AE Expeditions Sales Executive Mael Ressos is currently on our ‘Spitsbergen Odyssey’ expedition. The staff on board have sent us this fantastic summary of the expedition so far!
We finally reached Longyearbyen, an old mining town in the heart of Spitsbergen for our much anticipated adventure to the high Arctic. At 19:15 the anchor was lifted and we eased away from Longyearbyen, and cruised into Isfjorden. The bright light danced along the surface of the water as we prepared for our adventures in the land of the midnight sun.
Overnight we steamed northwards along the west coast of Spitsbergen, arriving in the magnificent Krossfjorden in the early morning. After safety briefings we carefully descended the steep gangway and off we went. John had been on bear watch as we approached Lilliehöökbreen and had seen a bearded seal on an ice floe nearby. So we had our first Arctic seal encounter from the Zodiacs just in front of the ship. The paparazzi were out in force as the seal seemed unperturbed by our presence. The mountains and glacier front were mirrored in the water, thanks to the idyllic calm conditions. As we cruised around icebergs, bergy-bits and growlers admiring their brilliant blue colours and the spectacular ice formations, we heard occasional loud booms in the distance.
These were caused by large chunks of ice crashing down into the sea from somewhere along the eight kilometer glacier front: it was not always easy to determine where. With all eyes fixed on the glacier, we tried to see the tell-tale waves created by the calving of a new iceberg. Heading along the glacier front, we encountered thousands of kittiwakes resting on what seemed like every growler (small iceberg) we passed. Black guillemots glided by on the water, diving if we got too close. More blue sky started to appear through the blanket of cloud and by the time we returned to the ship it was positively balmy!
Next the Captain repositioned the Polar Pioneer to Fjortende Julibreen (Fourteenth of July Glacier in English) for our afternoon landing. We successfully glided through a maze of brash ice, passing another placid bearded seal on a tiny ice floe. Christian led the keen walkers up towards the glacier for a closer inspection, whilst the rest of us took a leisurely stroll along the beach with Eirik and Skye to look at the numerous wildflowers and other treasures along the way. Eirik gave an enlightening talk on the scat of various birds and mammals, revealing many specimens from his jacket pockets; much to our amusement. A lone reindeer eagerly climbed the slopes towards the cliffs where thousands of noisy kittiwakes were nesting. Barnacle and pink-footed geese cruised along the water’s edge with their goslings in tow. It was certainly a feast of wildlife and with perfect sunny weather, the bar was certainly set high on the first day out. The kayakers ventured out in the afternoon with Al, Sally & Brigitte for their first paddle, exploring the ice and getting a close look at a herd of reindeer on shore.
We encountered some Atlantic puffins on our way back to the ship, much to everyone’s delight. They were nesting in amongst the Brünnich’s guillemots perched on the cliff’s narrow ledges. It was almost time for Captain’s welcome drinks back on board the ship, so we headed home to spruce up.
After breakfast, we piled into the Zodiacs to cruise the low-lying Andoyane (= Duck) Islands. Those islands were named for the Eider ducks that nest there, but are also home for a wide variety of other birds. Our Zodiacs arrived to watch the antics of the many birds, including about a dozen Arctic terns swooping a lone glaucous gull, Arctic skuas harassing eider ducks and a ruddy turnstone, turning stones. Shortly after we started watching the birds, Captain Yuri called on the radio with the news that there were three polar bears (a mother and two cubs) on the northern shore of the fjord. Polar bears trump birds, so, we bid a hasty farewell to our avian entertainers and raced across the fjord to where the bears had been spotted. Unfortunately, the bears were too far inland to be seen from the Zodiacs, so we returned to the islands and their intriguing birds. While we all saw many of the same bird species, each Zodiac seemed to find something special and different.
