PLA13-15 Trip log | Around Spitsbergen
28.08.2015 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 with boarding our comfortable floating home for the next nine days – the Plancius at the pier in Longyearbyen. Once onboard, we made our way to reception where our Hotel Manager André and Chief Steward Thijs de Lint greeted us, and the hotel staff showed us to our cabins.
After we had set sail we were officially welcomed on board by Hotel Manager André van der Haak and the team. André described the layout of the ship, the most important fact being the location of the coffee and hot chocolate machine in the almost equally important panorama lounge. This is where we had met now for an introduction to the voyage by Expedition Leader Christian Engelke. We got to know our guides, met Captain Yevgeny Levakov and raised our glasses to toast a successful expedition; our voyage had begun! Afterwards, Second Mate Annika presented a safety briefing before the lifeboat drill which provided an opportunity for dressing up and getting to know each other as we huddled together like orange-breasted sea birds on the deck.
While Plancius sailed west out of Isfjorden (the Ice Fjord), the ship’s movements increased gradually. Christian had already mentioned this, and a few of us approached the ship’s physician Hans Frima regarding medication – better safe than sorry. But we still enjoyed our very first dinner prepared by Chef Heinz Hacker and his galley team – it was delicious! Afterwards, many of us gathered in the lounge again to watch the play of the waves, search for wildlife, or marvelled at the ever changing colours of the sea. At some stage we simply had to give in because our eyelids just got heavier and heavier, and while Plancius was heading north, we fell asleep in the middle of the ocean.
A grey day in the Svalbard autumn, but a grey day with a lot of firsts it was! We were lucky to spot Polar Bears in the morning on our way to Ny-Ålesund, where we jumped in the Zodiacs for our first landing.
Today, Ny-Ålesund is a good-sized international research center, but most of us were able to see a part of history at “The Mast” used in the race to fly over the North Pole. Some sent postcards from one of the most northernmost mailboxes, and others sent messages home in the newly refinished telegraph center.
After lunch we cruised past the magnificent glaciers of Kongsfjorden on our way to Blomstrandhalvøya. Hikes were taken around the abandoned marble mine, which, in its failure, helped illustrate the tenuous relationship between industry and the Arctic.
The birds were thriving though, and many were able to spot Red Throated Divers, Arctic Terns, Long-tailed Skuas, and Barnacle Geese among others. The Svalbard Reindeer also made an appearance, with its short legs and extra fat that help it cope with the Arctic winters. On our way out of Kongsfjorden, we spotted (the same) Polar Bears as in the morning, while the ship cruised through water dotted with Atlantic Puffins. There is so much to see in the Arctic if you look closely, and there will be lots more interesting landings to come on our trip around Spitsbergen.
As we woke up, Plancius was not any more moving, but stopped in front of the magnificent Monaco glacier (Monacobreen). Despite the cloudy weather, the glacier front was still impressive with its dimensions: more than 4 kilometres in length and likely up to 40 metres high. We stayed there during breakfast time so everyone could enjoy the scenery.
Shortly after, we arrived at a place called Texas Bar. We landed on a gravel beach by a small cabin which had already been visible from the ship. It was built by the famous trapper Hilmar Noïs who overwintered 38 times on Spitsbergen. After a visit to the hut, we divided into three groups. The long hikers should have been called the “steep hikers” today as they reached a kind of rocky plateau at 200 metres above sea level. They got a beautiful panoramic overview over Liefdefjorden and all surrounding mountains. The cloudy sky was making the ambience even more polar. The medium hikers reached a more accessible hill and also had nice views over the fjord. They had more time to listen to their guides giving explanations about birds, lichens and flowers. The slow hikers – once having decided to call themselves the “exclusive group” – took it easy but nevertheless made it to a nearby hilltop to benefit of a similar scenery, with a lot of time to receive additional information from their guide. Miraculously, all groups arrived back at the hut at almost the same time.
