The weather forecast for later today was not good, describing developing low visibility, increasing wind and a significant amount of snow. With our options in the north quickly diminishing and feeling the need to manage our progress for the coming bad weather we reconsidered all options for where to go to maximise the options for finding wildlife and to minimise the effects of wind and heavy seas. We concluded that heading for Magdalenafjorden would be the best option, as it has spectacular scenery and because we might have been able to see little auks at the colony there. When we arrived however, we quickly found visibility to be very limited, and the little auk colony to be covered with deep snow. After a brief look at the glacier, we anchored in a sheltered location for dinner and a rest for the crew before hoisting the anchor at 2am to continue south and avoid the worst of the coming storm.
We were awakened early by the ship’s engine coming to life, to reposition it after we had drifted five nautical miles with the pack ice, while tethered to our floe. Not long afterwards, we spotted the first bear we had seen yesterday, close to the floe where we had found the remains of the narwhal. He was immediately recognisable through the facial scars that males get through successive mating seasons, and a round one, on his forehead, that looked very like it was made by a walrus tusk and which may have come from the walrus we had seen yesterday which had the bite marks on its neck.
In good weather, we moved through the pack ice looking for wildlife, and, in particular, more bears. The ice was quite dense and closely packed together, so our progress was slow although the Stockholm managed it surprisingly well. We worked our way through the ice towards the entrance to Raudfjord, which was open, although it was not long until we reached fast (unbroken) ice in the fjord. Scanning across it with binoculars, we could see seals here and there, and lots of the birds we have been becoming accustomed to in the ice, but there were no bears to be seen.
During the rest of the day, we stayed vigilant for wildlife, particularly bears, along the shore lines and on the ice off the extreme north-west of Spitsbergen, but while we saw plenty of walrus, we did not see any more bears. However, one of the walrus sightings, which comprised of five animals huddled together on a small ice floe was particularly good, and very close by. Many of the areas we had hoped to get to today to try and see seals and bears proved inaccessible, and we felt a growing disappointment as we began to move further south without any of them yielding any more wildlife sightings.
Later, on our way south, we had an evening re-cap in which Ronald gave a presentation on sea-birds, which was followed, after dinner, by a photography talk from Gerry and Andrew.
Having spent the night moored silently in the pack ice, we awoke to bright sunlight on the mountains of Spitsbergen’s north coast and the ice-filled ocean around us. Easing our way north-east through the floes, everyone was eagerly scanning the ice for wildlife, and, in particular, for the off-white form of a polar bear blended-in to the white world of the ice. After around three hours of searching, and much to everyone’s delight, we located a polar bear on the ice, several hundred metres ahead of the ship. As we approached it, with the Stockholm gently easing itself through the floes, we came upon the carcass of a narwhal surrounded by a large flock of glaucous gulls as well as a number of ivory gulls and skuas. The bear was some distance from the Narwal, but by its proximity and the telltale, dark blood marks on its face, it had been feeding on it. The bear was an approximately 12-year-old male in reasonable condition, whose very full belly suggested he had eaten a large amount recently. He was lying on the ice, and stood up warily as we approached, before a short distance and making a shallow scrape or ‘day bed’, which he lay down in. A second bear, which was also male and of a similar age and size to the first, was spotted soon after we found the first – he had been lying-down when we first approached him, and had then gone into the water and swum away from us towards the north.
Not long afterwards, the first bear moved back to the narwhal carcass and began feeding again. While doing so it pulled it much further out of the water, giving us a better impression of the size of the animal and of the defining mottled, black pattern of its skin, which distinguishes it from its close cousin, the beluga. The other distinguishing feature, which is the narwhal’s tusk, was not visible as the head was under water, and would not normally have been present anyway if the animal was female.
After leaving the bears, we went south towards the flat plain of Reindyr Flyta, the broad, flat promontory protruding from the north-west coast of Woodfjorden, and separating it from Raudfjorden. As we navigated the ice, with the Stockholm seemingly effortlessly splitting and parting floes, we had good sightings of a bearded seal, and two small groups of walrus. One of them, a young male, appeared to have recently fended-off a polar bear attack, as he had two pairs of puncture marks 30-35cm apart on the left side of his neck, the width of the bite of a polar bear, with the puncture marks having been made by the canine teeth on the upper and lower jaw. Other marks on the right and left shoulder areas of the walrus showed where the bear had latched onto it with its claws cutting-in to the very thick hide of the walrus as it bit into its neck, though the walrus had managed to throw it off, and escape into the water.
