PLA14-16, trip log | Round Spitsbergen - Kvitoya
01.09.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Some of us had just arrived from the airport this sleepy Sunday in Longyearbyen others had had a few hours exploring Spitsbergen’s small capital city, visiting the museum and such. At 16.00h we were able to finally board m/v Plancius. Andrew our expedition leader greeted us on the pier and we took the first steps up the gangway to the ship.
Once on-board, we were welcomed by hotel manager André and with the help of the hotel crew we settled into our cabins; our luggage was already there! We had a few minutes to wander around and get 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 to be briefed about safety, and life on-board the ship. We as passengers are a very multicultural/international group. All orientation material is given bi-lingual in both German and English. Headsets were provided for the German speakers and our expedition guide Katja daftly simultaneously translated. André introduced us to the layout of the ship, hotel operations and dining room edict. We were also briefed by 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 assure 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 Ny-Ålesund 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.
We awoke to the sound of our intrepid leader Andrew’s voice wafting through the ship’s speaker system. A lovely calm soothing voice it was, followed by the even mellower sounding German translation from our second in command, Christian. We had arrived at a lovely glacier, Lilliehookbreen, for a short but fantastic viewing before breakfast started at 7:30. We all ooh’d and aah’d, taking in the Arctic scenery while snapping away photo after photo.
Slowly we headed back out towards open water, as our plan was for a late morning landing at Ny-Ålesund, the northern-most scientific settlement in the world. But before that, we had to have our mandatory briefings. Safety first!
As the English group learned about bears and zodiacs and life vests, oh my! The Germans headed down to the boot room to pick up their rubber boots, or gummistiefel as they are affectionately known as. And then vice versa! As the Germans learned all about the birds and bears, the English headed down for their lovely rubber wellies.
A wonderful time had by all! Once everyone understood how all the operations were handled, it was time to load up the zodiacs and head out into the great Arctic yonder! The morning excursion is to the town of Ny-Ålesund which is an international research village, with scientific stations from a large and growing number of nations. The origin of the town is due to trapping activity during the 17th century, and then coal mining. The place has also been made famous as it was the point of departure for Amundsen’s exploration of North Pole in the 1920’s.
Currently, for our adventures in Ny-Alesund some of us checked out the little shop in town, the post office, whilst others made their way to the dog yard to admire the sculpted muscles of the huskies. At 12:00pm, it was time to meet at the bust of Amundsen, to gather around with Henryk and the other armed guides, we then headed out to the mast in safety. While Henryk regaled us with historical tales of the daring do, others chose to observe the various harbour seals spread out on the point of a small island just off the shore. Slowly we headed back to the good ship Plancius! Lunch was prepared by our fantastic chef Ralf, whose love of food is only eclipsed by his love of a good German beer. A wonderful buffet was laid out, waiting to be eaten up by voracious guests with even more aggressive appetites. After lunch we heard more historical tales of daring do from Henryk, regaling us with fantastical stories of legendary heroes from days gone by. As the day wound down, we headed north, hoping to find somewhere amidst the wild windy islands to make a landing the following day, never knowing what may lay around the next corner.
On our transit north the Captain redirected the ship off the normal outer coastal route to explore Smeerenburg Channel and Amsterdamoya Island. We were in luck and spotted walrus in the water as well as a smack of at least 12 individuals slumbering together on the beach.
Walrus tend to use the same sites year after year: beaches that are near shallow, productive waters with muddy bottom. After a successful feeding trip they come to land to sleep off the meal, often for several days but some have been observed for as much as a week or more.
During the night, some of us, having a light sleep, may have noticed that the wind picked up. Andrew woke us up at 7:00, telling us to pay attention to ship's motion and take care as we moved about the ship. During breakfast, Plancius arrived in a strait call Beverlysundet. Captain tried to drop anchor near Chermside Island but it did not hold due to deep water and 30+ knot wind. There was no other option other than leaving for a hopeful more protected location. The staff improvised a lecture program to fill the time needed to relocate. Henrik gave the second part of his lecture on the conquest of the North Pole in English. He did an overview of all explorers going to the North Pole after the controversy about who from Cook or Peary was the first to reach this mythic point.
