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Trip log, PLA07-18, Spitsbergen Polar Bear Special

by Oceanwide Expeditions

Logbook

Day 1: Embarkation – Longyearbyen

Embarkation – Longyearbyen
Date: 22.06.2018
Position: 078°14’N / 015°35’E
Wind: NNW 4
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +4

Longyearbyen is situated at 78° north and, as such is one of the world’s most northerly settlements. It grew up as a coal mining town but now is home to around 2,000 residents who live and work here all year round. This number temporarily swells during the summer months with the arrival of thousands of visitors on cruise ships.

Some of us had arrived a day early and had time to explore the town and maybe take a day trip, but many of us arrived just this afternoon, and after being met by Sasha at the airport we had some time to visit the town before making our way to the port to join our ship Plancius.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon as we made our way to the floating pontoon and we were met by Lynn, who made sure we had all our luggage and lifejackets ready to go on board by Zodiac, as Plancius was anchored out in the fjord. It was an easy ride to the ship, allowing us to become familiar with the Zodiacs which will be taking us to and from the shore in the coming days.

From the gangway we were shown to Reception where DJ, our Hotel Manager and his assistant Gabor checked us in and we were shown to our cabins by the very welcoming hotel staff. We found our luggage already there. We had some time to familiarise ourselves with our cabin before we were called to the Lounge for the mandatory safety briefing which was given by our 3rd Officer Luis Oroceo. This gave us all the information we needed about safety on board the ship and prepared us for the lifeboat drill that was to follow. We heard the abandon ship alarm and gathered at the muster station, the Lounge, wearing our big orange life jackets, the only time we hope to be wearing them. After the roll call we were taken out to the lifeboats to see where they were located and how we would embark if required.

Out on deck we found ourselves on our way out of Isfjord heading north for the start of our Arctic adventure. The fog that had been around Isfjord all day continued to shroud our view a little but it was beautifully atmospheric as we made our way north.

We met in the Lounge once again and had a briefing from our Hotel Manager, DJ who explained some of the procedures on board Plancius, our home for the week. The hotel staff served us champagne and canapes before we met with our Captain Evgeny Levakov who explained a little bit about our forthcoming trip.

It was then a chance to meet our Expedition team who will be guiding us safely during our voyage here on Svalbard. We have an international team on board with a wealth of experience both here in the Arctic and Antarctica. Our Expedition leader, Michael Ginzburg, gave us a little more information about our plans for the trip. He showed us an ice chart and it was clear to see that the pack ice is a long way north this year.

It was then time for dinner, which was a chance to meet with our fellow passengers. With 24 hours of daylight many of us enjoyed some time out on deck with a mixture of mist and sunshine, spotting Fulmars, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and the tiny Little auks. It was a very pleasant evening on board. Our final job of the evening was to collect our rubber boots from the staff in the boot room. We will certainly need these in the coming days going from ship to shore and back again.

Day 2: Fuglesangen

Fuglesangen
Date: 23.06.2018
Position: 079°46’N / 010°22’E
Wind: NE 2
Weather: Fog
Air Temperature: +4

When it no longer gets dark outside, your body clock nonetheless tells you when it’s time to sleep, but rather than rely on our body clock to also wake us again, it was Misha’s voice we heard at 7am: welcome to a beautiful day on Arctic waters; the breakfast buffet would begin soon.

It is always like this, especially in the Arctic: we make a plan of our intended activities, then mother nature corrects it to the way she wants it to be. During the night Plancius covered quite a long distance and finally anchored at the Northwest tip of the archipelago close to the island of Fuglesangen. We were planning to land there to visit the Little auk colony - and it would have gone splendidly but for a blanket of the thickest fog, covering the whole area. In conditions of low visibility, it is forbidden to do any kind of landing activity as it is potentially very dangerous. Staff would not be able to see any Polar bears that might be resting on shore or approaching.

Nevertheless, fog was not an obstacle for activity onboard, including two mandatory briefings. The first one was about Polar bears and the second was about Zodiac operations. Michael, our expedition leader, explained us in detail what to do and how to behave in case of a Polar bear encounter, what to do to spot the Polar bear in time, and how attentive we need to be when walking on land. Misha also gave us information about all the Zodiac operations we are going to take part in, and outlined the guidelines of AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators). After all, we would like take part in responsible and sustainable tourism in Svalbard and elsewhere.

