|Svalbard Ice Map 4 July 2007 - please CLICK map to enlarge|
|Expedition Leader 'Dutch'|
We flew from London Heathrow to Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen via Oslo. Delayed flight from London meant a very quick transfer through a miserably wet Oslo and a further flight into an increasingly light sky as we travelled further north. I’d forgotten just how cramped SAS economy is, and you have to pay for food and drink…you have been warned!
We landed at about 0100 on the one and only runway, and it was like daytime…we’d arrived in the ‘land of the midnight sun’. Total flight time: 2 hours to Oslo plus another 2.5 hours to Longyearbyen. Not much going on in Longyearbyen…a typical coal mining town stuck up north of the Arctic Circle at 78 degrees 13’ N! One difference from most mining towns though…a plethora of snowmobiles parked up for the summer outside every home. Apparently, there are about 1,800 people living in the town, with almost 4,000 snowmobiles!
Overnight stay at the pleasant Spitsbergen Hotel on a small hill just above the town. Had a good night’s sleep followed by a long walk around the town. A bright but cloudy day, with occasional drizzle. Temperature about 7 degrees C…the typical summer temperature up here. Sedimentary mountains define the fjord that Longyearbyen is based in. Snow streaked, and littered with old mining paraphernalia, this is a barren place, but with happy families out walking in the town and groups of reindeer grazing on the thin grass just outside.
I asked the receptionist at the hotel if there were any good walks beyond the town. Her response was ‘have you got a gun?’ I’d forgotten that we are in a region populated by polar bears! So, that’s a ‘no’ then…
|Vavilov, off northwest Spitsbergen|
During the night we headed west through Isfjorden, then tracking NW, parallel to the long island of Prins Karls Forland before turning east into Kingsfjorden in the early hours. Brilliant blue skies by 0900, and fine views of the mountains and glaciers around Kingsfjorden. A whale was spotted some distance from the port side before breakfast and two reindeer mistaken momentarily for polar bear just west of Ny-Åylsund. This settlement is one of the northernmost communities in the world. Once a mining village served by the world’s most northerly railway, which can still be seen, it now serves as a base station for international Arctic research. Chinese and Korean climatic researchers were present.
|Glaucous gull over Arctic waters|
Arctic terns, common eiders, glaucous gulls and snow buntings seen, but the local Arctic foxes were elusive.
A long Zodiac transfer to visit the small island if Fugelsangen, off the far NW tip of Spitsbergen. A cold, grey day, with another expedition ship moored nearby. Visited a colony of little auks (doveskies) after a 750m walk, boulder hopping to avoid damage to the mosses and to prevent a visible path forming. Accompanied everywhere with armed guides. A sleeping polar bear was encountered on a previous visit.
|Little auk, Svalbard|
Joined a group for the longest of the walks offered, the group christened the ‘chargers’ by the Peregrine team, and the walk went north across very boggy ground and patches of deep wet snow before we reached the other side of the small headland for a stroll along the beach, littered with trees from Siberia and the usual detritus from passing ships. Groups of kittiwakes were seen along with evidence of reindeer and Arctic fox. Our guides were on constant watch for polar bears. Returning three hours later in bright sunshine, we encountered a strong smell of sulphur…some volcanicity in the area. A funny dinner with some lively Canadians and Australians, after which it was difficult to turn in because of the very bright sunshine still around at 2230.
After another very smooth night on ship, awoke to find sea ice around the ship. We’re north of 80 degrees N, just 600 miles from the North Pole. Grey skies today, with the temperature at 1.7 degrees C, as we headed east then south east into the Hinlopenstrettet, a wide channel between Spitsbergen and the other main island of Svalbard, Nordaustlandet. We travelled into increasingly thick sea ice, with scopes trained to look out for polar bears and walrus.
Sea ice charts are available from http://www.met.no : click the English version and follow the links to the ice maps.
After lunch we travelled by Zodiac to Alkafjellet in the Kapp Farnshawe area to view a glacier at close quarters and some towering cliffs populated by thousands of Brunnich guillemots, Glaucous gulls and kittiwake. A cold hour or so on the boat, under leaden skies.
Then, after a short interlude, another Zodiac trip into Lomfjorden to check out the fast ice for seals and polar bears. Spent some considerable time in the ‘brash ice’ at the head of the fjord, but no sightings apart from a seal, and returned, chilled to the bone, back to Vavilov.
