Exploring a glacier up close

Svalbard - A Polar Bear Quest Field Report

Tom Sharpe|August 27, 2018|Field Report

Thursday, July 12, 2018 
Oslo, Norway / Longyearbyen / Embark Ocean Adventurer

Having gathered for dinner at the Radisson Blu Hotel at the Oslo Airport yesterday and met with our expedition team, this morning we took the short stroll to the airport terminal to join our flight to Svalbard. Four hours later, after a brief stop in Tromsø, we stepped from the plane into the cold damp air of Longyearbyen, a sharp contrast to the heat and sunshine of Oslo. Here, in this old coal mining town, some 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle, sunrise was three months ago and the sun will not set again until August 25.

We enjoyed a short tour of this remote town and made a stop at the Svalbard Museum. With its excellent modern displays, it is part of a complex which includes the Norwegian Polar Institute and university and provides a valuable introduction to the region. Soon, we boarded our buses for the short drive to the dock where Ocean Adventurer, our home for the next two weeks, awaited us. Once aboard and settled in our cabins, we went out on deck to watch as we pulled away from Longyearbyen and out into Isfjorden. Our Svalbard adventure was underway!

Friday, July 1
Magdalenafjorden / Amsterdamøya

Overnight, we had sailed out of Isfjorden and north around the outside of Prins Carls Forland so that we awoke today in Magdalenafjorden in the far northwest corner of Spitsbergen. We made a landing at a small spit of land, actually a glacial terminal moraine, at the mouth of a southern side fjord called Gullybukta. Here, we walked around the mounds of moraine, home to nesting Arctic terns, and took in the mountain views. Some chose a longer hike along the crest of a lateral moraine to the front of a wasting glacier.

As we sailed on to our next destination, our sharp-eyed expedition team spotted a polar bear on the southern shore of the island of Danskøya. At first, we watched from the vantage point of our ship, but then we took to our Zodiacs for a closer look as the animal strolled purposefully along the shore. From our bobbing Zodiacs we saw that the bear was on the scent of a dead seal which was providing a meal for another polar bear and her cub. As the larger male approached, the female and cub retreated uphill.

Leaving the bears in peace, we continued on our way to Amsterdamøya and the remains of the 16th-century Dutch whaling station of Smeerenburg. There, whale oil-cemented sands marked the sites of the blubber ovens which rendered down the whale catch. An added attraction nearby on the shore was a walrus haul-out, with a large heap of slumbering walrus, some of which occasionally awoke to wave their tusks at their neighbors before returning to repose.

Polar bears and walrus on our first day! What a start to our expedition! We celebrated this evening with a welcome reception and dinner hosted by Captain Alexey Zakalashnyuk.

Saturday, July 14
Monacobreen / Moffen Island

This morning we sailed deep into the long fjord of Liefdefjorden on Spitsbergen’s north coast where numerous glaciers occupy deep valleys separated by sharp mountain peaks and ridges. At the head of the fjord is the three-mile-wide front of Monacobreen, a long glacier descending from the ice cap in the mountains to the south. We cruised in our Zodiacs through the brash ice along the front of the glacier and its neighbor, Seligerbreen. Just three years ago, these glaciers were joined where they met the sea; today, there is a wide gap separating them, such is the speed of retreat of Monacobreen. Amongst the ice, we saw and heard many kittiwakes and king eider ducks, and were treated to fine views of bearded seals, both in the water and out on the ice.

Over lunch, Ocean Adventurer repositioned a short distance north in the fjord and we landed at the site of an old trappers’ hut with the wonderful name of Texas Bar, dating from 1927. The cozy hut, which was used for several months by our Svalbard guide Mats Forsberg while working with a BBC film crew, sits on a bare slope brightened by clusters of purple moss campion and yellow tufted saxifrage. Hikes to a nearby ridge gave us fine views down the fjord back to Monacobreen and over a wide braided meltwater river plain. Some of us opted for a longer hike following this meltwater river towards the glacier from which it emerged. There we saw it cutting through the high, steep, rocky terminal moraine in front of the glacier.

After dinner, we paused near the small atoll-like gravel island of Moffen, a walrus reserve astride the 80°N line of latitude. We viewed the animals from the ship, before continuing northwards towards the midnight sun.

