PLA15-18, trip log, Northern Spitsbergen

by Oceanwide Expeditions


Day 1: Embarkation in Longyearbyen

Embarkation in Longyearbyen
Date: 29.08.2018
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 walked to the pier to board M/V Plancius. We arrived at the ship, our new home for the next eight days. We were greeted by our Expedition leader, Lynn 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 and hoped to never have to use them. Soon Plancius was navigating out of Adventfjorden, north to tomorrows adventures. 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 for a welcoming toast of sparkling wine or juice, and Lynn introduced the Expedition team ready to explore the wilderness with us. Thereafter we headed down to the dining room for our first scrumptious dinner prepared by Head Chef Ralf and his staff. The fresh snow on the mountain peaks freshened the air over these northern arctic waters. Many of us were out on deck spotting the birdlife, Northern fulmars, Kittiwake gulls and a few puffins were noted. The climax however were whales! Several different species were viewed feeding out in the sound, Humpback, and Minke, but the highlight was a Blue whale, the largest animal on the planet. The officers on the bridge navigated the ship respectfully around the whales. Giving us an opportunity to photograph, but more importantly simply view the animal. Observing and absorbing this amazing experience. A fantastic first introduction to what Svalbard has to offer.

Day 2: Raudfjord: Alicehamna & Hamiltonbukta

Raudfjord: Alicehamna & Hamiltonbukta
Date: 30.08.2018
Position: 78° 32.5‘N, 010° 15.8‘E
Wind: E 4
Weather: overcast and rain
Air Temperature: +5

In the early hours of the morning Plancius arrived off the northwest corner of Spitsbergen. Captain Alexey navigated through Sørgattet, a narrow channel between Danskøya and the mainland of Spitsbergen. The channel is only around a kilometre wide, but has been carved out by the scouring action of glaciers, and is therefore very deep. As we grabbed a morning coffee and made our way to breakfast we were treated to a panorama of Arctic wilderness; steep, heavily glaciated mountains surround the channel, and the weather was perfectly calm. The sea was an indigo mirror, reflecting the stark greys and brilliant blue of the rock and ice around us. Once through Sørgattet we entered Smeerenburgfjorden, this wide fjord was named by the Dutch whalers who were based in this area in the 16th and 17th centuries. Smeerenburgfjorden is surrounded by huge mountain peaks which rise more than 1000 m out of the sea. These sharp pinnacles give the island of Spitsbergen its name. Spitsbergen means ‘pointy mountains’ in Dutch. On our way north through Smeerenburgfjorden we spotted a group of about 20 Walrus hauled out on a pristine sandspit on the eastern tip of Amsterdamøya (also named by the Dutch!). Captain Alexey was able to bring the ship very close to the shore and we had a fairly good view of these huge pinnipeds slumbering in peace on the sand. After breakfast, and the excitement of the Walrus, we received several briefings from Lynn, these contained lots of information about how we can safely explore the Arctic without disturbing either the wildlife or the pristine landscapes. By late-morning we had entered Raudfjord (‘Red Fjord’ in Norwegian). The fjord is striking as the east and west sides are very different from each other. This is a result of the complicated geology of the area. The west side of the fjord is made of billion-year-old migmatites and other metamorphic rocks; these are generally referred to as Precambrian basement. These rocks are mechanically strong and are highly resistant to erosion, consequently they have been carved into extremely steep cliffs by the wind, water, and ice. The east side of the fjord is made of much younger Devonian rocks, these are around 400 million years old. The Devonian rocks are mostly sandstones and shales; these were deposited in arid, desert conditions at a time when Svalbard was much closer to the Equator (around 25°N). The Devonian sedimentary rocks are much softer and weaker so they form a different landscape on this side of the fjord. The mountains here are slightly lower and with more gently sloping flanks. The rocks on the east side of the fjord also contain lots of haematite (iron oxide, or rust), this gives the Devonian rocks their distinctive red colour and this is also where Raudfjord derives its name (raud = red). As we entered the main body of Raudfjord we encountered two beautiful Blue whales; a mother and her calf. These gentle giants were feeding in the rich waters of the fjord and we spent a wonderful half hour cruising gently alongside them. The whales had quite a distinctive pattern of breathing; they surfaced for between 3 to 5 breaths and then disappeared below the waves for a few minutes, trolling for food. On several occasions they surfaced right next to the ship, perhaps drawn in by the eddies and turbulence from the ship passing through the water. Next, we headed to Buchananhalvøya, a large peninsula which juts out into the middle of Raudfjord. The expedition team were scouting the shoreline, looking for wildlife. After a little while Lynn announced through the PA that we had found a Polar Bear – the first of our trip! We got as close as we could in the ship, but the bear was resting quite high up on the hillside. Through binoculars and the spotting telescope on the bridge we were able to get a look at the bear, and to our surprise there turned out to be two, a mother with her cub! The bears were obviously tired from foraging along the shorelines in the area and spent all of the afternoon fast asleep on the hillside, oblivious to our presence. We crossed the fjord to a beautiful secluded bay called Alicehamna; the expedition team went ahead to scout the area, and once they gave the all-clear we piled into Zodiacs and made our way to the landing, our first in Svalbard! The weather was not especially kind to begin with, and many of us got a little damp in the surprisingly heavy rain. Lynn welcomed us ashore and we divided into different groups; each going at a different pace. The fast walkers set off up a ridge, aiming to get a view over the bay and further out across Raudfjord. The medium hikers headed up the small promontory to look at the historical artefacts left by generations of hunters and explorers. The beach group strolled along to the hunter’s cabin examining the many different types of geology on display in the beach here. After around an hour the skies began to clear and before long we were bathed in glorious sunshine – a rarity for summer in Svalbard! As the rain cleared to the north it created a wonderful atmosphere, the dark storm clouds and distant red peaks were lit gold by the late summer sunlight. After an unforgettable few hours ashore in Raudfjord we headed back to the ship, just in time for a hearty and well-earned dinner!