Awoke to dense fog, although very bright as the weak sun tried to force its way through. We’re now at our northernmost point, at about 80 degrees 41’ N, just 560 miles away from the North Pole. As the sun cleared around us, we were in spectacular and highly photogenic ‘pancake’ ice, around 50% cover, with the occasional iceberg also seen.
|Pancake ice of northern Spitsbergen|
|Polar bear with cub, Phippsøya, northern Spitsbergen|
At 0615, expedition leader ‘Dutch’ announced that we had reached Moffen Island, off the northern coast of Spitsbergen. A herd of walrus were sleeping on the beach, with a couple in the shallow waters around. Some distant viewing was possible, but there was insufficient depth of water for the ship to get closer, and, as a special conservation area, we were not permitted to get closer than 300m anyway.
|Monaco Glacier, Woodfjorden|
|Woodfjorden and the Monaco Glacier|
As usual the groups split into specialist interest groups with the faster walkers heading off to circumnavigate the larger of the islands.
|Andoyane Islands, off northern Svalbard|
He was quite nonchalant, concentrating instead on his mission to search out eggs from the many Arctic Tern nests on the island, but the Peregrine team got the groups swiftly back to the Zodiacs, always conscious that these animals can travel at up to 25kph over short distances. Moreover, there is always the possibility that another bear could be in the vicinity.
|Polar bear on the Andoyane Islands|
All in all, an eventful day!
A grey, windy start to the day. Despite strong winds and a moderate swell, the stabiliser system on the Vavilov is amazing: a slight motion only, and one that would have been much greater on lesser ships. Overnight we had repositioned back to the west coast of Spitsbergen and before breakfast had re-entered Krossfjorden, in readiness for an excursion to the 14th July Glacier (Fjortende Julibreen).
In a stronger wind we boarded the Zodiacs after breakfast to view some relatively well vegetated cliffs populated by puffin and guillemots. Strong gusts of wind and some driven sleet and snow determined an early landing. A beach landing from rough sea, followed by a slow amble along to the snout of the 14 July Glacier (name has French origins). A simple beach walk, with nesting skewers warning us not to approach closer by hovering threateningly over our heads.
A bumpy return to the ship!
As it turned out, this was to be the last excursion of the day. A planned visit to a known walrus herd at Richardlaguna was aborted when an advance party found that no animals were to be seen. So, a lazy afternoon on the ship instead…
Overnight the ship sailed south, passing the westerly island of Prins Karls Forland before turning north again into the largely uncharted Forlandsundet to access the headland of Poolepynten, where a large herd of walrus had recently been seen by other expedition ships. An early Zodiac expedition was launched, with the ship’s passengers split into three groups in order to meet the AECO regulations that no more than 30 people should land close to a walrus herd at any one time (and not get any closer than 30m from them). Groups would then fan out and approach the walrus very slowly so as not to stress them. As it turned out, there was not much action on the beach as the small number of walrus here were asleep.
|Walrus at Poolepynten, Prins Karls Forland|
Then a long day’s cruising to Bourbonhamna in Van Keulenfjorden, where there was short Zodiac landing to visit a trapper’s hut and piles of Beluga whale bones. Signs of recent polar bear activity around a rotting sperm whale carcass were also observed.
A somewhat disturbed night on the ship with big swells as we headed around the southern tip of Spitsbergen. Early morning we were at 76 degrees 21.179N, 016 degrees 48.160E and heading north east for our first Zodiac landing in the Isbukta area. By 0800 there was sea ice to the north and east of the ship, much further south than we had experienced on the western side of Spitsbergen, supporting the view that a full circumnavigation would have been impossible at this early point of the Arctic summer.
Technically, this was only a band of sea ice, about 2 miles to get through it, but it was a spectacular display of multi-year sea ice in a pulsing swell. The zodiac landing was about 2 miles off the ship as the inner coastal waters are not charted. Apart from seeing a bearded and a few ring and harbour seals, we had a distant viewing of a young adult polar bear dragging a small seal across the fast ice close to the glacier. This, we were told, was classic polar bear country: fast ice, fairly flat, with an abundance of seals for food.
Later in the day our journey took us to Hambergbukta on the SE of Spitsbergen for another possible landing. It was a long approach by Zodiac from the ship as the terminal and lateral moraine from the main glacier feeding this bay extends out an unknown distance. An early sighting of a large polar bear swimming in the bay to our north was a taster of things to come as one of the scout boats soon reported seeing two bears on the fast ice just below the snout of the glacier.
|Polar bear on fast ice, Hambergbukta, southeast Spitsbergen|
The days started quietly cruising the side fjords of the spectacular Hornsund area of south Spitsbergen, enjoying the towering mountain peaks and the 14 glaciers in the area. Afternoon excursion and landing in the Burgerbukta area.
Disembarkation and return flight, via Tromso and Oslo, into London.
A good insight into the Arctic environment, aboard one of the best ice strengthened ships in the world, with superb manoeuvreability and stability. Reaching within 600 miles of the North Pole, the 24 hour daylight affords great viewing at all times (recognising that we were blessed with favourable weather...it can often be foggy). A land of peaks rising to over 1700m, glaciers that literally pour into the ocean, and unique wildlife, including the elusive polar bear.
Tips: make sure you bring good waterproof bags for cameras, the longest lens you can afford/carry, take the warnings about polar bears very seriously (we never landed without armed guides scouting the area first and we were closely guarded at all times on shore), and prepare to be patient - the sightings of bear and walrus are often hard won.