PLA13-16, trip log | Round Spitsbergen
23.08.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Our adventures began quickly upon arriving in Longyearbyen. Some of us had arrived early but most had just flown in. Our ship m/v Plancius was on anchor in the harbour so we took our first zodiac ride not from the ship, but too it! A little rain did not dampen our spirits and it was a very exciting beginning of the voyage.
Once on‐board, with the help of the hotel crew we settled into our cabins and got acquainted with the layout of the ship, as it will be our home for the next 10 days. We were soon gathered in the observation lounge for several different welcome briefings. One by our expedition leader Christian and the rest of the expedition staff, and another from the hotel manager Michael. We as passengers are very multicultural/international group. All orientation material is given bilingual in
both German and English. We were also briefed by the First Officer Jaanus on ship safety and how to prepare for the worst. A drill of the general alarm (seven long blast followed by one long blast) was made, and we all donned the SOLAS orange life jackets and mustered in the lounge guided by crew and staff. After a roll call to as‐ sure everyone was present we went out to the lifeboats hoping to never actually have to use them.
We returned to our cabins briefly before regrouping with Captain Alexey in the lounge for a welcoming toast of champagne or juice before heading down to the dining room for our first scrumptious dinner prepared by Chef Ralf and his staff.
The clouds had continued to soften the skies, the waters were calm and only a slight swell was felt as we make our way to Blomstrandhalvoya. Most of us were eager to get out on deck to enjoy the arctic light, and enjoy views of northern fulmars, kittiwake gulls and whales in the distance. An exciting first day, the start of many more adventures to come in the following week.
Our first morning on board Plancius we are woken at 7 am to enjoy views of the glacier Lilliehöökbreen. The skies are a bit overcast, bringing out the beautiful blue hue in the ice. A bearded seal is spotted hauled out on a small ice flow and our Captain succeeds in approaching quite closely, great views were had by all, and the day has yet to begin!
After breakfast we have two different safety briefings. One is to learn as a tourist and visitor how to conduct our behavior in Polar Bear country. The other is about zodiac operations, safety and rules. Following that, we are called down to the boot room to collect our “Muck” boots or rubber footwear which we will keep until the end of the cruise. Every landing is a wet landing so this is a vital part of our equipment if we want to have dry feet.
Around 10.30 we are finally ready to disembark in the northern side of Kongsfjorden, in a place called Blomstrandhalvoya (flower beach peninsula). This name is a “misleading” because the place is no longer a peninsula, but an island. The Blomstrandbreen glacier that had connected the island to the mainland has retreated in recent years. The basement of the island is exclusively “marble”: old limestones that have been slowly metamorphised.
The landing site is called Ny‐London. We have the opportunity to walk around two old buildings, several foundations and the remains of meters of railway lines with old steam boilers and drills that were used for geological investigations. All these remains were built between 1910 and 1920 by a company owned by Ernest Mansfield, an enthusiastic Englishman who developed mining activities in the hope of finding large quantities of high quality marble. He became bankrupt some years after as the marble he actually found was of low quality. Some of the houses from this era were then moved to Ny‐Alesund as the town was being developed for coal mining activity.
For the morning we divide into three different groups. All visit the historic sights but then we head in different directions. Some of us head to the highlands of the island, others to a fresh water pond, and yet an‐ other group up the small valley. Good observations of Red‐throated diver, long‐tailed Skuas and reindeer were had amongst the different groups.
The afternoon is dedicated to the visit of Ny‐Alesund which is an international research village, with scientific stations from a large and still growing number of nations. The origin of the existence of the town is trapping activity during the 17th century, and then coal mining. The place has also been made famous because it was the point of departure for Amundsen’s exploration of North Pole in the 1920’s. We discover this charming village, its souvenirs shop, post office, small museum with the assistance our expedition guides. One of our guides Celine has spent many summers here in the last 15 years and she shares some personal stories and facts about scientific activities that are led here. Henryk and Gerard enable us a verbal history of the Amundsen and Nobile Expedition under the airship mast east of town. Around 5 pm it is time to go back to the ship and we have the pleasure to observe two Minke whales swimming around the ship and near the transport zodiacs.
