Once again, the Birdquest tour to Spitsbergen was a great success. For a full week we cruised the northern regions of the archipelago with Oceanwide Expeditions in the M/V Professor Multanovskiy, marvelling at some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, and having close encounters with some of its most spectacular wildlife. We were very fortunate with the weather, enjoying mostly calm conditions and plenty of sunshine, with only a few spots of drizzle and the odd snow flurry, and almost none of the fog which can be a problem at these latitudes at this time of year. This was a year of exceptionally low ice conditions (a reflection of global warming?) and virtually all of the pack ice had disappeared, enabling us to cruise through Hinlopen Strait and reach the south-western tip of the inhospitable Nordaustlandet – something that in the past has normally been impossible at this time of year. A brief spell of bad weather on our return journey to Longyearbyen prevented us from landing at Fuglesongen, but our other ten landings and four zodiac cruises all went smoothly, and gave us plenty of time ashore to enjoy the wildlife and surprisingly rich flora. Our final tally of 35 species of birds and nine species of mammals may be very low in comparison with Birdquest tours elsewhere in the world, but the quality would be hard to beat anywhere: no less than 13 Polar Bears, ten Ivory Gulls, about 130 Walruses, over 50 Belugas, at least eight Minke Whales, 30 King Eiders, a nice assortment of breeding waders, including over 15 Red (Grey) Phalaropes, and, of course, huge numbers of breeding seabirds, notably Brünnich's Guillemots and the adorable Little Auks or Dovekies.
Our flight out to Spitsbergen via Oslo and Tromsø was pleasant enough, although there was a conspicuous absence of food, and it was a rather hungry bunch of travellers that landed at Longyearbyen airport in the early afternoon of our first day. Chris Gilbert, one of the expedition crew from Oceanwide Expeditions, was there to greet us at the airport, and within minutes we had piled into a bus and were driving away, first to drop off our baggage at the ship and then to visit ‘downtown' Longyearbyen – capital of Spitsbergen and hub of the rapidly growing tourist industry in these islands. Lunch was high on the agenda for many of us, and this was soon remedied by a visit to the Café Busen in the main shopping centre. Adequately refreshed and after a short stroll around town, we ambled back along the coast road to the pier for a short zodiac trip out to the Professor Multanovskiy, our home for the next seven nights. Already we had begun to encounter some of Spitsbergen's commoner birds. Pretty little Snow Buntings (the only breeding songbird) were singing from the rooftops and flitting about amongst the houses like sparrows; Purple Sandpipers foraged along the shoreline, and noisy Arctic Terns harassed us as we passed by their nesting areas, while out on the fjord, there were small flocks of Common Eiders, a Red-throated Diver, a pair of smart Long-tailed Ducks and a few Glaucous Gulls. Here also we encountered our first Ivory Gull – a rather sad-looking individual with a drooping wing – and as we were speeding out to the Multanovskiy, a Long-tailed Skua flew over.
After settling into our cabins, we assembled in the bar for our first of many briefings by the Oceanwide Expeditions staff (Monika, Chris, Christoph and Juliette), and then, at about 6 p.m., we weighed anchored and were off, cruising west out of Isfjorden. Another briefing (this time on safety matters), the mandatory lifeboat drill and dinner took up much of the evening, but with 24 hours of daylight, there was still plenty of time for sea-watching from the decks as we moved out of the fjord into the open sea. Here, we quickly became acquainted with the commoner seabirds of Spitsbergen: Northern Fulmars, almost entirely of the dark ‘blue' morph typical of high latitudes, dashing Arctic Skuas, daintyBlack-legged Kittiwakes, and the four common auks, Brünnich's Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Little Auk and Atlantic Puffin. The highlight of the evening was a small pod of Belugas, spotted way off in the distance by one of our fellow passengers, a friendly young Finnish birder by the name of Jukka Hintikka. Jukka quickly established himself as the best ‘spotter' on board, and was a great asset to the ‘team', producing many of our best sightings.
