Wild Norway & Svalbard

2011 Polar Bear Quest: A Voyage through Svalbard Field Report

Andrew Ahl|August 30, 2011|Field Report

Thursday, July 7, 2011 - Tromsø, Norway / Embark Clipper Adventurer: After our plane touched down in Tromsø from Oslo, we boarded motor coaches and enjoyed a trifecta of destinations. While listening to guides describe highlights of Tromsø along the way, our explorations began with a cable car ride up to Mount Storsteinen (the Big Rock Mountain in English), a Tromsø icon. Rising 421 meters above sea level, we marveled at pristine sunny panoramas of the city below before eating lunch and independently exploring easy trails around the gift shop and terrace. Following our time on Mount Storsteinen, we stopped for a brief photo opportunity at the world-famous Tromsdalen Kirke, which is more commonly known as The Arctic Cathedral. Built in 1965, the church was designed by Jan Inge Hovig, and is probably the most famous landmark in Tromsø. Our final destination before boarding the Clipper Adventurer was the Polar Museum. The Polar Museum presents Tromsø's past as a center for Arctic hunting and starting point for Arctic expeditions through exquisite collections and displays.

Friday, July 8 - Hornvika / Skarsvaag & North Cape: Today a group of thirty intrepid souls opted to join Kevin Clement, Mats Forsberg, and Rick Price for a “long walk” up to the North Cape (Nordkapp) Center. The Clipper Adventurer dropped anchor in a gorgeous, sunny bay and shortly thereafter Zodiacs deposited them at the base of a steep cliff. After an hour of extreme leg stretching they were reunited with the second group that chose to reach the top by motor coach. Both groups were rewarded with breathtaking views of the northernmost outpost in continental Europe at the very interesting Nordkapp Visitor’s Center. A few of us also spotted a small group of domesticated reindeer wandering through the area. On the way back to the ship, we made a stop to visit with a Sami reindeer herder, his wife, and their reindeer ambassador for photos and conversation. Some of our keen birders, led by Jim Wilson, spotted both a white-tailed sea eagle and a red-throated pipit nearby.

Saturday, July 9 - Bear Island: Our first proper Zodiac tour began today with guided cruises along magnificent cliffs, sea arches, and sea stacks, where we photographed multitudes of birds—little auks, thick-billed and common murres, Atlantic puffins, fulmars, and razorbills. Carefully dipping into sea caves and through sea arches, we took in the first of a long list of natural wonders. Following lunch, we had the option of a long, short, or medium walk to a beautiful Arctic lake guarded by patrolling skuas and dusted with beautiful Arctic flowers, as well as the occasional skua nest each containing a single egg. We were afforded our first glimpse of an Arctic fox, trying to make itself inconspicuous while being bombarded by skua guarding their precious eggs.

Back on board many enjoyed Jim’s lecture entitled The Birds of Svalbard. Later that day we all attended a mandatory polar bear safety briefing by our resident bear expert and naturalist, Rupert Pilkington, heightening our anticipation of seeing polar bears in the coming days.

Sunday, July 10 - Hornsund, Svalbard: Awaking to our first sea ice, and the signs of our first Arctic hurricane, we spent the day navigating northward while enjoying a full program of lectures by Rick on Marine Whales of the Far North, Kevin on A Field Guide to Ice and Ralph Eshelman with An Introduction to the History of Svalbard.

Monday, July 11 - Danskøya & Amsterdamøya Islands / Holmiabutka: Splitting our time between two significant historical sites, today we visited Danskøya, the site of a whaling station in the 17th century, better known as a launch site for two fateful attempts to reach the North Pole by balloon. Remains of these attempts, by Solomon Andree and Walter Wellman respectively, can still be found on the island. Amsterdamøya Island, site of a Dutch and Danish whaling station founded in 1617, revealed remnants of the station’s ovens. Pursued by Arctic terns aggressively defending their nests, we left these islands reminded of those who came before and perished in the pursuit of commerce and discovery.

After lunch our Zodiac cruise produced not one, but two separate polar bear sightings—our first of the voyage! One group followed a polar bear from sea (playing with a bright orange buoy) to land (attempting to hunt down barnacle goslings) to the seaside resting place of a whale skeleton, where it carefully extracted a morsel of flesh from in between the vertebrae. Another group discovered a sleeping bear right near the water’s edge. Eventually the two bears met—the larger bear chasing the smaller bear up the side of a steep embankment before getting back into the water to stalk nearby ringed seals on a piece of fast ice. Not to be outdone by polar bears, we were then treated to a rare ivory gull who happily sat for countless close-range photographs. Elated, we reboarded the ship for celebratory cocktails in the main lounge before dinner.