What a great end to the day as we continue further north for the coming days!
After a calm night traveling around North‐West Spitzbergen, we arrived in Woodfjord early morning. The staff scanned carefully the shores and hills of Duck Islands (Andøyane) without spotting any polar bear. The weather this morning was a bit challenging with strong winds blowing 20‐25 knots, not conducive for safe zodiac operations. Thus Christian decided to change our destination to Bockfjord, where a few "hot" springs exist. We arrived near the landing just after break‐ fast, this time without strong winds. As soon as everyone was ashore, the first group departed for a walk to the closest hot spring. It was easy to recognise the route guided by the large area of light coloured limestone making a kind of terrace. After a short stop along the terrace, this group continued to walk in the direction of a ridge offering a nice view over the bay and glacier tongue. At the same time, the second group went to the hot spring, having more time to enjoy this unique Spitzbergen scenery. They also came around the limestone terrace before coming back to the Zodiacs. The third group did a similar walk along the shore to see the hot spring much closer.
After all groups were back on board, Plancius set sail to Liefdefjord while we had lunch.
The transit to Liefdefjord offered a little time for a polar nap if need. We arrived nearby a small cabin a.k.a “Texas Bar” in front of which Captain dropped anchor. The cabin was built by a famous trapper Hilmar Noïs, who overwintered 38 times in Spitzbergen. After visiting the hut, we divided into three groups. The long hikers should have been called the "steep" hikers today. They reached a kind of rocky plateau at 200 metres above sea level. They enjoyed a panorama view over the Liefdefjord, and all the surrounding mountains. The cloudy sky made for a very polar ambience both moody and dramatic with bits of brilliant sunshine and dark clouds as well. The medium hikers reached a more accessible hill, which also provided a nice viewpoint over the fjord. They had a little more time to listen the guides giving explanation about birds, lichens and flowers. The contemplative hikers climbed a hill near the landing site for the benefit of similar scenery, but with more time to received small informative talks from the guides. All groups arrived back to the landing site almost at the same time, and swiftly shuttled back to the ship.
Before dinner, the Staff invited us for a recap of the day. Christian gave us an outline of the program for the next day: transiting to the very far fjords in the north of Nordaustlandet. Sandra provided a small historic talk about Christiane Ritter's overwintering in a small cabin in Woodfjord, as we would be passing by her cabin during dinner. A great day of two full hikes and fantastic history and scenery.
In the early morning we wake up in the northern most area of the Svalbard archipelago, north of Nordaustlandet, the Northeast Island. It is windy out there, but the wind is coming from southwest, and we aim at a protected landing in Reliktbukta.
Landing there we discover a stunning example of polar desert, with almost no vege‐ tation. Droppings of reindeer indicate that it is not lifeless. Snow patches remaining on the northern slopes around us show that we are in one of the coldest areas of the archipelago.
The fast group quickly started climbing the little mountain that makes the peninsula. After a steep climb in the wind, we reach the top around 350m high. There a 360° panorama is visible, with our dear Plancius down the high cliff…
The medium group has a walk on the raised beaches, discovering various formations of rocks appearing from a succession of frost and thawing, on a basis of permafrost that never thaws: stone circles or polygons, and ice wedges.
The leisurely group is treated with some of the arctic world famous HHS (Henryk’s Historic Stories)
Once we are back on board for lunch, Plancius starts heading du north, in search for the Ice!
In the afternoon we just have time for a lecture on photography from Joseph, when the first strips of drifting ice floes appear! Everyone is on the decks to get a feeling of a whole new country: the kingdom of the sea‐ice, with no more
land between us and the North Pole, some 1200km in front of the ship. Expedition guides are on watch for polar bear.