By breakfast next morning, we found ourselves heading into the beautiful Kongsfjord on the north-west coast of Spitsbergen. After an interesting briefing on how to avoid being eaten by a Polar Bear and how not to fall out of a zodiac, we made our first landing at Blomstrandhalvøya, scene of an ill-advised marble mining venture in the early 20th century. Even before we had stepped out of the zodiacs, we had spotted a pair of graceful Long-tailed Skuas that were nesting on the tundra near the old mine buildings. Here, as at many of our landing sites, we split into two groups: a group of ‘amblers' who could potter along slowly looking at the birds and plants, and a group of ‘hikers', who could head up the nearest mountain to enjoy the view. The only restriction was that with each group there should be at least one guide armed with a rifle – just in case we should meet up with an unfriendly Polar Bear. There were no Polar Bears at Blomstrandhalvøya, but the scenery was magnificent, and there were plenty of birds about, including a male Rock Ptarmigan still in its all-white winter dress, a pair of Red-throated Divers and a pair of Long-tailed Ducks on a small tarn, five Pink-footed Geese (including a pair at their nest), a couple of Purple Sandpipers and several Arctic Skuas. Here also we saw our first of many Great Skuas – a relatively recent colonist to these islands, but now widespread and fairly common. As we were leaving, a pretty little Arctic Fox trotted down towards the landing site, but suffered a severe beating from the angry Long-tailed Skuas, and soon retreated. Later, as we lunched, the Multanovskiy moved across the fjord and anchored off the small settlement of Ny Ålesund. Here we spent a very pleasant afternoon, visiting the most northerly shop and post office in the world, learning about the exploits of Amundsen, Nobile and Ellsworth in their attempts to reach the North Pole by airship, and checking out the ponds, creeks and shoreline for birds. Our first priority here was to check out the husky kennels for Ivory Gulls. None was to be found when we arrived, but we spotted our first pair of Red Phalaropes in their smart breeding plumage, as well as a European Golden Plover – a very scarce breeding bird in Spitsbergen. Elsewhere, we found more Red-throated Divers, at least 40 Barnacle Geese nesting on some low islands just offshore, two Common Ringed Plovers, two Dunlin and another four Long-tailed Skuas. The Ivory Gull continued to elude us until most of us had returned to the ship, but then one was spotted flying in towards the husky kennels, and after a bit of dashing about, those of us still on land were treated to great views of a gleaming white adult as it moved back and forth between the kennels and a small pond near the jetty. Any disappointment amongst those who had missed the Ivory Gull was short-lived as later that even we cruised up Kongsfjorden to the Kongsvegen glacier, and here we all had great views of two pairs of Ivory Gulls resting on the ice floes, along with about ten Harbour Seals and our first Bearded Seals.
From Kongsfjorden, we headed north to the extreme north-western tip of the archipelago, and by breakfast the next morning, found ourselves in the narrow sound between Danskøya and Amsterdamøya. Our landings at these two islands were unusual in that because of limitations on the numbers of people allowed onshore at Danskøya at any one time, we had to split into two groups, with one group landing on Danskøya first, and the other on Amsterdamøya first. The main interest on Danskøya was historical, as Virgohamna – the small bay where we landed – had served as the exhibition base for Andreé and Wellman in their attempts to reach the North Pole by balloon and dirigible, respectively. For many visitors, the main reason to visit Amsterdamøya is to see the ruins of Smeerenburg (Blubber Town), a 17 th century Dutch whaling station, but very little remained of the ruins, and there was too much wildlife about for the ruins to hold our attention for long. A small group of Barnacle Geese foraged on the tundra; a dozen Sanderling in their rusty breeding plumage scurried along the beach; Common Ringed Plovers, Purple Sandpipers, Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstones all appeared to be nesting; and a pair of Great Skuas flew in and landed close by. A huge male Walrus allowed close approach on the beach, while a smaller individual rested, somewhat precariously, on a small rock offshore. And as the second group was leaving this island, a Eurasian Curlew flew over – a surprising find this far north.
As we tucked into our lunch back on board, we cruised around the north-western tip of the archipelago and entered Raudfjorden. By mid-afternoon, we were anchored in a small bay on the west side of the fjord, near the base of the Hamiltonbreen glacier. All five zodiacs were launched, and for the next couple of hours we explored the bay, first admiring the huge colony of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brünnich's Guillemots on the precipitous cliffs, and then drifting about amongst the bright blue icebergs in front of the 3-km wide glacier. Two Arctic Foxes were spotted by one of the zodiacs, and several Reindeer (Caribou) trudged across a snow-field way up on the mountainside, while out in the bay we had our first glimpses of a couple of Northern Minke Whales. Back on ship that evening, we were feeling well pleased with ourselves after two great landings and a zodiac cruise. But the day was not over yet. Just after 9 p.m., drinks were served on deck to celebrate our crossing of the 80ºN line of latitude, and a few minutes later, we reached the small, low-lying island of Moffen – a strict nature reserve renown both as an important hauling-out site for Walruses and as the only regular breeding site for Sabine's Gull in Spitsbergen. It was a calm, sunny evening and Captain Stetsun was able to bring the ship to within 500 metres of the southern tip of the island where there were at least 100 Walruses loafing around on the beach. With the aid of telescopes, we managed to pick out several Sabine's Gulls flying back and forth over the beach as well as about 20 Pale-bellied Brents, but these were very distant. As we cruised south from Moffen towards Woodfjorden later that night, a Pomarine Skua passed close by the ship and a Lesser Black-backed Gull circled us a couple of times.