The afternoon saw us anchor off the small bay of Mushamna, where the kayakers found a lagoon in which to paddle while the rest of us went ashore to explore the tundra and visit a disused trappers’ hut. The shore party split into two groups, with most opting for a long walk to a low ridge from which they saw the dismal remains of a once mighty glacier that has now all but melted away. The rest of the group stayed closer to the beach to spend more time exploring the surrounds of the trappers’ hut, and were fortunate enough to see a minke whale in the fjord.
Two days of exploring Spitsbergen by land and sea had provided us with a wealth of experiences, so we gathered together in the bar before dinner to review what we had seen and learn a bit more about the ecology of this magnificent island. It was then time to leave Spitsbergen for a while and head for some of the small islands to the north. Our first stop was an after-dinner cruise to the small island of Moffen where we saw about 80-100 walruses laying together on the beach or splashing about in the shallows. Those on the bridge had an excellent view from their high and warm vantage point; those on the bow weren’t quite as warm, but had the full olfactory experience of a walrus wallow; and those hardy souls on the flying bridge braved the wind to enjoy the superior view from up there.
After passing 80 degrees north just before Moffen, we will continue further northwards today.
Another gloriously sunny day greeted us as we peeled ourselves from our bunks for a day amongst the pack ice north of Nordaustlandet. Grabbing our winter woollies, binoculars and cameras, we headed up to the bridge, out to the bow or up to the flying bridge ready for action. As Captain Yury demonstrated his supreme navigational skills, carefully maneuvering the Polar Pioneer through the ice field, we scanned for polar bears or any other evidence of life in the vastness before us. Northern fulmars circled the ship as we broke through ice floes, delighted by the feast as we churned up fish and plankton from under the ice. The ship weaved through the pack ice, finding a path and every so often coming to a shuddering stop, as we attempted to break through some of the thicker floes. With binoculars in hand, we searched and searched, but all we saw were big bear footprints in the snow and a bearded seal in the distance. A ringed seal and a harp seal watched on, as we continued the great search before it was time to gather on the bow for a group photo as we sat in the pack ice to the north of Svalbard’s second largest island.
After we had churned through our camera memory cards all morning, or just stood on the outer decks watching the ice go by, we had worked up quite an appetite. Gray and Marcos lured us inside with a delicious spread for lunch. Then with our bellies full once more, we returned to the bridge to continue watching the birds, the seals and the ice. Shortly after, Christian announced that we would be going out for Zody cruise or a paddle. After lathering on the sun cream, we boarded our little boats and made our way through the ice maze. The Zodiacs headed east from the ship, while the kayaks paddled in a more northerly direction. Each group found its own path, selecting an ice floe on which to land. It was with caution and care that we each clambered from the familiar safety of the Zodiac or kayak and walked on the water, (frozen water that is!). This was one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences that I’m sure many of us will never forget. Our return to Polar Pioneer was made a little more interesting by the moving ice floes that closed many of the gaps of open water we had just passed through. More than one Zodiac had to do a bit of over-ice driving, but eventually all five made it back to the ship, only to find that the kayakers had beaten us there. The kayakers had been having their own adventure, making the most of the fine weather to test their dry suits. They too had almost been stranded in the ice as it closed in around them: but a kayak is a little easier to drag over an ice floe than a Zodiac!
Parked in the ice, most of us turned in for the day, whilst others kept watch, just in case something appeared…
The previous evening’s late night excitement of our first polar bear sighting, just north of Sjuøyane (Seven Islands) in amongst the pack ice, kept most of us awake into the wee hours of yesterday morning. Following a long day searching for a bear, we were rewarded with an extra special sighting of a male polar bear feeding on a harp seal on an ice floe. Apparently this was where the bears were hanging out, as we discovered that the two other ships close by had also had bear sightings on the ice. Eirik, Christian and the rest of the search party’s efforts on the bridge had finally paid off. It was a site well worth staying up for and we looked on at the bloody feast in the midnight sun. We watched for as long as we could keep our eyes open before retiring to our bunks.