As we start having dinner, a call from Christian tells us that a bear is in sight! As the bear decides to sit and seems interested in us, smelling the wind and sticking his blue tongue out, our Captain manoeuvres to position the ship windward of the bear. This way he can wait with engine stopped, while the wind slowly makes us drift towards the bear, naturally… The skill full move is successful, as the bear decides to come and inspect the ship! Everybody scrambles in silence as the bear gets directly along the ship, standing with its paws against the hull. His head is then not much more than a meter from us, some have felt his breath!
We woke to the sound of Christians voice a bit before 8 am, guiding us into the arctic morning with good news of another ice bear on the horizon. After the encounter the evening prior, if you weren’t already up on deck, you quickly got there. The skies were overcast, but the clouds not so low that we couldn’t easily make out the bear in the distance as the ship maneuvered closer. Both before, during and after breakfast we were able to watch the bear, however it was not as interested in us as we were in it. Leaving the bear to its own we continued east further into the ice. The sun was coming out and wonderful bands of ice were all around.
Shortly after lunch we passed our sister ship the Ortelius on the horizon, just coming out of thick pack ice. Around 2 pm we spotted the second bear of the day napping on a small pressure ridge. Unfortunately, the sound of ice colliding with the hull of the ship woke the bear, and though not too startled did not seem pleased about this interruption of rest. He did not leave immediately and we were able to have good views as it abled about thinking of its next resting spot. The weather was changing quickly, a large fog bank rolled in with gusto, strong wind and a cold front hit with momentum sending many of us back inside for hot tea and protection. The bear didn’t seem to mind much and moved with the patience and grace of an animal at home in these conditions.
In our protected vessel Plancius we also moved on, changing course a bit to the west, where we found again clearer skies. The hotel decided it was a good time for retail therapy so they opened the gift shop for the first time of the voyage with many options to choose from. Who knew that shopping in the middle of the northern arctic had such great deals?
Yet, there was still more for the day. We began a lecture on sea ice given by our guide Gerard at 3 pm, at 3:15 Bear #3 was first sighted in the far distance. The bridge team and expedition staff kept a good eye on it, Captain skilfully manoeuvring the ship closer to its location hidden amidst a large pressure ridge. Once we had a good sighting on it the lecture stopped and everyone was back on deck to observe this wonderful creature.
The bear was having a bit of a snow bath/itch and scratch, rubbing its back and chin on the ice, very entertaining to watch. The sun was glinting off the sea and ice and the bear seemed utterly content as it ambled off.
We continued on, headed for our next destination to the south in Hinlopenstrait. Christian began another small lecture on polar ecosystems followed by recap, only to be interrupted by a lone male walrus and his only companions a
group of kittiwake gulls. A good transition into the planned adventures for the next day: a hopeful landing at Wahlbergoya, a notorious haul out for walrus in this area.
With the sun still shining we head into open waters, Plancius rocking us gently into
dreams of tomorrow.
This morning at 07.00 the weather is not so good: wet, windy and foggy. Regardless, our guides encourage us to follow the “zodiac cruise of the day” to Alkefjellet in the Hinlopenstrait! We are indeed nearby an impressive Brünnich’s Guillemots colony nesting on stunning dolerite cliffs. The 10 zodiacs run slowly along this wall of rocks and birds. The sheer cliffs are more than 100 meters high, an impressive view even in the fog. Some columns have been dissected from the cliff by erosion and give the impression to
be on the scene of a medieval film! The most amazing spectacle is the uninterrupted flights of thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots over our heads. They fly out to catch fish for their chicks and return making a lot of noise creating a very dramatic atmosphere.
Around 70,000 pairs breed here; but this is only a medium size colony. Anyway it is awe‐ some! These alcids don’t built a nest, they just lay their unique egg on a ledge of the cliff. This egg has a special pyriform shape to avoid rolling. At the period when it is time for chick to take off, he jumps without knowing exactly how to fly! Then the father will take care of him for the next month. Upon returning to the ship we were all quite happy from this unforgettable experience! Back to the ship we continue our exploration of the Northern specific wildlife, we are in pursuit of walrus for the afternoon!
