PLA07-17, trip log, North Spitsbergen, Polar Bear Special
29.06.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
We gathered from all points on the globe on an overcast 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. Just after 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, Third Officer Warren 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. After a few helpful hints from Bram, 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 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. Whale blows were visible just ahead of the ship, huge and bushy, with a little bit of a 'V' visible. Two whales 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 whales kept surfacing nearby, sometimes turning towards the Plancius. We left the whales in peace and headed in to the Observation Lounge for desert - ice cream! At last, tired from our travels, we retired to our cabins to rest and get ready for the first full day of our adventure.
For those of us who had never been on a cruise before, any fears of moving water and moved stomachs were totally unfounded – the Arctic sea had been calm all night while the Plancius made steady progress towards the Northwest corner of Spitsbergen. After some much-needed sleep, we woke up to Michael’s voice over the PA system. Besides wishing us a good morning, he also informed us about the weather and our current location. The ship would be cruising in Smeerenburgfjorden, named after the 17th-century Dutch whaling station here, while we attended the morning’s program. This entailed a buffet breakfast, receiving our rubber boots, and the necessary safety briefings about Zodiac operations and polar bears.
Once the briefings were over, there was plenty of time to enjoy the view of the 20-km long fjord from one of the outside decks. Since the wind was almost completely still, the steep mountain sides and the front of Smeerenburgbreen (breen = glacier) reflected beautifully in the water. Occasionally, raindrops would obscure the images. All around us were seabirds like Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s guillemot, either flying, floating, or diving. One or two seals popped their heads up, too.
After a buffet lunch, the Plancius had found her way into Raudfjorden, named after red-coloured rocks of the Devonian age. There was still much fast ice in front of Raudfjordbreen, and here, Michael made us aware of our first polar bear of the trip. It was a sad sight. Apparently, this particular bear had already been seen on the last trip, then a very thin and sick-looking individual. Since then, the bear had died. This, too, is the reality of the Arctic.
Later in the afternoon, the ship anchored along the edge of the fast ice. The team of divers on board would now do their first test dive. The rest of the passengers were divided into two groups to take part in our first Zodiac cruise. Without the noises of the ship, being at water level was much more quiet, even a little bit eery. The omnipresence and noise of the birds was much more noticeable though. We were able to get close to a number of seals. The Minke whale, which some of us had seen earlier from board the ship, unfortunately did not re-appear.
As we all know, Spitsbergen is one of the northernmost pieces of land in the world. But what’s next? What can we see when keep on going North? The Arctic Ocean, the smallest, but obviously the most beautiful one of four. Russians call it The Northern Icy Ocean, as it is covered with an ice shell all year round. In summer, however, the ice is usually not a solid massive, but drifting ice flows. This day we were given a chance to feel and enjoy the unique Arctic atmosphere when cruising through the ice in search of Polar bears.
Plancius is a vessel of an ice class, but not yet an icebreaker, it means, it can sail between ice flows, push them and even break some of them, but it cannot go through solid ice fields. For our cruise it is enough, because there was no aim to approach the North Pole, but to try to spot Arctic wildlife without going too far from Spitsbergen. The weather from the very beginning of the day could be described as excellent: no wind, no clouds, good visibility, only interrupted by patches of fog in some places.
At 11 o’clock a very interesting event took place. We had a meeting with Ortelius, the sister ship of Plancius. It approached slowly from the East. The meeting itself was of a technical character, but anyway it was very exiting to wave hands to our fellow passengers and to watch the real adventure of a Zodiac boat, launched from our ship to Ortelius in order to pick up some equipment. The boat was maneuvering between ice flows and eventually got stuck, but the brave sailors did not give up and managed to push the Zodiac back on the water. Eventually everything ended up well and our ships continued following their routes.
