PLA14-15 Trip log | Polar Bear Special
04.09.2015 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Longyearbyen has been the starting point for many historic and pioneering expeditions since its foundation as a coal-mining settlement in 1906 by John Munro Longyear. It was to become the starting point for our voyage to the Arctic as well! Our journey began with boarding our comfortable floating home for the next week – the M/V Plancius. Once we had climbed the gangway and found ourselves on board, we made our way to reception where Hotel Manager Robert and Chief Steward Thijs greeted us, and the hotel staff showed us to our cabins. Outside the sun was shining – a perfect start!
We started to explore the ship, and soon it was time to set sail. We made our way to the lounge to be officially welcomed by the hotel team, and Robert described the layout of the ship - the most important fact being the location of the coffee and hot chocolate machine! Afterwards, Second Mate Anika 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 on the deck, curiously eyeing the life boats.
Once out of our bright orange life jackets, we were able to enjoy some more time out on deck, which was then followed by the official introduction to the voyage by Expedition Leader Rinie van Meurs. We got to know our guides and the ship’s physician Isabelle, met Captain Evgeny Levakov and raised our glasses to toast a successful expedition; our voyage had begun!
While Plancius sailed west out of Isfjorden (the Ice Fjord), Fulmars glided and Puffins flapped past. It was a beautifully calm autumn day in Spitsbergen, and we marvelled at the scenery while making our way towards the open ocean. Soon after, we gathered in the Dining Room for the first of many delicious meals prepared by Chef Heinz Hacker and his galley team – yummy!
Overnight Plancius had made some good distance; from Longyearbyen we travelled to the Northwest corner of Svalbard, but before we could relax and enjoy the views on deck we had to attend a mandatory briefing that prepared us for our activities on land. We were told by Rinie about safe behaviour in Zodiacs and in polar bear country, as well as environmental awareness to protect the unique environment of the Arctic.
As we headed for Sørgattet, a narrow and scenic passage between Spitsbergen and Danskøya, the fog created an eerie atmosphere. Pointed peaks were shrouded or revealed as bands of cloud moved. Very soon we saw our first polar bear! A creamy white spot on the dark rocks of Danskøya - a well-fed female polar bear we were told by Rinie. She moved with ease over the uneven terrain and we watched her in awe. As the fog lifted and gave way to sunshine we continued our cruise into Smeerenburgfjord. Soon Smeerenburgbreen came into view. The glacier was impressive, with its crevasses and massive ice towers. As we arrived a big piece of ice broke off. Slowly Plancius cruised along the glacier front with everybody out on deck enjoying the views. A few barren islands in front of the glacier and the lighter-coloured rock margins showed how much it had receded in recent years.
After an early lunch of chilli con carne, we prepared for our first landing, donning the rubber gumboots we had been loaned this morning, and our Zodiac life jackets for the first time. Our goal was Smeerenburg, “Blubber town” on Amsterdamøya, a famous Dutch whaling settlement from the 17th century. In the heyday of the 1630s more than 200 people lived on this patch of beach, catching and flensing whales and rendering their blubber into oil. As we looked at the remains of their blubber ovens on the beach, Victoria managed to paint a lively picture of the hardships these whalers had to endure, with cold, insufficient clothing, malnutrition and the constant threat of scurvy.
Apart from the history the great attraction was the walruses that were hauled out on the beach. We split into two groups and slowly and carefully approached them in turn. They were resting, digesting huge meals of mussels and clams and only occasionally raising their heads to display their long tusks. High up in the atmosphere above us ice crystals created a halo around the sun, an optical phenomenon. As a cold wind was blowing, after a couple of hours we made our way back to the ship to warm up with a hot drink.
We then explored the passages between the different Northwest Islands. The islands of Fugløya, Fuglesangen and Klovningen slid past and soon we were in the open ocean with land only on the starboard side. During recap in the bar we heard more about the whaling history of Smeerenburg, the characteristics of polar bears and the biology of walrus, including a witty (but slightly naughty!) poem about the penis bone of the walruses.
As a special bonus for night owls a group of fin whales was spotted late in the evening. The ship did a short circuit of them and we were able to watch these large animals diving and blowing. After that even the night owls crawled into bed, knowing that more adventures were waiting for them tomorrow when we will reach the pack ice.
Having sailed northwards all night, we made our way into the pack ice right after breakfast on this wonderful autumn day in the Arctic. For many of us it was the first time to see this very special icy environment, frozen ocean water, an endless changing landscape. Plancius was followed by a big flock of kittiwakes flying above the sea, always on the watch for something to eat. The ship exposed some small polar cod and crustaceans as it turned the ice floes. The birds quickly pitched down in the water with their sharp bills and often successfully caught something to eat - what a show! Northern fulmars were gliding around the ship and also a couple of Pomarine skuas, (dark morph) were seen. In the morning the fog was coming and going, creating a mystical atmosphere around the ship.
