Spitsbergen Cruise - Polar Bear Quest - 21st July - 2nd August, 2007

Published by Christopher Hall (newhorizons6266 AT btinternet.com)

Participants: Christopher Hall et al


“Nine degrees Centigrade, with a light easterly wind” announces the pilot as we approach Spitsbergen. Occasional holes in the blanket of cloud below reveal a bare boned landscape of peaks streaked white with the remains of last winter’s snow. In such a monochromatic scene it is hard to tell snow from cloud.

After months of anticipation and preparation, we have at last arrived in Longyearbyen, ‘capitol’ of the Svalbard archipelago, where dozens of seasonally redundant snowmobiles still sit where they were marooned by the spring thaw and traffic signs include one for roaming Polar Bears! Bright daylight filters through the thick curtains of the Spitsbergen Hotel and yet it is bedtime.

After a lavish smorgasbord for breakfast a stroll downtown to the harbour brings in the more common species like Eider, Arctic Tern, Black Guillemot and Snow Bunting. Once on board the Aleksey Maryshev, we are welcomed by Delphine, our French expedition leader, introduced to our Russian captain and American chef and briefed on safety drill and the daily routine of life on board. This consists of a ‘hi di hi’ style wake up call at 7.40am, an all you can eat buffet style breakfast at 8, a Zodiac cruise or landingaround 9.30, back for tea and biscuits, followed by lunch around 1pm and another Zodiac ride, more tea and cakes and then dinner around 8pm. Each morning the captain changes the scenery outside our portholes. One could easily get used to such a lifestyle while piling on the pounds, having shed loads of pounds to get here.

Whereas the land is very rugged, the sea is so calm one would not know we were on board a ship were it not for the ever changing scenery and the hum from the engine room. Taking to the Zodiacs, we drift past low cliffs, spotting white winged Glaucous Gulls, Puffins, hundreds of Brünnich’s Guillemots and just one Razorbill! On the slopes above the cliffs are Reindeer and Pink-footed Geese with downy grey goslings. Deeper into the bay is a flotilla of Barnacle Geese, steering themselves between small icebergs covered with Kittiwakes. Next we come face to face with Fjortende Julibreen, the 14th July Glacier, named by French explorers. In this largely silent landscape, the occasional calving of new icebergs with an explosive crack, startles ourselves and the Bearded Seals, with their long bushy moustaches, resting on nearby ice floes. On the way back to the ship, an Arctic Skua comes to rest on an ice floe and stands its ground as we approach for a very close view.

After lunch, we are off in the Zodiacs again, this time to Ny-Ålesund, a research outpost with one of the world’s most northerly post offices. Purple Sandpipers are waiting at the jetty, while the village has several Snow Buntings and numerous Barnacle Geese with goslings, being picked off by a family of Arctic Foxes with four lively cubs. On top of this is our first Ivory Gull, posing on a post beside a rack hung with desiccated seal carcasses, used as food for the local Huskies. This high Arctic gull is pure white, with black legs and a gorgeous beak tinged with malachite and opal and tipped with lemon yellow.

Prior to dinner the ship sails up to the face of Kongsbreen, the King’s Glacier, a truly awesome spectacle with sheer cliffs of ice, towering above the bow, surely at least 100 feet high and suffused with a rich tinge of copper sulphate blue. What an unforgettable day, and yet this is just the beginning.

Today our first Zodiac ride is to Smeerenburg or ‘blubber town’, the site of a seventeenth century Dutch whaling station where about 200 people lived and died. All that remains now are a few old whale bones, including a Bowhead skull, and remnants of the ovens used to render the blubber into oil.

Once sailing again, we are scrambled into action over the tannoy by news of a Polar Bear sighting on the shore. Initially it is about 500 yards away, walking purposefully along the shoreline before swimming across the bay some 250 yards ahead of the stationary ship and looking very large with its long snout pointing ahead and upwards as it swims away into the sparkling icy water on the sunny side of the ship.

After lunch, we land by Zodiac at Fuglesangen, off the northwest tip of Spitsbergen, where the boulder slopes are used as nest sites by thousands of Little Auks. Sitting quietly among the boulders, we watch these delightfully endearing little birds at such close range one can see the whites of their eyes, as well as listen to their chattering voices. Close up they look a dark chocolate colour rather than black, with a remarkably stubby beak, many with a bulging throat laden with food for their chicks hidden below the boulders.