Observation of surrounding beauty of the Arctic Ocean was interrupted at 3pm by the announcement of Michael, our expedition leader: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have spotted a bear!” Everybody rushed to their cabins to dress up and grab a camera. Meanwhile our Captain Alexey was slowly and gently leading the ship forward towards the bear trying not to scare him away. The bear was walking pretty fast in a Northern direction. We managed to approach approximately 100-150 meters to him and take some good pictures. The bear did not feel like posing for us, so our meeting did not last long.
A couple of hours later, when Plancius was slowly sailing Eastwards, we met a small group of Walruses. They appeared to be pretty shy and got into water when we approached, but still it was possible to take pictures of their fanged faces. A little bit later we saw another small group of three. As we approached, we watched the larger animal push the smaller two into water.
It was already evening, but not yet the end of the day. At 7pm Michael announced a second bear spotted. This time we were more lucky as we managed to approach it pretty closely and spend about half an hour taking pictures and watching the bear.
After that we got acquainted with the plan for tomorrow. Very nice, very interesting and by now the most Northern day of our journey.
Today we woke up to a stunning weather, beautiful calm seas and a sunny morning. 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”). Some of 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 and we took turns to go a see a group of Walrus hauled out on the beach. The males were very relaxed and did not mind us coming in up to 30m, enabling marvellous pictures of these magnificent animals. We also checked out the remains of the blubber ovens and the history of whaling activity in Spitsbergen. During the walk on the beach we saw all the wood that drifted all the way from Siberian forests to the beaches of Svalbard, but unfortunately it wasn’t the only material present on the beach, there was also some rubbish washed ashore that came drifting North with currents. On our way back we picked up some of the plastic garbage and brought it back to the ship to be discharged in Longyearbyen.
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 Magdalenefjord where we left the ship once again to go on a Zodiac cruise. The afternoon was sunny and with almost no wind. On our way to the glacier we saw some Common eiders and 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 mountain, but it was also quite clear that it is melting: there were very few bits breaking off of the front and in the bay there were “bergy bits” and icebergs. 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 our way back toward the ship, we decided to stop at Gravesneset where many early whalers and sailors found their last resting places in the 17th-19th centuries. Some brave ones decided to defy the cold Arctic waters and go for a swim.
The evening was complemented with a good meal in the restaurant and some after-dinner gathering in the lounge.
A glistening icescape 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 Sebastian brought a good news about 09:30 that he found a Polar bear in front of Raudfjorden. Lucky enough for us, the bear was hunting the seal on the edge of the sea ice. However, the polar bear ran out of luck to get his breakfast, and missed catching the seal who escaped into the water. But we were able to spend about one hour wandering with this Polar bear on the sea ice edge and enjoy the icescape with an impressive mountain range as a backdrop.
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 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.
At 11:00, our expedition team discovered two Walrus in front of the ship and drifting at sea. Captain Alexey sailed the ship carefully and slowly to get close to the Walrus. Everyone got their camera quickly and watched the Walrus play around the ice pack. It was breathtaking to watch the Walrus climb up the ice and listen to them breathe. It was a very great experience to watch Walrus eye to eye and close like this. 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 Pomerane skua were also shadowing the feeding birds, eager to harass the successful ones and claim a meal of their own.
Of course, being in the pack ice didn’t mean that we could rest and so after lunch the expedition team offered an amazing experience along the sea ice pack. Captain Alexey sailed the ship deep into a piece of a ice sea professionally. After the expedition team did all the safety checks, all of us started to "disembark" on the ice sea and walk above the Northern Sea. This is a unique experience to walk on the thin sea ice and take a picture with the ship at sea level. Thanks for the hotel team who served us a glass of wine at the end of this wonderful day.
