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Trip log, OTL04-22, North Spitsbergen, In search of polar bear and pack ice

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Embarkation, Longyearbyen

Embarkation, Longyearbyen
Date: 13.06.2022
Position: 78°13.8‘N, 015°36.2‘E
Wind: N 1
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +4

After long flights we arrive finally on the archipelago of Svalbard. Longyearbyen, the biggest settlement is located on the biggest island called Spitsbergen. It takes some effort to reach this remote northern point on the map. We accept the effort and we are excited to spend 8 days on board of M/V Ortelius to explore the pristine environment of the arctic nature. At 16:00 we start boarding our home for the next days. The Ortelius lays peaceful in the harbour. The Hotel Team and the Expedition Team welcomes us friendly and we settle in our cabins. The mandatory briefings are quickly done followed by the mandatory drill. It is always fun to see all the travel companions in the orange bulky life vest heading to the lifeboats. Quick after the Drill the Ortelius is leaving the port and brings us away from civilisation. At 18.30 we come all together for a welcome drink in the bar and having a glass of Champagne and a toast with our Captain Mika Appel. Everybody is excited for the adventure and new experiences that will happen during the following days. Most travellers are tired and call it a day while we head out of the protected areas to start to head north. We get a good sleep with gentle waves.

Day 2: Tinayrebukta - Lilliehöökbreen

Tinayrebukta - Lilliehöökbreen
Date: 14.06.2022
Position: 79°12.0’N, 012°06.0’E
Wind: NNE 1
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +4

We awoke to a beautiful morning, with low cloud hanging over the mountain tops. The wind funnelled down the valley creating short sharp swell, which meant we had to divert from our original plan of Starstangen and headed north to Krossfjord. The mountainous terrain towered above us on both sides of the fjord rising steeply to around 800m, snow adorning the tops and birds majestically enjoying the morning breeze. This landscape is dominated by middle proterzoic metamorphic rocks which date to over one billion years old. We enjoyed the cruise up towards Tinayrebukta and after lunch departed via zodiac to the beach for the start of our hike. Three groups left the beach and headed for the walk. Those wanting a more strenuous hike headed straight up to the ridge and followed it around. Here they encountered Reindeer with calves, rock ptarmigan and lots of birdlife. The second group followed closely behind and had time to take in the scenery and beauty of the area. Viewing the Arctic birdlife and taking time to appreciate the smaller aspects of the flora and the many mosses and lichens. The third group took the time to enjoy the scenic shoreline and dip into the rugged terrain by the beach. Puffins and seals played in the shallow waters, and an Arctic Fox even joined us for a little while. After a chance to warm up and a recap of the day we headed for dinner. The scenic cruise of Lilliehöökfjorden was a beautiful background whilst we ate. After dinner we arrived at Lilliehöökbreen, the glacier at the end of the fjord. This large glacier is a spectacular sight, with its 11km wide semi-circular glacier front (5.5km in a straight line across the fjord). It is estimated that over 40% of the total ice volume of the glacier has been lost within a century, which means the water in which we sailed was uncharted. After this dramatic and scenic highlight, we turned around and headed out of Krossfjord and sailed to the north ready for another day.

Day 3: In the Pack Ice

In the Pack Ice
Date: 15.06.2022
Position: 80°36.8’N, 016°43.6’E
Wind: NW 1-2
Weather: clear
Air Temperature: +5

