PLA14-18, trip log, Around Spitsbergen, Kvitoya

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation in Longyearbyen

Embarkation in Longyearbyen
Date: 20.08.2018
Position: 78° 14.0’ N / 015° 37.1’ E
Wind: N 1
Weather: light overcast
Air Temperature: +9

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 first got on board M/V Plancius via zodiac, this would be our first ride of many for the voyage. We arrived at the ship, our new home for the next nine days. We were greeted by our Expedition leader, Christian, and Hotel manager, Zsuzsanna, proficiently we were shown to our cabins with our luggage already waiting for us. We soon gathered in the observation lounge where we were briefed about safety on board. The briefing was held by the Third Officer who presented details of 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. Back in the lounge 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. Later that evening Christian invited us for another briefing, now about life on board and introduced the Expedition team ready to explore the wilderness with us. The evening was a delight of an elongated sunset over the northern arctic waters. Many of us were out on deck spotting the birdlife, Northern fulmars, kittiwake gulls and a few puffins were noted. The highlight however were two blue whales feeding out in the sound. The officers on the bridge navigated the ship respectfully around the whales. Giving us an opportunity to photograph, but more importantly simply view the whales. Observing and absorbing this amazing experience. A fantastic first introduction to what Svalbard has to offer.

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

Kongsfjorden: Ny-Ålesund & Ny-London
Date: 21.08.2018
Position: 78° 56.1‘N, 011° 55.4‘E
Wind: E 1
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +4

Early in the morning we awoke to Expedition leader Christian’s voice, giving us our first wake up call, and with it 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 into Kongsfjorden in front of the very scenic glacier Kongsvegen. After having breakfast, we attended the mandatory briefing about zodiac operations and polar bear safety. Thereafter, 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. Home to roughly 13 different countries conducting polar studies. Some of us visited the museum, the post office and the gift shop before gathering by the Amundsen bust. Amundsen is a famous Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach South Pole in 1912. He lead many other polar expeditions, but here in Ny Ålesund is where he began the expedition on the airship Norge, which became the first to fly over the North Pole in 1926. Amundsen disappeared in 1928 while attempting to rescue Nobile's failed expedition on the Italia. We started out for a short walk out across the tundra to the mast used to anchor the Zeppelins. Gerard told us the life of Amundsen and the story behind his explorations here in the north. We took the time to enjoy the nice scenery of the King's Bay, spotting several harbour seals both on land and in the water, Common eider ducks and arctic terns foraging in the nutrient rich waters. Immediately after lunch, we were ready to disembark at the northern side of Kongsfjorden, in a place named Ny London. We have the opportunity to walk around two old buildings, several foundations and the remains of railway lines with old steam boilers and drills. All these remains were built between 1910 and 1913 by a company owned by Ernest Mansfield. The original idea was to exploit the marble veins on this small island, but it proved to be a failed dream as the quality of the marble was very poor. We split into three different groups: long, medium, and contemplative. All visit the historic site and then some of us headed to the highlands of the island, others to a fresh water pond, were a couple of Red-throated Divers nests were observed as well as many purple sandpipers feeding on the shores. Although the summer bloom was coming to an end the tundra still held a few respectable flowers from the moss companion and yellow saxifrage. A long tailed Skua was observed on the at the end of this walk, greeting us on the beach as we donned our life jackets to return to the ship. The weather was superb, a bit of warm sunshine and a gentle breeze creating the atmosphere of a true Arctic late summers day.

