PLA15-16, trip log | North Spitsbergen, Polar Bear Special
08.09.2016 by Oceanwide Expeditions Triplog
Longyearbyen! Spitsbergen! The Arctic! – While some of us had just arrived from the airport, others had had a few hours or even days to explore the archipelago’s small main city. All of us were very excited to finally make our way to the pier and to our home for the next week or so: m/v Plancius. We were greeted by the expedition team which took care of our big luggage, and at 1600 hrs it was time for us to make the first steps up the gangway. Once on board, Hotel Manager André wel-comed us, and with the help of the hotel team we were shown to our cabins. We used the time to wander around and get acquainted with the ship.
Soon we were for the first time gathered in the Observation Lounge to be briefed about safety, and life on board the ship. André introduced us to the layout of the ship and to hotel operations. We were also briefed by First Officer Jaanus on ship safety and how to prepare for the worst. Afterwards, we rushed outside to see Plancius leave the pier – we were on our way!
A drill of the General Alarm (seven short blasts followed by one long blast) was made, and we all went to our cabins, put on warm clothing, grabbed the huge orange life jackets and mustered in the Lounge guided by crew and staff. It was made sure everyone was present, and upon hearing the Abandon Ship Alarm followed by an announcement of the Captain 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 wel-coming toast of champagne or juice. We got to know the members of our expedition team and were introduced to tomorrow’s plans by Expedition Leader Andrew. Then we headed down to the Dining Room for our first scrumptious dinner prepared by Chef Ralf and his staff.
Fog had moved in, the waters were calm, and only a slight swell was felt when we made our way out of Isfjorden and towards the North. Many of us were a bit tired after a long day of traveling. Thus Plancius’ gently rocking us to sleep was very welcome!
Morning sunlight and Andrew’s voice woke us at 07.00am. After the first night’s sleep aboard Plan-cius we were better rested and eager to explore the arctic landscape. But before we could do so, there were several different mandatory briefings we needed to attend.
Before these started and even before breakfast was finished a Blue whale was spotted from the bridge! Still chewing on chocolate-filled croissants we headed to the outside decks to catch a glimpse of the largest animal on the planet. The leviathan was traveling at a speed and although a unique experience to see, we left the whale to its own agenda and continued in pursuit of our morning plans. We were invited into the lounge to learn how to properly behave as a visitor in these fragile arctic landscapes; how to behave around polar bears, and how to safely manage our-selves in the zodiacs.
Following this we headed to the boot room. Called deck by deck we sat down, and with the help of the expedition staff we were fitted with our new footwear for the voyage. As every landing would be a wet landing – and much of the terrain we would be hiking in is quite moist – these were to be our “go to” walking boots.
As soon as we were outfitted, we were quick to prepare for our first excursion; a zodiac cruise in Hamiltonbukta. The landscape was magnificent with fresh snow covering the peaks, and glaciers all the way down to the shoreline. We first headed to the bird cliffs, on the way some were lucky enough to spot an Atlantic puffin or two. Closer to the cliffs we could see and hear the hundreds of Kittiwake and Glaucous gulls that nest up high. We cruised along the shoreline and shortly an Arctic fox was spotted patrolling along the shoreline. We slowly and quietly travelled alongside it. Our drivers deftly navigated the rocky shallow shores as the fox travelled across the top of the glacier and back down to the water's edge, scaring a few immature Glaucous gulls. Rather we think the fox was hoping for a quick snack.
Meanwhile a Bearded seal was sighted as it leisurely foraged and surfaced around the zodiacs for some time. We headed a bit closer to the large glacier face when our route was yet again interrupted by amazing wildlife. In the near distance a cow and calf Walrus were spotted in the water. We gave them ample space as mothers can be quite easily disturbed and are very protective of their young. It was unusual to see these two so far west as much of the calving occurs farther to the east. Mothers and calves will stay together for two years after birth, the calf born at an average of 70-90 kilo, and constantly growing on the rich milk the mother provides. Alas, as it was time to head back to the ship, in transit a large family of Eider ducks were spotted. The morning proved quite whimsical!
Once back on board we were greeted with a fantastic lunch buffet and we happily feasted, fortify-ing ourselves for an afternoon ashore hiking. We again organized ourselves, meanwhile the Expedi-tion staff scouted the landing for any “white fluffy things”. None were seen thus we were all clear to depart. Heading out we slid into the zodiacs for a short taxi to shore and then separated into three different groups. The long group departed first with the ambition of heading up to the higher peak covered in snow. The other two groups stayed down a bit lower, visiting the small hut and two different graves of whalers from previous times. Looping around to a small lagoon we observed Purple sandpipers and more Eider ducks on the water. Andrew addressed us with geological educa-tion of what was underfoot, while others took to their cameras and explored the miniature arctic landscape of flora and fauna before wandering back to the landing site.