Day 3: Liefdefjord: Monacobreen & Bockfjord: Jotunkjeldene

Liefdefjord: Monacobreen & Bockfjord: Jotunkjeldene
Date: 01.09.2018
Position: 79° 37.0‘N, 019° 07.6‘E
Wind: E 5
Weather: overcast and rain
Air Temperature: +4

We woke to a rainy, grey morning at the entrance of Liefdefjorden, the “Fjord of Love”. As forecasted, the wind had picked up even further during the night, gusting with more than 50 knots. During breakfast, Plancius moved deeper into the fjord seeking shelter. When we arrived at our intended landing spot for the morning, some of the wind had been exchanged for fog which due to safety reasons prevented us from going ashore. Under these circumstances, no safe landing was possible. On we moved, towards the glacier front of Monacobreen. Here the Captain took Plancius closer to the impressive wall of ice so we could enjoy the spectacular (yet wet) views of the hues ranging from deep blue to white. The brash ice around the ship whispered as it floated past, and we took our time to marvel at and photograph both the details and the bigger view. With the mountains partly covered in clouds, the atmosphere set was quite moody. Scanning the coastline for wildlife, we slowly moved along the shores of Liefdefjorden. Gérard continued his introductory talk on Spitsbergen now with the history section, and after lunch we found ourselves in Bockfjorden, a branch of Woodfjorden. For one reason or another, here the day was looking a lot brighter: the wind had eased, although the clouds were still racing. The fog had retreated to the very mountain tops, and there was even a hint of sunshine! Thus, after lunch, Expedition Leader Lynn called us to the gangway for a landing, and off we went in the zodiacs towards a bouldery beach. Here, we split into the hiking groups, and while the fast hikers sped off towards a viewpoint, the others took it a bit easier with the photographers finding the last flowers of the season, colorful lichens and a myriad of stunning rocks. This site is also known as Jotunkjeldene or the Giant’s springs, and the sinter terraces that have deposited from the mineral rich waters and thermal activity are a striking contrast to the other dark volcanic stones. On the other side of the fjord, the dark red sandstone glowed in the sunlight as if burning – a spectacular scenery with a fresh dusting of snow on the tops and the greenish, milky waters below. The terrain proved challenging in parts, but everybody enjoyed being out and about. When Plancius sailed out of Bockfjorden, the light only got better, and those of us who managed to part with the Happy Hour buzzing bar for a moment were rewarded with stunning views and a fantastic color palette. At recap, Expedition Leader Lynn revealed the plans for tomorrow and the days to come, and Johanne and Sandra respectively spoke about about waves and lichen. The day was far from over – after dinner Plancius swung and swayed in the open sea towards the flat sandbar island of Moffen, often home to walrus. There were a few around indeed, although camouflaged as driftwood in the dimming light, conditions of crashing surf and a rolling ship made for challenging viewing. Nevertheless, what was an even more spectacular vista was the sky itself, with the evening light ever changing. However, with the movement of the ship, quite a few of us were very happy to be in the Lounge where the views were just as beautiful as from the outside decks. For a few patient people, the “Green Flash” was also observed near 11:24 pm in the sunset.