Meanwhile we were staring out the windows and portholes trying to distinguish at least something resembling land, but not succeeding as the fog was still very thick. Yes, visibility was very low, but it let us spot a school of Atlantic cod, swimming by the starboard side of Plancius. Big fish! There were also birds flying by, appearing from and disappearing in the mist, including Little auks, Brunnich's guillemots, Northern fulmars and Kittiwakes. Occasionally the snow topped mountains appeared out of the mist and then after a fleeting tempting glimpse they disappeared once again. With 0 knots of wind registering on the scale on the Bridge it didn’t look like the fog was going to clear any time soon.
After lunch we were still anchored, hoping that the wind would pick up and blow the fog away. The wind seemed to have different plans, so the strongest gust we had was only 2 knots, according to the information from the captain's bridge. Soon after lunch, the Captain made a decision not to stay on the anchorage any longer and to start sailing Eastwards. Plancius picked up the anchor and started making its way through the fog.

At 3pm we had a lecture. Michael invited everyone to the lounge and organized a lecture and discussion about sea ice and how important it is. Very interesting and thought provoking. During the lecture the weather conditions improved and visibility started to increase allowing views to the mainland and out to sea.

By 6pm the visibility was much better and we had crossed the 80th parallel and passed by a small sand bank called Moffen Island. There would not be anything special in Moffen if not for the Walruses hauling out on its sandy coastline. Moffen is a nature reserve and it is not allowed to approach it closer than 300 meters, so we had to watch the Walruses from the distance. Big, fat and lazy animals with long tusks were laying and sleeping. Close to the ship it was possible to watch Eider duck on the water and Northern fulmars flying by.

Our walrus watching was followed by daily recap where Michael announced plans for tomorrow and Ali gave us some interesting information about Walrus.
The visibility kept on improving and after dinner there was no fog left at all. We could see beautiful Northern coastline of Spitsbergen with its sharp peaked mountains.

In the evening after 9 pm there was one more surprise mother nature prepared for us. Whales! A group of 3 Fin whales was actively feeding in the shallow waters of the Spitsbergen shelf. We all went out to the front deck and took a lot of good pictures, as the whales came much closer to the ship than we would have expected. It was a great ending to the day.

Day 3: Vibebukta and Torellneset

Vibebukta and Torellneset
Date: 24.06.2018
Position: 79°10’N / 022°37’E
Wind: W 4
Weather: Light Air
Air Temperature: +2

The day started with the now-expected wakeup call from Misha and then before most people had finished breakfast came another announcement. Two bears had been sighted from the bridge as we were making our way through the ice toward our intended landing site! The ice meant that we were unable to carry out the original plan of a landing at Vibebukta, but keen eyes on the bridge spotted the mayonnaise coloured shapes at some distance and after confirming that it was not just dirty ice, the Captain took our ship quietly through the maze of glacial and sea ice towards our furry objectives. We arrived at the two bears and remained a good distance away as not to disturb them, further announcements were made inside for those who were still in the restaurant. One of the bears had a dead seal on the ice floe that it was eating, the second bear gradually getting closer and awaiting their turn for some food.

Looking at size, we decided that the bear eating was a male and the smaller one waiting was female. After a while, the male had enough to eat and gave up the food and moved to a different piece of sea ice. At this point, the female approached and began her meal, eating what the male had not managed to consume. Shortly after she began to eat, we were treated to another bear. After we had arrived at the two bears with the kill, we saw a third bear a long distance away at the 7 o’clock position behind the ship, heading towards the two bears and us. The third bear was another male who had swum and walked several kilometres since we saw him to take part in the feast. A very large animal, as he swam we saw only his sodden head moving towards the ice flow where the food and the female bear was. He effortlessly climbed out of the water and the female bear without any hesitation stopped her feasting and moved away. It was a fantastic opportunity to watch the interaction between the three bears and how they apparently willingly stopped eating for the next bear.