From Barbara`s mid-morning lecture we learned that underneath the ice is a highly productive area with a lot of marine life. In early spring an algae bloom (mostly diatoms) on the bottom of the ice starts off the food web. Many animals live in the ice and underneath it, eating the algae. Who would have guessed that this apparently icy desert conceals so much life?
From time to time some seals raised their heads out of the water, but they dove down quickly when they heard the ship. So we had perfect ice floes, many birds and some seals, but where was the animal at the top of the food chain, the king of the Arctic?
After lunch a Bowhead whale was announced and later on two more. This very rare, ice-loving whale species has no dorsal fin and is therefore easy to determine. Only some of us saw the blow and the back of this very shy animal, as they disappeared quickly.
In the afternoon the weather stayed clear, with the sun beaming down with virtually no wind – superb conditions for being on deck, enjoying the surroundings and experiencing the beautiful sea ice. At around 3 pm Rinie our Expedition Team Leader made an announcement over the loud speaker; he sounded very excited and a bit breathless:- “Far in the distance at 1 o`clock ahead of the ship, there is a polar bear!”
Most of us were already on the outside decks and we all looked in the right direction, but could not see anything yet. With the help of our guides and binoculars we then saw a yellowish blob. As the ship approached closer we saw not only one yellowish blob, but two….no wait, three or even four? Many birds were flying in the sky next to the bears, mostly Ivory gulls and kittiwakes. They are not easy to spot when they sit on the ice as they are, when adult, completely white and you can only see their black feet. Ivory gulls are scavengers, thus only eating dead animals - a good sign that there might be a bear on a kill around. It turned out to be FOUR male bears on a kill, only the skeleton and the skin left, the snow spotted with blood. One of the bears had caught an unfortunate Bearded seal, but who was the culprit-bear?!
Two young polar bears, probably siblings, were measuring their strength against each other, playing, biting and nuzzling. Both were the same size, but one had a long scar on its left hind leg. Another bear, much fatter compared to the other ones, was snoozing near the seal carcase. The light was perfect for taking pictures and it was wonderful to see these great animals in their natural habitat, running and jumping and going about their beary business.
The whole scene did not feel real, especially when a fifth male bear made its appearance. We were in a fever of excitement, as these bears even became interested in our ship and came closer. Thousands of pictures and video films were taken on this day and we will all remember this moment forever, a unique experience for all.
And of course this afternoon we also reached the northernmost position of our journey (81°47.35`N)!
In the evening during our daily recap, Rinie told us more about the bears and their hunting techniques. With happy faces and all bear-questions answered, we went to enjoy our dinner, which was (unusually) a BBQ served on deck, with drinks on the house and dancing afterwards. What a great ending to a perfect day!
The morning started crisp, but beautiful. Plancius was covered in centimeter-long ice flowers and tiny ice crystals were falling from the sky, reflecting the sunlight like stardust. It was a very special atmosphere going through the ice, through alternate patches of fog and blue sky. A fogbow followed us every step of the way. Kittiwakes, fulmars and skuas were flying around the ship and seals were basking in the sun. In the morning, we managed to get close to a Bearded seal to take a closer look.
At 11 am Rinie gave us a polar bear lecture describing how polar bears reproduce. And then, there it was: after lunch, at 2 pm, the crew spotted a polar bear on an ice floe not far away. We came closer and had a chance to watch a large female bear (creamy-yellow in colour) enjoying a comfortable siesta on top of a mini-iceberg. She was putting on quite a show, rolling around, sitting up to peer at the ship and eventually walking off when she’d had enough of us! The five bears the day before had raised the bar quite high, but every encounter is unique and fantastic in its own way. Happy to have seen this female bear, we joined John for a lecture on ice birds so that we can identify them in future when they fly by the ship and dive into the water to catch a polar cod.
As the day progressed, it was soon time for the daily recap. However, it was not to be this evening - because there was yet another bear in front of the ship at just before 7 pm! It was another female and the expedition staff knew right away that she was a really curious one. She walked along the ice edge trying to get closer – sometimes thinking about taking a step or two onto fresh ice, which was certainly too thin for her weight. The captain put his skill to work and manoeuvered Plancius closer to the ice. The bear came over and we had once again a unique experience! She came right up to the ship, so we could all take a very close look – from above - at this fantastic-looking, fit and healthy specimen of a female bear.
By then it was time for dinner, so we waved a regretful farewell to the icy landscape we’ve been enjoying for the last two days and headed inside. Afterwards there was time for either a nightcap at the bar before bed, or for some quiet photo-editing. Tomorrow morning we will have land in sight again when we wake up.