Day 3: Hinlopen Strait: Alkefjellet & Torellneset

Hinlopen Strait: Alkefjellet & Torellneset
Date: 22.08.2018
Position: 79° 50.0‘N, 017° 59.0‘E
Wind: N 2
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +5

The bright nights of the Arctic constantly create new sights and reasons to stay out on deck. The night before hand, we had yet again stayed up late to observe the passing of historically pertinent Smeerenburg and Virgohamna. It was worth it, sleep can be done at home. Spitsbergen was showing a landscape of steep mountains, the same sight as the first explorers saw and the reason for giving it this name. The barren sight of Smeerenburg didn’t give much evidence of the gloomy history of what had taken place here hundreds of years ago. This is the most well-known whaling station from the 17th century, where seven Dutch companies from different towns conducted whale slaughtering and oil extraction from the blubber operations. We also passed Virgohamna where the Swedish polar explorer Andrées started his expedition in 1897 to cross the North pole via air balloon, which tragically ended in Kvitøya, a small island covered in ice-cap to the northeast. In the morning we arrived at Alkefjellet, an area in Hinlopen famous for its steep cliffs inhabiting Brünnich’s Guillemots breeding colonies. With strong winds and waves crushing towards the cliffs and bouncing back creating a very confused and chopping sea, it was decided a ships cruise was the best solution for observing this amazing sight. Similar to a skyscraper with many levels, life towered from the waters edge high into the sky. The birds were keeping their young side by side on the cliff edges, the parents taking turns in bringing food back to feed them. At this time a year most of them have already made the “leap of faith” off the cliff side into the water and have started feeding for themselves. We spotted some of these chicks in the water, most likely together with their father. Arctic foxes were also present, having found this area a literal buffet of either eggs or young chicks depending on the season. We observed several running after each other along the steep green slopes in display of territorial dominance or just a little wicked fun. The foxes proved quite difficult to spot and the “find the fox” game kept on lasting until everyone had at least seen one. The geology of these cliffs is also quite a fascinating story of these dolerite rock formations lying within the scenery. After lunch and some time to warm up inside the ship, we headed to Torellneset where a colony of walruses were waiting for us on the beach. The Expedition team went ahead before us, scouting for polar bears and assessing the temperament of the walrus before we could go ashore. We were divided into two groups to optimize our time with the walruses, walking slowly towards them and keeping our noise level down to a minimum. As we got nearer, some of the walruses came up to us from the water inquisitively “checking us out”. They were very curious and stretched their necks up higher to see us better, as their eyesight is so poor. Amazing creatures, so comfortable in the water playing around. What an experience getting this close to them! That evening we passed by Bråsvellbreen and Austfonna on the eastern side of Nordaustlandet. Observing the blue blue icebergs, towering waterfalls off the ice-edge and a few marine mammals either lounging on the ice or swimming in the water. Farther than the eye can see, for over 170 km the ice edge stretched making Austfonna the second largest icecap in the northern hemisphere, subsequent only to Greenland.

Day 4: Kvitøya, North to the ice

Kvitøya, North to the ice
Date: 23.08.2018
Position: 80° 03.6‘N, 030° 55.1‘E
Wind: W 2
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

Overnight we had sailed from the glorious evening views of Bråsvellbreen and Austfonna, towards Kvitøya. A light gentle swell and clear skies greeted us as we arrived. The top of the icecap was clearly visible and as we approached closer, the Expedition team were already spotting bears, both on the glacier and the small rocky beach outcrop known as Andréeneset. Kvitøya or “White island” is 99% covered in an icecap. The island is historically relevant as it was made most famous by the tragic Swedish balloon expedition led by Salomon August Andrée, which in 1897 that had crash landed on the sea ice in an attempt to reach the north pole. The men of the expedition were able to traverse the ice and finally reach the small 5 km stretch of beach, yet sadly they did not prevail the first weeks ashore, their remains were not found until 1930. Now, the island is home only to a few nesting arctic terns and the Lord of the North, the Polar bear. After breakfast, we steadied our sea legs and headed for a zodiac cruise in hopes of a closer view of the bears we had already sighted. The swell at the gangway was quite high, but with the skill of the drivers and sailors on the gangway we were able to load safely. Once we all had boarded the zodiacs we headed off in a convoy to view one the bears sleeping on the western side of the beach. This was our first close sighting of the voyage outside of the Longyearbyen airport. Although the bear was resting it was a magnificent site. We continued on around the coast and found many walruses hauled out on the rocky islets there were many additionally swimming in the water. Upon our cautious approach the animals seemed a little nervous at first, but this was more likely due to the Polar bear we spotted half in the water looking hungrily at the walrus. The bear seemed thoroughly frustrated and after walking around a bit succumbed to a resting position, viewing a dinner that was unattainable. Meanwhile our zodiacs were surrounded 360˚ with wildlife, walrus approaching in the water, birds overhead, bears on the beach (a second had been spotted resting not far from the first). Truly a fortunate day at Kvitøya. After nearly two and half hours in the boats we were starting to feel a chill and the wind was picking up, we headed back to Plancius where lunch awaited, as well as warm tea and hot showers. In the afternoon we had some time to rest, as the ship was sailing north to be in the ice for the following day. Christian gave a presentation on the Andrée expedition, and Sandra presented tips on photography in the arctic and the ice. Lectures were given in both English and German so we could all benefit. Later recap was to be held in the lounge, but the arrival of a blue whale delayed the start. After some views we got back on track and Christian explained the plans for the following day: a day in the pack ice. Fritz explained the mysterious life choices of Arctic terns, and Shelli very briefly on walrus and Polar bears.