We arrived during lunch in Duvefjorden. The wind was still around 35 knots, too strong of conditions to safely attempt a landing. The Captain and Andrew decided to cancel the landing and head north into the pack ice in search of the ice bear. Just before leaving the fjord, Christian spotted a polar bear along shore. Even though it was more than one mile away, it was possible with binoculars to see it walking along the beach.
We sat down for another educational lecture, this time by Gérard about Ice at Sea. He explained to us a few terms about ice, such as what is a growler, fast ice, etc. He gave us the life cycle of icebergs and pack ice, before showing how the Arctic sea ice evolves through the seasons and time. At 17:00 it was Beau's turn with a lecture entitled "Tips for better photos". After a few basics about how to take photos, he gave us some tips and tricks about technique and ways to compose a good photograph.
As we sailed the 40-50 miles north toward the pack ice, we already began to see some ice in the late afternoon before dinner. While dinner was being served, the Staff spotted a polar bear on a large ice floe. As soon as the main course was eaten, Andrew announced the polar bear. Within a few minutes, the dining room was empty. We all trooped out into the bitter cold on the outside decks to observe the King of ice. Captain approached carefully and slowly through the ice floe as to not to scare the bear away. We watched the bear moving slowly and quietly, walking along a pressure ridge and gradually transitioned out of our view. What a show!
Our morning started when Andrew’s dulcet tones woke us from our sleep at 05.10am. Another bear had been spotted! Most of us hurridly threw warm clothes on and dashed out of our cabins and onto the front decks to be greeted by the welcome sight of blue skys, calm conditions and unexpectedly the sun. The bear was taking full advantage of the warmth, laying fully stretched out and a few hundred metres in from the edge of the ice.
We had great views as it lounged in the sun and after a short while Captain manouvered Plancius around to the up-wind side of the bear and into a better position. The bear remained very non-plussed and continued to sleep with an occasional bout of pilates like stretching. After 2 hours he decided it was late enough to get up and serenely wandered off into the distance after first coming closer to check out Plancius. Captain Alexey turned Plancius and we continued north in search of further wildlife as the clouds once again closed in and we entered a snow shower.
To give us more information about the Polar bear, Katja gave a presentation in German in the dining room while Gerard gave his in English in the lounge. They both spoke about the bears life cycle as well as hunting techniques which was quite interesting.
Andre and Katrin opened the ship’s gift shop for a little retail therapy. This would be the one and only time of the voyage for shoping north of 80 degrees. Sales were made, deals were had and lunch soon followed, as we slowly made our way ever north. The weather started to improve once again as we reached the ships furthest north position of 81° 31.1N 022° 23.7E. We were excited to hear that the zodiacs would be lowered and a Zodiac cruise in amongst the ice would take place! We bundled ourselves up in warm clothes and lined up at the gangway, german speaking first, in eager anticipation of this unique event. It was a magical experience slowly cruising in amongst the floating floes of ice, spotting Ivory gulls every few minutes as well as Little auk, Kittiwake and Skuas of varying ilk. Just before we went back to the ship Andrew drove over to a nice piece of ice the bridge had spotted and following his lead we all landed our zodiacs onto the ice and got out for a quick walk! What a great time, floating on a large piece of sea ice in the Arctic ocean!
We eventually returned to Plancius where Andre and Cecile greeted us with a hot chocolate and a dash of rum if we wanted. What a great end to a long day in the ice. From there Captain turned the ship south and back into the darkening sky and after a quick briefing about tomorrows plans we enjoyed another delightful dinner prepared by Chef Ralf and the team. Following this some of us retired to the bar while most of us crawled into our bunks to prepare for Andrews predicted early wake up call the coming morning.
Andrew’s wake-up call came at around 06.00 containing good news: It looked like “Plan A“ might be working! During the night Plancius had repositioned towards Kvitøya, the “White Island“, and indeed there was a dome of snow and ice rising from the sea in front of the ship. The ice cap Kvitøyjøkulen almost completely covers the island. The wind had gone to sleep, and we ventured to the Lounge for a quick and light breakfast of snacks, coffee or tea.