Meanwhile, the long hikers had attained the summit of 334 metres high, sometimes in thigh-high deep snow! A great effort for an indescribable vantage. On the way down the hikers were lucky enough to catch views of the lovely Rock ptarmigan in mottled plumage. Halfway between winter and summer, mostly white with some lingering brown; perfect for blending into this late autumn landscape.
We headed back to the ship for a cruise further into the fjord in magnificent evening light. Another bounty of food was consumed for dinner and the proposal for tomorrow’s excursions was divulged. But first Plancius made her way to Moffen Island. It is closed to human visitors until mid-September due to high numbers of walrus hauled out on its shorelines. On passing by with the ship we had several curious animals approach the vessel – a superb first day of activities!
After a calm night we had just arrived at the stunningly beautiful Sjuøyane (Seven islands) covered in a layer of fresh snow when Andrew woke us up at 7:30hrs. During breakfast, Captain dropped anchor between Phippsøya and Parryøya. Andrew’s “plan A” of a landing with different walks was soon replaced by “plan B”: There was a polar bear spotted on Phippsøya. But as there were two big groups of walrus on the beach, we boarded the 10 zodiacs to have a closer look at the bear and also the walrus. When we approached the bear, we discovered a second one, lying down in the snow just like the first one. Neither of them did react a lot to our presence, both were just watching us a bit before taking to sleeping again.
So it was decided to do a short landing by the walrus. While the first group of 5 zodiacs went ashore, the second group scanned the island to avoid any bad surprise. Only some more polar bear footprints were discovered. Also a single Walrus passed by our zodiac, swimming slowly in the shal-low and clear water. After half an hour the two groups swapped. For the second group, it was time to land and approach the walrus from the beach. We stopped at a reasonable distance to not stress the animals, and had a lot of time to watch them and also to take movies and photos.
All zodiacs went back on board, and soon it was time for lunch – hot showers, hot chocolate, tea and coffee were in high demand too as the morning had been quite chilly. The weather was still good despite the forecast predicting snow so the plan to go to the pack ice was upheld, and Plancius turned northwards. Just after lunch we saw our first floes of frozen sea. The Captain carefully manoeuvred the ship while the expedition staff kept scanning the pack ice looking for a fluffy yellowish animal.
During the whole afternoon, Plancius went slowly through the ice to maximise our chances to spot one. But even with many pairs of eyes scrutinising, no polar bear was seen. Nevertheless, it was a truly unique experience to sail through the ice, and some other wildlife was spotted including harp seals by large numbers. Many kittiwakes, juvenile and adult, were flying around Plancius, trying to catch fish while the bow was pushing some ice floes and making the polar cods more visible. The birders were even more delighted by the numerous Ivory gulls, including juveniles, flying around and fighting against other birds for food. There were subadult Glaucous gulls in their grey plumage, and also a couple of Skuas. Beautiful layers of clouds in all shades of grey hung over Sevenislands in the distance, and later on the sunset seemed to never end. It was tough to decide when to finally head for some sleep!
The day dawned grey and dark, a misty cloud cover stretching out over the horizon onto the ice edge. Although visibility was not the best, the ice was thick and heavy around the ship as Plancius wove her way through the ice leads and cracks, pushing and shoving like a bully through a schoolyard. Kittiwakes and fulmars danced around the rear, preying upon the polar cod that popped to the surface. As algae grows on the underside of the pack ice, the little fish feed upon the algae, and so are just under the surface of the water underneath the ice. As the ship wedges its way through the ice, overturning pieces, the fish are therefore exposed at the surface: a perfect break-fast buffet for the cunning birds.
As the passengers made their way to the dining room for their very own breakfast buffet, feeding upon schools of eggs and preying upon herds of croissants, the keen-eyed guides kept an ever-vigil watch on the bridge, some favouring binoculars while others preferred the extended-range – but more susceptible to wobbliness – Swarovski scope.
As the clouds closed in around the ship and the ever-increasing fog thickened, everyone was invited to the Dining Room for a very informative lecture by the charismatic Frenchman Gérard. Sea Ice was the topic, including ice structure and sea-salt mechanisms.
Just before lunch the ship shop was set up at reception and we treated ourselves to some souvenir-shopping therapy. The highest demand was for plush polar bears!
