PLA14-17, trip log, Around Spitsbergen & Kvitøya
30.08.2017 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Some of us had just arrived at the Longyearbyen airport on this sleepy Sunday. Others had already had a few hours to explore Spitsbergen’s small capital city, visiting the museum and the church. At 16.00 we were able to finally board M/V Plancius. Christian, our Expedition Leader, greeted us on the pier and we took the first steps up the gangway into the ship.
Once on board, we were welcomed by Hotel Manager Sebastian. 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 familiar with the inside of the ship, as this will be our home for the next nine days.
We were soon gathered in the observation lounge to be briefed about safety on board. The briefing was held by First Officer Artur 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 to the lifeboats hoping to never actually have to use them again. During this time, Plancius got off the pier and started sailing into Adventfjorden.
After a short break to enjoy this scenic navigation, Christian invited us for another briefing about life on board. We as passengers are a very multicultural/international group. All orientation material is given bilingual in both German and English. Sebastian introduced us to the interiours of the ship, hotel operations and dining room edict and Christian introduced the expedition team. Captain Evgeny joined us in the lounge 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.
After dinner, the staff called us to get our rubber boots which we will use when disembarking from the Zodiacs during this voyage.
Most of us were eager to get out on deck to enjoy the arctic light and views of Northern Fulmars, Kittiwakes and some Whale blows in the distance. An exciting first day came to an end, the start of many more adventures to come in the following week.
Early in the morning we heard Sandra’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.
After having breakfast 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 headquartes in the coastal town of Ålesund, thus the name Ny Ålesund (New Ålesund). Once a mining village, now Ny Ålesund is a research centre. Since 1964 this northernmost settlement is housing several scientific stations of different nationalities.
As soon as we got off the ship we were welcomed by a juvenile arctic fox wearing its summer fur, it was a wonderful start. We walked around the settlement for some time, a permanent home for about 40 people the whole year around, and increasing to around 100 during the busy summer months. Some of us visited the museum, the post office and the gift shop before gathering by the Amundsen bust to start a historical tour with the tales of the expedition staff. We made a walk from the bust to the mast and learned about Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, and his expedition on the airship Norge which became the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926.
During the stroll we also got to see barnacle geese, common eiders and even a harbour seal resting not very far away.
Back at Plancius the lunch was waiting for us in th restaurant which could be enjoyed while the ship repositioned to go further north. After a good meal we attended the mandatory briefing about zodiac operations and polar bear safety.
In the afternoon we sailed through the scenic Sørgattet channel, which separates West Spitsbergen from Danskøya (Danish Island). While watching the beautiful surroundings from the ship, we were surprised to suddendly hear the announcement “There is a polar bear on land!”. Our Expedition Leader Christian announced that we will be going on a zodiac cruise to try to get a better view of that bear. And so we did! Cruising the coastline with the zodiacs we spotted not only one, but two polar bears! The reason for such an encounter was a sperm whale carcass which had been lying by the coast of Danskøya for quite a while now. The light could not have been better, defining the silhouette of the bear while we kept on clicking.
We spent around two hours enjoying the bears before we had to return to our floating home. Gathering in the lounge we were ready for the recap of this amazing first day full of wildlife as well as talk about the plans for tomorrow.
After a delicious dinner, we went to bed excitingly looking forward to a new expedition day!
After a pleasant night of sleep we were woken up once more by Sandra, and got ready for a delicious breakfast. In the meantime, Plancius was making her approach to the Sjuøyane group, the Seven Islands. These remote islands are hard to reach and form the northern most part of Spitsbergen. They were discovered by the English captain Constantine Phipps in 1773. He was comander of an expedition onboard the oddly named ships Carcass and Racehorse. The later famous Horatio Nelson was onboard the Carcass as a young midshipman. The legend says that one day he escaped with a friend to hunt a polar bear, missed the shot, and as the polar bear was getting closer, he tried to defend himself with the back side of the gun, using it as a club, the odds were not on his side. But luckily, for both Nelson and the bear, the ice floe where they were standing, cracked open and split in two, leaving the bear on one side and Nelson on the other. The ship shot a gunfire, the bear escaped and Nelson was rescued safe and sound.
Plancius made her way between the islands and dropped anchor. Our Expedition Leader, Christian, and other staff members left in two zodiacs to scout for bears on the shores of Phippsøya Island. After a good search by the staff, we went on land in this Arctic desert, and divided into three groups doing, a long, a medium and a leisure walk. We had the chance to see the small vegetation growing between the rocks and enjoy the fantastic views of the high Arctic. From a ridge on the island we could see the sea and the ice to the north, at this very end of the world, there was nothing between us and the North Pole.