After lunch we disembark in Walhbergøya where our guides have seen a group of nearly 40 walrus. We are divided into two groups in order not to disturb to these big seals, the largest seal species in the Arctic. We approach very slowly and without noise, nor sudden movement. The wind is blowing with strength and increasing as the afternoon progresses. What an experience it is to have the privilege to be so close to such big animals! The mass of bodies seem to be all males with several very large old individuals. The walrus can reach 1,200 kg for the large males. Their diet consists mostly of mussels, an individual consumes roughly 70 kg per day. They sense the mollusks with their whiskers and use their nose to uncover this food. Then they suck the meat out of the shells. It is incredible to think that in the recent past they have been led to near regional extinction in the 1950s due to over hunting!
After dinner, although we thought the day was already full, Captain Alexey affered us a wondertul shortship cruise along the Brasvellbreen glacier, part of the Austfonna, the 3rd largest ice cap in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. The total ice front is 180 km long. Sheltered from the wind it was a wondertul way to end the day in a peaceful atmosphere: dead calm sea, pastel colars and good company!
When we woke up this morning, we got the feeling that the weather was not as good as could be expected. Plancius was moving in a manner that we could easily tell the wind was blowing. After breakfast, Christian announced that "Plan A" was not an option as many polar bears were spotted just by the bird cliffs we wanted to visit. As we continued to sail through Freemannsundet the staff spotted more polar bears, 11 in total. The bears were spread over a large area throughout the strait. We decided to switch to "Plan B" i.e. lectures. Gérard started with one on glaciers in English. He explained how snow becomes ice; what a glacier surge is, as well as ice caps and ice shelfs. Following this Henryk gave us a summary of the race to the North Pole, with all those famous names like Andrée, Ellsworth, Amundsen, Nobile, Cook and Peary.
As we arrived shortly in Dunérbukta, the Staff did a scout landing during lunch. Thus when we went ashore they were ready to propose several different walks, even though it was the first time for Plancius and the staff to land in this bay. Christian started to lead the fast walk, having as a goal to reach the summit of a nearby plateau at an elevation of 225 meters. After a short and steep climb, the walking became much easier on uniformly ground shale. At the summit, we enjoyed the Arctic calm and silence for several minutes.
During this time, Gérard guided another walk, a bit slower, in the same direction, but following the plateau’s edge. In several places, we found many fossils of ammonites directly exposed on the ground. The third group, guided by Sandra, went to a valley of rich tundra, walking on some gentle slopes. Finally, the fourth group did a very simple walk along the shore and had time to enjoy the Arctic atmosphere, sitting on drift wood logs along the beach. All groups went back almost at the same time, each of us having a pleasant experience, whatever his/her fitness.
After dinner, the Bridge called to tell us that a whale blow was spotted ahead of the ship. Captain decided to make some time to watch it. It was quickly identified as a fin whale. For more than half an hour, Captain drove Plancius daftly and we were able to observe the whale at a close distance. After this memorable moment, we resumed our course towards Hornsund, but shortly after Christian announced that some humpback whales were lunge feeding exactly on our route.
Again, Captain did precise navigation around an adult and her calf practising a very smart way of feeding: the bubble net technique. This method consists of blowing air from underneath the surface in a circle to trap the krill in a kind of air bubble net. Then, when they come to the surface, the mouth is wide open to catch as much krill as possible. Meanwhile, hundreds of birds where flying around trying to feed on the leftovers. For one hour, we watched this spectacular event before resuming again our route.
The evening prior to today’s excursions delayed our progress due to magnificent fin‐ and humpback whale viewing, thus our arrival into Hornsund was a bit later in the morning than planned.
Our proposal for the morning was to do a full landing in Göshamna (Goose Bay). This bay has a rich history between man and the sea. It is the site where whalers used to cook whale blubber down and render it into a prized oil. At the beginning of the whaling industry in Spitzberg, around 1611, and until the middle of this century whales were brought by ships to land stations to be flensed (skinning and removal of the blubber) and processed.