By the evening one might have thought that was it for the day and be looking forward to relaxing in the bar, but this is certainly no ordinary cruise. After dinner all hands are summoned on deck as the ship approaches Moffen Island just inside the 80 degrees north circle. Here there are Walruses, Glaucous Gulls and pale-fronted Brent Geese, while a couple of Sabine’s Gulls give fabulous views of their clean cut wing patterns as they dance on the water at close range ahead of the bow. Just as it can’t seem to get any better, a Ross’s Gull flies into view among a small group of Kittiwakes. The faint neck ring and dark primaries indicate it to be a first summer bird, but such a rarity is always welcome. Once the excitement dies down, we all celebrate crossing the 80 degrees line with a cocktail on the bow of the ship around 10.15pm in broad daylight. If yesterday was awesome today was magical and by midnight the sun is shining brighter than at any other time that day. In such a rhythm, time becomes almost irrelevant as one day slips imperceptibly into the next. What a shame we need to sleep, but before I turn in, I can’t resist starting a new day list with a blue Fulmar skimming silently across the glass smooth sea.

On July 25th, we reach our most northerly position, Sjuøyane, a group of seven islands, north of Nordaustlandet, barely 600 miles from the North Pole, where tiny pale yellow Svalbard Poppies, the national flower of Svalbard, may be the world’s most northerly flowering plants.

Retracing our route southwards, “Iceberg at four nautical miles” comes out from the tannoy. We are heading straight for it and yet there never seems to be anyone on the bridge to steer the ship! As the iceberg looms closer, the sheer size becomes apparent. It is a mountain of ice and yet most of it is below the water. The ship circumnavigates the berg giving everyone gobsmacking views from every angle.

Come late afternoon we land the Zodiacs on the island of Lågøya. Although the beach must be half a mile long, about 100 Walruses are heaped into a space the size of a bowling green, and all snorting and fidgeting as if wanting their own space yet too idle to move. Each one is a huge mass of flabby blubber, which makes Sumo wrestlers look puny. Their loose fitting wrinkled skin ripples in waves each time they lollop to get a more comfortable position. Occasionally one sits up briefly before giving in to gravity and flopping down again. As we watch from a short way along the beach, a trio of these sea monsters, swims to within 20 yards of us for a closer look, a great photo-opportunity. Besides this unforgettable action, dozens of rich red Grey Phalaropes are dotted along the edge of the lagoon inland from the Walrus beach and at one stage we have about three phalaropes and a Sabine’s Gull in the same scope view! The whole scene is like watching a top class wildlife documentary and totally mesmerising in the beautiful sunshine with the sea gently lapping on the shore. Apart from such natural sounds, Spitsbergen is a blissfully silent place.

Imagine waking up on a ship in view of a massive ice cap and surrounded by drift ice. This is the scene this morning at the northern end of the Hinlopen Strait between the islands of Spitsbergen to the west and Nordaustlandet to the east. Shortly after 9am we are in the Zodiacs for a cruise past the incredible towering cliffs of Alkefjellet (Auk Mountain). These rocky stacks of dolerite make the Old Man of Hoy look like a midget. In summer the ledges are choc full of Brünnich’s Guillemots in their tens of thousands. With so many birds all chattering together at once, the humming sound is remarkable. An Arctic Fox speculatively patrols the slopes below in the hope of a hapless nestling and we watch in amazement as a Kittiwake flies overhead with an adult guillemot dangling from its beak! Each new experience is truly spectacular.

Something often seems to happen just before lunch. Yesterday it was a Polar Bear. Today we are scrambled into action, grabbing as many layers as possible, by the anouncement of “Fin Whales on the starboard side”. Sure enough there are at least two of these big whales repeatedly arching their long steel grey backs clear of the water and blowing clouds of spray into the air. Whatever next?

Continuing south along the strait in brilliant sunshine and no wind, the ship eases its way through densely packed drift ice, followed by numerous Kittiwakes, blue Fulmars and Glaucous and Ivory Gulls, swooping after Polar Cod, small fish occasionally sucked clear of the water onto the ice by the ship’s movement. The journey takes many hours, which pass effortlessly while all are engrossed by the birds and icy scenery. At one point the ice is so densely packed, the ship judders to a crunching halt. With the captain and chief officer on the bridge, the ship retreats and advances into the solid ice, several times in a determined effort to break through. Eventually the ship finds a safe passage and as another mealtime approaches we spot our second bear of the trip way ahead at one o’clock on the starboard side. He is lying on a beach of snow and then decides to go for a swim. As he paddles his way across the strait, we drift ever closer with the engine off. His teeth are clearly visible as he glances our way. Next he climbs out onto an ice floe barely 100 yards away amidships, giving everyone on board a superb opportunity to take snapshots of the immense bear before he wanders off and disappears among the drift ice.