Day 4: Hinlopen Strait: Torrellneset & Lomfjord: Faksevågen

Hinlopen Strait: Torrellneset & Lomfjord: Faksevågen
Date: 02.09.2018
Position: 80° 03.6‘N, 030° 55.1‘E
Wind: W 2
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +4

After breakfast, Plancius arrived in the vicinity of Torellneset, a pebble beach where walrus often haul out to rest and digest. The plan was for us to land and have an opportunity to view the walrus a little closer on the coastline. The staff went ashore to prepare our landing. During this scout operation, a polar bear was spotted walking the beach below the glacier towards the walrus. The guides quickly came back to the landing site, packing the safety bags and gun cases in a nearby zodiac within a few minutes. Following this Expedition leader Lynn decided to cancel all shore operations and all zodiacs returned to Plancius, for obvious safety reasons. Thereafter, our Captain sailed several times nearer to the shoreline to allow us to have a good sighting and taking photos of this bear. The group of 30+ walrus was still resting along the beach and some swimming in the water. The bear was clearly not in good condition, very thin from having missed the pack ice northbound and thus being trapped on land for the summer with limited opportunities for food. The smell of the walrus was likely the primary reason the bear had been wandering this part of Nordhaustlandet, however it had little chance of making a kill unless there was an injured animal or a young walrus on its own. This was a rare sighting to witness, and given the timing of the day it became the activity for the morning, we still had plans for the afternoon. We headed back inside from the outer decks for a quick lunch. Around 2pm we arrived along a large cliff known as Alkefjellet. The blackish dolerite pillars of rock were almost fully covered by the pinkish and white dropping of the tens of thousands of Brunnich’s Guillemots and Kittiwake gulls nesting here in the summer on small ledges in the crags. Most of the Guillemots were gone but there were still plenty of Kittiwakes in the upper part of the cliffs. Two polar foxes were spotted by the staff. They were scanning the slope at the foot of this large cliff, in hope of finding carcasses of young birds that did not fully make it from nest to sea. Although the bulk of the colony had left several pairs of Guillemots, father and young chicks, were still around, preparing for the long journey southwest towards the Barents Sea for winter. One hour later, we arrived in a well-sheltered bay named Faksevågen. We split into five groups. The first to leave were the "mountain goats" speeding up higher on the tundra to reach a viewpoint, and enjoying a scenic overlook. On the way, several reindeer were spotted and the group approached slowly to get better views before heading up the ridgeline. The second group did a less tedious walk to a plateau above the outwash plain of the glacier behind. The third group went on a gentle slope to enjoy the scenery and the last remaining tundra flowers of the summer. The photographer's group stayed on a viewpoint to admire and record the subtle arctic light. Finally, the leisurely group did an easy stroll along the beach, spotting various tracks and footprints in the mud of a large neighbouring delta. After dinner, Martina, the scientists’ tour leader gave us an interesting presentation about their work studying the Svalbard beaches. She explained the causes for many of the new aliens (non-endemic) species occurring on these beaches. The ship continued sailing north overnight, towards the distant pack-ice. We headed off to bed with a gentle rocking of the ocean and dreamed of tomorrow’s adventures of being in the icy realm of polar north.