Sunday, July 15
Arctic Ocean

Our Expedition Leader, Dan Olsen, woke us this morning with the news that we had now reached a latitude of 81° 28.2’ N and were sailing along the edge of the Arctic pack ice. As we went out on deck and looked across the frozen Arctic Ocean, we were just 512 nautical miles from the North Pole. Appropriately, our first event today was a lecture by historian T.H. Baughman about the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen who deliberately froze his ship, Fram, into the pack ice in 1893 in an attempt to reach the Pole.

We then hopped into our Zodiacs to explore the edge of the pack, while the kaykers had their first chance to paddle among the chunks of ice. Cruising amongst the ice floes, enjoying the silence of the Arctic, and glimpses of a few bearded and ringed seals. We even took the opportunity to step out onto one of the bobbing ice floes and tried not to think that just a few feet of ice separated us from the Arctic Ocean floor some 6,500 feet below.

After lunch, some twelve hardy souls decided it would be a good idea to see just how cold the Arctic Ocean really is by taking part in a Polar Plunge. A lengthy spell in the hot tub was required to thaw them out.

Soon afterwards, a whale was spotted and we altered course for a closer look. This turned out to be a blue whale, the largest animal living on our planet today, and an exceptional sighting, but even this was surpassed by an even better and closer view later in the evening as another blue whale fluked and dove alongside our ship.

Our afternoon continued with a presentation by our geologist Tom Sharpe on the rocks and landscapes of Svalbard, before we headed out on deck to the sight of hundreds of seals on the ice. After dinner, Mats entertained us with a talk about polar bears while we enjoyed dessert in the lounge.

Monday, July 16
Chermsideøya / Phippsøya

The island of Chermsideøya off the north coast of Nordaustlandet was our first stop today. We made a brief landing on a beach where various expeditions have left their mark in the form of stones arranged to form names and symbols, including the Swedish Meridian Expedition of 1898, a 1928 USSR icebreaker searching for the lost Italian airman Umberto Nobile, and a swastika placed by the crew of a Nazi submarine setting up a weather station in Svalbard during World War II. Our main activity here, though, was a Zodiac cruise along the shorelines of Chermsideøya and Nordaustlandet, where amongst the colorful rocks, we spotted a little Arctic fox, scurrying along the shore in search of food. The kyakaers enjoyed a nice paddle down the coast in calm waters.

During lunch, we sailed north once more, intent on a landing on the island of Phippsøya. However, once our staff had arrived on the beach at the south end of the island, they sighted a polar bear asleep on a distant patch of snow, so we altered our plans and took our Zodiacs along the coast, with views of the sleeping bear and of walruses both in and out of the water. No sooner had we returned to the ship and hopped into the shower, when word came that our bear was awake and moving, so the Zodiacs were lowered once more and we were treated to a remarkable view of this bear feeding unconcernedly on a carcass which had washed up on the shoreline.

Polar bear count so far: 4

Tuesday, July 17 
Storøya / Kvitøya

Early this morning, we arrived at the small island of Storøya off the northeast tip of Nordaustlandet and planned to make a landing at the northern end of the island. Our expedition staff went ashore to set up our landing site, but just as we were about to disembark the ship, two polar bears, a female and large cub, appeared from behind a beach ridge. The staff promptly departed and decided on a Zodiac cruise instead, which rewarded us with good sightings of these and a further two bears, as well as groups of walrus wobbling in the water.

En route to our next destination, Tom told us how ice and permafrost have shaped the landscape of Svalbard, and by late afternoon we had arrived at Kvitøya. The ‘white island’ is almost entirely covered by a domed ice cap, although a small headland on the west coast is ice free. Here at Andréeneset, Salomon August Andrée’s ill-fated attempt to reach the North Pole by dirigible in 1897 came to a tragic end. The bodies of Andrée and his two companions were found at this bleak and desolate spot in 1930. Further sightings of polar bears precluded a landing, so we again enjoyed views of five of these iconic Arctic animals from the safety of our Zodiacs, as well as views of a large haul out of walrus along the shore.

Polar bear count so far: 13 

Wednesday, July 1
Alkefjellet, Hinlopenstretet / Gyldénøyane

Along the East Spitsbergen coast on the Hinlopenstretet is the spectacular cliff of Alkefjellet, home to huge numbers of breeding seabirds. We cruised in our Zodiacs and kayaks along the base of these sheer dolerite cliffs and enjoyed the remarkable sight of hundreds of thousands of thick-billed murres, black guillemots, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, and others clustering on the rock ledges and flying all around us as they came and went from their nests. Scurrying along the cliff was an Arctic fox, and we watched as it caught a guillemot, just to have it stolen by another fox, which then very kindly brought its meal down to the shoreline to consume, close to our boats.