As the afternoon reared its ugly head, so did the fog: getting thicker and thicker until you could almost grab handfuls of the wispy stuff. And so Katja talked about Polar bears! Big bears, small bears, bears with phallus bones, for bears come in all shapes and, of course, sizes! But then! The fog started to clear, blue skies starting showing, and the sun tried to poke through the cloud cover. The sun rays shone upon the surface of the water, glinting reflectively like the sparkle in an angry pit bull’s eyeball.
As the day wound to an end, the daily recap was stretched out a bit longer, as Sandra regaled with tales of trappers and hunters from a bygone era, Beau chattered about bearded seals and fat con-tent, and Katja explained all about lenticular clouds. Then it was time for dinner, as we all happily pattered down the stairs to the Dining Room, excitedly planning on what to gorge our wonderful little tummies with, with plans of thereafter jumping into our little flea boxes with sweet dreams of bones dancing around in our heads …
This morning we woke up next to a rocky outcropping surrounded by ice at what seemed like the edge of the earth. Karl XII Øya is an island at the northern edge of Svalbard just above Nord-austlandet and named after a Swedish king. Plancius parked nicely just shy of it and the zodiacs were lowered. We all got on the rubber boats and headed towards the rock cliffs where earlier a bear had been sighted. We surveyed the cliffside for a few minutes and found a yellow fur ball tucked away midway up – the third bear sighting of the trip! But this bear was just as sleepy as the other ones spotted at Phippsøya. We circumnavigated the island surveying the cliff sides and beaches. There was a colony of kittiwakes and a few walrus that popped their heads up for a second. Otherwise this island seemed quite desolate, and were it not for a small weather station as well as a cairn at the top of the cliff, we never would have thought that a human had been here.
As we were almost finished circumnavigating the island a second bear was spotted on the beach and we rushed to observe. He lay motionless, obviously dead, a victim of the harsh Arctic environ-ment. With most bears, the cause of death is starvation or – for a few – old age.
We left the island with a deeper sense of respect for the wilderness that we were traveling through and glad for the opportunity to get a hot drink in the lounge when returning to the ship as the freezing temperatures had been making their presence known during the couple-hour cruise.
In the afternoon we sailed slightly westwards towards Duvefjorden. Expedition leader Andrew had a nicely hidden bay in mind as a landing spot. It was a very calm afternoon as we headed towards Reliktbukta. At the landing site waiting for the groups to gather we found time to play around building a snowman and having casual snowball fights. When everyone was ready we split into various groups and headed out into the snowy landscape for a refreshing hike. Snow covered most of the ground but some beautiful recrystallized sandstone stuck out of the ground in various colours, ancient reminders of how this island had once been a seabed.
The fresh air and view were mesmerizing, and as we stood in silence observing we earned a deeper understanding of this land we so casually strolled through. What a silent existence the animals on this island live, for example the polar bear roaming the tundra hearing only the sound of his paws as they are gently placed on the snow. We came across fresh fox tracks; at the beach we found some krill and fun rocks to study, and we played in the snow, enjoying our day out.
This morning was supposed to be a sleep-in with breakfast scheduled a whole half-hour later than usual, but Andrew’s announcement at 6:45 am that there were blue whales got most out of bed quickly. We watched three whales for several dive cycles. It was amazing to see these incredible animals; the largest creature that ever lived on earth, with females reaching up to 31m length. A mottled grey back with a tiny fin and the enormous blow are the main features to identify a blue whale. The sunlit mountains of Spitsbergen provided a great backdrop and numerous fulmars en-tertained us during the whales’ diving phase.
Soon after breakfast we hit the sea-ice again on our quest for the polar bear on the ice. The open drift ice floes compacted, ideal polar bear habitat. Several harp seals were sighted but the “King of the Arctic” stayed hidden. Many times there was a false alarm when yellow spots in the ice pre-tended to be polar bears. Fridrik tried to entice the bears out of hiding by giving a presentation. His topic: life in Svalbard from the perspective of an adventure guide. He talked about snowmobiling, the two official bear signs in Longyearbyen, one on each end of the settlement, and why nobody is allowed to choose just any colour for their house.
Since this trick didn’t work either the team came up with something new: At 4 o’clock in the after-noon ten zodiacs were launched and we set off on a zodiac cruise through the sea ice. We saw some harp seals and many many Ivory gulls, a bird that is normally rare. However, we had at least 19 birds around us, adults and juveniles. Being close to the ice floes and seeing the different colours and shapes was great, but the real highlight was the landing on an ice floe.