We made it back to the ship for a nice warm lunch and repositioned towards Reliktbukta, on the north side of Nordaustland. This place rarely gets visitors and it is a perfect example of polar desert.
We divided into four groups, the more energetic ones went on a steep fast climb to the top of a hill, where they enjoyed fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. The others got divided in groups and had a very nice walk in the Arctic desert. There were a few Kittiwakes flying around and we saw a polar fox walking on the plain, it was so confident that it even approached us a bit to check us out.
The light was magnificent, the sun shining in an angle making it perfect for photo opportunities. Excellent way to finish a truly Arctic day.
We woke up to a calm, foggy morning. After a lovely breakfast we were ready for a new adventurous day in the archipelagos of Svalbard. Despite the calm wind conditions, strong currents carrying drift ice along the ship made it more challenging to board the zodiacs this morning. With all guests and crew finally distributed in the zodiacs, we slowly approached Karl XII Øya making our way between the drifting ice sheets. This island is named after the King of Sweden who ruled from 1682-1718.
In the 19th century Karl XII consisted of two separate islands, since then a gravel ridge or a “tombolo” has grown connecting the two, and this is where we landed today. The northern part of the island is a steep rock tower with some bird colonies nesting on the cliffside with little to no vegetation. We had to take special care to look out for polar bears and be prepared to board the zodiacs at every moment due to the small size of this island and therefore greater risk of a polar bear suddenly appearing. After exploring and collecting plastic along the beach, we boarded the zodiacs again and got back to Plancius where our Hotel Manager, Sebastian, was ready with our delicious lunch.
Some rest is always needed to be ready for new impressions as well as time to sail to a new location. In the afternoon Plancius entered Albertinibukta named after a rescuer who was part of an Italian rescue expedition in search for survivors of a polar expedition lead by the explorer Nobile.
We were met by the astonishing glacier, Schweigaardbreen, and got ready for a zodiac cruise in the cold. Slowly drifting between ice bergs with shades of blue colour and having this wall of the glacier in the background, the atmosphere was magical. We had a moment of silence turning off the engines and just listening to the sound of ice bergs rocking in the water. A curious bearded seal caught our attention for a moment before suddenly we heard a loud bouldering noise of the glacier starting to calve. Just a pre warning this time, but still a spectacular moment!
Back on the ship we were served hot chocolate to everyone’s excitement, quite a pleasure after staying out in the arctic cold for a while. During the recap session Sandra and Christian explained the difference between the types of ice found around Spitsbergen and what we can expect of ice around Kvitøya. Valeria taught us the reason why the ice we observed today is blue, and with that we had plenty of impressions to digest for today.
Christian woke us up at 7:30 am. We could all feel the ship bumping into the floes as Plancius entered some pack ice. The weather gods were not on our side today, a thin layer of fog was covering the sea, making the visibility very low. Despite the weather conditions, the expedition staff started scouting the pack ice with binoculars hoping to spot a bear close by. We were fascinated by how Plancius slowly found her way between the ice floes which were covered with a clean layer of perfectly white snow.
From time to time, the fog vanished for a short moment, giving us a view over a larger area of pack ice. Despite the efforts of the expedition staff continuously scanning the area of pack ice, no polar bear was spotted during the whole morning. However, many seals and some polar bear footprints were observed.
After lunch, the Hotel Manager organised the "ship shop". We had the opportunity to buy souvenirs of Plancius and the Arctic, like fluffy polar bears, post cards, sweaters, magnets, books and other articles.
Since still no polar bears were spotted by 2:30 pm, Christian called us to join Gérard in the restaurant to attend a lecture about the king of the Arctic. He talked about the habitat, behaviour and breeding cycle of polar bears before going on about their threats, including hunting and pollution.
Later in the afternoon, the fog was still dense and Captain stopped the ship for a while, so that he could get a bit of rest. Hotel Manager Sebastian offered us a "Happy Hour", meaning all drinks were half price!
During dinner time, the fog vanised, and together with Christian Captain decided to continue our course into the pack ice. The whole staff team started again scouting carefully all floes in hope for a bear. After less than two hours, Miriam finally spotted one on a very large floe. We could observe this bear walking towards the ship. Captain slowly “parked” Plancius besides the floe. The bear reacted to this sound and stopped approaching. Nevertheless, we were able to watch it and to take many photos of this healthy male in beautiful sunset colours. A very good ending of a long (no visibility) day in the fog.
Last night our dreams were interrupted a few times. At 2:30 am Christian made an announcement that the polar bear that we saw last night was approaching the ship, and many of us jumped out of their bed for the opportunity to see the bear close by. At 6:40 am it was Sandra’s chance to wake us up, on our way to Kvitøya we had spotted two more bears on a big ice floe and parked the ship towards the ice to have a better look at them. It was definitely an excellent way to start our day.