We remained adrift in close proximity to the bear overnight, and then said our last goodbyes to “our” bear after breakfast, captured a few more photos, and then headed southwards, slowly easing out of the pack ice. It wasn’t long before we were out in open water again, with the motion of the ocean sending many to their cabins and a horizontal position. The wind and swell both increased through the day as we moved southwards. As the weather had deteriorated, our plans changed and we had to bypass Lagøya, which has no protected anchorage, and head for Crozierpynten on northeastern Spitsbergen instead. For those who were still up and about, John gave an informative talk on Oceanography, informing us of the crucial role of oceanic currents in controlling the Earth’s weather and sustaining marine ecosystems.
The cold and rainy weather at Crozierpynten did not dampen our spirits as we cruised ashore for an afternoon walk; enjoying the chance to disembark after a couple of days at sea. Once again we divided into two groups, some opting for the longer walk across the polar desert whilst others rambled along the multi-coloured stone beach and listened to Eirik’s stories of Norwegian whaling. It was certainly good weather for ducks; and the eider ducks were out enjoying it on the small lagoon behind the beach. After a short inspection of the remains of the trapper’s hut, which was all that remained from the Swedish research station, last inhabited in the 1920s, we jumped into the Zodiacs and headed home to our warm and cosy ship. The afternoon had been a thorough test of our wet weather gear!
The dulcet tones of Christian’s voice broke through the PA system yesterday morning, waking us from our sleep, as we steamed through Hinlopenstretet towards the bird cliffs at Alkefjellet (Auk cliff). Soon we were out in the Zodiacs cruising in to see a magnificent waterfall spewing out thousands of litres of water, and turning the sea around a murky grey with glacial silt. We were greeted by a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” as we followed the coastline with around 91,000 Brünnich’s guillemots flying above us or nesting on the basalt rocks towering overhead. We certainly were in the firing zone and many of us got lucky with guano painting our gore-tex, as the birds laughed at us from the safety of their ledges. Al led the kayakers through the many rock stacks, finding hidden passages that only the paddlers could squeeze through. We spotted a two-toned Arctic fox darting along the steep grassy slope under the cliff face. A glaucous gull feasted on a not-so-lucky guillemot by the water’s edge, while the fox stole some food from another glaucous gull high up on the hillside. Parts of the cliff face resembled a layer cake as layers of light coloured sedimentary rock had been forced apart by a reddish-brown basalt intrusion. With our fingers and toes well and truly frozen, we headed back to the Polar Pioneer to warm up before heading east to Nordauslandet for the afternoon’s activities.
As we slipped into Palanderbukta, two Zodiacs were launched to take the hikers ashore for their 10 km walk over a small hill and then across Palanderbreen glacier. After Captain Yury had relocated the ship, the rest of us landed in front of the glacier to go for our own exploration on the glacial moraine. We had to find our way across a field of rocky mounds to access the glacier, which provided a spectacular, but chilly, location for a photo shoot! Meanwhile, the fog had started to roll over the mountains behind the adventurous hikers.
Yesterday’s plan to go ashore at Torellnesset was scuttled by the appearance of a polar bear wandering over the tundra inland from the beach. So instead of landing, we remained in our Zodiacs and cruised by a small group of walruses that we’d found slumbering on the beach. This proved to be an excellent way to watch walruses, as we could not have gained a better view of them if we’d gone ashore. After watching the walruses for a while, the Zodiacs spread out to get up close and personal to some gnarled and craggy icebergs. This gave a large male walrus the chance to swim ashore and join his mates. We returned to the beach to watch the newcomer lumber up the beach and force his way into the middle of the sleeping group. We had hoped that the bear we’d seen earlier would come down to the beach, but he didn’t so we returned to the ship to continue on our journey.