At the end of lunch, Plancius stopped and we saw a zodiac going to an island. After it came back, Christian made an announcement to tell us that a polar bear had been spotted on this island. The crew put the 10 zodiacs on the water so all of us were able to go together. We approached the island and discovered that the bear was in fact a female with a cub. Both were lying down on the tundra, well visible from sea level. After everyone had had a good view, we left them alone and went away around the Andøyane (Duck Islands) archipelago to look for some more wildlife. Just as we arrived near Plancius, we were informed that a Minke Whale had been observed nearby – it was great that we were able to see it both from on board the ship and from the zodiacs. There were also many birds feeding on a bank of small fish or crustaceans.
Before dinner, the Staff invited us for a recap, giving more information about the birds we had seen today, as well as some history about Christiane Ritter's overwintering in a small cabin in Woodfjord which we were passing at this time.
After dinner, the Officer on watch saw some whale blows ahead of Plancius. Christian quickly informed us on PA and Captain decided to approach them. He was successful and we recognised a Fin Whale. Then we spotted some other blows at the horizon. This time it was a Blue Whale that Captain was able to approach, and we had a spectacular show of this largest animal on Earth.
The day dawned grey and overcast. Having spent considerable time with the blue whales the evening before, we arrived in the north greeted by a blank expanse of water. No ice in sight, we soldiered on turning course slightly more easterly. Finally thin belts of ice started to appear as we forded on, gradually getting larger and larger as we drove deeper and deeper into the horizon, the landscape turning whiter and whiter as we slowly became surrounded by ice floes.
‘Polar Bear!’ shouted our eagle-eyed scout on bridge watch. A young male it was, nose scarred and with a large scar along his left hind leg. Most likely from a fight with another male – as males reach maturity, they begin to compete for breeding rights with females. As this male was rather young and just getting into the age to compete, he most likely fought a larger and older male, losing out and gaining a rugged thigh scar in the process. Impressed by the sight of such a beautiful creature in its natural habitat, we moved on leaving him in peace to hunt for his next meal.
Pomarine Skuas invaded our ship, surrounding it as they chased the kittiwakes back and forth attempting to stress them out enough to make them give up their fish catch, making it an easy meal for the Skuas. An Ivory Gull was also there, following the bear also in the hopes of cashing in on easy meal as it feeds on the remains from Polar Bear kills, the remains of seals. It however also became the focus of the Skuas, as they chased it thinking it might also give up to avoid the annoyance of confronting the larger and more aggressive Skuas.
We pushed on, delving deeper and deeper into the expanse of white, exploring this quiet and isolated world of ice bears, ice gulls, and ice, ice, ice…
As we moved on, we entered a zone of fog, becoming thicker and thicker until it enveloped the ship like a soft caressing glove. Reducing speed, we enjoyed the mysteriousness of it all while attempting to still spot bears through the limited visibility. Sometimes less is more. Turning around, we decided to return south but still maintain an easterly heading, slowly exiting the ice but attempting to find more ice further east outside the fog bank. We headed for the Seven Islands, secure in the knowledge that we had a fantastic day in the ice, and full of excitement and wondering what would lay in store for us on the islands the following day…
When we reached Phippsøya in the morning, one of the Sevenislands, the Expedition team decided for a zodiac cruise because the Atlantic walrus were out in large numbers, and had just the right amount of curiosity to allow safe and interesting encounters. The bay was sheltering us from the wind as we cruised through very clear water, turning off the engines to listen and encourage the dozen or so walrus to approach, as well as examine the amazing amount of comb jellies swirling through the water.
The expedition leader spotted the bear first, and soon we were headed to another protected cove to watch as the bear, that had been mountain climbing, headed down to the beach to examine us. The bear turned out to be a healthy looking, very white, very furry, curious female. Coming down to the waterline to smell us, she hopped up on a rock and balanced there to get a better perspective of what she was dealing with. She seemed in no hurry and eventually headed up off the beach and lay down. It was amazing to see such a powerful animal so close, being able to watch it safely from the zodiacs. The rest of the day went by in a blur, with spirits levied by the great wildlife encounters of the morning, the general consensus among passengers on board being that the Polar Bear we saw was in fact a crew member dressed in white ;-)
In the afternoon, we passed through the Seven Islands and on towards a landing on Nordaustlandet. It was a great opportunity to see the polar desert, an entirely different landscape than much of the southern and western parts of Spitsbergen. Lichen, moss, and bare rock and ice dominate, with lichen covering most permanent surfaces; it is a lichenologist’s wonderland. Ancient growth forms can be seen, far older than any of us, and their tenacity and ability to adapt to such extreme environments is awe-inspiring. The sun even made an appearance, and the near sunset of late August was a picturesque end to the day.