Soon it was time to dress warmly – the Zodiacs were already waiting for us. The small flottilla then approached the island, aiming for a place called Andréeneset, named after Salomon August Andrée. He and two other expedition members had spent their final time here when in 1897, his attempt to reach the North Pole by hot-air balloon failed. The balloon had crash landed on the sea ice, and then men were forced to walk across the ice until they reached Kvitøya, a place almost too barren to imagine. Weeks later the men had died, and their remains were found only in 1930.
Unfortunately, the swell at the landing site forced us to retreat. We zipped along the shore in our sturdy rubber boats, and we got good views of a polar bear patrolling the rocky shoreline. Aiming for the opposite direction, we then found a small bay with favourable conditions for a very quick landing – we had set foot on Kvitøya! Much to our delight, there were even some walrus frolicking in the water. Happy with the achievement of the morning, we did not mind the somewhat bumpy ride back to the ship as we knew there would be breakfast and a hot shower waiting for us.
During breakfast, Plancius was on the move again. We left Kvitøya behind and set course towards Nordaustlandet. The nearer it drew, the bigger grew the ice edge of Austfonna, the glacier cap covering the whole island. Alas, wind and waves had picked up too, and by the time the Captain had carefully and cautiously manoeuvered Plancius into position, the unpredictable swell proved too much for safe operations of the gangway. Another change of plans – no zodiac cruise at Isispynten but a ship’s cruise along the ice edge instead!
The ice edge with a total length of about 170 km treated us to magnificent views with fantastic cloud formations overhead, and to a myriad of details in the ice. It was not easy at all to decide whether to stay outside or listen to Christian’s very informative talk about Kvitøya and Andrée. In the afternoon Captain Alexey Nazarov took Plancius even closer to the glacier front, and many of us witnessed pieces of ice breaking off and tumbling down.
At recap Katja and Gérard told us about Spitsbergen’s glaciers and the surge of Bråsvellbreen at our very location. Sandra introduced us to the truth behind scientific bird names, and Andrew looked ahead to tomorrow – there was another very exciting day to come, hopefully with Walrus galore! The beautiful evening light after dinner was tempting even though it had been a long day for most of us – and what a great one …
Some of us woke early in anticipation of having views of the waterfalls coming off the Bråsvellbreen glacier. Although certainly this spectacular sight exits we instead were met with a snow squall and fog. Back to bed for some, others stayed up enjoying the early morning quiet. The good ship Plancius sailed on towards Torellneset where we hoped to disembark and take in views of walrus ashore. Strong winds and swell altered our plans yet again. We were able to see the walrus bundled together on the beach 10 or 12 individuals all together, not seeming to mind the crashing surf and winds of 30-35 knots. However, these conditions were not safe for us to attempt a landing.
Andrew and Captain conferenced over further options for the day and we changed course to ship cruise the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. As it would take some time to get there Katja presented a lecture on climate change in both English and German. Fresh snow dotted areas of the dolerite cliffs and the guillemots and kittiwakes clung to the rock ledges or soared through the air as fierce winds still prevailed.
After lunch we arrived in Faksevågen on the west side of Lomfjord, we were greeted with blue skies and calm waters. Finally we have the chance to stretch our legs! Some headed out on the long walk, others trekked along at a medium pace and distance.
Both of these groups attained a small amount of altitude for a view of the bay and glacial valleys. A small group of reindeer are also observed nibbling on the limited vegetation available in the arctic tundra. The wind is quite strong and cold coming off the glaciers and we did not stay long at the viewpoints. A third group took to wandering the lower regions inspecting the flora and listening to the master story teller Henryk. We head back to the warm of Plancius for tea and recap. Enjoying beautiful sunlight on the snow dusted landscape.