After two enchanting days devoted to weaving our way through the pack ice and having such outstanding encounters with Polar bears and birds, it was a slight disappointment to wake up to a leaden sky and 20 knots of bitter wind as Plancius approached Sjuøyane or The Seven Islands. After breakfast, zodiacs were launched for a landing in a sheltered bay off Phipps Island, with a good chance of approaching walruses, which traditionally haul out at some point along the beach. Rinie decided to divide us into two groups, the first of which would land while the second cruised along the coastline until it was time to swap over. Although the sea was choppy with 18 knots of wind, most passengers got into their respective zodiacs safely and entered the relatively sheltered bay. A few fulmars and kittiwakes skimmed past the boats and three or four Glaucous gulls were foraging among the small boulders which lined the bay entrance.
Two small parties of walrus briefly put their tusked heads above the surface to look at the passing zodiacs. However, between 70 and 80 walruses were hauled out on the sandy shoreline of the inner bay. The first group, led by Rinie, landed well away from them, the plan being to approach them slowly to within 50 metres if possible. However, the animals were immediately nervous and showed no sign of settling down. Eventually, a part of the pod humped off into the sea, so no further approach was made. The second zodiac group was then called in and all who wanted went ashore for a walk inland.
The frozen landscape was wonderfully bleak, with areas of snow and frozen melt-water calling for everyone to be careful how they trod and providing great photo opportunities. We returned to the zodiacs forty minutes later without incident, arriving back at Plancius in time for a hearty lunch.
During lunch, the anchor was raised and Plancius headed back west in the direction of Amsterdamøya once again. Victoria started the afternoon’s lecture programme with an account of the history of Svalbard – or Spitzbergen, as it is still referred to, although this name is now conventionally used just for the largest western island. She told a story of greed leading to the decimation of whales, of exploration and thirst for knowledge. Originally considered the gateway to the far north, it became the first centre for industrial whaling, with the Dutch and English vying for dominance. The whalers were followed by the explorers and miners. Her flow was twice interrupted by the appearance of whales, the first being a Fin Whale, a mighty rorqual second only in size to the Blue whale. It surfaced several times close to the ship.
After a short break, Rinie continued the afternoon with his well- illustrated account of Polar bear behaviour, this time concentrating on the different strategies they use to hunt seals. With each bear needing to kill around 55 seals a year, these formidable predators of the high Arctic turn out to be amazingly resourceful and intelligent hunters, assessing each situation and adapting their stalking technique accordingly.
At a short briefing before dinner, Rinie reported that the dire weather forecast for tomorrow had much improved for the better – to our immense relief, as hikes were being planned for the morning. Late in the evening, Plancius drew abeam of Moffen, a flat bank of shingle and sand constructed by the currents and often used by walruses. It is a nature reserve and ships are not allowed to approach closer than 300 yards. Through the gloomy light, it was possible to see a few walruses on the shore, but no Sabine’s gulls to which the island owes its protected status.
Time for bed and a good rest before tomorrow morning’s exercise...
Following our snowy adventure up in the Seven Islands yesterday, we decided an excursion on land to stretch our legs was exactly what the doctor ordered. After a smashingly delicious breakfast from our master chef Heinz, we headed out to Tinayrebukta to try our hand at the classic, three-level hike Oceanwide is famous for – long, medium and short! After several days in the ice the majority of passengers wanted to head out on the extended walk. No problem, a simple matter of re-distributing one of our many guides!
We hiked over tundra, over rocks, over stones, over ice, and over high mountain glacier streams. Finally we came upon a group of reindeer - several males with a few females and a young calf. The males were in the midst of shedding velvet, one with bright, blood-red antlers, one in full velvet and the others in various states of shedding. The two largest put on a show, fighting each other and charging until they became modest and decided to head over a ridgeline and promptly disappeared. Crossing icy streams, we slowly made our way back to the landing site to head home to Plancius and a sumptuous, if rather late, lunch buffet.
As for the medium/more leisurely hikers, they too were rewarded with breath-taking Svalbard views over mountains, glaciers and ocean. Close-up bird sightings included the Arctic skua and Glaucous gull with juveniles; photographers particularly appreciated Svalbard’s ‘forests’ of Arctic willow, lichens and delicate ice crystals over the surfaces of ponds. After coming across several pieces of reindeer antler, they too saw the animals themselves towards the end of their climb. A quiet moment to absorb the silence and immense beauty of the landscape was enjoyed by all before they made their way down hill and back to the zodiacs and a welcome lunch.
With full bellies, we cruised onward towards Lilliehöökbreen, to ship cruise by the glacier while the sun still shone. What a sight! A magnificent glacier in all its glory, sun glinting off the cliff face as we gazed upon it in wonder. Our patience was rewarded with multiple calvings one after the other, as large chunks of ice sheet cascaded down into the soft blue water.
