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.

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 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 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

Svalbard - Stockholm, May, 2014 16198

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 5: Danskoya – Amsterdamoya

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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.

Day 1: Longyearbyen

MS Stockholm berthed in Longyearbyen

MS Stockholm berthed in Longyearbyen

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.

Day 11: Longyearbyen and beyond!

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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!

Day 9: Signehamna and Lilliehookbreen

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For the first time we woke up with the blue sky. But the sun wasn’t shining for everybody, a shower leaked during the night and nobody could shower in the morning. We were literally all on the same boat! In the morning Arthur took us again for one of his secret walks in the Tundra. We walked in the footsteps of German officers who built the weather station of Signehamna in 1943. No less that 6 similar stations were installed in Spitsbergen, only to get accurate weather forecast over the Barents Sea, and keep an eye on the ally convoys sending supplies to the Soviet Union. The Germans evacuated the island in 1945. Hervé and Veronique cooked us a great lunch outside in front of the glacier Lilliehook. This massive wall of ice surrounded us, cracking and growling. Absolutely stunning! But already the call of the south came, and we had to start sailing back down. On the way we stopped again along the bird cliff of Lilliehoofjorden, and Jordan and Heidi collected some marine invertebrates populating the Arctic Ocean. We were all amazed to see that these arctic waters could be home to such funny little animals! We anchored at Selvagen, along Prins Karls Forland. After dinner we all celebrated solstice day with Abba, Boney-M, the Beach Boys… Undoubtedly the best party in Prins Karls Forland!