Day 5: North in the Ice

North in the Ice
Date: 02.09.2018
Position: 81° 58.0‘N, 020° 20.2‘E
Wind: E 4
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +2

We steamed due north through the night, directly towards the heart of the Arctic Ocean. Lynn woke us a few minutes later than usual, treating us to a small lie-in. Plancius had made a lot of progress, and by breakfast time we were already approaching 82°N. There was a palpable sense of autumn in the air; sullen skies, occasional snowflakes, and a stiff breeze from the east reminded us that the summer is fleeting in the high Arctic and that soon it will return to the dark of the polar winter. In the morning we were treated to a set of extended recaps from the Expedition Staff. Shelli gave a talk about Walrus, introducing us to their physical characteristics, their impressive feeding habits, and their love of body contact with other walrus, or thigmotaxis, when they haul-out on beaches to rest. Shelli rounded-off her talk with a guide to the other types of Pinnipeds we might encounter amongst the ice, this included some tips and tricks for identifying the different species. Sandra was next with a presentation about the seasonal cycle in Svalbard; she explained how the environment changes drastically in just a few months as the seasons progress from spring, through the brief summer, and into autumn by the end of August. The seasons dictate the rhythm of life in the high Arctic and Sandra showed us how plants, birds, mammals, weather, and landscapes evolve. Johanne was next, with a talk about sea ice. Right on cue we had our first glimpse of ice floes through the lounge windows, the fragmented floes giving us a small taste of what was to come. Johanne explained that Arctic sea ice is an important regulator of global climate, and that it is also a fragile ecosystem experiencing rapid changes. Johanne delved further into the ice, explaining how it is formed, where it is found, and how fundamental it is to all the processes happening in the Arctic Ocean. Laurence followed with a talk about the bathymetry hidden beneath our feet. He explained the techniques which are used to map the sea floor, and that we know 100 times more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. Laurence introduced us to a few special features which are found only in the high-latitude oceans, such as gas hydrate craters, and chaotic iceberg plough-marks. Later in the morning Peter Prokosch gave a talk entitled “A vision for the Arctic”, he highlighted the complex challenges that the Arctic faces in a rapidly changing world, but ended with a note of optimism. The Arctic is a region where environmental protection and cooperation between nations is very strong, and the Arctic has the potential to be a blueprint for successfully adapting to global challenges. As Peter was finishing his talk we encountered our first proper pack ice and Captain Alexey brought Plancius carefully into it, navigating through narrow leads between the floes. We had entered a new world. The stark white ice pulsed gently in the swell, and the floes shifted constantly; driven ever onwards by the fickle whims of the wind and ocean currents. Just 30 minutes into ice we encountered our first bear in this area, a young male bear resting sprawled over a block of ice. As the ship approached we all gathered out on deck, careful not to make a sound. The bear was curious about our presence and came over to investigate the ship, presumably very intrigued by the large, strong-smelling foreign object in his environment. He was clearly cautious and approached on his own terms, staying downwind so he could smell us. We got to within 100 metres when a loose chunk of ice drifted into the bow of the ship with a loud crunch, this was enough to startle the bear and he retreated away across several floes. Due to his cautious behaviour we moved slowly away leaving him in solitude once more. We headed deeper into the ice and continued our look-out. The ice was full of life; Kittiwake and Ivory gulls wheeled around the stern of the ship, taking the opportunity to forage on the Polar cod disturbed by the ships turbines. On the water Black guillemots, Brunnich’s guillemots, and little auks fished in the leads between the floes. Later in the afternoon we came across two more bears, a beautiful mother with her cub from last year. The bears were very relaxed in our presence and approached us with some interest. We spent a wonderful half an hour in the company of these majestic creatures before heading off again. Having had two amazing bear encounters, we turned, making our way west and towards open water once more. However, this was not before reaching the latitude of 82°46.59’ N, a record for Captain Alexey, the ship Plancius, and for most of the staff and crew too! In the evening Zsusanna and chef Ralf had a arranged a special experience for us; a barbecue on the back deck, right amidst the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean! We feasted from the grill and enjoyed a drink in this unique and slightly surreal setting. Just as the music was getting warmed up Lynn came over the PA to announce that we had spotted one more bear, this time a young female who was extremely interested in the ship. She came gambolling across the ice right to us, and got to within just 10 metres from the bow whilst we observed her from above. An incredible experience to round off an amazing day.