Shortly after breakfast the next morning, we anchored at Bockfjorden – a small fjord on the west side of Woodfjorden. Here we landed in an area with several thermal springs, and as usual, split up into two groups. The ‘hikers' were soon dashing off up the mountain to who knows where, while much to the frustration of their leader Monica, the ‘amblers' were making exceedingly slow progress. The tundra flowers were particularly rich here, necessitating much crawling on hands and knees, and the birding was great as well, with lots of Rock Ptarmigan, including a female with 11 tiny chicks, 20 Pink-footed Geese, a pair of Pale-bellied Brents, another pair of Ruddy Turnstones, and a couple of very distant King Eiders with a flock of Common Eiders. We eventually arrived at the appointed thermal spring, but this was hardly big enough for a swim, and so we were soon heading back to the zodiacs, again with much crawling on hands and knees. It was only a short cruise from Bockfjorden to the Andøyane Islands at the entrance to Liefdefjorden, and shortly after lunch, as we were approaching the islands, Jukka spotted our first Polar Bear – a youngish animal resting near the top of a small island. The Captain brought the ship as close as he could, but as soon as he dropped the anchor, the bear jumped up and moved off quickly over the island. By now, however, we had spotted a female Polar Bear with two small cubs on another island close by, and within a few minutes, we were all in the zodiacs and heading her way. We then discovered just how inconspicuous Polar Bears can be if they really want to. The island was tiny, but all five zodiacs had been circling it for some time before the bear and her cubs deigned to come out of their hiding place and take a look at us. Then for a few wonderful moments the three bears looked down on us from the top of a hummock, before disappearing back into their hollow. Wonderful stuff, but the bears were not the only excitement in the Andøyane Islands. Here at last we came close to King Eiders – about 25 of them – along with about 10 Red Phalaropes and another European Golden Plover, and as we were leaving, we spotted two Northern Minke Whales which allowed relatively close approach in the zodiacs. This had been a great afternoon, but more excitements were to follow as we cruised deep into Liefdefjorden towards the Monaco Glacier. We had not gone far before a call of “Beluga” rang out from the top deck, and sure enough, there was a pod of at least fifty white whales moving steadily out of the fjord. Great views were enjoyed by all, and then as we made our way into the pack ice at the head of the fjord, we found our first Ringed Seals – at least 170 of them dotted about on the ice. There were several Pomarine Skuas in the area, including one which landed on the water close to the ship, and also a couple of Ivory Gulls patrolling over the ice. Eventually we ground to a halt in the ice about 3 km from the glacier, one of the largest in Spitsbergen, and here, in a truly magnificent setting, we were invited onto the fore-deck for a barbecue supper. The wine flowed freely, and a good time was had by all, although not everyone felt that the accompanying pop music was really appropriate to the occasion! We left the Monaco Glacier late that evening, but thoughts of bed were soon forgotten as we spotted more Polar Bears – first a lone individual on a small island way off to port, and then a female with two cubs on a rocky islet much closer to starboard. The latter disappeared for a while, but then reappeared in the water, as they swam across a narrow channel to the adjacent mainland. And finally, as we cruised back out of Liefdefjorden, we came across another three bears – a female with a largish cub in the Andøyane Islands (on the same island as the female with two small cubs), and another lone individual on a large island on the south side of the fjord. This made a total of 11 bears for the day!
Early next morning found us cruising south through Hinlopen Strait towards the impressive seabird cliffs at Alkefjellet. Unfortunately, a strong breeze had sprung up during the night and conditions were far from ideal for a zodiac cruise. So instead, our expedition leader decided to head into the sheltered Lomfjorden and make a landing at Faksvagen – a small bay on the west side of the fjord. Here we split up into three groups: the ‘hikers' were soon up amongst the snow and the rocks finding more Rock Ptarmigan, and the ‘ramblers' went off to explore the flowers on the tundra slopes, while the ‘amblers' wandered along the beach to check out the Purple Sandpipers and Common Eiders in a small estuary. An Ivory Gull flew over, a Ruddy Turnstone foraged along the tide-line, and a Red-throated Diver bobbed about in the bay. We left here at noon, and continued on through Hinlopen Strait towards the south-western tip of Nordaustlandet. The southern part of Hinlopen Strait is usually blocked with pack ice at this time of year, but this year there was little ice to be seen, other than a scattering of small floes, several of which held lone Bearded Seals. By now the wind had dropped, and all was well for a landing at Torellneset, a shingle promontory often used by Walruses as a hauling-out site. The Walruses were indeed there (about 25 big males), and thanks to Monika's careful mustering, we were able to approach to within a few yards and enjoy close-up views of these amazing creatures without disturbing them. This was a very bleak spot, with almost no vegetation and few birds, but another Pomarine Skua and a Red-throated Diver flew over, and there were a few Common Eiders about. During dinner that evening we made our way back through Hinlopen Strait, and shortly after 9 p.m., were off Alkefjellet again. By now the sea was glass calm, and although it was overcast, the light was still excellent. So once more we piled into the zodiacs – this time for a truly magical cruise beneath spectacular cliffs with huge breeding colonies of Brünnich's Guillemots and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Barnacle Geese and Glaucous Gulls were also nesting on the rock pinnacles, while a couple of Arctic Foxes ran around amongst the rocks in search of easy pickings. It was almost 11 p.m. before we were all back on board, but the day was still not over. As we headed north-west out of Hinlopen Strait, the last lingerers on the top deck spotted another two Polar Bears – a female and a cub shambling along the shoreline way off in the distance.