By evening, the sky had completely cleared, providing a stark contrast to the jagged, white mountains running along the north coast – sentinels facing silently towards the frozen sea and the North Pole lying only 600 miles across the ice. Later, we beached the front of the ship on the ice, intending to stay there for the night. After another excellent dinner, we got off the ship and stood on the ice, giving us an alternative sense of the vessel and a bear’s-eye view of the ice. Later we had two watches running for the night; one for the security of the ship in case the ice moved or it slipped from where it was beached, and a second to keep a look out for wildlife and for bears coming too close to the ship.
Having avoided the worst of the low pressure weather front, we spent the day in the pack ice in the vicinity of the islands of Danskoya and Amsterdamoya, off north-west Spitsbergen. In our quest to find wildlife, we saw some bearded seals, which we were not able get close to, and some more walrus, but no polar bears. By now, we are getting used to seeing Brunich’s guillemots, common guillemots, and eider ducks, on the water, and kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, fulmars and little auks flying around the ship. We have also been quite lucky with our sightings of walrus and reindeer, but as the days pass now, the tension of the expectation and hope of bears is mounting. However, today did bring some new things; coastal pack ice when we reached Danskoya, and bearded seals, which along with Greenland seals and hooded seals are one of the three great seal species in Svalbard. The first seal we saw was clearly recognisable, with its small head, large, mottled grey body and prominent yellow/gold beard. Bearded seals can be quite skittish, and are a challenge to approach without being scared-off, and this seal was no exception, inevitably slipping off the ice into the water before we could get far enough away for it to become relaxed again.
Before dinner, which was excellent, as usual, we had a lecture about polar bears from Rupert. Later, Martin ‘parked’ the ship in the ice, and then moored it to an ice floe, so that we slept in the great silence of Svalbard, silent and still and surrounded by the magnificent scenery of this wild place, drifting gently with the ice without risk of breaking an anchor chain.
We lowered a Zodiac after breakfast for a landing at a small cliff on the southern shore of Kongsfjord, a little east of Ny Alesund, where we could see kittiwakes and Brunnich’s guillemots on ledges relatively close to the ground. The shoreline where we landed was littered with hundreds of ‘icebergs’ of varying sizes, from a few centimetres across to some comprising several square metres of ice and weighing 10-15 tonnes. The myriad shapes of all these pieces of ice presented a wonderful opportunity for creative photography.
After returning to the ship, we sailed to Kongsbreen (king’s glacier) the head of the fjord, arriving just in time to see a spectacular calving in which a very large section of the ice face broke off the face of the glacier, isolating a 25 metre-high pinnacle of ice that remained for several seconds before slowly collapsing. As it did so we had a clear impression of how icebergs pitch and roll and find their equilibrium, and of how much of them is beneath the water.
After the glacier, we went to Ny Alesund and spent a few hours learning about the cluster of science stations that calls itself the world’s northernmost community. We visited the shop, where several people bought some of the legendary and very cheap woollen socks, and postcards that then have the northernmost postal stamp put on them. After that, we walked through deep snow to the pylon that had been used for the launch of the ‘Norge’ in 1926 – the airship in which Amundsen, Nobile and Ellsworth made the first trans-polar flight. The snow began to fall quite heavily on the way back to the ship – the beginning of a weather system that we were going to have to go through on the way north. In the so-called Town Square, we passed a bust of Roald Amundsen protruding from the snow, showing only the face shrouded by the hood of a parka. Although the bust is mounted on a plinth, and stands two metres above the ground, it seemed apropos to Amundsen, as well as to our own journey, to see it half-buried and framed by the snow.
We had intended to wait out the weather front in Ny Alesund but decided that it would be better to leave immediately and get ahead of the worst of it. When we left, Gerry and Andrew gave part of an ongoing presentation on the use Adobe Lightroom, which was enthusiastically received.
Having seen two walrus hauled-out on the beach, we went ashore in a Zodiac to try and have a closer look and take some photographs. Approaching the animals cautiously, in the open, our intention was to let them be aware of us without making them afraid and causing them to leave the beach. Gradually, we got into a position where we were 30-40 metres from the walrus, with a beautiful backdrop of snow-covered mountains. As they were downwind of us, they did not smell us, and were not aware of our presence until we moved ourselves downwind of them. When they did finally realise we were there, they showed some interest, watching us from where they were lying and occasionally raising their heads.
After about an hour, we set off towards some reindeer we had seen about a kilometre away. The snow was packed hard by the wind, and so we were able to walk on it without sinking-in too much. When we were about 200 metres from the animals, they began to approach us, coming to within 50 metres, and affording us some good photo opportunities. The five reindeer that came the nearest behaved in the typical fashion; approaching. then spooking themselves and then approaching again. There were also some great skuas in view from where we were watching the reindeer that may have established a nest site. We had hoped to be able to get somewhat nearer to them, but they flew off before we could try.
