Day 2: Saturday, 16 May 2015 Ny Alesund

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Having sailed north overnight in relatively bumpy seas, we stopped at Ny Alesund, the scientific community on the southern shore of Kongsfjord that developed from the mining operation at Kings Bay after 1967. In 1926, Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile successfully piloted the airship “Norge” from Ny Alesund, over the North Pole to Alaska. In the same decade, three other attempts were made to overfly the North Pole from Ny Alesund, including that of Nobile, in 1928, aboard another airship called Italia, which crashed on the sea-ice with a loss of 8 crew members and several rescuers, including Roald Amundsen. From 1992, foreign countries were permitted to build research facilities at Ny Alesund, and today, is has a summer population of around 300 that dwindles to around 35 in winter.

 

We walked around the community, looked at the dog-kennel area, the old telegraph house and the bust of Roald Amundsen. The museum was being renovated, but it was possible to visit the shop, where post cards could be sent home stamped with the furthest north post mark in the world. We also walked out to the tower where Amundsen’s airship, Norge, had been tethered prior to its trans-polar flight.

 

We sailed north out of Kongsfjorden and were briefly exposed to the choppy seas of the previous night before entering the sheltered waters of Bjornfjorden and Smeerenburg. As we will soon be approaching the sea ice, we had a bear safety talk from Rupert, after dinner.

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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 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 4: Danskoya

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Early after breakfast, Rupert, Jordan and Heidi took a zodiac out to check if there were any walruses in the well-known haul out closeby in Gullybukta. Only one poor walrus was there on the beach, and we agreed that it was not worth taking everybody there. Arthur then started sailing towards Smeerenburgfjorden (the fjord of “Greasy town”). Smeerenburgfjorden was full of large ice floes and was a good indication of what the conditions would be for the following days.
Just as we were getting worried about the sailing conditions Laura spotted the first polar bear, climbing in the hills close to shore. We immediately took two zodiacs out as got closer to the shore. This first sighting made us forget about the unpleasant weather conditions: horizontal snow, wind, waves… The bear was obviously interested in the bird nests on the cliff, and kept climbing up and down and around the hill. After a couple of hours of observation we went back to the boat for lunch and enjoyed yet another of Hervé’s delicious soups. We then headed towards Virgohamna, today desolated beach but once world-famous when the Swedish ballooner Salomon André set off to fly over the North Pole in 1897. The weather went from bad to worse, and we decided to stay in the comfort and the shelter of the boat during the blizzard, and enjoyed Heidi’s lecture on the History of Svalbard.