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High Arctic Adventure - Circumnavigation of Svalbard

The 'official' text from the daily 'Spitzbergen News' as published on board the Polar Pioneer.

Dear family friends and blog readers. I have cheated a little for the following 10 days. Each day on board, we would wake at about 7:15 to hear the expedition leader Henrik saying "Good morning good people." on the speakers in each cabin. Tucked by the door was that days 'Spitzbergen News' giving us some times for that days activities and a brief overview of the previous days happenings. Breakfast would be followed by a kayak trip in the morning and after lunch we would move to another place for another kayak. Busy days.
I have used Sue's text for the following days on board the ship, so it is not written from the perspective of a paddler, but should give you an idea of where we went, what we saw, and what we did. (Not only did I not have a computer, we were actually quite busy doing things most of the time.)So, here is a wrap of my Circumnavigation of Spitzbergen with Aurora Expeditions on the Polar Pioneer. August 7-17th. (7th we boarded in the evening, so first 'day' is the 8th of August. Day 10, the 17th, we woke up and left the ship after breakfast.)
The credit for the following text belongs to Sue Werner, the assistant expedition leader.

First day of 10 on the ship -
Last night we sailed north with the rolling Gulf Stream along the western edge of Spitsbergen. Not long after breakfast we saw our first Polar bear quite a distance away. Henrik and Alan then briefed us on "how to avoid being eaten by a polar bear" and "how to enjoy our interaction with the Arctic flora & fauna", whilst causing minimum disturbance: Polar Pioneer nudged her way into Magdalene Fjord where we found some relief from the rocking sea. We marveled at the glacier’s dramatic jagged ice cliffs and sweeping moraine, some of us saw a carving from the glacier as we approached. Heading out of Magdalene Fjord, Henrik gave us a Zodiac briefing: Then our ceremonial distribution of gumboots was held down in the lecture room as we sailed further north - all before lunch.
Early in the afternoon the ship anchored off the two most northwesterly islands of Svalbard, Amsterdamoya and Danskoya. It was an interesting afternoon and where the kayakers had their first taste of arctic paddling.
The landing was the site of the Old Dutch whaling station of Smeerenburg, a featureless sandy beach devoid of any vegetation. It must have been a pretty grim place to work some 400 years ago, and difficult now to imagine several hundred men going about their daily business – ships anchored in the bay, smelling whale carcasses hauled up on the beach, a cobbled street, the noise of a blacksmiths hammer; a place where men could earn a lot of money and think of an easy life at home -- one day.
We took a nice walk across the stone sorted tundra covered in mosses. 8 to 9 reindeer grazed filling their bellies with vegetation before the winter sets in. On our walk back to the Zodiacs along the foreshore, we discovered large Polar bear footprints in the sand, they looked reasonably fresh!
Our late afternoon adventure was at a place called Bjornfjorden (bear fjord) it was a bit windy but this didn't stop us intrepid expeditioner's as we clambered down the gangway and into the Zodiacs. Smeerenburg glacier was a fare distance from the ship, well worth the wet and wild ride. Small bits would break off the glacier and lots of birds feeding. Then just as it was time to head back to the ship a Beluga whale appeared from know where!! It was close enough to see its wrinkled skin what an exciting experience. Meanwhile three other Zodiacs saw a Polar bear awake from a snooze, he sat up and sniffed the air giving us all a good look at his powerful physique. Getting back on board Polar Pioneer took some technical maneuvers, which we all managed very well.
Back on board for a welcome, warming, hot shower. Then drinks with the captain in the bar.
Today we will explore Woodfjorden, all eyes on the bridge to look out for those polar bears!

Day 2
We woke to a beautiful morning yesterday. The sun was trying to push through the clouds as we anchored in Bockfjorden. Soon after breakfast we found ourselves ashore in a new environment. We hoped to find some interesting geological features and we were not disappointed. To the east, the red sandstones of Devonian age form steep majestic hills. These rocks in some areas contain early plant fossils and the remains of many primitive - armour plated fish. On the eastern side of the valley, a fault zone separates the younger (400m.y.) red sandstones from much older protaozaic rocks (2000m.y.). This north – south fault zone has been active for perhaps 300m.y. and about 150,000 years ago several volcanos erupted along this zone of crusted weakness, sending lava and volcanic ash over a large area of land, prior to the most recent period of glaciation. The thermal springs on the hillside lie along this fault zone and they dictate that the area is still an active volcanic and seismic zone. We took a very enjoyable walk where wild flowers grew amongst the boulders and there were a few tricky sections to cross which required style and grace. The kayakers had a lovely paddle and saw a fox chase some geese into the water.
Back to the Zodiacs to cross Bockfjorden. We walked on undulating terrain and discovered tundra rich in vegetation and autumn colours. Henrik showed us the workings of a fox trap, before heading back to Polar Pioneer for a well deserved lunch.
Into Liefdefjorden during lunch, then we were treated to a close view of Monaco Glacier at the end of the fjord. This is a huge glacier: 5 km wide and 38 km long. A bear was spotted sleeping on the tundra as we cruised towards the marbled ice wall. One Zodiac had to do a quick replacement, all passengers successfully transferred Zodiacs. Engines were switched off to enjoy the snap, crackle and pop of the ice and the sounds of the glacier’s movements. Now and again chunks of ice would calve off and crash, making a dramatic sound into the aquamarine water. Kittiwakes, Fulmar and Glaucous gulls were fishing by the thousands. An Ivory gull flew by while a couple of bearded seals hauled out onto small pieces of ice, we quietly approached them to get good views of their elegant whiskers. It was a wonderful afternoon cruise and to finish off with a big bang!!
Back to the ship, for a hot toddy and a delicious evening meal. Then we sat back and enjoyed the video documentary “Frozen Hearts”. A film about Roald Amundsen. Onwards to 80 degrees and Moffen Island, a walrus sanctuary on a donut shaped spit. A few walrus where seen from 300m as unfortunately we are not allowed to go any closer as the midnight sun shone from behind the clouds. Signed off at 2230 good night good people!!!