Constant companions of the meal were Glaucous gulls who were on occasion moved away by the bears, it was also a pleasure to see several Ivory gulls there as the bears ate. While Glaucous gulls are almost ubiquitous in Svalbard, the Ivory gulls are much rarer, and generally only spotted with bears on kills.

We then left the bears in peace and went inside for a well earnt warm up, and our hotel manager DJ had very kindly ensured food was still available for those whom had missed breakfast.

We made our way out of the ice and as we did so saw a large number of Walrus. A majority were in the water but we also saw some hauled out on ice. As the Plancius pushed her way through the ice some of the Walrus followed the ship and appeared to be frolicking in the water turbulence caused by our passage. It was fun to watch them swimming in a very tight group, weaving around and leaning on each other while swimming.

Lunch was served and we headed towards our afternoon activity. The Captain anchored the ship and Zodiacs were lowered in preparation for a Zodiac cruise to see the Walrus haul out at Torellneset. The steam rose from the gathered pinnipeds in a small cloud before it was lost to the cool Arctic air. We were able to see a good mixture of calved glacier ice as well as remnants of sea ice around the site and also around the ship.

As we cruised in the small boats, several groups of Walrus approached the Zodiacs, providing more photo opportunities and the chance to appreciate their effortless swimming and diving skills which are in stark contrast to their cumbersome and inelegant movement ashore. These giant animals can reach 1.5 tonnes in size, most of which seems to be blubber. The cruise ended with all in good spirits and a celebratory glass of ‘bubbly’ was served at recap in toast to a good day of Arctic wildlife sightings.

Misha gave information on our plans for tomorrow as well as information regarding the polar bears that we had seen including how to identify male and female bears, all this was followed by dinner in the restaurant.

Day 4: Alkefjellet and Faksevagen

Alkefjellet and Faksevagen
Date: 25.06.2018
Position: 079°34’N / 018°34’E
Wind: SE 3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

Today we started with a zodiac cruise along the impressive bird-cliffs at Alkefjellet. Massive amounts of Brunnich's guillemots were busy preparing for the breeding season. When we approached the cliffs with the zodiacs, an Arctic fox was spotted on the cliffs, probably looking for an easy meal. Slowly we sailed along the cliffs and were able to approach the birds very closely. Along the cliffs we witnessed a gull eating a dead guillemot, a second Arctic fox trying to get closer to the guillemots and due to the crystal-clear water, we were able to observe how guillemots “fly” underwater.

The reason the cliffs are so steep is that they are made out of a very specific type of rock called dolerite. Dolerite is a sub-volcanic variation of basaltic rocks, which cooled underground 170 million years ago. During the uplift and the following erosion of the softer sediments surrounding it, these Dolerites were harder to break down and hence formed these massive steep cliffs with many small edges. This makes it an excellent breeding ground for Guillemots, as it is hard for the Arctic foxes to reach the nests.

In the afternoon we headed for Faksevagen where we were going to stretch our legs for the first time this journey by making a landing by zodiac on shore. The group was divided in three, a short, medium and long walk. While on the beach we could see the rock-layers at the other side of the fjord were vertical alterations of red, grey, yellow and black layers. These rocks are of Proterozoic age, which means they were deposited 600 million to 1 billion years ago. They have been deeply buried before being uplifted, which resulted in re-crystallization of the rocks due to the massive depth and heat these rocks were exposed to. Evidence of that you could find on our walk up the hill where we found rocks of all kinds of colours with a crystal-like appearance. During our hike up we spotted several Reindeer in the distance and lots of male and female ptarmigans preparing for the breeding season. We had an excellent view on a retreating side glacier of the Asgardfonna, the icecap covering large parts of Ny Friesland. After a few hours walking on the Tundra and experiencing the Arctic wilderness on first hand we head back to the warm and cosy lounge of the Plancius for a debriefing by our expedition leader Misha. After Misha went through the day and discussed the plans for tomorrow, Ali gave a lecture about Guillemots and Arctic foxes.

