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 9: Krossfjorden – Prins Karl’s Forland

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The previous night had been quite short for most of us, as there had been a number of swells from about 3am that rearranged our cabins, with chairs falling-over, clothing and unsecured items falling to the floor and distant sounds of banging and breaking glass and china.  After about 5am, the sea swell diminished as we turned into the protection of Krossfjorden, where we were no longer exposed to the wind from the Greenland Sea.

In Krossfjorden, we stopped at the bird cliff at Kongshamaran, on Kong Haakon’s Halvoy, which is usually a good place to see puffins.  While that proved not to be the case on this occasion, in addition to Brunnich’s Guillemots and Kittiwakes, there were snow buntings, pink-footed geese and barnacle geese, at the cliffs, the latter having been seen only fleetingly on the trip so far.

Leaving Krossfjorden, we sailed south for Magdalenafjorden, which exposed us briefly to the wind again before reaching the shelter of the fjord.  We had hoped to see little auks at the colony near the head of the fjord, on the northern side, but visibility was poor and the snow was too deep for us to hike up to it anyway.  With the view of the glacier also obscured, and no walrus at a beach where they are frequently found, we dropped anchor behind the sheltering point of Gravneset to have dinner and decide whether to leave Magdalenafjorden sooner rather than later, depending on the weather.  Having originally thought we’d remain there until the early hours of the morning, we decided to leave after dinner, taking advantage of a brief window in the generally inclement weather to cross the exposed area to our south before reaching the protected waters between Spitsbergen and Prins Karl’s Forland.

Day 7: North West Spitsbergen and Raudfjord

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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.

Day 4: Kongsfjord – Ny-Alesund

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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.

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 8: Virgohamna to Krossfjorden

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Despite Rupert’s promises, the weather was again not on our side. We left Virgohamna early and happily sailed along the now free of ice and calmer Smeerenburgfjorden. The conditions were great, as was the visibility. Once again despite our best efforts we only observed bear tracks, no animals. We reached Magdalenefjorden just before lunch. Rupert took us to see the little auks colony on the north side of the fjord. Thousands of them were flying around us! It was truly amazing. In the late afternoon we resumed sailing southwards, and Rupert made the most of this time to give us a great lecture on bears. Once the evening came, Rupert was all apologised as the blue sky was proudly standing over Krossfjorden. What a sight! A minke whale greeted us as we were entering the fjord, but still no narwhals… The view was absolutely stunning and seeing the sun brought the mood up and nobody wanted to go to sleep! We anchored in the little bay of Signehamna, in front of the magnificent glacier of LillieHookBreen.

Day 7: Hamiltonbukta to Virgohamna.

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In the morning we carried on our exploration of the fjord, but this time onboard the Polaris. The fjord was three quarters full of ice, and the conditions could not have been more ideal for bears. We could see lots of seals lying on the ice floes, but despite an intense watch with the binos, no bears were seen in the vicinity. We carried on our search to the entrance to Smeerenburgfjorden and it didn’t take long before our great birder Steven spotted a bear! The animal was standing on a snowy promontory along the shore, making it particularly tricky to see. 5 minutes later we were already out in the zodiacs. The bear was already lying on the snow, ready for a good sleep. We approached with the engines cut off, paddles in hands. The animal was very relaxed and we did not disturb it from its nap. Rupert identified it as a young male, maybe 4 or 5 years old. To our surprise, a large walrus came close to us, and immediately the bear spotted it and changed position to keep an eye on it. We went back out again after lunch, but this time the bear was restless. It quickly woke up from its semi-nap and started walking along the shore. We tried to follow it with a distance, but it was effortlessly walking as fast as our zodiacs in the water! It then went into the water and aimed for the fast ice. Quickly it stood up on the ice and we decided to give it some rest. What a sight!
Smeerenburgfjorden seemed more sailable but there was still a lot of ice in the fjord. We spotted another large walrus on an ice flow. As we were sailing South the sea became much rougher. But such unpleasant conditions did not prevent our dear Rick from giving a lecture on his work as a BBC cameraman. The conditions became so bad that the captain decided to make a U-turn and to anchor again in Virgohamna.

Day 6: Utranorskoya to Raud-fjorden

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The Polaris I was literally surrounded by fast ice. Ice everywhere. Arthur took us to the island of Utranorskoya for a fantastic walk. As all of Arthur’s hikes, it started with a steep climb but was well worth the effort! We could see the fast ice from the North Pole, pushed by the strong winds towards Svalbard. The light was surreal and the presence of this fast ice coming from the Pole made the scenery unforgettable. On the way we saw whalers graves and also many species of birds such as Skuas, geese, and even puffins nesting on the cliffs!
Once back from the hike, we sailed along the ice edge. It was crazy to think that we could potentially have hopped from one ice floe to the next all the way to the North Pole! Many animals had drifted with the fast ice. Arthur used all his skills and experience to slowly approach these arctic hitchhikers. We got the chance to see a fast asleep walrus and a very cooperative bearded seal.
After these great encounters we set route to Raud-Fjorden and the loveliest Hamiltonbukta. The presence of the fast ice absorbed the waves and the ripples, which made the sea calmer than ever. The mountains and the glaciers of HamiltonBukta were reflected in the water, it was magical. Once anchored in the bay we took the zodiacs out for a great ride zigzagging between the bergs, and reached places where the ship couldn’t go. We saw lots of bear tracks on the shores of the fjord, and thousands of guillemots gathered in the middle of the fjord.

Day 5: Virgohamna to Utranorskoya

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The blizzard had weakened, but the wind was still very much present. We sailed along the former settlement of Smeerenburg and our best polar bear spotter Laura quickly found another animal! This time the bear was on the ice eating a fresh kill. Breathtaking! Unfortunately we were not the only ones watching the majestic animal, another boat got there before us! The male was of a good size, looking fat and fit! To leave the priority to the other boat, we decided to set anchor on the other side of the fjord and wait until the large ship goes away. We sailed back to the bear after lunch and it had drifted quite a lot with the fast ice. We could observed it really well from the deck, and the bear finished his meal right before our eyes. After such a nice dinner it left the carcass on the ice and went for a nice session of rolling and sliding on the snow.  Once our dear friend asleep our trip North resumed. On the way, one of our passengers had to be evacuated by helicopter. We all wish her well, and will definitely miss her and her husband deeply. Late in the afternoon we got blocked by the fast ice, and we decided to set anchor for the night in the shelter of Fair Haven and the island of Utranorskoya in the corner of North Western Svalbard. The place was famous among whalers for its calm waters and shelter from strong winds. Just what we need!

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.