The hotel team had set up a bar on a flat and stable floe. The usual afternoon cake was served here with rum and hot chocolate. André was dressed up as a penguin (isn’t that the wrong hemisphere?) and one zodiac after the other pulled up for a pit stop. After fun and photos on the ice the cruise continued. It was calm and not very cold at all. Towards the end the sun even came out and created a wonderfully moody atmosphere.
Back inside there was just enough time to warm up and listen to the recap. Andrew talked about the plans for tomorrow (sail south fast), Irene introduced us to waterbears called Tardigrades, and Fridrik talked about the different seabirds that we have been seeing during the last few days.
From here it was straight to the next surprise which was a BBQ on the back deck! The galley crew had worked hard and set up a very yummy array of salads, breads and barbequed meats. As we slowly sailed through the ice, beats from the stereo, alcoholic drinks and a fantastic dessert buffet rounded up another great and very special day.
In the morning a bright sun invited us out on deck to work on our polar tan as Plancius kept cruising southwards along the alpine landscape of the Spitsbergen West coast and Prins Karls Forland. Again, the sea was unusually calm and only a soft swell reminded us of the fact that we were sailing in open waters, the Eastern coast of Greenland way beyond the horizon.
After breakfast it was time to pay our bar debts at the reception and as there was no landing planned until later in the afternoon, we could either continue sunbathing on deck (another option would have been watching the fulmars and their reflections gliding by) or join Irene in the Dining Room for this morning’s lecture on sled dogs – the silent companions on many Arctic expeditions and true partners in crime for mushers all over the northern hemisphere. It being Irene’s favourite subject, the ordinary 45 minutes of lecture time kept us spellbound for almost twice as long as she introduced us to her four-legged family and some secrets breeding, raising and educating them.
While we indulged in another tasty lunch buffet which was to be the last one on this journey, the crew kept scanning the coast for polar bears again – and, for a change, keeping all fingers crossed for NOT seeing any! Soon after, as Plancius had found her way around Alkepynten into Trygghamna the zodiacs brought us to shore for some hiking. As usual, three groups of different levels of ambi-tion were formed, and we got to explore the surroundings.
Alkhornet is a quite steep bird cliff on the edge of Isfjorden and is also called “Svalbard en minia-ture“ due to its rich variety of terrain. The kittiwakes were still at home and provided us with the usual acoustic background which has become so familiar to us during our expedition. Apart from the remains of a trapper cabin, a rather well-kept hut was to be admired here, one of the local gov-ernor’s field-inspector cabins, each housing a lucky team of two selected from an enormous bunch of volunteers each year applying for Svalbard’s probably most popular summer job. Field inspectors not only serve as law enforcement in field during a busy tourist season but even do some minor scientific work counting bird, reindeer, walrus and other populations around. This year’s season being already over by now, the only one meeting us at the cabin was a little polar fox jumping around in search for anything interesting.
The area beneath the mighty bird cliff was a pure delight to walk on – soft green cushions of moss and grass were so comforting to our feet! For the first time on our expedition we also found Sval-bard reindeer. Those chubby and calm creatures did not seem to mind our presence at all and just kept on grazing as we passed them.
Upon return to the zodiac beach, the crew had arranged fresh towels for all bold and brave: time to cool down after the hike! Third Officer John was first out in the waters followed immediately by what looked like almost all others, and screams of delight and joy soon filled the beach. Plancius waited patiently a bit further out in the fjord, and as soon as everyone was back in a respectable amount of clothing including but not limited to a life jacket the zodiacs took us back to the closest warm showers available.
It being the last evening on board, the daily recap was followed by the Captain’s Cocktails and farewell from the expedition team before we assembled in the Dining Room for our last dinner on board Plancius. We finally got to see all the invisible hands and helpful spirits from the hotel de-partment who had taken so well care of us during the journey, and they received a warm applause – well earned! The only remaining task for the day was the return of our expedition boots as Plan-cius made her way along the southern coast of Isfjorden towards Longyearbyen, thus allowing us a view on the abandoned settlements of former Russian coal mining activities at Coles Bay and Grumant.
Time had been flying – after eight days we were back from where we had started, Longyearbyen. After one more wake-up call by Andrew and the final breakfast on board we disembarked in style: We were zodiac-shuttled to shore! When we had identified our luggage at the pier there was a bus waiting for us, the expedition team waving as we departed.
It was sad to say good-bye to all the beautiful places we had visited and to Plancius, the ship that had been our comfortable, cosy home for an unforgettable journey to the North. 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: 1.032 nautical miles, 1.911 kilometres
Furthest North Point: 81°26.1’N, 024°36.2‘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.