We pointed the Plancius’ bow south-westward, heading towards the entrance to the Kongsfjord system where we cruised for whales. Alas, only a solitary Humpback whale made an appearance, briefly blowing and fluking before it disappeared and failed to reappear again; a shy one, most likely. All was not lost however, as we soaked in glorious rays of sunshine and the wind died down to nil.
At recap we heard from Katja on shrinking glaciers, Victoria on the theory (now disproven) of the open polar sea and Sandra on the significance of Greek and Latin names for birds. And as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon, our faithful ship Plancius headed off into the great wide blue, ever vigilant, ever watchful for wildlife as the day slowly came to a peaceful close.
Our last full day has arrived already…Although the skies were overcast as we got up, the sun was illuminating distant mountains and creating some splendid light effects. Straight after breakfast Rinie gathered us in the lounge as ever for a briefing and then we went back to our cabins to change before heading for the zodiac deck, where Dr. Isabelle and Victoria presided over the Plancius gangways.
We were soon speeding to shore at Alkhornet, where a mountain of rock loomed impressively over the landing site. In the height of summer there are birds everywhere here and we still saw a few lingering on. After a steep and muddy, but short climb up to the plateau at the base of ‘Alkhornet’, we divided into two groups this time – for a medium hike (going some way up its rock-strewn slopes) and a more leisurely wander on the spongey grass and moss at its base. Views out to sea and up to the rocky peak looming over us were spectacular.
Both groups had plenty of time to stop and soak up atmosphere and look for wildlife. In terms of numbers, the stars today were reindeer of all sizes – from calves, to young adults, to at least one massive male with some of the biggest antlers imaginable! Although we took care to approach silently and give these beautiful animals space to graze, they were relatively undisturbed by our passing, rarely raising their eyes from the serious business of eating. We certainly had the chance to see a whole range of antler-styles, from magnificent and mature, to red and ragged, with velvet trailing everywhere!
We were delighted to see some flowers still in bloom at Alkhornet. The huge numbers of nesting birds fertilize the ground well and there were a surprising number of brave survivors (mainly yellow and white saxifrages) despite the onset of autumn, interspersed with the occasional mushroom in boggy areas.
Both groups were rewarded with a very good sighting of an Arctic fox, which was halfway towards gaining its white winter coat and so looked amazingly like a rock when it wasn’t moving. Fortunately, this busy creature was on a mission most of the morning, criss-crossing the grassy slopes and broken moraines, intent upon its private business and not very worried by our presence. Towards the end of the landing, just when Tobias was showing us an amazing sheet of ice UNDER some cracks in the soil, this fox (or maybe a different one!) trotted right through the middle of our group, hardly pausing to acknowledge us. So we made our way back to the zodiacs feeling very contented.
Back on board it was time to begin settling our bills with Robert and Thijs; it always seems a good idea at the time to enjoy ‘money-free’ shopping and drinking at the bar…Plancius continued to sail toward our final destination of the trip after lunch and we spent our time resting, chatting, packing, or out on deck watching the shores of Spitsbergen slip past - according to personal preference.
At 4 pm Rinie called us together for our final briefing. This afternoon’s landing was a bit different from the others, in that rifle-carrying staff were to man a perimeter within which passengers were free to roam. This was an opportunity to sit or stroll alone and say a personal farewell to Svalbard. The remains of an unsuccessful gypsum mining operation from the early twentieth century could also be seen here, together with an old rusting boat and a modern trappers’ hut. And there was plenty of low-grade gypsum lying around, as well as goose droppings on ice (with water bubbling away beneath) and some more (purple) saxifrage – all very photogenic.
Back on board it was time to gather for a farewell drink in the lounge with Captain Evgeny, Rinie and the Expedition Team. A toast was raised to our time here on Plancius and then we headed down to our final dinner of the trip.
After dinner was our last chance to interact with the friends we have made over the past week – an evening for celebration of an enjoyable trip or an opportunity for an early night for some. Tomorrow we will awaken back in the real world – well, in Longyearbyen at least.
This morning we heard our last wake-up call from Rinie. We will miss his daily pre-breakfast information!
We made sure to leave our luggage outside the cabin before we went down to breakfast, which was at the civilized time of 8 – 9 am. 9 am was departure time. Most of us went into town to spend some time looking around; some of us were flying out today and others staying a little longer. But for all of us the time had come to say goodbye and start on the journey homeward. Maybe we will meet again on either Plancius or Ortelius – and perhaps in Antarctica next time?
Thank you all for such a great voyage, for your excellent company, good humour and enthusiasm!
We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be.
Total distance sailed on our voyage: 877 nm /1624 km
Northernmost position: 81° 47.35’N, 019° 38.8’E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Evgeny Levakov, Expedition Leader Rinie van Meurs, Hotel Manager Robert McGillivray and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.