck and some of us even got to do a bit of dancing before bedtime.
We had a drizzly start to the day but nevertheless a few people were braving the weather to look out for whales. In the meantime there were several lectures taking place during the morning: Kasper gave an interesting talk about the different settlements and life in Svalbard, and Bill talked about the history of Whaling around Svalbard.
Battling the foggy patches, our efforts were finally rewarded when a tall blow was seen slightly ahead of the Plancius. A huge blow was seen and a quick scan left no doubt that we were dealing with the biggest whale on this earth: the mighty blue whale. But it was not alone, it was accompanied by three other blue whales and three humpback whales. The whale was rather curious and made some close passes – by then all hands were on deck admiring this powerful swimming whale.
The weather improved, but still there where some patches of fog and drizzle as we sailed towards our afternoon landing at Alkhornet. Even though the kittiwakes nest on the highest edges on the cliffs we could hear them from far away – they were also observed to be collecting bits of moss to use as nest materials. We divided into four groups and all enjoyed the company of several reindeers, some of which came as close as 2 metres from us. Many of us briefly wondered who was watching who? The foxes managed to make their way to a nearby glacier before walking back along the base of the cliff while the reindeer (photo and fast) groups made a good circuit of Alkhornet, enjoying the spongey tundra and the varied plants that were dotted amongst the vibrant greens and browns.
Once back onboard we quickly changed and then met in the lounge to meet with the Captain as he gave a warm toast to a very successful ‘Polar Bear Special’, making special mention that in 23 years of sailing these waters this was the first time he’d seen a mother with three cubs. After a big thankyou from Delphine on behalf of all the staff we made our way to our final dinner – on board – and had a chance to thank all the members of the hotel department before desert.
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:
944. 5 Nautical miles
1048 statute miles
Furthest North Point: 81°09.433`N / 016°51.323`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.