Overnight we sail along the East and Northeast coast of Spitsbergen towards the pack ice North of Nordaustlandet in search of bears and other marine life. The seas are gentle, and we wake up to clear skies. After breakfast we reach the edge of the ice, a magic sight for those who cast eyes upon it. Silence brews in this white desert landscape, yet pockets of life are vibrant in, under and on top. We spend the first hours searching for the right type of pack ice. The rubble, the blocks of ice, and the pressure ridges initially make the search for any life more challenging. But soon after we find more dense ice, flat ice floes that support a good resting location for seals, where food is present and hopefully we have better chances for spotting the King of the North. Several Bearded seals are observed, some from relatively up close. Also many bird species, like the Brunnichs Guillemot, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, little Auks and even a few Ivory Gulls are seen. These are a positive sign as they are often spotted near Polar bears, waiting to scavenge the remains of a possible kill. Feeling and seeing the ship move effortlessly through dense ice is an incredible and unique experience. So everyone is out on deck, enjoying the scenery and hopeful for the first sign of the Arctics’ top predator. Moving in Nature forces us to leave behind expectations, control and to be patient. She moves in her own way, her own rhythm, her own cycles and we have no choice but to follow her flow. In the afternoon Barbara gives us a very interesting lecture on the Ecology of Sea Ice, which allows us to better understand how sea ice forms, the different stages of sea ice and how very important sea ice is for all the life it supports. Now we also understand that the yellow ‘dirty’ ice we’ve been seeing so much of, is in essence the basis of the entire Arctic ecosystem; the ice algae. We are surrounded by life, even though our patience is required for our first glimpse of yellow fur. Recap is following soon and after dinner Rinie, our expedition leader decides that everyone, crew, staff and passengers alike, deserve an early rest before continuing with renewed energy the following day. The engines of the Ortelius are shut down completely while we drift with the ice until the break of dawn. What a special experience to finish our first sea ice day with.

Day 4: In the realm of the Pack Ice 2.0.

In the realm of the Pack Ice 2.0.
Date: 16.06.2022
Position: 80°36.8’N, 016°43.6’E
Wind: NW 2
Weather: clear
Air Temperature: +5.2

To day we woke up in the middle of the ice again in search of polar bears. After a delicious breakfast we all moved to the outer decks and the bridge to scan the ice for traces of seals, ivory gulls and of course the king of the Arctic. The landscape is breathtaking but the amount of broken ice piled up on the ice floes makes it hard to find polar bears. The captain and his crew are doing a great job navigating the ice and Ortelius is just made for this kind of navigation. Our expedition team leader Rinie is on the upper deck all day scanning for bears and his concentration level is impressive. At about 11:30 am he finally makes an announcement: we have bears. Not A bear, but 3 bears at once. There is a mother and a 1,5 year old cub at a kill, but very quickly we discover that there is a subadult male making its way quite determined towards the kill, and the mother and the cub decide to move away quickly, stepping into the water and swimming away. We observe the entire scene as it unfolds, and it is very interesting to see this interaction. The mother and the cub swim very close to each other to a safe distance and then climb out of the water to disappear in the opposite direction of the male. The male then arrives at the kill, sniffing around. The mother and the cub probably had time to feed properly on this bearded seal, stripping it off of the very precious fat which represents most of the parts that polar bears ingest. So what is left behind for the male is just muscle and inner organs. He still takes advantage of this second hand kill and eats part of it. He then seems to be intrigued by the presence of our ship, comes a little closer which allows us to take some unforgettable pictures, and the roams around for a bit, going back and forth between ice floes and swimming occasionally. We can even observe him trying to break through some ice in search of ringed seal pups, but with no success. After about 2,5 hours of observation he disappears in the distance and we continue our quest through the ice. In the morning we had a very interesting lecture by Christophe about Alkefjellet which we are going to visit tomorrow, a very impressive cliff colony of Brünnich Guillemots. And in the afternoon Rinie gives us a fantastic lecture about polar bears. We are all mesmerized by the information he provides to us, always linked to some personal experience he has had during his decades spent in the Arctic observing polar bears. He ends his lecture by introducing his new book on polar bears and our guests can purchase it on board to have it signed by the author. In the evening we enjoy a delicious dinner prepared by our chef Heinz, and we all gather at the bar for a happy hour. This day will remain in our memories forever!