After breakfast we arrived at Kvitøya, more specifically Andréeneset, the only landing site on this ice-covered remote island. Christian told us about the plans and what the chances were for a landing on the island. It was a bit windy and quite cold, the arctic weather was showing its real spirit now.
We started with a Zodiac cruise alongside the barren coast and very soon we spotted our first polar bear. Then we continued our way towards the monument that commemorates Andrée’s ill-fated expedition, and spotted the second one. It was a bear sleeping about 500 metres from the landing site. We left two zodiacs on watch at all times on the bear to make sure that it would remain sleeping, and managed to land everyone for about 5 to 10 minutes near the monument. It felt good to set foot on the rarely visited Kvitøya Island.
During the final part of our cruise we encountered a female with two cubs of about one and a half years. They were standing on a high outcrop, and we had fantastic views from the Zodiacs. After almost three hours of Zodiac cruising and landing, we returned to the ship, cold, but very happy. Back on the ship it was time to set sail towards Austfonna.
After lunch some of us went down for a little rest, and a little rest it was as very soon Christian announced that we had spotted another bear on the sea ice! Plancius approached very slowly to another extraordinary encounter. Short time after, another announcement, but this time of a walrus in the ice!
Plancius made her way slowly through the ice and immense was our surprise when we saw that instead of one single walrus, there were a mum and a calf, and this one was breastfeeding! Later we learnt that it was a very special sighting as females with calves tend to stay farther east.
An exiting day was coming to an end, a lot of sightings to digest and memory cards full of pictures, but still there was one more surprise for the day! After dinner, late in the evening around 10 pm, we arrived to the large ice front of Austfonna – the largest glacier front of Europe. Amazing! Even some calvings we could observe before we fell into our beds, looking forward to the next day to come.
Today’s wake up call announced that we were sailing into Freemansund, the stretch of water that separates Barentsøya from Edgeøya. After breakfast, Christian informed us that we would give it a go for the morning landing in Kapp Waldburg, in the northern part of Barentsøya. Despite its bad fame regarding strong tidal currents, Freemansund was very calm and pleasant at our intended landing site.
As soon as we were on shore a polar fox greeted us. Once we were all landed, we started a hike towards the Kittiwake colony on the cliff, we could already hear them from the coastline. We walked into the canyon where the nesting cliffs were, and we had a first hand encounter with them. There were juveniles practicing their first flights, but the adults were still feeding them. Meanwhile, at the foot of the cliff, the foxes wandered waiting for a good meal to fall from the sky, and so it happened more than once. Life and death in the same place.
Some of us then started a short hike to the upper part of the cliff and on the other side of the canyon where more foxes and great views of the inside the canyon followed. These foxes were certainly the highlight of the morning!
Back on the ship we had lunch while the ship was repositioned for the afternoon landing, another go in Freemansund! This time we were setting foot on Sundneset, also on Barentsøya. The place, as many on eastern Svalbard, is a common area for polar bears where they get “trapped” being too late for reaching the sea ice to go up North. That’s why our guides made a perimeter for us to freely wander within. The weather was once more on our side, sunshine kept us warm while we walked on the tundra. As we approached Miriam to have a good look at some whalebones, we also encountered a reindeer grazing, another highlight of the day!
It was hard to leave Sundneset as we were enjoying it so much! Before boarding the zodiacs, many of us contributed with some garbage collection. Unfortunately, being in a remote place, currents still bring human waste of modern societies to the Arctic. We loaded a full zodiac with garbage, which made us reconsider our daily actions at home…
Back on the ship we gathered for the daily recap and plans for the following day. We also learned that the area we would navigate towards is excellent for whale spotting. Dinner was not even over when we heard Christian’s announcement, there were whale blows everywhere! We rushed to the outer decks to enjoy the show of the Finwhales with perfect light enhancing the spouts. After an hour watching the whales that surrounded us, amongst which there were some Minkewhales as well, we went to the bar to have our pending desert that the hotel staff so kindly had brought up from the restaurant. We couldn’t ask for a better ending for another wonderful day!
Today we went ashore in Gåshamna (“Goose Bay”) where we again divided into four groups, of which one was a faster group hiking up a mountain along a quite steep path. The others were walking around on the flat terrain near the beach and by the foot of the mountain.
Some Bowheadwhale skulls and bones were lying around with green moss growing around them using them as shelter for wind and source of nutrients. This sight used to be a place for handling whales during the peak of the whaling time in Spitsbergen. Remains of old ovens where also seen, used to boil the whale blubber for extracting precious oil.
All the groups walked around on this sight getting told some history by the guides about the whaling time and what was actually happening on this beach. We were careful not to step on any of the remains, whale bones or the moss, as it is all protected. It was strange observing the bones of these majestic creatures and hearing about how much pain they usually went through before dying.