We learned why Guillemots, the “Penguins of the North” did not lose their ability to fly in contrast to their southern hemispheric cousins. We also learned how Guillemots raise their young, and that father Guillemot swims large distances south with the chick to reach safe ice-free waters before the chick learns how to fly. After Ali’s recap on the zoology, Laurence explained us some more about glaciers and showed some examples of their impressive dynamics. After a long an exhausting day, DJ’s announcement that dinner was being served resulted in a quick relocation to the diner hall, were everybody enjoyed their well-deserved dinner.

Day 5: Fuglesangen and Smeerenburgbreen

Fuglesangen and Smeerenburgbreen
Date: 26.06.2018
Position: 079°49’N / 011°20’E
Wind: N 3
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +7

Overnight we transited to the northwest corner of Svalbard and we woke to the familiar gentle motion of the ship. As we tucked in to a hearty breakfast we could see that the weather was excellent for another day of expedition cruising in the Arctic; light winds, no fog, and relatively mild temperatures (for 79ᵒN!). We all jumped into the Zodiacs and set off to visit the island of Fuglesangen, which means ‘birdsong’ in Norwegian. After a slightly adventurous landing on a beautiful cobble beach we made our way to the base of the cliffs to see if the Little auks were home. We were in luck; as we moved quietly and carefully to the edge of the colony it became clear that the colony was full of activity, the Little auks were preening, nesting, and busy socialising with each other. We sat and watched the birds and they charmed us with their cheerful character and they treated us several raucous fly-bys. Ali explained that these swooping flights en-masse were a response to the threat from the Glaucous gulls occasionally patrolling the cliffs.

After heading back to the Plancius for lunch we weighed anchor and sailed deeper into the fjords of this mountainous corner of Svalbard. The Dutch named the island Spitsbergen, or ‘pointy mountains’ after the impressive peaks in this area. We headed down Smeerenburgfjorden and into Bjornfjorden all-the-while keeping our eyes on the landscape for signs of wildlife. As we rounded the final corner we were treated to a sweeping vista of our destination for the afternoon, the mighty Smeerenburgbreen, a vast valley glacier which drains ice from a mountain icefield that covers all but the highest peaks in the area. Zodiacs were launched and we boarded for an unforgettable cruise amongst the glacial ice.

We were treated to walrus, a bearded seal, and even a small ringed seal, all hauled-out on floating chunks of glacial ice in front of the glacier. As we drew closer to the front several large calving events broke the silence. Each collapse sent thousands of tonnes of ice crashing into the fjord and the thunderous noise echoed from the mountains around. Clouds shrouded the mountain tops throughout the afternoon and the leaden skies accentuated the startling white and vivid blue of the glacier. Eventually it was time to return to the Plancius where we were treated to a recap of the day’s events and upcoming plans. Ali gave a talk about Little auks including some great photos from the morning at Fuglesangen and plenty of interesting facts, amongst them that Little auks are the second most numerous seabird on Earth, the population is an estimated 10 million on Svalbard alone! Adam followed with an overview of whales (or was it Wales?!) and talked especially about the Fin whales we had seen on Day 2. Finally, Sasha headlined with a highly-amusing story about a series of encounters with a Polar bear from his time living in Pyramiden. DJ then called us all to the back deck and we were treated to an Arctic barbecue; a veritable feast from the grill complete with a mountain of ice cold refreshments and a spectacular glacial backdrop.

Day 6: 14 Julibukta and Blomstrandhalvoya

14 Julibukta and Blomstrandhalvoya
Date: 27.06.2018
Position: 078°57’N / 012°06’E
Wind: NE 4
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: +4

The day started grey and a little bit drizzly, but conditions were good for us to go on our excursion, so rain was not going to slow us down. We had sailed South overnight, into 14 Julibukta, where we were planning a split Zodiac cruise and landing. Half of us went ashore onto a beach below bird cliffs, where kittiwakes and Brunnich's guillemots nest. The slightly gentler, grassy slopes below the cliffs had a small herd of reindeer and some geese grazing, and there was a brief view of a Polar fox sniffing around looking for breakfast. The walk was along and just above the shoreline, leading to a small amphitheatre made of steep rocks. Four to six metres high, the sheltered area is both South facing and directly below the nutrient-providing bird cliffs. The dark rock warms with the energy from the sunshine, creating a prefect micro-climate for comparatively lush plant growth. Moss campion, also known as 'compass plant', indicated the way South, as that is where the purple flowers bloom first on this round and compact plant. Drooping and Nodding saxifrage, yellow and white Drabas, Mountain avens, and several more species were in flower for us to enjoy, and mosses and lichens flourished in the comparatively warm, damp conditions down low, where water drains continuously through the rocks. Along the shore, waves crashed onto mini-icebergs that had been washed up onto the beach, and many of us got wetter than expected when we went down to pose for photos with the beautiful natural ice sculptures.

