04 July 2007


Land of the Midnight Sun - A Circumnavigation of Svalbard

Svalbard Ice Map 4 July 2007 - please CLICK map to enlarge
I travelled with Exodus, on board the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, a Russian research vessel. The expedition was operated by Peregrine Expeditions, with David 'Dutch' Willmott as expedition leader.

Expedition Leader 'Dutch'
Svalbard is an archipelago of mainly glaciated mountainous islands about 600 miles from the North Pole. From June to August there is continuous daylight and the top metre of the permafrost on the islands melts. The climate here is milder than the latitude would suggest, technically ‘Arctic desert’, with little summer precipitation. Our embarkation point, Longyearbyen, is the main administrative centre of Svalbard, located on the largest island, Spitsbergen.

Day 1

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!

Day 2

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
Transferred to the ship in the afternoon and once aboard there was a get together for introductions to the expedition team, to learn about the ship and its layout, and participate in the obligatory lifeboat drill. At dinner I talked with one of the crew, Bjorn, who’s role was as firearms officer…he will accompany landing groups with a 308 rifle to protect against polar bears. He commented that at close quarters (<5 metres) you’d probably have no choice but to shoot the bear, but added that every polar bear shooting is treated with the same seriousness as a human murder by the Norwegian authorities.

Day 3

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
We moored off Ny-Åylsund for the morning whilst mandatory briefings on Zodiac landings, polar bears, and required conduct on Arctic territory (AECO guidelines) were provided. Then the first Zodiac landing, and a walk around the town. Visited the site where the first transpolar airship expedition departed - the anchoring mast used by Amundsen and Nobile for the airship Norge in 1926 and Nobile in the airship Italia in 1928 before their flights to the North Pole and on to Alaska.
Arctic terns, common eiders, glaucous gulls and snow buntings seen, but the local Arctic foxes were elusive.

Approaching Ny-Åylsund
We then sailed north to visit the Lilliehook Glacier in bright sunshine and clear blue skies. Our journey took us up the Krossfjorden, before entering the narrower channel leading up to the glacier. Hot chocolate for all on the bow deck…a treat! Fabulous views of the glacier. On board lectures on polar bears and Arctic photography followed.

Day 4

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
Back to the ship for lunch, then on to Zodiacs again for a walk on the island of Amsterdamøya, with a historic whaling site, established in the early 1600s by the Dutch, known as Smeerenburg or ‘Blubbertown’. Remnants of the old charcoal fired blubber ovens were evident (bowhead or Right whales were hunted). The temperature was between 3-4 degrees C all day.
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.

Day 5

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.
Then, halfway through a good lecture on sea ice, the call came over the tannoy that a bear had been spotted on a nearby ice floe. It quickly slipped into the water and started to swim away from the ship, but it was great to get a first sighting of a young adult male. The position of the sighting was just off Kapp Fanshawe, NE Spitsbergen.
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.

Lomfjorden, Spitsbergen
After dinner, the ship returned north westwards again, now encountering 70% ice cover, so a few bumps in the night are expected! The ice had moved northwards by about 15-20 miles whilst we were ‘playing’ in Lomfjorden and had effectively started to block our route back north. It was also here that we were made aware that a full circumnavigation of Svalbard would not be possible due to ice pack further east.

Lomfjorden, Spitsbergen
Day 6

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
We spent the morning cruising through the sea ice and very calm open water on a north easterly track towards Phippsøya, the most northerly island of the Svalbard archipelago. A BBQ was held on deck at lunchtime…the most northerly BBQ ever! The afternoon was spent in Zodiacs in the bay between Phippsøya and Nelsonsøya, amidst fast ice and pack ice. Seals seen in the far distance, but a beautifully bright sunny afternoon in incredibly calm waters was enjoyed by all. This is now the northerly record…516 nautical miles from the Pole at 80 degrees 43.063 N 19 degrees 51.705 E.

Bearded seal
Of course, nothing in the Arctic can be predicted, so no sooner than we had departed from Phippsøya, when a bearded seal was spotted on an ice floe. Some reasonably good close up photography was possible before it slipped away into the water. So off to the bar for a beer, when we were rudely interrupted by a call announcing that a polar bear with cub were in the water to our starboard side, so up on to the bow deck again to view this new spectacle, keeping an appropriate distance to ensure that we were not harassing the animals. However, they swam and swam, more and more into open water, so I’m not sure we achieved that particular self-imposed limit. Much excitement on board though.

Polar bear with cub, Phippsøya, northern Spitsbergen
Day 7

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.
We then headed SW for Woodfjorden, en route to a Zodiac exploration of the huge Monaco Glacier.

Monaco Glacier, Woodfjorden
This proved to be an eventful trip, again in bright sunshine and calm waters, with a sighting of polar bears at the northern end of the channel (very distant, however) followed by a pod of Beluga whales at our mooring point just off the end of the fjord, where the surge glaciers empty into the sea. More kittiwake sitting on ice floes, deep blue freshwater icebergs, a ring seal, and ultimately a sea full of brash ice (small particles of glacier ice in the sea) as we cruised under the towering walls of these massive ice flows. Unique to Svalbard, we were looking at surge glaciers, which after a static period of up to 20 years, suddenly thrust forward at a rate of 15-20m per day, spilling tons of ice into the sea.

Woodfjorden and the Monaco Glacier
A quick lunch, then off on to the Zodiacs again in an attempt to find the polar bears that were fleetingly glimpsed earlier in the day. The ship had repositioned itself slightly during lunch, moving north to moor off the Andøyane Islands, a group of low lying islands at the head of Liefdelfjorden.
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
There were spectacular views to the head of the fjord, with increasing cloud cover and strengthening winds, and some wonderful looking lenticular clouds forming over nearby mountains. Just as this group turned to get back to the Zodiacs, our leader ‘Woody’ spotted a polar bear, a lone male weighing about 300-400 lbs, some 800m away. We were downwind of the bear, so not immediately spotted, although eventually he did notice one of the other walking groups who were approximately 500m away from him.
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
Back on the Zodiacs, now on a very choppy sea, we were able to view the bear in safety, although the rough sea and salt spray precluded quality photography.
All in all, an eventful day!

Day 8

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…

Day 9

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
More action was had on the water, with good close-up views of two young walrus and, on the return to the ship, a very close encounter with a young humpback whale who came into feed very close to the shore of Poolepynten, in fact between us and the walrus herd. On the beach itself, things were enlivened by arctic tern attacking us for getting too close to their nests and just offshore, skewers aggressively chasing kittiwake. Never a dull moment…and, all this before breakfast!
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.

Day 10

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
This proved to be one of the best photographic opportunities of the trip, but as there were seven Zodiacs on the water, the approach was to slowly but progressively approach them so as not to stress the animals. This meant shots were taken with a long lens on a floating boat, with predictable results. One bear was standing over a seal air hole and was motionless for the duration of the visit, but the other was much more active, rolling in the snow (yoga bear…) and then moving purposefully to the north along the glacier edge to check out another very large bear that suddenly appeared at the far end of the fast ice, possibly the one we saw in the water on the approach. There was much sniffing and eyeballing, and the large bear soon climbed up a ramp on to the glacier and took her exit. An excellent sighting, but extremely cold, as fog started to roll off the mountains and the chill from the glacier was very noticeable. A bumpy ride back, followed by a good dinner and charity auction for polar bear research, raising over $4,000.

Day 11

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.

Day 12

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.