Over lunch we crossed Hinlopenstretet and made an afternoon landing on the small, low island of Gyldénøyane, which sits at the mouth of Wahlenbergfjorden, a wide fjord on the west coast of Nordaustlandet. The island’s summit gave us a fine view of the icecaps of Nordaustlandet: Vestfonna to the north of us and Austfonna to the south. We had to walk with some caution as Arctic terns were nesting amongst the rocks. If we came too close, the birds let us know by attacking us. Amongst the tundra plants here we were pleased to see the pale yellow Svalbard poppy.

Thursday, July 19
Wurzburgerhytta, Barentsøya / Russebukta, Edgeøya

We enjoyed lovely views over breakfast this morning as we sailed along Freemansundet, a narrow strait separating the islands of Barentsøya and Edgeøya, towards our landing site at Sundneset, the southwestern tip of Barentsøya. The hut here, Wurzburgerhytta, was used by a series of German geomorphological expeditions, between 1959 and 1967, that came here to study the post-glacial landforms of the area. Various walks took us across the tundra and offered fine views westwards to the distant icy mountains of Spitsbergen across Hinlopenstretet and of the plateau landscapes of Barentsøya and Edgeøya. Many shed reindeer antlers lay scattered amongst the rocks and tundra vegetation, and we had some distant sightings of these iconic Arctic animals.

Our afternoon excursion was to the southern end of a wide bay called Russebukta on the southwest coast of Svalbard’s third largest island, Edgeøya. Again, the tundra vegetation of the extensive boggy plain here supported a herd of reindeer, some of which came close to some of our walkers. Several Arctic foxes made their appearance too, and we watched a pair chasing a flock of molting pink-footed geese. 

Friday, July 2
Hornsund, Spitsbergen / Samarinvågen / Gnålodden

Overnight, we rounded the southern tip of Spitsbergen and sailed deep into Hornsund, anchoring in the fjord of Samarinvågen, close to the active glacier front of Samarinbreen. Strong gusty winds delayed our plans for a Zodiac cruise this morning, so while we waited to see if the weather would improve, Jim Wilson told us tales of the mysterious migrations of some of the birds we have seen on our expedition.

During Jim’s talk, the expedition team scouted a great landing site on the west side of the fjord and so we went ashore, landing at the foot of a moraine and hiking up to the actively melting front of a glacier descending from Hornsundtind which, at over 4,500 feet, is the highest mountain in southern Spitsbergen.

After lunch, T.H. spoke to us about Roald Amundsen, man of both poles, while Ocean Adventurer repositioned across Hornsund to the cliffs of Gnålodden. There, only the hardiest went ashore in the rain, but despite the penetrating dampness, we hiked around the beach and moraines and had a good close view of an Arctic fox.

Saturday, July 21 
Isfjorden / Diabasodden / Nordfjorden

Choppy seas as we sailed north during the night gave way to calm as we entered the shelter of Isfjorden. This morning we landed on a narrow beach at the foot of Diabasodden, a cliff formed by a dolerite (diabase) sill intruding sedimentary rocks. Diabasodden is home to Atlantic puffins, which usually nest in burrows, but here nest in crevices in the cliff, safe from Arctic foxes. Through Jim’s spotting scope, we had some great, close-up views of these birds.

In the afternoon, we sought out a sheltered bay on the west side of Nordfjorden for our final Zodiac cruise of the trip. Here we sailed along the front of two spectacular glaciers, Sveabreen and Wahlenbergbreen, the latter currently undergoing surging and heavily crevassed, actively calving icebergs as it advances.

We returned to Ocean Adventurer in time to change for the captain’s farewell reception and dinner, after which Jim’s wonderful slideshow of our trip reminded us how much we had done and seen in such a short time. 

Sunday, July 22
Disembark / Longyearbyen / Oslo

And so, we have come full circle and returned to our starting point, Lonyearbyen, on a rainy morning. The flight back to Oslo allowed us time to reflect on our good fortune, the exceptional weather and ice conditions, the varied landscapes, and the remarkable wildlife sightings we had enjoyed. Back in the Radisson Blu Hotel at Oslo Airport, it was time to say farewell to our Svalbard adventure shipmates.

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