PLA13-18, trip log, Around Spitsbergen

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation in Longyearbyen

Embarkation in Longyearbyen
Date: 11.08.2018
Position: 78° 13.7’ N / 015° 36.1’ E
Wind: calm
Weather: light overcast
Air Temperature: +10

From the plane we got a first glimpse of Spitsbergen’s impressive terrain of mountains and delta systems. At first glance, this seemed like a wild and inhabitable place, but as we were about to learn it is home to a lot of life. For many of us, Longyearbyen was our first stop, visiting the museum and the church or maybe shopping some extra warm clothes before leaving civilisation. Ready for adventure and exploration we got on board M/V Plancius, the ship that would be our home for the next nine days. We were greeted by our expedition leader, Christian, and our hotel manager, Zsuzsanna, and shown to our cabins with our luggage already waiting for us. Gathering in the observation lounge we were briefed about safety on board. The briefing was held by the Third Officer who was talking about ship safety and how to prepare for the worst. A general-alarm drill (seven short blasts followed by one long blast) was made, and we all took the SOLAS orange life jackets and mustered in the lounge guided by crew and staff. After a roll call to assure everyone was present, we went out on deck to have a look at the lifeboats as Plancius was navigating out of Adventfjorden. In the lounge Christian invited us for another briefing, now about life on board and introducing the expedition team ready to explore the wilderness with us. Zsuzsanna introduced us to the interiors of the ship, hotel operations and dining room where we would be served delicious food. Captain Alexey joined us in the end for a welcoming toast of sparkling wine or juice before we headed down to the dining room for our first scrumptious dinner prepared by Head Chef Ralf and his staff.

Day 2: Kongsfjorden: Ny-Ålesund & Ny-London

Kongsfjorden: Ny-Ålesund & Ny-London
Date: 12.08.2018
Position: 78° 55.2‘ N, 012° 24.9‘ E
Wind: NE 1
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +6

Early in the morning we heard Christian’s wake-up call, and the expedition had officially started. Some of us were already up, enjoying the outer decks and breathing in the fresh arctic air. Plancius was sailing slowly in Kongsfjorden in front of the very scenic glacier Kronebreen. After having breakfast, we attended the mandatory briefing about zodiac operations and polar bear safety. Then, we were called to get our rubber boots used to go ashore with the zodiacs. Quickly, we got dressed for the first activity of the trip: visiting Ny Ålesund. The reason for the town’s foundation was coal mining, which resulted in construction of the northernmost railway, which can still be seen. The company setting up the mining village was Norwegian and had its headquarters in the coastal town of Ålesund, thus the name Ny Ålesund (New Ålesund). Once a mining village, now Ny Ålesund is an international research centre. Some of us visited the museum, the post office and the gift shop before gathering by the Amundsen bust. Here Gérard told us about the life of Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach the South Pole, and his expedition on the airship Norge which became the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926. Amundsen disappeared in 1928 while coming to rescue Nobile's expedition. Then, we made a walk from the bust to the mast used to anchor the Zeppelins and we stayed a moment to enjoy the nice scenery of the King's Bay. Immediately after lunch, we were ready to disembark at the northern side of Kongsfjorden, in a place named Ny London. We had the opportunity to walk around two old buildings, several foundations and the remains of a railway track with old steam boilers and drills. All these remains were built between 1910 and 1913 by a company owned by Ernest Mansfield who had found some marble in the area. We split into three different groups. All visited the historic site and then some of us headed to the highlands of the island, others to a fresh water pond where a couple of Red-throated Divers nested. Two reindeers and a Long-tailed Skua were observed during this middle walk. The weather was very good, with a lot of sunshine and a gentle breeze adding to the impression of being in Arctic summer.