Those of us in the Zodiacs got wetter than expected as well - the wind was sweeping the tops off the waves, spraying and splashing us at unexpected moments. It was an exciting cruise, hunting puffins on the cliffs with the boat going up and down, watching the reindeer on the slopes, and visiting the glacier. The puffins were home for us, and most got a decent look at them on the water and a quick glimpse of their rocky nesting sites on the low waterfront cliffs. One of the more Northerly locations for puffins, these ones were sharing a cliff face with Brunnich's guillemots.

After a warming lunch, we had repositioned to Blomstrandhalvoya on the Western side of Kongsfjorden and intended to go ashore at an old mining camp called Ny London. Named Camp Mansfield after himself when built, Ny London was the name given by Norwegians at the time to indicate where the British were. Ernest Mansfield was a prospector and explorer who in 1909 discovered marble on the island and built a mine and developed the infrastructure to extract and export it to Europe. While the plan might have been viable, world events got in the way and WWI turned people's minds from marble to more serious matters. The disused machinery is rusting away, but the original hut is still in good repair, and the road to the mine is almost as good as the day it was built.

The wind was still strong, and the waves even more so, and our plan to land at Ny London had to be modified. We could not get to the beach below the huts so we landed a little further along the shoreline and started our walks on open ground. The long group set off, followed by medium, photography and leisurely groups. Just up the hill from our start point, thick bands of marble came to the surface, alternating with varied tundra patches. This ground was not as rich as we had seen this morning, but in some sheltered spots a bit of organic material had built up and plants were thriving. Even on the very rocky patches, if you looked carefully, tiny yellow flowers of Draba could be found, somehow eking a living out of what appeared to be solid rock. Most of us walked to where there was a good view of the old camp, some of us continued on through and up the other side of the valley it was in. Those interested in wildlife and photography did less distance, going up to some small ponds and searching out the species to be found in the area, and their patience was rewarded with sightings of harder to find species like Longtailed skua, Longtailed duck and Red throated diver. Everybody enjoyed the opportunity to stretch their legs a bit and take advantage of the beautiful open hills, but the biting wind drove us back to the Plancius and Charlotte's hospitality.

At recap, Ali gave us some info on the local reindeer and how special they are, Tom explained some of the patterns we saw in the rocks on the afternoon landing, and then Ali lead into dinner with a short Who's Poo illustrated quiz. Relaxing into the dining room, we thought the day was winding down, but it turned out not to be. Misha's voice on the PA system let us know there was more to do - a mother Polar bear with two cubs had been spotted, and the Zodiacs were back in the water. We all piled back down the gangway and set off for the little island where the bears had last been spotted.

After a long, wet, bumpy and cold ride, finally Ali located the bears, on top of a ridge. It was still wet, it was still windy, and we were all still bouncing around a lot, but it was great entertainment to watch as the cubs followed their mother from one point to another, running into each other and rolling about. All the Zodiacs jostled for position, trying to keep the moving bears in view while not getting into each other's way and maximising the chance of someone getting a good photo. Finally, the mother disappeared behind a ridge, and we lost her from view, and the cubs soon followed. Then she turned around and came back ... stopped ... turned again, and finally she was gone for a while, and so we started scouting further afield, hoping she would reappear somewhere. We almost fully circled the little islet, and at just the point we were about to give up, we got the call from Ali: "She's over here!". Off we went again, and it was well worth it. The mother was quite close to the water, and the cubs appeared over the ridge, exploring their world.

