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

Svabard-SS

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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MS Stockholm in Stromness

We had a pleasant suprise yesterday as the MS Stockholm sailed into Stromness harbour as part of a relocation cruise from her home port of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Never one to shy away from an opportunity to have a look around a ship we grabbed the camera and headed down to the port to take some pictures of the vessel. We have chartered the MS Stockholm the past few seasons in Svalbard – a quite capable expedition ship if ever there was one.

Enjoy the pictures below 🙂

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August in Svalbard

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The M/S Stockholm in Forlandsundet, Svalbard

As our 15th to 25th May expedition to Svalbard has almost sold out we decided to find out if anybody else needed some help filling their trips. After a few enquiries we found the following berths still available on the M/S Stockholm which we are also using in 2015.

The M/S Stockholm has an expedition in August that requires 1 female in a share berth, and 1 male in a share berth – see here for details, 18th to 28th August Svalbard Expedition.

Let us know if this is of interest to you by contacting us at info@blueplanetexpeditions.co.uk

 

 

Day 11: Longyearbyen (disembarkation)

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After breakfast, we disembarked from the Stockholm and went into Longyearbyen in our minibus to spend a few hours there before our afternoon flight to Oslo.  It is said that strangers are only friends we have not yet met, and we departed Longyearbyen for our various homes as new-found friends who will hopefully now remain in contact in one way or another – bound together through having shared a grand adventure.

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 8: North of Spitsbergen

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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.

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 6: North Coast, off Raudfjorden

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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.

Day 3: Bellsund

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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.

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.