After letting the stories sink in, the leisure group moved towards the beach again for a small zodiac cruise while waiting for the others to come back from their hikes. We observed some young Kittiwakes relaxing on some rocks along the shore and we also spotted some Puffins flying around with their special flying technique. Suddenly a Humpback whale appeared quite close to the zodiac and we observed it for a while as it dove down and came up again several times before leaving it and heading back to the ship.
After lunch we were ready again by the gangway to board the zodiacs for an afternoon cruise in one of the fjords in Burgerbukta. As we slowly moved in 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. Some of the snow quite far up had a pink colour due to snow algae growing on top of the snow. In the end of the fjord there was a glacier, Praierlbreen, where we had to take care manoeuvring around the ice bergs and small pieces of ice floating around. We could clearly see how the front of the glacier had traces of recent calving, and now and then loud noise disrupted the silence reminding us of the forces lying in this natural phenomenon. We were also lucky to spot a bearded seal trying to get onto an ice flake without success. Instead it was showing off diving down and appearing again.
Back at Plancius the kitchen had arranged a BBQ on the after deck for people to enjoy food and free drinks either outside or inside the restaurant. Of course it had to start raining as soon as we got on board again after the zodiac cruise, but despite the weather conditions we all had a great time. The deck was cleared and a real arctic disco was started up for people to join, dancing in their hiking boots. Quite some dance moves were to be seen amongst both crew and passengers. It could not have been a better place for a disco with view of the surrounding mountains and sea. It was a great way to end another long day of beautiful sightings.
We had arrived to Bellsund at the western coast of Spitsbergen. This morning we aimed for a landing at Midterhuken. The autumn-coloured wet – in the true sense of the word, since it was raining – tundra here was stunning and the Bog Saxifrage (Saxifraga hircules) was smiling at us in many places.
Separated in our normal groups, we started our hikes. The “mountain goats” were aiming for the steep mountain cliffs, which actually were easier to reach from the backside of Midterhuken. At the top they enjoyed a couple of black-legged Kittiwakes and Puffins flying by, while the beautiful fjord view was veiled by the rain and fog. On the way back they were lucky to spot a pair of Rock Ptarmigans.
The enjoyers and the medium groups were, beside the fresh tundra, enjoying the bird life around and the interesting permafrost patterns. The Polar Cress (Cardamine nymanii) was spotted and a little cabin was captured on many cameras.
On the way back to Plancius we made a little zodiac cruise along the coastline and could observe a bird cliff with black-legged Kittiwakes before it was time for lunch back on board.
In the afternoon it was time for our last landing in the Recherchefjord close to the Recherche glacier. On this beautiful piece of arctic ground, strictly speaking a little peninsula, we were able to “move freely” again within a perimeter. The guides were scouting in the area in a large circle around us, and we could move our legs in the direction and the speed we wanted to, enjoying the landscape and picture taking.
Most of us walked over to the other side where we could get a great view of the Recherche glacier that, despite the rain, was still very impressive. Many bergy bits of different sizes were floating around in the water and some of them were stranded on the beach – a perfect picture subject. Arctic Terns, Skuas and Kittiwakes were flying by as well.
A little later a couple of brave people, especially the female passengers, were jumping into the arctic water for a so-called “polar-plunge”, before it was time to say goodbye and return to Plancius and start sailing towards Longyearbyen.
The last evening had arrived, however, it was still a very diverse evening with the Captain´s cocktail speach, a last delicious dinner in the restaurant and last but not least the return of the rubber boots. Now it was time to pack the suitcases!
After the breakfast, well for some of us already before the breakfast in the middle of the night, it was time to say goodbye – to the fantastic days on board Plancius, from the team, from new found friends…
After a last zodiac ride to the harbour, the busses were already waiting for us, and the little blue expedition ship that became a home for us in the last two weeks had to be left behind while we were driving to the airport to continue our voyage or travel home.
We will never forget this voyage and its unforgettable moments which were - also for the globetrotter among us - an amazing adventure with unique impressions of the Svalbard arctic archipelago. We definitively know now how it feels to get infected by the polar virus the expedition team was talking about. The one or the other is already planning in his mind the next travel to the far North, or maybe the far South.
Thank you very much for this wonderful voyage, for your flexibility and enthusiasm. We are looking forward to see you back on board at any time - in the North, the South or somewhere in between!
Travelled distance on our voyage: Nautical Miles: 1100
Northernmost Position: 80°43 N / 020°00 E
On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Evgeny, Expedition Leader Christian Engelke, Hotel Manager Sebastian Duma and the rest of crew and staff on board MV Plancius:
We wish you all the best and a good voyage home!