Day 3 -
Henrik's sunny wake-up call roused us to a day of brilliant sunshine and further adventures. Overnight we had sailed south into Hinlopenstretet and now we were anchored near one of the wildlife gems of Svalbard - the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. Alkefjellet is a series of dolerite towers, over 100 m high, like ancient castle ruins built by mighty Norsemen, guarded by hanging glaciers. In most places the black dolerite is sandwiched between white limestone deposits - a geologists' delight. Tens of thousands of Brunnich's Guillemots nest here, along with a few Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Fulmars and Glaucous Gulls. Simon and the kayakers got an early start and were soon dwarfed by the towering cliffs. The rest of us followed in Zodiacs and spent several wonderful hours experiencing the sights, sounds (and smells!) of the place. As we drifted slowly underneath the cliffs, some of us also experienced the excretory blessings coming from on high. On these precarious narrow ledges the throngs of Guillemots raise their families - a single chick each year - if they are lucky. The gulls, foxes, and occasional polar bears live off the unlucky ones - the eggs and chicks which fall. The surviving chicks leave the colony when only a third grown. The original base-jumpers, they flutter to the sea accompanied by their father, and complete their chick-hood out at sea, fed by the attendant parent. We were lucky to see several of these chicks with their dads, swimming among the other guillemots near the cliffs.

After lunch, at we all had the opportunity to work off some of the benefits of the delicious meals we've been enjoying. Henrik and Don led the more energetic of us up the hills above the lovely Faksevagen bay to a high lookout to view the Gullfakse Glacier. This group saw more than 15 reindeer, including a weird cross-species tussle between a reindeer and an Arctic Skua. At first the skua chased the reindeer across the tundra, but finally the deer turned, and rising on its hind legs, chased off the skua with its fore-legs. Meanwhile the lowland group was experiencing something equally enthralling - a female Svalbard Ptarmigan trying to distract an Arctic Fox. For over 20 minutes the fox zig-zagged about the tundra slopes, evidently looking for the ptarmigan's hidden chicks, all the while being harassed by the female ptarmigan. Eventually the fox trotted off to seek easier prey. On our homeward walk we did our part to "Clean up Svalbard", bringing bags of plastic rubbish from the beach back to the ship. A group photo on the foredeck preceded dinner. Lively conversation over another excellent dinner and a movie ended this brilliant day.

Day 4 -
Polar Pioneer had steamed on through the night and by breakfast time yesterday morning we were off Phippsoya, the northerly most island of the Svalbard Archipelago.
It was a calm, overcast morning with a light rain as we headed out in our trusty Zodiacs. We cruised around the corner to find two small groups of walrus hauled out on the beach. We made a slow approach in the Zodiacs to shore. Henrik checked out the site for fuzzy critters before we all came ashore. Quietly we crept towards a group of about fifteen walrus. It was like watching the Light Horse Brigade going into battle. A line of very keen expeditioners all armed with cameras and binoculars creeping ever so slowly towards the lying, snoozing, snorting and scratching walrus huddled together. They appeared to be aware of our presence but showed little concern.
Back to the Zodiacs to see what else we could find, it was still raining but that didn't stop us. Behold a bear on the horizon near that cairn of stones. He stood there looking at us then with a blink of an eye he sat down for a nap.
Cruising along we ran into half-dozen or more walruses in the water. They came over to inspect our boats, rearing out of the water so we could see their tusks and short whiskers that looked like scrubbing brushes and are used for finding their seafood prey. Over yonder a large group of about 100 walrus lay on the sandy beach. As we approached we could smell the aroma. It was our lucky day, not just walrus but another four bears!!! Eureka!! One of the bears looked to be a male, once he saw us coming he started to move quickly, we then noticed he was not alone. A female bear and her 2 cubs were also in the area. She was just as quick to lead her cubs away from the male bear, as male bears will kill a cub if they have the opportunity. The sky darkened, the rain got heavier and the mist rolled in, it was not a good time to take photo's this was a moment to remember and enjoy.
It was a quick return to the ship for a well-deserved lunch shortly after Alan gave a lecture on "Seals and Walrus" followed by a bit of retail therapy.
In the afternoon we cruised into Rijpfjorden; this was new terrain for Aurora Expeditions. Captain Nikolay skillfully maneuvered Polar Pioneer into unknown waters, finally coming to anchor near the end of the fjord. Henrik gave a 15-minute Zodiac call and we were off again!!
We landed at Haudegen in Wordiebukta near an old German weather station. An old boat made of oak and copperplates sat up from the beach; it was in amazingly good condition. The weather station was a sorry sight, it was very rundown and old wooden boxes littered the marshy ground. A family of pink-footed geese had taken up residence; unfortunately they had a dinner appointment and had to leave in a flurry. On the rocky cliffs behind the hut the hooting call of a ptarmigan was heard. We could see about 5 chicks with a parent scaling the wall. Not bad little rock climbers at all!!
The evening was only getting better. The rain had stopped and the sun was casting magical light over Rijpfjorden. The Kayakers toasted with a Cointreau in front of a great iceberg as they had their 80° North paddle while the rest of us stretched our legs on the richly lichen covered stone tundra.