Day 5: Alkefjellet - Faksevagen

Alkefjellet - Faksevagen
Date: 17.06.2022
Position: 79°37.4`N, 19°23.2`E
Wind: S4
Weather: overcast
Air Temperature: +1

After two days of exploration in the pack ice it was time to head south back to Spitsbergen. After another filling breakfast both staff and passengers were fuelled for their next adventure: the exploration of Wahlenbergfjorden and Palanderbukta. Ortelius sailed between ice floes with the enigmatic polar desert landscape of Nordaustlandet in the background. At the end of the morning we got the exciting news that the spot we were hopping to get in the morning was free. Decision was quickly made to head toward Alkefjellet and have short Zodiac cruise before lunch. As the zodiac’s turned and headed for the towering basalt cliffs feelings were running high. Alkefjellet is one of the most incredible bird cliffs in all of Spitsbergen. Home to numerous bird species it hums with the constant chatter and noise from the 100 000+ residents. The Brünnich’s guillemot is the most numerous of all the birds that call the vertical cliffs home. Numbering over 60 000 pairs, they almost blacken the sky as they come and go from their nesting sites. Amongst the Brünnich’s guillemot nests are scatterings of black guillemot, kittiwakes and the ever threatening and dominating glaucous gull. Cruising along base of the cliffs we were witness to brief moments of life amongst the chaos. Towards the end of the excursion, Rinie called over the radio with news that a polar bear had been spotted at the north end of the cliffs. The animal was found wandering on the sea shore in search of bird carcasses. All to quickly the zodiacs returned to the ship for lunch and a rest while the Ortelius repositioned for the next adventure. Our afternoon plan was to explore the surrounding landscapes on Faksevågen. After a brief from Rinie, the teams dressed and headed to the zodiacs from another adventure. Self-determining, the passengers split into groups based on the amount of adventure and sweet they felt like for the afternoon. Once ashore, the guides prepared their firearms, a necessary precaution against the ever-present reality of polar bears. Quickly organised, the hikers headed of with Christophe, Steffi, Charlotte and Adam. Those seeking less of a calorie burn headed up the hill with Rinie, Barbara and Hella and those seeking information and insight joined Pierre. Faksevågen didn’t fail to deliver on all fronts. Throughout our time ashore we were treated with all sorts of wildlife encounters. Reindeer, snow bunting, purple sandpiper, common ringed plover, pink-footed goose and rock ptarmigan were all sighted numerous times. Our time ashore passed quickly and soon it was time to return to the Ortelius for showers and BBQ buffet prepared by our lovely galley team. After dinner, many choose to retire to the bar to celebrate what had been an incredible day exploring Spitsbergen.

Day 6: Moffen Island – Mushamna

Moffen Island – Mushamna
Date: 18.06.2022
Position: 74°45.2’ N, 014°14.0’ E
Wind: 1
Weather: sunny
Air Temperature: +11

Early in the morning, just before 5 am, our Expedition leader Rinie woke us up with some amazing news. Three blue whales were just in front of the ship! We quickly dressed ourselves and went out on deck to observe the largest animal ever to have lived on earth. In the Northern Hemisphere blue whales are 24–28 meters long, can weigh up to 200 tonnes and produce a distinctive, high blow that can be up to 12 metres tall. The whales were staying for quite a while with us and even showed their flukes, which is quite seldom for this species. After breakfast, at around 9 am, we were approaching Moffen Island, a flat sandy island, only 4-5 km2 small. This nature reserve is a known haulout for walrus bulls and a breeding site of the famous Sabine’s Gull. So we donned our warm clothes once again and headed for various view points on the ship. Most obvious were the Walrus, the first for the tour. We saw three big piles of blubber, mostly sleeping and some playing around in the sea. Then the announcement from Rinnie: “two Sabine’s Gull with a kittiwake” flying around the ship! After a few heart-stopping moments trying to locate the birds, we all saw the diagnostic, black, white and grey triangles on the upper wing and the black head - especially the birders amongst us had a big smile on their face after this sighting. To learn more about the blue whales which we have seen early this morning, we attended the presentation of Hella about whales in the lecture room. During lunch time Ortelius was entering the Woodfjord. This fjord is cutting about 65 kilometres into the north coast and has two side branches on the west side and two minor bays on the east side. The name Woodfjord is referring to the large amounts of driftwood that cover some beaches. We enjoyed the beautiful landscape and the reflections in the water while sailing to Mushamna, our afternoon destination. For our afternoon landing at Mushamna, we split into three groups according to our inclinations towards walking short, medium or long hikes. The first to disembark were the long hikers followed by the medium walkers and at the end the ones that preferred a more leisurely activity. There was still some snow on the slopes and mountains around, that made walking not so easy. On our hikes we saw reindeers, purple sandpipers and brant geese. The long hike went up a slope to reach a wonderful view point and enjoyed the warmth of the sun. The leisurely group did a little zodiac tour to a kittiwake colony across the bay, where they spotted an arctic fox in the search of food! Prior to dinner we enjoyed a recap where Adam and Charlotte gave us short lectures about the history of airships in Svalbard and the biology of walrus. We had a good laugh when Rinie performed an unforgettable poem about the walrus. What a great ending for the day!!