At recap Andrew introduced the idea of heading back to Wahlbergoya to view the walrus post supper. As we neared the sight a little after 8pm (just after desert was served) we scouted the shore line only to see they “weren’t home”. The outside conditions were still quite fresh with 20+ knots of wind and continued steep swell. Aborting this mission in the zodiacs we headed for our next destination for following day’s excursions only to be stopped by the walrus in the water! 6-7 individuals right off the bow, sometimes only 10 metres away. The ship held position for almost an hour and those that braved the wind on deck had great views. What a surprise and great ending to a full day.
The day dawned misty-eyed and rosy-cheeked. A low layer of cloud cover stretched out over the sky, tendrils of wind sweeping at the sea. A landing was expected to take place at Kapp Waldburg, a canyon where hundreds of kittiwakes make their nests up on the cliffs. Also a place where bears wander the empty wasteland in search of such nests to plunder. Keen eyes scouted the shoreline, as first one bear was spotted but still rather far away from the landing site. All’s well! Shouted our intrepid leader Andrew. A scurry was made to start lowering zodiacs and start the morning operations. Alas! Another bear was spotted, on the glacier edge to the left of the preferred landing spot. And yet another! Another bear, this time wandering right along the shore towards the canyon, most likely having popped up from the moraine nearby. Okay, to the zodiacs! Shouted Andrew once again. This time for a cruise! As well as the bears, there were also plenty of reindeer around to keep one entertained. Several arctic Skuas and some purple sandpipers were spotted as well.
Alas, the bear was rather far inward of the canyon and hard to spot for some. The bear was however trying his very best to snatch up some kind of breakfast from the cliff walls. Not to be disappointed the aforementioned glacier was not far off, and with several calving’s and plenty of clear beautiful glacial ice chunks floating about, there was enough activity to stave off any boredom. To the contrary! T’was an exciting cruise, with many a happy passenger smiling from ear to ear. Time to head back to the ship, and stuff our little tummies with Chef Ralf’s kitchen goodness….
As the afternoon crept up, so did the wind as we made our way towards our afternoon landing, Dunérbukta, located on the east side of the main island Spitsbergen, across the way from Freemansundet and our morning escapades. Nevertheless, we bravely entered the zodiacs and had a wonderful time ashore exploring the barren polar landscape, a very dry and arid region replete with lichens and rocks and not very much else. However a wonderful time was had by all, as evidenced by rosy cheeked grins all around as we made our way back to shore and the zodiacs, and back to the ship in time for our evening recap.
Katja and Henryk regaled us with tales of daring-do, walrus biology and their reproduction habits including some rather interesting photos of their large extremities. But wait! Before we headed into the lounge, a small fin whale showed up to create a fuss and delay! A very nice one it was, short but very sweet. Soon it was time again to fill up with a fantastic dinner served by our culinary team, and then! Just in time to interrupt our fantastical gorging several humpback whales showed up, surfacing and diving near the ship. Likely feeding on krill and other small schooling fish in the water. Fulmars and Kittiwakes followed their progress, symbiotically benefiting from the whales efforts. This wonderful wildlife sighting certainly provided us all with a show, as it was the first time of the voyage we had encounter whales so close. After an hour of viewing we left the whales to their dinner and changed course for the following day’s excursions, as the evening wore on we slowly headed off to our cabins to catch up on rest and slowly drifted off into dreams of bears and walruses…
Due to the time spent viewing the humpback whales the evening prior, we were not on time for the morning excursion in Hornsund. Secondly, the wind had picked up during night and Plancius slowed down facing 30+ knots wind. As we entered the fjord, the waves and wind dropped enough to allow us to plan a zodiac cruise in East Burgerbukta. Around 11:00am we started to board the zodiacs and cruised along the shoreline to get protection by the mountains. There were several small icebergs stranded along the shore. With an overcast sky, the ice was looking bluer than it would have with a perfect sun shine. As we arrived deeper in the bay, the mountain was not providing protection anymore and the gusts of wind were much stronger. The waves against the zodiac created much spray no matter daft the driver was, thus many of were a little wet when we finally approached the glacier front. We stopped at a safe distance from the glacier face and stayed for a moment hoping to see the glacier to calve. Our wish was granted. We saw a big chunk of ice falling down and making a huge splash of water and a large swell slowly coming towards us. On our way back, we passed by an immense iceberg for Spitsbergen, however small in comparison to the ice found around Greenland.