Tuesday, July 12 - Liefdefjorden: This morning we entered Liefdefjorden, a dramatically scenic fjord, where we enjoyed a thrilling Zodiac cruise through ice fields leading to the magnificent Monaco Breen Glacier. Weaving our way through glacial icebergs, we all quietly took in the awesome majesty of the largest glacier we had seen thus far. Cruising back to the ship, the fog and clouds dissipated, replaced with gorgeous blue skies and sun, just in time for a massive barbecue lunch on the back deck of the ship. Following lunch, we chose between long, medium, and short walks beginning at a famous research hut known as “Texas Bar” where Mats Forsberg, our token “Viking,” spent many months documenting polar bears with the BBC. Long walkers were rewarded with a breathtaking walk on a glacier, medium and short-duration walkers documented Arctic flowers and a glacial waterfall before heading down to the beach to take Zodiacs back to the ship. A lucky few of us were treated to a rare up-close visit by an Arctic fox as the last of the Zodiacs returned to the Clipper Adventurer.

Wednesday, July 13 - Lågøya: Already blessed with fantastic wildlife sightings, our luck continued with today’s visit to Lågøya Island, our northernmost stop of the voyage. Walrus! Carefully and quietly, walking in a single-file line towards a large walrus haul-out, we were rewarded with views of several large, openly curious animals in the water, as well as approximately 70 walrus lounging on the beach. After a frenzy of photos we returned to the ship for lunch. Birders were also excited to spot male and female phalaropes along the shore.

In the afternoon we took a Zodiac cruise along pack ice to try to locate a polar bear spotted through binoculars from the bridge. Successful in our quest, we watched as a large male bear inspected an abandoned building, after unsuccessfully trying to hunt down a reindeer and its calf. Proceeding onto the pack ice, the bear walked nearly right up to our Zodiacs, allowing everyone up-close views and one-of-a-kind photographic opportunities.

Thursday, July 14 - Gyldenoya, Hinlopen Strait / Alke Fellet: Our morning Zodiac cruise took us to Gyldenoya, where we split into short-, medium- and long-duration walks surrounded by Arctic flowers and incredibly scenic beauty. The short-duration walkers spotted a long-tailed duck and a pair of red phalaropes feeding up and down the beach. No matter what duration walk we were on, everyone enjoyed their mornings on this beautiful island.

Following lunch, the skies opened and the winds picked up as we paused by magnificent sheer cliffs teeming with thousands of birds. The bravest of us geared up with our warmest, driest layers for invigorating Zodiac cruises along the cliffs. Punctuated with the occasional snow-melt waterfall, our cruise took us to a glacier ending right at the sea. Upon return we were rewarded with piping hot coffee and Baileys in the main lounge.

Friday, July 15 - Bear Sound / Von Otteroya: Buffeted for the second time on our voyage with hurricane-like winds, we gathered on the back deck to view a lone bear sitting deep in the fast ice. Unable to safely conduct a Zodiac cruise, we repositioned to another site where we were able to land Zodiacs for a set of walks. Many of us found fossils among the "troll bread" on the beach where we landed—troll bread being a specific geologic occurrence that produces what appear to be rocks that have been carefully sliced, like bread. After dinner, some of us took Zodiacs to a nearby landing to explore the huts and detritus left behind during the 1957-58 International Polar Year.

Saturday, July 16 - Woodfjorden / Liefdefjorden: Today's pre-breakfast Zodiac cruise followed multiple polar bear sightings from the bridge by our naturalists—including polar bears with cubs! A total of eight bears were spotted before we even boarded the Zodiacs. The day would produce a grand total of 12 polar bears identified throughout the cruise. Some of us observed a sleeping female bear with two babies, all occasionally peeking at us. Others observed a very large, visibly scarred male meandering along the beach. One mother and cub got into the water to swim, then another mother and cub arrived. We were treated to so many close observations, it was difficult to keep track! Fully satisfied, we returned to the ship for breakfast as the sunshine burned through the clouds for a gorgeous sunny day.

After lunch we took a short Zodiac cruise to a beach landing where short-, medium- and long-distance walkers explored a large lake surrounded by snow-lined mountains. Ralph explained the dynamics of a fox trap found near a research hut containing supplies and a log book for visiting explorers like ourselves. Some of us circumnavigated the lake, while others walked more or less the length of it, photographing lichens and Arctic flowers along the way. Many of us were chased by aggressive Arctic terns, pecking and squawking us away from their nests.

Sunday, July 17 - Longyearbyen: After a quick Zodiac ride to our disembarkation point, we boarded motor coaches for a brief guided tour of Longyearbyen, a coal town founded in 1905 by an American businessmen named John Munroe Longyear. Sold not long after to Norway, the mine and subsequent town is named in his honor. Stopping at the Svalbard Museum, a sleek and modern museum documenting the history of Svalbard and its animals, we perused several exhibits before stopping for lunch at the nearby Radisson SAS Polar Hotel. We also had the chance to take a stroll around the small town, then it was off to the airport to catch our homeward flights.

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