We had hoped that we could have another look at the walrus before going back to the ship, and after they had been able to settle a bit after we had first seen them, however, they had left the beach and gone into the water. Getting back into the Zodiac, we were also hoping that we might see some walrus in the water, as we had seen some at a distance, on the way to shore, in the morning – as it was, we didn’t see any, but we did have another fleeting glimpse of at least one beluga before returning to the ship.
From Belsund, we sailed north in choppy water, across the entrance to Isfjord, towards Prins Karl’s Forland and the possibility of a large group of walrus along its eastern shore.
The sea had been a little rough when our starboard side was open to the Greenland Sea, on the way south to Hornsund, and some of the guests had felt a little queasy during the night. In the shelter of the fjord, however, although the weather was overcast, it was calm and quite cold, with a wind chill of around -16C.
After breakfast, on our way ashore in a Zodiac, we came across a small group of belugas close to where we intended to land, where they were following the contour of the shore, in shallow water, and may have been feeding. We could see their backs as they swam in low arcs, but belugas are typically very hard to photograph, giving only brief views of part of their head, back and blowhole. After we went ashore, a small group of curious reindeer approached us closely enough for us to get some interesting photographs of them. While approaching us and appearing quite relaxed, the reindeer would suddenly spook themselves, run some distance and then regroup before approaching again.
Later in the afternoon, we made a landing at Gnalodden after having some difficulty manoeuvring amongst the rocks and shallows along the shore. We had hoped to have a look inside the cabin, but the beneath the towering cliffs of Gnalberget, but the door was still drifted-in with snow and would have been difficult to open, so we didn’t try. A few minutes later, we saw a brown-coloured fox running across the steep slopes above the cabin – what was of most interest about this animal was that while the white winter coat of the Arctic fox would probably not yet have given way completely to the summer brown, the brown coat of these foxes was a thick winter pelage rather than a thin summer one. Three or four hundred metres behind the first fox, a second and slightly smaller one with the same brown coat appeared – with their black eye-rings and the black bands at the base of the back and neck, these odd-looking foxes were a rare brown morph of the Arctic fox which could be a rare genetic aberrance that has become endemic to the Hornsund area.
After watching the brown Arctic foxes for a while, we observed three more white ones on the slopes beneath the bird cliffs, and at one point could see all of them as well as one of the brown ones in the same view through binoculars. After this unexpectedly abundant landing, we returned to the Zodiac, which was now in deeper water due to the tide having risen while we were ashore. Once back on the Stockholm, we had another excellent dinner.
After flying from Oslo with a brief stop at Tromso, our SAS flight afforded us a spectacular view of the snow-covered mountains around Isfjord as it made its approach into Longyearbyen. We were met at the airport by a man called Finn, who was going to give us a tour of the town before taking us to the ship for our 4pm embarkation. Our first stop was the global seed bank, which is located on a hillside between the airport and the town. The seed bank isn’t open to the public, but we were at least able to take some pictures of its slightly surreal entrance which is a stainless steel enclosed walkway that runs back from a heavily built door into the hillside. We then picked-up the rest of our party at the Spitsbergen Hotel before making a stop at Café Fruene, in the centre of the town, for a little refreshment following our flight.
After a short stop at the café, we continued our tour, taking-in the sled dog yard, and the public kennelling area, the Sysselmann’s office, the famous Huset restaurant, and the northernmost church in the world. At 4pm, our driver dropped us at the quay where the Stockholm was moored, and we went aboard. After dropping our bags in our cabins, we had a tour of the ship before a short safety briefing from the Expedition Leader and First Mate. Following that, the ship departed at 5pm, sailing out into Isfjord and bound for Hornsund, where we would spend the first full day of the trip.
The beautiful wilderness that we got to experience during the trip already seemed like a long way away. The monstrous Costa Pacifica and its 3700 passengers had arrived during the night. There was a constant flow of people walking to town, and the presence of the ship complicated the disembarking from the Polaris. We all met up in town at 12:30 for the last goodbyes. Thank you all for the great trip!
There is still quite some distance to cover to reach Longyearbyen, so we had an early start (bit too early for some!). We sailed along Prins Karls Forland and stopped at Poolepynten to look at a group of about 15 to 20 walruses. Arthur kept the boat close to the animals so we could stay dry and warm, and still take great photographs. In the early afternoon we reached Trygghamna and its impressive tortured landscape. We got onshore for one last walk in the mossy Tundra before Longyearbyen. We saw several reindeers and their calves, a fox and a seal. All good things come to an end, and it was already time to reach Longyearbyen. Rupert showed us the slideshow of the trip in which Lennie’s lemon, rescued from the kitchen stood a good place.