Whalers chose this flat and protected bay as a good place to haul out the dead whales, and process them to the large boilers installed there, from which relics can still be seen today. From the processing, many whale bones were left on the flat beaches of Göshamna. With time, and in this very poor terrestrial environment of the High Arctic, these bones represented treasures for the trees (yes, the Arctic willow!), flowers, mosses, lichen, and mushrooms: Phosphorus! Calcium! Many other rare but useful elements, in low quantities, but still much higher than what is found between the pebbles of the beach.
This is why we can now see a landscape of oases. Each decaying bone surrounded and covered by lush vegetation, while the rest of the beach is still mostly barren, aside from the slopes beneath many bird colonies. Permitting us to discover the beach at our own pace, our beloved guide team deployed in a half circle, and we were then able to roam the whole place, except of course for the slow‐growing and beautiful patches of vegetation on which no one should set a foot…
For the afternoon we repositioned our ship into Burgerbukta, and were invited for a long Zodiac cruise. With all passengers on board 10 zodiacs, we made our way to the end of the fjord, slowly cruising between blue and white bergy bits calved from the glacier. The west side of the fjord showed towering cliffs, with hanging glaciers and vertiginous cascades of water tumbling down to the sea. When we arrived at the glacier, we lingered a safe distance from the ice‐face and after a time were rewarded with a thunderous calving. A whole façade 50m wide and more than 20m high came down in the sea, causing a large wave which fortunately quickly turned into a friendlier rounded swell.
Back on our ship, after the recap of the day, we were invited to a polar barbecue on the aft deck! Grilled meats, salads, fresh bread and beverages of assortment were consumed while viewing Samarinbreen, the glacier that dominated our protected fjord. Then the music began for those who still had the legs for it! We were at times reminded of the powerful glacier nearby as loud calving boomed behind the music, but this did not prevent us from dancing for quite a while. The local wildlife probably looked at us from afar, in complete and utter bemusement!
Our final morning started with calm seas and slightly overcast skies. After breakfast we geared up for our last day of excursions. We landed at Gasbergkilen (goose rock bay) and swiftly broke into the three different hiking groups. The terrain was easy to negotiate, soft lush tundra boasting a variety of vegetation.
Many flowering plants were noticed in this area making for fantastic photographic opportunity. All the groups followed the coast line in some fashion or another, skirting along the steep sides of Gasberget ridge an arctic fox was first spotted by the long hikers and the medium group was also gifted with views of this crafty animal. Continuing on we also spotted two reindeer, one having a rest in the tundra the other foraging in the rocky terrain above our route. Looping back towards the landing site we loaded back into the zodiac for a “mini”cruise of the bird cliffs before returning to Plancius and enjoying our lunch before our final excursion at Recherchebreen Glacier.
Our final landing was an opportunity to relax and explore the glacier moraine on our own. The guides set up a perimeter where we could freely wander. Jewels of icebergs decorated the shoreline of the inner lagoon. Multiple bear tracks were found in the mud alongside, arctic fox, water fowl and now a smack of Homo sapiens foot prints dotted the shoreline. The sun was coming and going behind high clouds, extenuating the blue hues of the ice. At 3:30 pm a handful of brave travellers decided to make a “polar plunge” and dove into the chilly waters of the bay. At just 5 degrees centigrade the swim was brief for most to say the best. Back on board the ship we had time to relax and take tea savouring the last moments of the day.
In the evening the Captain joined us for a farewell cocktail and we had our final official meeting and dinner. We gave up our now cherished muck boots and began to pack our bags for the following day’s journey. A bitter sweet evening as we slowly made our way back to Longyearbyen. Many great memories have been created and we spend the last evening in celebration of the voyage and each other.
After 10 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: 1,290 Nautical miles, 2,389 Kilometres
Furthest North Point: 81° 29,0’ N, 023° 58,6 ‘E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Alexey Nazarov, Expedition Leader Christian Engelke, Hotel Manager Michael Frauendorfer and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.