Arctic life experienced at 81° North

The plan was to give an update about the “the least beautiful month of the year” named May, but time went to fast and it is already June. 2/3 of the team are south at 50° N since two weeks now, sweating in above 25° C temperatures. The big 1/3 left – Dr. Keith – is up north, really north, “sailing” around Svalbard. He enjoys temperatures around zero on a ship from National Geographic exploring the norwegian coast up to the islands of Svalbard. I will attach some of his own words, written as part of the official trip report.

2015-05-29

Our ship is slipping through the icy waters of Svalbard. Out the porthole is Spitsbergen with its snow and ice covered peaks. The sea ice is gone, another record year. Flocks of little auks speed across the sky to some unseen colony site on a rocky slope. Northern fulmars glide effortlessly through the sky wing-tips brushing the surface of the sea or catch an updraft of air created by the ship. What a landscape.

Earlier this morning we were outside on the deck going over life-raft procedures for the unseen events that virtually never occur, but being prepared in these arctic waters is wise. It is only minus two, but the air feels especially frigid.

Day 1 Hornsund Glacier Southwest Spitsbergen  150604 18

The ship is now for the first time pushing our way through the ice! The conditions change from minute to minute. We are on the hunt for the polar bear! The bridge is filled with eager passengers all in a race to be the first to spot the bears. The ship’s crew, mostly Filipino, are really the experts at locating the bears. Looking outside there are fissures of water like veins criss-crossing the ice. It is so surreal to sit in the comfort of the ship, eating extremely good food, and sleeping in my cozy cabin, when outside is the harsh Arctic. What a dream.

Two days ago we departed the relative comfort of spring on the Norwegian coastline. Our last stop was Trømso before heading north into the Atlantic. The coastline of Norway creates a dilemma for the visitor. It is a continuous landscape of beautiful peaks covered with snow above and green forests and fields below. It is maddening to sit on the deck and try to decide when to push the button on the camera and when to wait. Melfjord 2 Day 5

Heading north the seas do what they do when they are vast and expansive, they raise with the winds and weather. The ship began to rock and roll creating discomfort for some of the passengers.

We have stopped, so I must investigate…

We have entered Hornsund on southwest Spitsbergen, Svalbard. The seas have calmed and ice surrounds us. The sounds of the ice grinding on the hull surrounds us. Now that we have stopped I went up to the bridge and see that the fast ice is breaking up behind the ship. The captain has decided to back out as to not break-up all the remaining ice in the fjord. This ice is not only important for resting seals, but for hunting polar bears.

Svalbard Ice Day 10

All eyes are on the ice and shoreline. We all scan intensely for the big white monarch of the north. The first one to spot the polar bear gets to bask in the glow of the passengers who dream of this animal. Soon we spot a large male walking along a shoreline exactly where we want to go ashore for a hike. The guests are all at lunch and only the staff has seen the bear. Our expedition leader confers with the captain and the ship is turned around. They make way for an icy bay pushing through the ice and low and behold we intercept the bar at the edge of the fast ice. Now the guests are notified and all are outside on the decks taking thousands of pictures. Of course no one wants to miss the chance, but they do not realize the bear is moving towards our ship on the ice and the first pictures are with a small bear in the distance and the later pictures you can see the ear tags. Slowly the bear turns away from us and walks towards the glacier on the ice.

Guests satisfied we opt for a zodiac cruise through the small icebergs that have calved off the glacier. I am driving a boat and it is pretty cold. The cliff above rises 1000 meters and is covered with thousands of guillemots, kittiwakes, and northern fulmars. Picking my way through the blue ice my passengers all have a frozen smile on their faces. Camera’s still click and we watch as the fog rolls in and out, ice floats by, and a bearded seal pops up to check us out. Kittiwakes have flown down to the water to bath as the breeding ledges are dirty with guano. Northern fulmars glide effortlessly over the water’s surface and almost touch our heads. All around use guillemots swim and dive.

After two tours with the zodiacs I am sufficiently frozen, but in complete awe of this polar landscape. A short break before dinner and then another delicious meal. Now I head up to the bridge to see where we are heading as we are slipping through glassy seas. Moffen Island Walrus Haul-out 150601 Day 13

To the northwest. The ship moving through shallow seas and then over the shelf break to follow the continental shelf. Here there are thousands of seabirds foraging because the deep water is forced up at the shelf bringing nutrients to the surface. I ask the captain about whales and we see three Norwegian whaling ships on the horizon hunting minke whales. Within minutes I spot the first humpback whale and then three more. Next three minke that seem to be in a hurry to leave the area.

What a day and I know tomorrow promises to bring more of the same.

Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard
31 May 2015

The morning brought the National Geographic Explorer around Kapp Fanshawe. An early wake-up call from Lucho, the Expedition Leader, stirred most of us to the bridge or the bow. As our eyes and bodies adjusted to the cold clear air we were treated to a truly spectacular sight, tens of thousands of pairs of Brünnich’s Guillemots. The scale of the cliffs and the density of birds at Alkefjellet was stunning, everyone smiling and shooting hundreds of pictures while the Captain eased the ship’s bow into the nearby waters below the cliffs. On all sides guillemots floated in the thousands and above even more were flying to and from the cliffs. To the left and right of the ship we all struggled to comprehend the numbers of birds nesting in front of us.
Numb we all moved inside the ship to warm and eat breakfast while it continued south in Hinlopen Strait chasing our Arctic dreams. The waters of the Strait were open and the shores lined with pack ice pushed by the wind into piles that hid the seals from the polar bears and the bears from us. Every now and then one or two walruses were seen hauled out onto the ice. A lone bear was spotted in the distance. The bridge was filled with eager observers hunting with binoculars and spotting scopes.
Day 1 Hornsund Southwest Spitsbergen
After lunch Eric, our Lindblad Expedition Photo Instructor, spotted the next polar bear out in the distance on the fast ice of Wahlenbergenfjorden. As the ship was maneuvered into the edge of the pack ice, everyone emptied out on the decks to watch the bear. Soon thereafter, Naturalist Bud located another bear with two cubs of the year. All four bears were far off and the spotting scopes and telephotos lens helped provide better looks. The Captain then repositioned the ship as another bear was seen in the distance. Scanning the fast ice we counted many ringed seals which explained why we saw five bears at this one location. Fortunately the slight repositioning took us out of the wind and made the bear watching even more enjoyable.

Celebrating our day the ship’s kitchen prepared lobster and champagne on the back deck. While we enjoyed the food the ship turned back north. While everyone sought to unwind for the evening Lucho and the Captain conspired to take the ship north of the archipelago in search of the pack ice. As many were nodding off to sleep ice began to bang against the hull stirring us as we slipped further north.

Captain Leif Skog, an excellent observer, first noticed an Ivory Gull. These birds are often associated with polar bears that have made a seal kill on the ice. On cue, Eric our polar bear finder, searched and located a male laying on a large piece of ice. As the ship approached slowly the bridge and bow once again filled with eager guests. The bear appeared to be laying on something covered with snow and as we approached more and more Glaucous and Ivory gulls landed around the resting bear in search of a meal. With the ship stopped we all watched the bear as it rested and then decided to unbury the ringed seal it was laying on. Memory cards full we turned south after reaching our furthest north point on the trip so far, 80° 48.66’ N, 017° 03.39’ E, just 551 nautical miles from the North Pole.

2015-06-02

The Blue Whale!

The final day of the expedition to Norway and Svalbard is winding down. We woke this morning in the lovely Krossfjorden where we anchored off a large glacier actively calving into the sea. After breakfast we launched the zodiacs and took our guests on their last hike of the trip. It was a narrow stretch of beach below a lovely series of cliffs craved by the receding glacier. Several cliff faces are filled with breeding Brünnich’s Guillemot and Kittiwakes. The every present Glaucous gulls circled waiting for a chance to steal and egg and later chicks.
Alkefjellet 2 150531 Day 12
The base of the cliffs are fertilized from above with tons of guano annually. This south facing slope and beach is snow free early and due to the fertilizer quite green and aptly named ‘Stefan’s Garden’. As we arrived in our zodiacs we see both Barnacle and Pink-footed geese foraging in the green grass as they wait for the tundra to become snow free for nesting.

Everywhere we see tracks from the Arctic fox and the geese. In the turquoise waters below the beach Kittiwake’s bath or relax on large blocks of glacial anchor ice. The ice is melted into all manner of shapes creating the appearance of a garden of ice sculptures floating in a sea of blue-green water.

Along the shore we find purple saxifrage flowering, the only plants we have seen flowering in the Svalbard Archipelago. Down the beach to the glacier and back, we returned by zodiac to the ship.

As we ate lunch the anchor was hoisted and the ship departed for our final destination of the expedition, Longyearbyn.  By the evening the ship was sailing south along the continental shelf in search of whales. This area to the west of the archipelago is a great place to find foraging whales, especially later in the summer. We all wondered if we are too early to see these mighty animals.

Dinner came and went without a call over the ships public address system. Ready for bed the call rang out loud and clear, whales! Dashing to the bridge all binoculars were searching the surrounding seas for the whales. Several painful minutes went by without a sighting when the two whales surfaced and blowing and billowing plume of water into the sky and then took a deep breath…
The Blue Whale
Finally, we pulled the ship alongside these two massive behemoths as they cruised at 7 to 8 knots along our side. They surfaced several times giving us great looks at their big bluish backs and small dorsal fins. We travelled with them through four series of surfacing and breathing breaks, punctuated with dives below the surface. The bridge was just burning with happiness as we knew we had shared a very small piece of this vast sea with the largest animal ever to live on this earth, the Blue Whale. With a fluke up dive, they disappeared into the abyss, the dream of the Blue Whale fulfilled.

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