Day 3: Hinlopen Strait: Alkefjellet & Torellneset

Hinlopen Strait: Alkefjellet & Torellneset
Date: 13.08.2018
Position: 79° 40.0‘ N, 018° 25.1‘ E
Wind: SW 3
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +5

In the morning we were heading south into Hinlopenstretet looking for the famous birdcliff of Alkefjellet. Lucas, one of the guides, spoke of “the Manhattan of the birds”, and that’s what it is indeed! There are several thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots breeding on this cliff. It is also a very scenic place and special from a geological point of view. We enjoyed these towers of rock, and guillemots were diving into the water around us. Some foxes were also trying to catch chicks or guillemot eggs… It was a very special feeling finding all this life in such a remote place! The day continued after lunch with more exciting scenery. We arrived around three o’clock at Torellneset where a colony of walruses were waiting for us. Walruses can quickly get frightened and we needed to be careful not to scare them. In this case we were lucky because these ones were curious and playful, and a rare sight even for many of the guides. It was an amazing moment being ashore observing several walruses playing in the water and coming so close to us! At some point we had the impression of being observed rather than observing them. After coming back to the ship, we assisted to the traditional recap which today was dedicated to the Brünnich’s guillemot and presented by Fritz.

Day 4: Nordaustlandet: Reliktbukta & Karl XII-øya

Nordaustlandet: Reliktbukta & Karl XII-øya
Date: 14.08.2018
Position: 80° 26.5‘ N, 023° 27.8‘ E
Wind: NW 1
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +5

After a calm night, we woke up as Plancius entered Duvefjorden on the north side of Nordaustlandet. We landed in a small bay named Reliktbukta, sheltered from the swell coming from the Arctic Ocean. This place rarely gets visitors and it is a perfect example of polar desert. We divided into three groups, the more energetic ones went on a steep faster climb to the top of Kvinberget. At 365 m elevation the fog finally rose and they could enjoy fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. The medium group had a walk on the raised beaches, discovering various formations of rocks. Stone circles or polygons, and ice wedges were appearing from a succession of frost and thawing, lying on a base of permafrost that never thaws. The leisurely group went on a short zodiac cruise, going further in to the internal part of the bay along the shore to see a Kittiwake colony. There were also several Kittiwakes around the landing area, feeding on small fish in shallow water. Suddenly the sky cleared and we ended the landing with some blue sky and a wonderful light. After a quiet nap, Christian announced our arrival at the island Karl XII. Despite the calm wind conditions, strong currents and some swell made it more challenging to board the zodiacs. Then we slowly approached Karl XII-øya. The northern part of the island is a steep rock tower with some birds nesting on the cliffside with little to no vegetation. Our guides looked for polar bears and rapidly spotted three of them lying down on the gentle slopes at the foot of the main cliff. As it was difficult to get a good view of them, we continued around the island. Another bear was spotted uphill, as well to far from the shore to get a good view of it. Finally, up front Christian found one bear standing up close to the shoreline and visible for everyone to see. We stayed here a while, watching this big male walking slowly around and finally sitting down to rest. We returned to Plancius where our Hotel Manager, Zsuzsanna, was ready to welcome us with a delicious dinner.

Day 5: In the pack ice north of Nordaustlandet

In the pack ice north of Nordaustlandet
Date: 15.08.2018
Position: 82° 28.0‘ N, 021° 12.6‘ E
Wind: W 2
Weather: calm
Air Temperature: +3

