Day 1: Friday, 15 May 2015 – Embarkation, Longyearbyen.

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We arrived in Svalbard in the early afternoon along with most of the guests who had flown north from Oslo on the same flight. At Longyear airport we were greeted by Rupert, the Blue Planet Expeditions representative, and a mini bus that was waiting to take us to the ship

Due to the fact that we couldn’t embark the MS Stockholm until later in the afternoon we stopped just long enough to offload our luggage. Once this was completed we got back into the minibus and continued onwards for a tour of Longyearbyen.

The town is small but its uniqueness and interesting history provided an interesting interlude, and our guide Wiggo, who is a fourth generation Svalbard resident, gave us a potted history that was both interesting and humorous. Longyearbyen is the furthest North town in the world, a distinction shared with the northernmost church and university campus. The town is also home to the World Seed Bank – a strategic repository for seeds of most of the world’s plants and trees and the crops we rely on.

On our tour, we also learned about the colourful social history of Longyearbyen, and of Svalbard, which, while not having an indigenous people, only a century ago was the ultimate representation of the ‘wild west’. During that time, Svalbard was populated by coal miners, whalers, fox and polar bear trappers – tough, self-reliant people. The human population was scattered sparsely along the archipelago’s cold shores in rudimentary cabins built from driftwood. The capital was formed in Longyearbyen, which had grown up at the bottom of the valley off Isfjorden where the first coal had been discovered. There was no law in Svalbard in those days, adding to the harsh nature of life there, and it was a place suited only to the hardiest and most independent people.

The Svalbard treaty of 1920 saw Norway open its remote High Arctic territory to any other country or people who wanted a part of it, although only Russia staked any claim, later consolidating their access to coal in other areas of Isfjorden, and designating the towns of Barentsburg and Pyramiden as formal Russian inholdings in Svalbard.

After a break at Cafe Fruene, we stopped at the Radisson Hotel to pick up guests who had arrived in Longyearbyen earlier, and then drove down to the port where we boarded the ship.

Just after 5pm, we let go the lines and sailed west into Isfjorden and the beginning of our adventure along the west coast of Spitsbergen.

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Day 10: Isfjord – Templefjorden

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After a calmer night than the previous one, we reached Poolepynten, a promontory jutting-out into the shallow waters off the east coast of Prins Karl’s Forland that is often a very good place to see quite large numbers of walrus ‘hauled-out’ on the beach.  On this occasion, there were none, so we continued south for Isfjord, Skansebukta and Templefjorden, in a last effort to find some more wildlife before the end of the trip.  Polar bears and puffins were high on everyone’s list, considering what we had seen on the trip, and we had decided to visit two locations that could, possibly, yield another sighting of both.

At Skansebukta, the bird cliffs seemed almost deserted until we approached them more closely in the Zodiacs, when they revealed some of most of the birds we would generally expect to see in Svalbard: Brunnich’s guillemots, black guillemots, kittiwakes, pink-footed geese, barnacle geese, glaucous gulls, snow-buntings, northern fulmars, but no puffins.  We did see a fox briefly, before it disappeared into what appeared to be a den and did not re-emerge.  After about an hour and a half at the cliffs, we returned to the Stockholm for lunch on the aft deck before sailing for Templefjorden in hope of seeing bears and seals on the fast ice we expected to find there.

Arriving in Templefjorden, we found several miles of fast ice extending towards the glacier at its head, with over 100 bearded and ringed seals scattered over the surface.  We went a short way into the ice and then stopped so as to minimise altering it and disrupting the seals.  Sitting in silence, we scanned the ice and the shoreline beyond it for bears that may have crossed the short distance between the Barent’s Sea and Templefjord but there were none.  We did see an Arctic fox to our port side, but it was more than half a kilometre away and did not come any closer.

The white landscape and the seals on the unbroken ice around us, framed against a blue sky, was a fitting end to our trip despite our not finding any more bears or puffins.  Backing out of the fast ice, we sailed out of Templefjord to Isfjord, arriving in Longyearbyen at around 9pm and tying-up at the quay for the night.

Day 2: Hornsund

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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.

Day 10: Trygghamna

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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.

Day 3: Kongsfjorden

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We woke up to find the boat surrounded by thousands of ice floes of all sizes. We sailed along the impressive calving front of Blomstrandbreen before stopping by Ossian Sarsfjellet Nature Reserve. Arthur and Benoit kept us company which made it possible to make two groups for a longer and a shorter walk. Ossian Sarsfjellet is located between two large glaciers, and is a great viewpoint in the Tre Kroner or “Three Crowns”, the mountains dominating Kongsfjorden, and the most emblematic mountains of Svalbard. We got the chance to see reindeers and their youngs, foxes, and hundreds of guillemots and noisy kitty wakes nesting on a cliff. What a great walk!
After lunch we sailed northwards through Sjubre Flakket. Heidi gave us a lecture on the geology of Svalbard. A couple of hours later we entered the most famous Magdalene Fjorden. The Sysselmannen’s boat Nordsyssel had just left two guards in the small cabin at Gravneset. The place is one of the most visited fjords of Svalbard, as it is home to the largest graveyard for whalers of the archipelago. The area is highly sensitive, and the guards make sure that the visitors do not disturb the wildlife and the site. During dinner we got entertained by the Captain and Benoit who went skiing on the glacier right above the boat.

Day 2: Prins Karls Forland – Kongsfjorden

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We sailed along the northern half of Prins Karls Forland and traversed East towards Kongsfjorden, originally called King’s Bay, at 79°N.  While sailing, Rupert gave us the first instructions regarding polar bear safety and the protocol to follow in case of an encounter on land.

We anchored by the broken-up glacier Blomstrandbreen, which finished surging in 2012. Surging is a phenomenon by which some glaciers have a bi-polar and cyclical behaviour. The surge phase is short (up to a few years) and is defined by high flow velocities that stretch the glacier and break up its surface in a chaos of seracs. The quiescent phase follows and the glacier flows abnormally slowly, allowing it to regain its pre-surge mass and geometry. We were able to observe the consequence of a surge during a hike along the true left side of Blomstrandbreen. The walk turned into an interesting experience as some of us got stuck in very sticky mud! In the evening we got the chance to experience the midnight sun and meet many of Svalbard’s inhabitants during a walk in Ossian Sarsfjellet Nature Reservet. Reindeers, foxes, kitty wakes and Guillemots, they were all there! A party looked at the bird cliffs from below from the sea with Rick while the rest of the group hiked along the cliff from the top of the hill. From there we could see the Tre Kroner or Three Crowns of King’s Bay and their unique pyramidal shape. A great and sunny walk with the Captain.