Day 5: Visiting the King of the Arctic

Visiting the King of the Arctic
Date: 24.08.2018
Position: 82° 41.0‘N, 024° 56.0‘E
Wind: N 2
Weather: calm with snow
Air Temperature: +2

Early in the morning, the first ice flows appeared on the horizon. Scattered still, yet growing more dense as Plancius made her way through the calm waters of the high latitudes. Fog banks passed from time to time, wrapping our views of the sun in a soft blanket of mystery. There could never be any doubt as to where we were heading on this beautiful day: we were on a quest to meet the King of the Arctic in his true kingdom, the pack ice. Surrounded by Kittiwakes gulls and Ivory gulls searching the ship’s wake for polar cod. We were otherwise alone having left charted water quite some time ago, heading north in search for the pack ice. Far away it was indeed, well beyond 82°41 degrees North, the ice flows finally formed a tight pattern; a frozen maze for our Captain and ship to play in. Since the early morning ho urs, our guides had been on watch, eyes now glued to their binoculars. Many of us soon joined in, bundling up on the outside decks or from the warmth of the lounge. A few hours after breakfast, the first bear was spotted by our Captain right ahead of us, but at some distance. Carefully, Plancius pushed the ice flows away, slowly getting closer and allowing us the chance to meet the Arctic royal. The bear too, had discovered us, and at first, curiosity semed mutual. A huge male he was, approaching at a slow, but steady pace, occasionally stopping and sniffing the air. After a while, he seemed to conclude that we were not of much interest and turned away again. As we continued onwards, he seemed to follow us for some time. Maybe he, too had spotted the huge bearded seal sleeping on the ice in a distance? We were able to warm up again inside the ship over lunch before the next bear was spotted. At first sight it seemed to be more than one bear, but as we approached it became clear that this one seemed to be having a back rub session on a pressure ridge. Feet up in the air it was rocking from side to side, eventually sliding down in quite an elegant fashion. There it rose to its feet and started walking alongside us. In the meantime, another bear was discovered on the opposite side, also resting at first. Upon our approach, it seemed undecided as to whether we were worth more attention than a sleepy glance from the pillow. Eventually, this one rose to its feet and made a few steps towards us but returned to rest soon after, posing for our cameras. By the time, the sun was on his way towards the horizon already and the light became almost magic. When the first camera batteries called for recharge we had to let go. Carefully, our captain guided Plancius out of the frozen maze again and we made way towards the coasts of Nordaustland and tomorrow´s adventures.