As we woke up we soon found out that the weather was not as good as yesterday. Plancius was moving in a manner we understood that quite some wind was blowing. After breakfast, Christian announced that “Plan A” was no more doable and we would have to switch to “Plan B”: a landing in Faksevågen, a sheltered bay in Lomfjord. We arrived there just before 11:00 and found the small bay to be surprisingly calm. We went ashore easily and started with our walks. The “long hike” group, guided by Alex, walked up to a plateau which provided the hikers with a very good view over the fjord, and they enjoyed the scenery. The “medium hike” group, led by Sandra, went to the same plateau, not as high though, having more time to do a few stops, seeing reindeer, and having an encounter with a family of ptarmigan on the way down. The “short hike” group went along the shoreline with Christian, having a lot of time to talk about the plants, and Spitsbergen in general.
We returned back on board for lunch. During this time, Plancius sailed to a high cliff where several tens of thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots were nesting. Captain drove slowly along the cliff to allow us to see many of those birds flying around, going back and forth between the colony and the feeding areas in the open sea. The cliff itself was completely coloured in white and pink by the bird’s droppings.
In the afternoon, we were invited to the dining room for a recap on what we saw today, and an outlook towards future plans.
When we arrived at Torellneset at 17:00, the wind was still around 20 knots but Christian and Captain decided to try for a landing as planned. We were driven to a gravel beach, with the opportunity to en route see some walrus in the water. One group went first to approach at a safe distance the group of walrus resting on the beach. After 20 minutes, we swapped with the second group, so everyone could watch the charismatic creatures in the same manner. We went back to ship quite wet and chilled but it was absolutely worth to get out.
A surprise was awaiting us on board – the galley team had prepared a barbecue. As it was still raining, they had set up everything inside instead of on the aft deck. We enjoyed it a lot to sit and eat in a dry and warm place!
The morning dawned dim and hazy, fog surrounding Plancius on all fronts as we gently cruised our way through Freemansund. Arriving at anchor at Kapp Waldburg, we lowered the zodiacs and prepared ourselves for a lovely rainy wet misty foggy soggy landing. Our destination: ‘Kittiwake Canyon’, a small canyon opening from the shoreline and heading inland to a point where large numbers of Kitti-wakes nest. Splitting into multiple groups, the staff headed in to secure the area. ‘Bear!’ shouted Alex, who was in a zodiac scouting the shoreline further along. Whoah! Although the bear was rather far away, it was moving along quickly, and it was decided to cancel the landing but to do a ship’s cruise along the shoreline to observe the bear as it was heading towards a large glacier. What can be better than a glacier cruise with a bear on top? Possibly a decadent lunch buffet prepared by chef Heinz! As we gently made our way towards the afternoon landing point, Kapp Lee located on Edgeoya, we marvelled at our luck to having observed at least one bear a day so far during this voyage, sometimes even two!
Afternoon crept upon us, as did pieces of pack ice and fog as it closed in around us. Kapp Lee was the place to be, with the old trapper huts and walrus bones spread out on the tundra. As we headed out to scout, we saw walrus in the water. And on land! A small group of bachelor males were hanging out sunning themselves in the mist and rain. Upon the spot we decided to do a perimeter landing, spreading guides out around a designated area so the guests could wander around at their leisure. Huts, bones, walrus, tundra, & kittiwakes were enjoyed by all as we headed back to Plancius to hear all about it from our intrepid leader Christian. During recap, lots of interesting information about permafrost patterns and a little bit of fun with scientific bird names was followed by Christian looking ahead towards tomorrow.