Day 6: At Sea and Smeerenburgfjord

At Sea and Smeerenburgfjord
Date: 03.09.2018
Position: 80° 95.0’ N, 014° 49.5’ E
Wind: NE 2
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +3

Today was spent more or less at sea, due to the distance needed to be navigated back from the ice to Svalbard mainland. Fortunately, conditions were quite fair and our expedition team presented some entertaining facts for the morning recap. Expedition leader Lynn held a talk about what the Arctic and Antarctic have in common and what makes them different. Irene explained the midsummer light and the Arctic midnight. Had it not been for the fog and clouds, September 2nd would have been our last opportunity to see the midnight sun this season given our position so far north. Sandra introduced us to the translated Latin names of many of the bird species we have seen so far. Later in the morning a more in-depth lecture was given by Isabelle, she explained some interesting background knowledge about whales and whale poo. Fogbanks came and went as we continued closer to our destination of the late afternoon. We were heading back to the Smeerenburg area to have another look at the walrus or -if they weren´t home for the day- cruise the magnificent Smeerenburg glacier by zodiac. The walrus were home, but unfortunately, they had already visitors from another vessel and were to occupied to attend us. The glacier however presented itself in the last rays of the evening sun, and was a photographers dream. Everyone dressed warmly and joined in the boats for a closer, yet safe viewing of the ice face and accompanying icebergs. The glacier was quite active, grumbling every so often and calving smaller and larger pieces which then floated our direction. We enjoyed at an arm´s length these gems of ice sparkling in the sunlight from the zodiacs. Our drivers maneuvered carefully between all the bigger and smaller pieces which came in many shapes and colours. Some Arctic terns as well as Kittiwake gulls observed us from their perch on small icebergs, and several seals popped up as we came to the little bay at the glacier´s southern end. Our drivers took the opportunity to switch off their engines and the sound of small air bubbles releasing from in the ice trickled into our ears. Eventually it was time to return to Plancius, where she was waiting for us in the bay about 1,8 nm away from the glacier front. A fresh cup of tea and a delicious warm dinner made us soon forget the slightly frozen fingers and toes we had endured out in the ice. This evening´s cocktails at the bar was offered with a special treat; as some of us had taken the opportunity to fish for the clearest ice pieces from the glacier and brought them back to the ship.

Day 7: Poolepynten & Alkhornet

Poolepynten & Alkhornet
Date: 04.09.2018
Position: 78° 22.5’ N, 012° 02.1’ E
Wind: NW 3
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

We woke to sunny skies and a rolling swell. The ship slowly navigated around towards the low-lying terrain of Poolepynten another known walrus haul out location. This would be our last chance to see if the animals were “home” and could have the chance to visit them. We were in luck, and just off from the huts and navigational marker several older male walruses were resting contently on the sandy spit. We were divided into three different groups to allow everyone equal viewing time and space at the walrus. A bit of crashing surf on the beach added to the ambiance of the landing. Behind the walrus included a wetland home to several late season birds and the chaotic beauty of driftwood logs long ago tossed up on the land. To add to the morning came a passing Sisselman search and rescue helicopter wishing to make a test drill with the cooperation of Plancius. Fortunately, the walrus did not take any mind to this operation and continue on in their languished behavior. We returned to the ship, headed for a lunch and then to our cameras and computers to start editing the images of the “Tooth walkers”. There was a little time to rest or sort our items for packing before the afternoon excursion at Alkhornet. This is a jewel of Spitsbergen landing sites, with bird colonies on the cliffs above, reindeer grazing the green tundra below and a vista across the bay, nevermind a glacier just off to the east. A perimeter landing was established, giving us time to explore on our own, but still under the watchful eyes of our guides. Many reindeer were around grazing on the rich grasses and lingering flowers of the summer. Mothers and calves were seen as well as t males, shedding the velvet off their antlers and preparing for the strength needed for the fall rut or mating season. Towards the end of the landing a “Polar Plunge” was offered to those who chose to brave the Arctic waters. Lasting memories for everyone. We came back to the ship for a final toast to the voyage with the Captain and Expedition staff. Thereafter a meal and lingering moments in the lounge collecting stories and memories, the light outside was a delight as we ship cruised the evening through Isfjord.

Day 8: Disembarkation in Longyearbyen

Disembarkation in Longyearbyen
Date: 05.09.2018
Position: 78°14.4’ N / 015°37.3’ E
Wind: E-3
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +5

After 8 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 1,155.7 Furthest North Point: 82°46.59’N / 020°55.20’E On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Alexey Nazarov, Expedition Leader Lynn Woodworth , Hotel Manager Szuazzana and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.

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