While we were comfortably asleep in our beds, Plancius made her way to the higher latitudes – and covered quite a distance during the night! The ice edge was our destination of the day, and under the prevailing conditions, this journey required the united power of all three generators. Finally, during the early morning hours and well past 82 degrees latitude the pack ice presented itself in all its beauty. Scattered floes of various sizes and shapes eventually formed a thicker maze as our Captain carefully manoeuvered deeper into this frozen world in different shades of grey, blue, green and white. Yesterday’s swell had calmed down to a soft breathing motion barely noticeable for us as we stood on the outside decks searching the world around us for its true King: the polar bear. A true royal, he showed no attempt of rushing the encounter. Morning passed, lunch was called, and still we were left to admire the kittiwakes, fulmars and ivory gulls circling around us, eager to check out the polar cod and other fish now exposed due the ship’s path through the ice. Everyone got a good view on numerous seals as well, mainly harp seals and enormous bearded seals resting on the ice or swimming between the floes. However, there could hardly be any doubt as to this being polar bear kingdom. Several times we spotted his footprints on the ice, even the remains of what might have been breakfast. Decreasing visibility due to incoming fog added to the tension we could sense. Our guides and the bridge team stood with their scopes and binoculars, as did we. Clearly, being of yellowish white colour made the perfect camouflage in these conditions. Then, suddenly there he was! Materializing almost out of nothing, right in front of us a huge male became visible in the fog. The Captain stopped the engine as we tiptoed forward to get a better view on this wonderful creature. To start with, also the bear showed a slight interest in us, approaching the ship slowly, tasting the air to determine what suddenly had crossed his path. After a while his curiosity seemed satisfied and he turned away again, slowly, yet determined, until the fog closed up behind him. Amazed, we continued our journey, still checking the surroundings for yellowish white shapes as we moved. Quite obviously, our appearance had interrupted the bear’s lunch, as the remains of what seemed to once have been a bearded seal became visible on an ice floe. Ivory gulls were enjoying the leftovers, and – yes! There was another bear, only a stone’s throw away from the carcass. Our arrival must have surprised him as much as his appearance did surprise us, he seemed a bit confused as he rose to his feet and decided to reward us for interrupting his sleep with polite ignorance, walking away, eventually jumping into the water and heading for the ice on the far side. Overjoyed and excited we continued our bear watch throughout the afternoon until Plancius eventually reached open water and set course for tomorrow’s destination. No more bears for now, but we had seen them in their true surroundings. Here they were much harder to find than on green grassy slopes! After a whole day scouting from the outer decks and the bridge, we had definitely earned our dinner today!

Day 6: Storøya & Austfonna

Storøya & Austfonna
Date: 16.08.2018
Position: 80°13.7’ N / 027°52.7’ E
Wind: N 1
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +4

We arrived near Storøya (the Big Island) while having our breakfast. Christian announced the program for the morning: a zodiac cruise along the North tip of this island in search for polar bears. Reaching closer to land in our zodiacs, we discovered a small group of female walruses resting on a rock. And suddenly, behind the walruses, we also spotted a polar bear walking along the shore line, right next to another group of walruses. We quietly approached the beach and admired the sight of it, now slowly walking away from the walruses. It seemed calm and not disturbed by our presence. After a while we left it in peace and continued our cruise into the next bay where we spotted two polar bears lying down a bit away from the shoreline. As we were coming back towards Plancius, the first bear had moved to a rock by the waterline lying down facing the sea. We got a good view moving closer to him, at one point almost getting the feeling of being face to face with him. During the afternoon, a long journey of sailing awaited us to reach our next destination: the glacier front of Austfonna. Julia gave a lecture about polar night and day, with a superb slide show of the light there is in Svalbard during winter and spring. Later on, Gérard did a talk on Polar Bears, illustrated by his photos taken during previous expedition cruises. After dinner, we finally arrived in front of the largest ice cap after Antarctica and Greenland: Austfonna with an active glacier front of 25 km width. Captain Alexey manoeuvred the ship slowly at a safe distance to the glacial front. The fog gave an atmosphere of mystery. A big calving lasting for more than a minute happened soon after we arrived. We were astonished by all the different colours of blue of the icebergs. After several hours of amazing navigation in the ice-clogged waters, Captain changed course in order to reach our next destination in time for tomorrow.

Day 7: Freemansundet & Storfjorden

Freemansundet & Storfjorden
Date: 17.08.2018
Position: 78°12.0’ N / 021°52.0’ E
Wind: NW 3
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +6

New day, new scenery, new environment… After the amazing ship cruise along the Austfonna glacier yesterday evening, we now discovered a completely green landscape in Freemansundet. It was time to experience a beautiful tundra hike and to discover some arctic flowers around Isbjørnodden on Edgeøya. Birders could also enjoy and observe species such as Pink-footed Goose, Purple Sandpiper and Snow Bunting. As usual, we were spread into three different hiking levels: fast, middle, and leisurely. We could enjoy walking in this lush tundra vegetized due to a large quantity of sediments deposited by an important river delta. A very different environment from the last hike we experienced in the polar desert of Reliktbukta! After lunch time we headed south to Kapp Lee. The zodiac drivers did their best in keeping us dry as wind and waves made our shuttle to the landing site a bit more challenging than usual. Safely landed on shore we got to freely move around within a perimeter of the guides scouting. We soon discovered three interesting sights; some Pomor culture remains, a little group of walruses relaxing on the beach, and further into the tundra landscape we had a good view of some reindeers peacefully grazing despite our presence. At the landing area some of us were also lucky to observe some of the walruses approaching along the beach close to the zodiacs. Nice scenery, cooperative wildlife, even in this middle-arctic tundra, there is always something to discover!