Once again, we had some fog at wake-up time. We arrived in Hornsund entrance just before breakfast. Captain and Christian hesitated to maintain the landing in Gåshamna due to this heavy fog, but it cleared just in the right moment. We landed on a large pebble beach. Gérard guided us to some strange piles of big bones. They are the remains of several hundreds of whales, mostly Right whales, which were slaughtered in the 1600s in this fjord. Only the very big bones were still visible: some huge jaws and occiputs. Some have been reused later on to serve as basement for a hut. Around those bones, large patches of green mosses were growing, thanks to the nutrients given by the bones. After some explanations on the hunting period by Christian, we started to walk along the shore to reach a small rocky hill. On this kind of small plateau, we spotted three male reindeers with big antlers. As the summer has almost ended, they were starting to lose their velvet, the antlers being coloured by their blood. We discovered a fox trap, made of a squared wooden frame loaded with stones. As some walked faster than others, we divided into several groups but we all came back at same time. Along the shore, we saw many Purple sandpipers looking for some small worms or crustaceans in the seaweed on the shore line.
After lunch, Plancius went to Brepollen (literally, “the glacier bay”). It was named in the beginning of 20th century because it was not existing before, completely filled in by glaciers. Nowadays, it is a large bay with many separated glacier fronts. Captain then drove Plancius into Vestre Burgerbukta. Here we boarded the zodiacs for a spectacular cruise towards Paierlbreen. We went along an impressive marble cliff with some resurgences coming out of the cliff at sea level. As we approached the glacier front, we got more and more ice, mostly brash but also a few icebergs, with all kinds of blue colours. From a safe distance, we saw several big calvings producing long and gentle waves. After almost two hours there, it was time to come back to Plancius. A surprise awaited us: spiced hot red wine, much appreciated after the long time in the cold. During recap, briefing and dinner, we resumed our northward route.
This morning’s landing at Gasbergkilen – or Midterhuken – was very green, and a few more of the rarely seen arctic animals were spotted. Of course, the tundra polygons were a huge hit, but the Beluga whales swimming by, and the several foxes were also noteworthy. Many passengers were seen jumping in the soft, squishy ground, and putting their noses deep into the dark green moss, smelling the rare scent of peat in the Arctic. The short cruise past the Kittiwake cliffs was an ode to the ship’s cruise past Alkefjellet, and the lush vegetation laying underneath was testament to the mild climate of Bellsund. As the fog and mist settled in, we boarded the ship and headed for our last landing at Bamsebu.
Bamsebu, or Kapp Toscana, or Ahlstrandhalvøya – named after a Swedish librarian interested in polar exploration – was once the site of the slaughter of thousands of Beluga whales. Their remains lay bleached and scattered on the beach. No hiking was done this afternoon but a lot of strolling and exploring, with a perimeter of guides protecting the wandering passengers from white furry friends. It was a classic, wet, Spitsbergen autumn day, and as the wind blew mist onto our faces, and fulmars cruised along the beach over our heads, we said our farewell to Svalbard.
Back on board Plancius, we set course towards Longyearbyen. In the early evening we had the chance to toast on our voyage, and say our good-byes to Captain Levakov and our expedition team. Following our last supper on board the ship, we sat in the Lounge musing about our Arctic adventures. It will take a while until we have truly digested all those moments …
After a very short night – at least for some of those who had the early morning flight – the day began with the last wake-up call from Christian. We will miss his daily pre-breakfast information! Despite the unearthly hour, our wonderful galley team had prepared some light breakfast, and for the last time we gathered at the heart of Plancius, the coffee machine in the Lounge. Sad but true, it was time to say good-bye – to Spitsbergen, to our little blue ship, to the team, to new-found friends … When we stepped down the gangway, there was a bus waiting to take us to the airport, and Plancius stayed behind as we left, getting smaller and smaller and finally vanishing from our view.
We will keep this special journey to the Arctic and its unique experience in our hearts and minds, and we will indulge in the moments, encounters and memories time and again. During the past few days, many of us had already been talking of returning to here, and we hope to come back to Spitsbergen and the Arctic soon. Or maybe it’s Antarctica first?