As we cruised eastwards towards the great east ice field of Nordauslandet, Brigitte spotted a polar bear wandering along the beach in the same direction we were travelling. This was probably the same bear we’d seen earlier at Torellneset. After watching the bear approach the shoreline, Christian decided this was too good an opportunity to miss, so he postponed lunch and called on us all to re-board the Zodiacs to get closer to the bear. We dashed down to our cabins to drag on all our warm clobber once more, but while we did this, the bear left the beach and climbed a nearby snow bank. As our Zodiacs lined up amongst the bergy bits in the surging swell we searched the beach and nearby hills for our elusive bear. We found him high on a steep snow bank, and watched as he spread-eagled himself on the snow and slid down the hill. He then climbed back up the snow a bit and lay down for a sleep. As our bear was snoozing peacefully in the snow, we decided to return to the ship through a sea of surging ice. It was a surreal experience to meander amongst the incredible array of elaborately eroded chunks of ice as they pitched and heaved in the waves.
We took the afternoon at a more relaxed pace, as we marveled at the enormous face of the glacier known as Bråsvellbreen. This 160 km wide glacier flows from the east ice field (Austfonna) of Nordauslandet: the second largest ice cap in the northern hemisphere after Greenland.
Post-dinner entertainment was provided by several pods of humpback whales, which were feeding in the open waters of southern Hinlopenstretet. Captain Yury turned the ship around like it was a Zodiac, and brought us straight back alongside a pair of these behemoths. What a thrill it was to watch these massive animals surfacing right next to the ship, to feel the fine mist of their blows, and to smell their krilly-breath. How can we ever top this day of superb wildlife and dramatic ice?
After rolling our way south along the eastern side of Spitsbergen through the night, we arrived at Edgeøya by the time we had finished our morning rituals down in the dining rooms. The seas remained unsettled, so our scout team of Christian, John and Eirik ventured in to take a better look at the landing site at Kapp Lee – Dolerittneset. The green light was given and soon we were bouncing over the lumpy swell for our morning’s landing. Dolerittneset is a place where walrus often haul out, but alas, they were M.I.A. and the only traces of walrus we found were their skulls and skeletons behind the beach. Dolerittneset was one of Svalbard’s largest slaughtering places for walrus, with evidence of the hunting done by whalers and later Russian trappers scattered along the coastline. We explored the huts both inside and out, finding out that the octagonal cabin was used by Norwegian hunters and trappers for several decades. The other two cabins were used by people involved in oil exploration in the 1960s. Christian led the beach amblers for a gentle walk along the coast, whilst Eirik and Skye headed for the dolerite cliffs with the group that wanted to stretch their legs. A lovely walk along the lush spongy tundra led us to a lookout with a spectacular scenic view to the south. We also saw two reindeer who were just as inquisitive of us, as we were of them! Navigating back around the muddy patches of tundra proved a challenge at times, with Nicole almost getting stuck and losing her gumboots. Luckily Ramesh, Ian and our good doctor Alison came to her rescue before we all regrouped on the beach once again.
As the ship made its way south to Diskobukta, a blanket of fog had rolled in, engulfing the ship, so Captain Yury carefully approached the island and we sent out our trusty scout team to scope the landing options. Unfortunately a rather sleepy and uncooperative polar bear was taking an afternoon nap right on the bird cliffs where we wanted to walk, so we abandoned the operation to make some miles to get to Hornsund instead.
A full house gathered in the lecture room to hear Eirik deliver an insightful talk titled “Birds living on the edge”. Eirik’s twin passions are the birds of the north and nature photography, and he delivered a captivating lecture on the ecology and population trends of guillemots, barnacle geese, kittiwakes, skuas and other birds of Svalbard, illustrated by some of the most beautiful bird photography you will ever see. Another recap in the bar also drew a crowd and with Sappho’s delicious cocktail “Nobear Disko” on offer, who could resist? Christian started off with a discussion of Svalbard’s history, then John talked about the unique reindeer of Svalbard and Eirik educated us on the humpback whales that visit this magnificent archipelago to feed on the capelin and other small fish, abundant in the surrounding waters.
After a day that was typical of expedition travel, in which you usually don’t know what will happen next, due to the ever-changing nature of the environment we are visiting, it was time to hit the hay.