After lunch, Plancius moved to Gåshamna for a landing, Andrew's plan A for the afternoon.
The wind was too strong and the waves too big to ensure safe operations at the gangway. Plan B was to do a ship's cruise in Brepollen, where there are several glacier fronts. However, the wind was so strong that it would have been risky to open outside decks, thus ship cruising was not such a great option. The only solution was to go back to the same place as the morning excursion, in East Burgerbukta. This time the goal was a landing near a small glacier. We landed on a pebble beach and split into three groups. The first group climbed the ridge of a glacial moraine, the terrain indicated how much the ice had receded in the last few decades. They finish their hike by coming down onto the glacier for a few steps before arriving at their starting point. The second group did a shorter partial loop on the moraine. As they arrived at the top, they spotted some belugas in the bay. They returned back by the same way, hoping to watch them closer. The third group did a more leisurely walk along the shore. As they heard the news of the belugas, they also approached this location to see them. An Arctic fox was also sighted foraging on the remains of a polar bear carcass. Not much was left of the bear, just bits of sinew, but the fox seemed quite pleased with his little meal. By 17:30, it was time to everyone to come back on board, and out of the chilling wind.
Once on board, Andrew presented his plans for tomorrow and also told us of this evening’s surprise: a barbecue on the aft deck. The crew had prepared canvas covers to make a kind of shelter from the wind and we were able to enjoy grilled meat and corn without getting cold too quickly. There was also music, so some stayed after dinner for a dance party. The limbo stick was brought out and several talented characters twisted their bodies in an effort to bring said stick lower and lower until a defining champion was achieved. A very entertaining end to the day!
We woke yet again to Andrew’s wake up call, short and consice we learned what we already could feel. Wind, overcast skies and a lively ocean. We were headed to Poolepynten in hopes of having the opportunity to land with Walrus. In the shelter of Prins Karls Forland the wind and waves reduced and we felt optimistic. Although conditions proved suitable for a landing, a thourough scouting from the staff on the bridge and outer decks deamed that no one was “home”on the beach. Making a quick turn to the south we headed for our afternoon destination of Alkhornet. Our final landing where we hope to have a leisurely chance to take in the arctic wild. Our voyage is coming to an end and small bits of housekeeping must be taken care of. Account settlements, a little light packing, photo and email sharing and preparations for departure are made.
After a quick lunch we arrived at Alkhornet, many reindeer were spotted from the ship and lingered as we broke into our four hiking groups with the plan to go on a guided hike for half the excursion and then free roam in a perimeter established by the guides.
The conditions were calm with little wind and even some patches of blue sky and sunshine. Not long into the hike however a polar bear was spotted by the long walkers headed in our direction. They made a quick retreat back to the landing site as did all other groups. We loaded efficiently into the zodiacs and back to the ship. Some took a quick polar dip before climbing into the zodiacs, as the bear was not a pressing threat just a sign that we were not intented to land there. We let the bear have her space. Back on board the mightly Plancius, Andrew and Captain schemed a new plan to transit not far to Ymerbukta in hopes of still capturing the last hours of the afternoon light in the tundra. Almost everyone geared back up and headed out. The guides scouted and set up a perimeter for us to freely wander. Almost a dozen reindeer were spotted, arctic skua, barnacle geese, and some were lucky enough to spot an arctic fox that transited the tundra and down the beach just were we had landed!
Soon it was time to head back to the ship, and prepare for Captain’s cocktail and our final dinner aboard Plancius. Tonight we also meet the culinary team, cabin stewards and laundry queens that have provided us with so many luxeries. The waters are calm, skies soft with clouds and we blissfully head to Longyearbyen in anticipation of new escapades. A day full of unexpected adventures in true expedition style.
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: 1,430 Nautical miles, 2,648 Kilometres
Furthest North Point: 81° 31, 1’ N, 022° 23,7 ‘E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Alexey Nazarov, Expedition Leader Andrew Bishop, Hotel Manager André van der Haak and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.