Day 6: Nordaustlandet: Albertinibukta & Reliktbukta

Nordaustlandet: Albertinibukta & Reliktbukta
Date: 25.08.2018
Position: 80° 18.7’ N, 025° 13.0’ E
Wind: NE 2
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +5

After a calm night, we woke up as Plancius entered Albertinibukta, on the north side of Nordaustlandet. At the end of the bay, the large glacier front of Schweigaardbreen was our goal for the morning. Even being in the bay, the swell was causing Plancius to roll and pitch quite a lot. The expedition team launched one zodiac as a trail run and Christian made a test run at the gangway, it was quickly concluded that boarding the Zodiacs was a pretty risky operation. Captain Alexey tried also to go in another small bay but the swell proved too big. There was no other possibility for any other activity in the area, thus Gérard gave us a talk on Polar Bears, illustrated by his own photos taken during previous expedition cruises. For the afternoon, 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, with raised beaches, geological interests and a few pockets of plants. We divided into three groups, the more energetic ones went on a steep and fast hike to the top of Kvinberget. At 365 m elevation they could enjoy fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. The medium group, being separated in two smaller groups later on, had a walk on the raised beaches, discovering various formations of rocks and plants. 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 did a similar walk but at a slower rhythm, discovering also the particularities of this barren land. We came back to Plancius under windier and choppy conditions, making navigation more demanding for the zodiac drivers to keep their passengers dry and free of ocean spray. Back on board a quick recap was held about activities for tomorrow; two landings and opportunities to hike again. We also learned a few bits about the flora of the area. Karin highlighted the greener more seasonal plants and Sandra explained the ancient tactics of lichen life.

Day 7: Hinlopen Strait: Faksevågen & Palanderbukta

Hinlopen Strait: Faksevågen & Palanderbukta
Date: 26.08.2018
Position: 79° 33.1’ N, 017° 40.8’ E
Wind: NE 2
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +4

We woke up to beautifully calm water in Lomfjorden, yesterday’s rough conditions of wind and swell were now only a faint memory. Impressive steep mountains were rising up on both sides of Lomfjorden, but with different rocks on either side due to a fault zone in the middle of the fjord. Our first landing today would be in Faksevågen, named after a horse in Norse Mythology. Around Faksevågen sediment layers of various colours have been flipped vertically due to this fault zone and continuing erosion have created lines of these sediments extending down the slopes of the mountains. It looked like the mountain rock was bleeding, and in different colours. We were shuttled to shore with the zodiacs, cruising through completely flat water allowing the colourful mountains to reflect in the water below. The fast group was off, hiking up the slopes up to Faksefjellet where a large boulder marked the summit. The middle groups were taking their time upwards observing flowers and photographing the beautiful view. Closer to the top, the struggle of the uphill slope paid off, with a close encounter of a small herd of reindeer, peacefully feeding on the vegetation. The leisurely group had a wander along the beach and also had views of reindeer, but at a farther distance. After lunch, Palanderbukta in Wahlenberfjorden was our next destination. Yet again, a very different landscape of more polar desert. With a prominent cinnamon colour to the rocks here, it looked similar to the Sahara Desert during an occasional snow fall. The fast hikers set off again, this time to a summit of the steep cliffs facing the fjord. Passing fascinating rocks of a great variety of colours from light blue to green and pink we climbed the steep slopes to reach the top. Amongst the colourful rocks there were also plenty of marine fossils of shells and shallow water organisms making this a very geologically interesting area. A few Northern fulmars were showing some impressive flying techniques above us as we looked out at the view from the summit. Below we could see the other hiking groups as small ants down in the valley and along the beach. On the way back down to the beach we discovered some quite sturdy skeletons lying on the grown, remains from a polar bear. The medium and leisurely hikers also had some interesting discoveries today such as the whale bones long ago deposited and a few flowers that resiliently survive in these meagre conditions. A fairly special observation of two Arctic skua displaying territorial behaviour was encountered. Common when nesting, the birds trying to scare us away. However, if they had young the chicks should already be fledged and independent of their parents. Regardless, we could tell we were not wanted and respectfully turned and headed in a different direction for the birds. A day of varied landscape, amazing views and quite some special sights of what Svalbard has to offer was coming to an end, but a surprise was awaiting us back on the ship. Chef Ralf and his kitchen team had prepared for us a proper Arctic barbeque on the outside on deck. We enjoyed the scenery and the calm evening, with good food and music. Afterwards the night continued with the music turned up, and a great deal of us were showing our best moves on the dancefloor.