At 18:00 we were invited down to the aft deck for our special Arctic BBQ. The hotel team had prepared a real feast of meats and salads and with complimentary drinks, and the party soon got underway with dancing continuing 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 a night with a little more swell and wind than the last couple of days, it was time to walk off the BBQ from yesterday at Ny London on Blomstrandhalvøya. In three groups we explored the remains of the failed marble mining operation and rusting machinery that Ernest Mansfield had brought up here between 1911 and 1920. It was nice to have Frigga around as she studied the history of the various mining operations on Svalbard for her PhD and was able to tell us more on the Northern Exploration Company and the quarries, machinery and railroad tracks as well as on the various reasons for the marble mining to stop. Now we now that the names Ny London and Camp Mansfield (which can be read over the door of one of the two huts) are not from the early years, but from later date and given to the places by the Norwegians. And that 4 of the 100 year old huts have been transported to the other side of the fjord and are also still in use as research stations in the settlement of Ny Ålesund. From Ny London all three parties explored the tundra and hills around the settlement, were the Purple saxifrages and Moss Campion were coloring the tundra nicely. Most of the hikers saw a lovely reindeer calf with its mother grazing behind the oldest (summer) quarry (which was neatly and straightly cut, in comparison to the jitty-handcut winter marble quarry). Some hikers also saw some blue whales in the Kongsfjord and breeding Long-tailed skuas on the tundra.
In the afternoon we explored the bay in front of the 14th of July Glacier with lovely bergy bits, some washed up on shore, and even some small blue-ish icebergs. In two groups we explored the shores of the bay. A group walked up to the “hanging gardens” of wonderful Arctic flora on the rocks along the beached brash-ice under the Kittiwake colonies first. A second group started off in Zodiacs exploring the nearby bird-cliffs where Guillemots, Glaucus gulls and Puffins were nesting and where quite a large group of reindeer was grazing. It was quite an adventurous cruise due to the currents, swell and 12 knots of wind coming from the glacier. Halfway through the expedition, the groups swapped and by six o’clock everybody was back on board for a recap on Reindeer and the blue color of glacial ice, as well as the briefing for tomorrow.
During dinner Plancius sailed through the rainy evening further southwards towards our destination for our last day.
We woke to grey skies and a slight drizzle of rain, but this was certainly nothing to worry about, after all, this was expedition cruising! A little bit of unfavourable weather could only add to the atmosphere and dramatic quality of our pictures, after all we were meant to be in the Arctic!
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. Frigga and Sasha set off with the long walkers, aiming for a distant ridge, shortly afterwards the medium group set off and finally the leisurely walkers strolled along the shoreline with Lynn paying close attention to the wonderful flora that was now beginning to bloom. There were a few reindeer on the slopes, some of which were very inquisitive and came remarkably close and one of the groups even managed to get a quick 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, this is a true Arctic bird as it does not flee to warmer climes to escape the harsh winter like most. 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, listen and enjoy the fabulous views and sounds of the Arctic.
All safely back on board we enjoyed our last lunch on the Plancius, meanwhile the ship made her way to Poolepynten which was to be our final landing of this exciting expedition. Poolepynten is known for its haul-out of walruses and we all hoped that luck would be with us today and we might get another good view of these incredible creatures. However, as so often happens with expedition cruising we were forced to turn to Plan B when on arrival at Poolepynten we noticed that the walruses were no longer ‘at home’ and the beach was in fact empty. Plan B involved sailing south to Tordenskioldbukta where we could do a landing and short hike. Tordenskioldbukta is known for its wide open plains, open bays and high density of reindeer and this is exactly what we got. On arrival to the bay we split into three groups, one of which ambled along the coast line with Frigga exploring the various archaeological artefacts, whilst the other two groups headed slightly inland in search of reindeer and any other wildlife they might be lucky enough to stumble upon. The reindeer were incredibly obliging, stopping and posing for everyone’s photos at close range and at one point even appeared to follow us on at our exploration. Despite having to resort to a Plan B this afternoon, this site seemed to be the perfect way to end the voyage as in many ways it seem to encapsulate the ‘best of the Arctic summer’; green, lush tundra in bloom against a backdrop of snow topped mountains, dotted with reindeer and birdlife.
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 evening briefing. After a toast from the Captain, there were thanks to all of the people who made the trip so enjoyable, followed by 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: 689.2 nautical miles | 1,276.4 kilometres
Furthest North: 80o04.71’N/013o11.41E
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!