Glaucous gulls attracted their attention, and they jumped back, startled, when one unfurled its wings. They then tried to climb a straight sided boulder to reach the gull on top of that, with no success. Scattering the gulls again, they finally settled beside their mother, who was resting on a patch of lush green moss. At that point, we left the family in peace, and started to make our way back to the ship. Everybody was ready for some heat, cake, and a good warming drink.

Day 7: Snatcherpynten, Bellsund

Snatcherpynten, Bellsund
Date: 28.06.2018
Position: 077°49’N / 012°15’E
Wind: NW 4
Weather: Clear
Air Temperature: +4

During the night we had sailed south towards our final destination for this trip, in Bellsund. For some of us the motion of the ocean was a little uncomfortable at times with some rolling but it soon eased as we began to make our way into the shelter of Bellsund. We were a little delayed due to our late departure from Kongsfjord so it was a slow start to the day after the late-night excitement of the Polar bear and her cubs and after a leisurely breakfast we all enjoyed some down time after a busy day. Many of us relaxed in the lounge, looking at photos, editing diaries, chatting and reading while other enjoyed the passing scenery out on deck.

Our first planned landing site had high swell and breaking waves on the beach so we sailed into Bellsund and cruised along one of the islands where staff were scouting and scanning for wildlife and then sailed past Midterhuken, an area where there are high seabird cliffs with grassy green slopes beneath, home to many reindeer during the summer months.

Our final destination was a sheltered side fjord. Just before lunch we found ourselves at the anchorage in Recherchefjord for the final afternoon landing at Snatcherpynten. This fjord was named by a French expedition that came to the area in 1838, bringing with them Leonie D’Aunet, a 19-year-old girl who is recorded to be the first woman to set foot on Svalbard.

After lunch the staff were ready on shore to meet us for our final long, medium and leisurely hikes. Laurence and Adam set off at a good pace to reach the moraines that have been left by the glacier at the back of the bay. They gained a good level of height and at their end point on the hike they all enjoyed the fabulous views down onto the glacier. Some snow sliding took place along with some Arctic silence where only the sound of meltwater running on and through the glacier could be heard.

The medium hiking group with Sasha, Tom and Ali set off towards the leaning house that was along the shore. This was built to be a hunting and shooting lodge by a Norwegian consul, Johannes Gjaever in 1904 but his plans for reindeer hunting didn’t work out. The house has been leaning for many years and it is still managing to stay up! From here the group walked up towards the moraines enjoying the flowers and a friendly reindeer on the way. The walk back down was a little muddy and the group almost lost the Doctor, Sasha and Tom in the thick, sticky mud as they led the way down the hill. Needless to say, the group didn’t follow their route!

Michael had taken a birding group to explore the tundra for Arctic skuas and they were successful on their mission to find a dark morph skua as well as an Arctic fox.

At a lower level Lynn and Johnny enjoyed a leisurely walk amongst the flowering tundra and exploring the human history of this area of Bellsund, which was used for initially for whaling then iron prospecting and trappers. The modern fishing industry could be seen out in the bay with a fishing boat offloading its catch onto a freezer ship.

All the groups converged at the landing site once again to take part in the Polar Plunge, a swim in the Arctic Ocean. For some it was enough to just run into the water, dip down and then run back out again but some donned their swimming caps and goggles and did some laps along the beach. Well done to everyone who took part.

Back on board we had time to warm up before returning our rubber boots to the boot room and then getting ready for Captains Cocktails in the Lounge. This was a chance to toast the success of our voyage with the Captain, Evegeny Levakov, and also thank the Expedition team for their hard work on this voyage. They took us on some great hikes on Svalbard and they searched the pack ice for our very special trio of hungry bears. The lasting memory for many, including staff will be that wet and bouncy zodiac ride to see the female polar bear and her cubs on the island in Kongsfjorden. We will all remember that evening for the rest of our lives.

Total distance sailed on our voyage: Nautical miles: 880.8nm | Kilometres: 1710.6km

On behalf of everyone on board we thank you for travelling with us and wish you a safe journey home.

Details

Tripcode: PLA07-18
Dates: 22 Jun – 29 Jun, 2018
Duration: 7 nights
Ship: m/v Plancius
Embark: Longyearbyen
Disembark: Longyearbyen

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