Day 8: Freemansundet: Isbjørnodden & Kapp Lee

Freemansundet: Isbjørnodden & Kapp Lee
Date: 27.08.2018
Position: 78° 17.5’ N, 022° 17.5’ E
Wind: NE 2
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +4

A new day, fresh scenery, new environment. We now hoped to explore a completely different and green environment in the landscape of Freemansundet, a direct contrast to the polar desert of yesterday. It was time to experience a beautiful tundra hike and discover further in-depth the arctic flora around Isbjørnodden on Edgeøya. In the morning we passed by our first option of a landing at Kapp Waldburg, home to a stunning colony of Kittiwake gulls making life in the steep canyons of the land. However, a polar bear was also staging a home with a meal and we passed by in hopes of finding equally stunning terrain minus the bear. Not too far away we found the shores of Isbjørnodden, inviting and safe to land. Botanist, hikers, and birders as well were equally pleased to observe species such as Pink-footed geese, Purple Sandpiper, an assortment of Saxifrage still in bloom and views beyond measure. As usual, we were spread into four different hiking options: long, middle plus, middle photo, and leisurely. We enjoyed walking in this lush tundra vegetated which was made possible due to a large quantity of rich sediments deposited by the river delta. A very different environment from the last hike we experienced in the polar desert of Palanderbukta! 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. Once safely landed on shore we were able to freely move about a perimeter of landscape. Our expedition guides were positioned on key viewpoints to scout any oncoming wildlife. We soon discovered three most interesting sights of this landing: historical Pomor culture remains, a group of walruses (37 in total) relaxing on the beach, and a small cove providing an opportunity to soak in the arctic silence. During our evening recap a Minke whale sporadically arrived and also quickly departed. However, we were in the “whale waters” of Storfjorden, as we continued to navigate overnight around the southern end of Spitsbergen completing the final portions of our circumnavigation of the Island archipelago. During dinner, we had the opportunity to see all the hotel department crew, including crew working in more hidden places onboard Plancius, such as the laundry team and the galley. A spectacular sunset was happening outside and we lingered in the lounge or outer decks enjoying the evening.

Day 9: Hornsund: Samarinvågen & Gåshamna

Hornsund: Samarinvågen & Gåshamna
Date: 28.08.2018
Position: 76°57.7’ N / 015°38.19’ E
Wind: SW 2
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +6

The morning was brilliantly calm and blue skies abounded as we entered Hornsund. We passed by several small fjordlets before entering Samarinvågen where the glacier face several kilometres wide. We had ample time to cruise down to the face of the glacier, fortunately we were able to observe several calving’s as well as spotting a Bearded seal in the water. Kittiwake gulls were resting on the smaller icebergs in front of the ice-face waiting for the opportunity to feast just after the ice has fallen. The warmth of the august sun fell on our faces, and the pure bliss of such a morning was a welcome joy.  After a quick lunch we headed out for a final landing and hiking opportunity in Gåshamna known as “Goose Bay” in Norwegian. It was formerly a site of an English whaling station, in current condition the remains create small islands of nutrient rich soil and a biosphere for plant life. The relics of Pomor huts are also a relevant historical visit along with stunning views out into the sound. Purple sandpipers along the shore and in the muddy outwash stream fresh fox tracks and older Polar bear prints were found. The long hikers where direct to scrambling up the steep mountain just behind, finding outstanding summit views and lingering moments of arctic silence. Back on board we had a quick moment to relax before heading to a final Captain’s farewell toast to the voyage and instructions for the following day. We would have one last zodiac ride tomorrow on the way back to the pier just like how we had first arrived. Late in the evening in our last hours at sea. We were accompanied by humpback whales feeding near the surface, a spectacular farwell!

Day 10: Disembarkation in Longyearbyen

Disembarkation in Longyearbyen
Date: 29.08.2018
Position: 78°14.4’ N / 015°37.3’ E
Wind: E-3
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +2

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: Nautical miles 1.493,7 Furthest North Point: 82°42.36`N / 025°41.88`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.