During dinner the ship comes to another stop and so we have the bizaare situation of sitting through a three course meal while the same stretch of scenery flows back and forth in the same porthole, as the ship repeatedly pitches and rolls as it retreats and advances over and over, trying to break through. By the time we get to tea and coffee we are making progress again. At 10.45pm, the tannoy announces another bear straight ahead on an ice floe. All the ship’s passengers gather on the bow to watch the powerful predator. As the ship edges closer, he is busy scraping at the ice and trying to batter into it with a vertical pouncing action as seen on tv. What a fabulous finale to another epic day.

Cruising along Freemansundet is very quiet apart from fantastic views of close fly bys by first one and then a pair of magnificent Pomarine Skuas, with those unmistakable spoon shaped tail feathers. Next we land on the island of Edgeøya, at an eighteenth century Russian outpost, littered with hundreds of Walrus bones, where three Reindeer stags come steadily closer as they graze the short springy tundra carpet, oblivious to their audience.

Only five degrees this morning and overcast with a moderate wind, so the captain makes for the shelter of Hornsund and takes the ship right up to the face of Hornbreen, Svalbard’s mightiest glacier at ten miles wide and at least 80 feet high, where according to the 1966 chart, we should have been more than half a mile into the glacier, showing how far it has receded in the last 40 years. The low cloud gives a very atmospheric feel to the whole scene, which is largely silent, except for the low drone of the engine, the calls of hundreds of Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns and Glaucous and Ivory Gulls attracted by a strong upwelling of water from inside the glacier, and the occasional loud crack each time a large chunk of ice calves from the cliff face.

Returning to the mouth of Hornsund, there is still a heavy swell, making an exciting Zodiac ride to the old walrus station at Gåshamna, with the usual old sheds plus some very old but impressive skulls and jaw bones from Bowhead Whales. The adjacent land consists of a desolate stony moraine, virtually devoid of vegetation and yet there are still Reindeer even here. Best of all are the Arctic Skuas, which fly by and land obligingly close. One skua even harries a juvenile Snow Bunting, while Dad follows the youngster and the tailing skua. Then an Arctic Tern joins the fracass and mobs the skua while the young bunting sees its chance to survive by landing and sitting tight within our group of spectators, whereupon the skua gives up the pursuit. Another memorable day ends with a lively barbecue in the shelter of the snowy peaks of Burgerbukta, would you believe, with blue and white Fulmars loitering on the sea behind the stern, hoping for scraps. Maybe we set a record for the world’s most northerly barbecue?

It is a wonderfully calm mild morning when we anchor off Prins Karls Forland, an island to the west of Spitsbergen. At one end of the long beach at least 20 Walruses are hauled out in a heap, jostling and snorting as usual. It seems such an effort for such flabby giants to even sit up let alone move about. Nearby, we watch fluffy little clockwork Purple Sandpiper chicks and equally fluffy but larger Arctic Tern chicks, with three Red-throated Divers, two Grey Phalaropes and a dozen or so Barnacle Geese on the lagoon behind the beach.

After lunch the sun breaks through to illuminate the magnificent scenery as we sail along the calm water of St. Jonsfjorden. At the head of the fjord are two large glaciers with Brent Geese swimming nearby. These rugged cliffs of ice dwarf the Zodiacs as we cruise by. Several times in the bright sunshine, new icebergs break away with an explosive crash sending shock waves across the surface of the water.

With just one more day to go, first landing is at Alkhornet, a massive pointed cliff towering upwards into the blue sky where the nesting Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s Guillemots are mere specks. Down below, the green slopes are grazed by numerous Reindeer in groups of stags, hinds and calves all inperturbed by our presence. Both the deer and the Arctic Foxes have evolved the same grey-brown summer coats for blending in perfectly with the glacial moraines. Final landing is at Skansbukta, an old gypsum mine with some nice blue clumps of Jacob’s Ladder below sheer cliffs in the style of the Grand Canyon, where we are all served with hot chocolate laced with rum.

Spitsbergen is definitely ‘out of this world ‘ and thanks to a wonderful ship’s crew this has been an absolutely fabulous ‘trip of a lifetime’.

New Horizons