Day 7: Poolepynten

Poolepynten
Date: 19.06.2022
Position: 78°68.9’ N, 009°02.9’ E
Wind: S 4
Weather: cloudy
Air Temperature: +7

Today we continued our sail from Mushamma as we head to Poolepynten. We had to settle the accounts for the passengers so we stayed further out at sea to get a strong signal for the internet. It was full steam ahead with the Expedition Team searching for whales on the bridge as we passed over the continental shelf which can often be a hot spot for feeding baleen whales. The sea was a little rougher which can always make it more difficult to spot whales, but nevertheless everyone was extremely eager to see our favourite blubbery sausages, the Walrus. After a wonderful lunch we shortly arrived at Poolepynten at 1330. The Expedition Staff were in the bridge scouting the land for Polar Bears to ensure it was safe for guests to land, zodiacs were launched and the staff were soon off to the landing site with rifles and safety barrels. Barbara, Adam and Charlotte shuttled all the guests to the beach at Poolepynten, the trip was a bit more wet and wild than usual but the guests were enjoying the ride! We landed 300 metres from the Walrus to ensure we did not disturb them. Split into two groups we each combed the beach as we slowly and carefully approached the Walrus. There was so much to see on the beach, from centuries old drift wood, to whale vertebrae, reindeer in the distance and the blooming summer flowers. Keeping a limit of 30 metres we all enjoyed and became in awe of the 40 males all wallowing on the sand, yes I am talking about the Walrus! They grunted and groaned and all seemed like they had a bit of a late night! Two had been feeding in the water and one graced us with its prescence as he waddled up the beach, wow what an amazing sight. After safely getting back to the ship we lifted anchor and started our 3 hour voyage to Longyearben to drop off the passengers for that evening. Adam had very kindly made a slideshow for the guests presenting all the beautiful moments we had experienced this week, this was shown in the bar along with the captain who said thank you to everyone for an unforgettable week. We got to see the masters behind all the amazing food we had received and we all thanked the hotel staff for their hard work keeping us happy. We waved off the 30 passengers leaving us that evening and we wished them a safe travel home. One more sleep to go!

Day 8: Disembarkation Longyearbyen

Disembarkation Longyearbyen
Date: 20.06.2022
Position: 78°13.8‘N, 015°36.2‘E

Unfortunately every trip comes to an end. The disembarkation starts early, actually in the night, as some fellow travellers and new friends are booked on the 2:30 a.m. flight. Most of us leave in the morning. The Ortelius is on anchor so it means we enjoy our ride back to shore with our beloved Zodiacs. The crew prepared already our luggage, so we are ready to head on to town or the airport depending on our personal plans. We still can not believe what we experienced during the last 7 days. This was a trip of a lifetime, we take homes so many great memories, thousands of fotos and we made new friends. The Arctic is an incredible and unique place and we are grateful to have seen this pristine and fragile environment! Thank you all for joining us on this remarkable adventure, for your great company, good humour and enthusiasm. We hope to see you again in the future, wherever that might be! Total distance sailed: 813 Nautical Miles On behalf of Oceanwide Expeditions, Captain Mika Appel, Expedition Leader Rinie van Meurs, Hotel Manager Carlos Fernandez Gomora and all the crew and staff, it has been a pleasure travelling with you.

Details

Tripcode: OTL04-22
Dates: 13 Jun - 20 Jun, 2022
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Ortelius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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