With both engines in operation, the Multanovskiy made good progress during the night, and by breakfast the next morning, we were within sight of Fuglesongen at the extreme north-western tip of the archipelago. Here we had planned to make a landing to visit a large Little Auk colony, but once again the wind had blown up during the night, and a landing (difficult here at the best of times) was out of the question. So after a quick change in plans, we set a course for Magdalenefjorden – a fjord of great scenic beauty on the west coast of Albert I Land. Our new plan was to cruise deep into the fjord to view the glacier, but once again our plans were thwarted – this time because the Governor of Spitsbergen's boat was occupying the anchorage near the glacier. Another change in plans was called for, but as there is no shortage of superb landing sites in Spitsbergen, this did not take long and we were soon on our way to the 14 July Glacier in Krossfjorden. We arrived in the fjord in early afternoon, and then spent three wonderful hours in the zodiacs and onshore, inspecting the face of the glacier and the adjacent seabird cliffs. Here for the first time we came close to Atlantic Puffins nesting on the cliffs alongside the much commoner Brünnich's Guillemots, and found more nesting Barnacle Geese, Pink-footed Geese and Glaucous Gulls. Later that evening, as we cruised out of Kongsfjord towards the open sea, we encountered our second Lesser Black-backed Gull – an immature bird that stayed with us for some time and occasionally landed on the bow.
By next morning, we were well inside Isfjorden heading for Ekmanfjorden and the little island of Coraholmen – a low-lying muddy island created just over 100 years ago as a result of glacial surge. This island proved to be very good for Pink-footed Geese which were nesting everywhere, along with a pair of Barnacle Geese, a pair of Red-throated Divers, a pair of Red Phalaropes and the odd Long-tailed Duck. A very confiding Long-tailed Skua gave superb views, and two drake Common Teal (a scarce bird in Spitsbergen) came as something of a surprise. Here also we found some particularly impressive male Reindeer with huge antlers. From Ekmanfjorden, it was only a short journey to our final landing site at Skansbukta in Billefjorden, near the eastern end of the Isfjorden complex. It was a warm, sunny afternoon with a very light breeze; the scenery was quite stunning, the Arctic flowers were superb, and there were Northern Fulmars, Brünnich's Guillemots and Atlantic Puffins nesting on the cliffs far above us – a fitting setting for a farewell gathering at the end of our cruise (celebrated in vodka, of course). Then it was only a short trip across the main fjord to Longyearbyen, where we anchored just after 9 p.m.
We had had a great cruise, and seen just about everything we could have hoped for – except for Little Auks at their nesting sites. But all was not lost. Little Auks breed commonly on the cliffs high above Longyearbyen, and so many of us decided to spend the night out hoping to get good views of the auks at a colony. The expedition crew laid on a zodiac to take us ashore, and a minibus was waiting at the jetty to take us up to the top of the town. From there it was a short walk (scramble) up a very steep slope to some crags where the Little Auks were nesting. We were all in place by 11 p.m., and for the next hour or so, we enjoyed superb views of these delightful little birds as they came and went from the colony. Watching these birds at close range, bathed in the mid-night sun and against the spectacular backdrop of Longyearbyen valley, was a remarkable experience and certainly one of the highlights of the trip. Well satisfied, we wandered back into town for a drink at the local pub, and then, after admiring the Oysterplants by the road out to the harbour, picked up a zodiac back to the ship where we arrived tired but happy at 3 a.m.
Shortly after breakfast the next morning, we said our farewells to our friendly crew and the Oceanwide Expeditions staff, and disembarked from the Professor Multanovskiy for the last time. A short bus ride brought us into town, and then those who did not want to spend the morning shopping ambled out to the husky kennels on the outskirts of town. There was a single adult Ivory Gull at the kennels when we arrived (the same bird that we had seen on our first day), and after a bit of waiting around, a pair of Red Phalaropes put in an appearance, as did a Eurasian Wigeon – an eleventh-hour addition to our list. Then, after another simple lunch at the Café Busen, we boarded our bus for the airport, and were on our way back to the hustle and bustle of the civilised world.