Day 8: Hornsund: Burgerbukta, Brepollen & Samarinvågen

Hornsund: Burgerbukta, Brepollen & Samarinvågen
Date: 18.08.2018
Position: 76° 56.0’ N, 015° 33.6’ E
Wind: calm
Weather: rain
Air Temperature: +2

Despite waking up to rain and fog, most of us were adventurous enough to attend a zodiac cruise into the western arm of Burgerbukta in Hornsund. As we slowly moved into the fjord we were admiring the majestic landscape and steep mountains surrounding it. Iron-containing water was running down the steep mountains making them look like they were bleeding. The drivers had to take care manoeuvering around the icebergs and small pieces of ice floating around. We were astonished by all the different colours of blue in the icebergs, revealing the original layers of snow being packed in ice over thousands of years. The sea here, close to the glacier, had a milky colour due to sediments suspended in the water. With rain continuing throughout the afternoon, it was nice to stay on board Plancius for a ship’s cruise in the bay Brepollen where we could enjoy the sight of the glacier Storbreen. In Norwegian, pol is a small bay, and originally that is what it was, but today it is a very large bay of more than 100 km2 due to the rapid glacial retreat of the 20th and 21st century. Sandra gave a lecture about hunting and trapping in Svalbard during the last centuries and told the story about the famous female Austrian overwinterer, Christiane Ritter, who accompanied her husband for one winter in a small cabin in North Spitzbergen. For dinner, Chef Ralf prepared a special surprise: a barbecue. As the weather was not the best for an outside barbecue, the dinner was served inside the restaurant with free drinks.

Day 9: Bellsund: Bamsebu & Recherchebreen

Bellsund: Bamsebu & Recherchebreen
Date: 19.08.2018
Position: 77° 37.8’ N, 014° 35.5’ E
Wind: calm
Weather: fog patches
Air Temperature: +8

After a night of rocking with the swell, we woke up to a calm sea and mist hugging the mountains surrounding us. We were shuttled with the zodiacs ashore to visit Bamsebu, “home of the Teddy bear” in Norwegian. Now a private cabin, originally it was used as a hunting and trapping hut. Remains of this gloomy chapter of history were visible as piles of bones and skulls of numerous beluga whales spread out along the beach. Sandra was taking us through some of the brutal activity taking place on this beach in the 1930s. Several rowing boats used in this time are still lying upside down on the beach along the Ahlstrandhalvøya. We were careful not to touch any of the remains of the beluga whales as they are cultural remains and protected. Along the beach we also noticed some small camouflaged birds, purple sandpipers, hardly disturbed by our presence as we walked past them. The birdlife in this area is relatively rich, and further into shore covered in vegetation we discovered some arctic skua with some chicks. In the end of our historic walk we came across a dead polar bear adding up to today’s experience of nature’s thin line between life and death. Back on Plancius for our lunch the rain stopped, and the clouds opened up for the sun to shine through as we made our way into the Recherchefjord with beautiful surroundings of pointy mountains and ridges. The glacier Recherchebreen is separated from the fjord by a lagoon and a beach where we would make a landing. With sunshine in our faces we strolled around the stony beach taking in the stunning landscape and the glacier. And if this scenery wasn’t enough for today, suddenly, several beluga whales or white whales were approaching close to shore making a show before they disappeared in the distance. Seeing these amazing white creatures swimming in this milky blue water, in their true element of the sea, put the history of the morning walk into perspective. This beautiful afternoon was ended with a proper “polar plunge”, a refreshing swim in arctic water, completing this incredible trip around Svalbard.

Day 10: Disembarkation in Longyearbyen

Disembarkation in Longyearbyen
Date: 20.08.2018
Position: 78°13.7’ N, 015°36.1’ E

After 9 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: 1470 Nautical miles 2722 Kilometres Most northerly point reached: 82° 35.8’ N, 024° 18.7 ‘E On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Alexey Nazarov, Expedition Leader Christian Engelke, Hotel Manager Zsuzsanna Varga and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.