Day 5 -
. During the night we had made our way down the east coast of Nordaustlandet to Storoya, an island mostly covered in ice. A thick sea mist had descended and few of us could even see the island let alone guess in which direction it lay. Nonetheless we were soon motoring along the edge of it in the Zodiacs keeping a sharp lookout for bears, which often get marooned by retreating summer ice in such places. Sadly the poor conditions made it difficult to see anything and we returned to the ship cold and disappointed. A few walrus were seen by the kayakers.
Before lunch Dave enlightened us on the history of Svalbard, which is fascinating. It is sobering to think that 150 years before European settlement in Australia, people were slaughtering walrus and whales in Svalbard. In the afternoon it was Alan's turn and his talk was about Polar Bears, which to a lot of people epitomize the Arctic. The photos of bears on ice last year where today there is none brought home the reality of global warming.
We had a long journey down the Erik Eriksenstreten between Nordaustlandet and Kong Karls Land which is a reserve in the true sense of the word: not only are you forbidden to land there, you are not even allowed to fly over the islands. The reprieve gave us time to regroup and play bridge and scrabble.
In the late afternoon after traveling down the east side of the impressive Austfonna Icecap - the 3rd largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland - we arrived at Isispynten. This promontory was named by the 1924 Oxford University Arctic Expedition after the river Isis that flows through Oxford. The similarity to the word icy did not escape us as we sped past the frozen ice cliffs. Segments of the glacier had calved off the main icecap and become grounded revealing details of these fascinating structures frozen in time. The kayakers had a cold but enjoyable paddle interrupted by chocolate breaks. Henrik eventually found a place to go ashore and after a short pitch of ice climbing we were on a fairly flat summit. The view along the ivory cliffs towards a sun that didn't set was memorable. 10 nations were represented on that endless mound of ice but for a moment we were as one. As the midnight sun drew nigh we set a course for Freemansundet between Barentsoya and Edgeoya.

Day 6 -
Overnight we cruised south towards Barentsoya. By breakfast we had entered the waters of Freemansundet, which separates the islands of Barrentsoya and Edgeoya. It was a beautiful day; the sun was shining brightly with hardly a breath of wind. A bear was sighted way off on the hillside. He was a good distance away so the landing took place as planned.
There was a strong current running alongside the ship, the kayakers decided to abandon their morning paddle and joined us as we ventured forth in the Zodiacs to explore the beautiful fertile plains of Sundneset. The spongy ground was rich with bright green mosses, a variety of delicate and colourful flowers, particularly the yellow marsh (bog) saxifrage, various mushrooms and a number of small tarns with Long tailed ducks, Barnacle geese and Red throated divers. We explored the beautiful terrain on foot, marveling at the contrast between the colourful soft ground and the barren, rocky terrain of further north. Reindeer antlers and a mixture of bones lay decaying in the tundra. We looked over several Alpine lakes. The song of snow buntings aroused our attention, as small groups danced around the rocks. It is easy to understand how trappers chose this beautiful location to build a small hut.
A wonderful Antipasto platter awaited us back on board for lunch as Polar Pioneer repositioned. A short distance from Sundneset for the afternoon landing was Doleritneset on Edgeoya. No sign of polar bears! But there where some walrus around. We landed by some old wooden huts, one of them dating back to 1899, it had been built for the Swedish/Russian Arc of the Meridian Expedition. Walrus bones littered the whole area where there had been the scene of mass slaughter of these seemingly docile creatures during the early whaling days. In 1606 Stephen Bennet of the Muskovy Co ship “Grace” described the scene. They had now become so expert at sea morse [walrus] hunting that in six hours they killed six to seven hundred beasts, out of which 22 tons of oil were made and three hogsheads filled with tusks.
Just over the ridge a small group of walrus lay basking on the sandy beach. They were quite timid and nervous so we approached slowly not to scare them into the water. It was nice to just sit and watch them in the afternoon sun. We noticed that one of the larger walrus only had one tusk and it seemed to have some kind of tracking device attached to it. Meanwhile the kayakers enjoyed their paddle along the rocky shore past some walrus who, looked at them from the water as they paddled by.
Splitting into two groups we went for a lovely walk over easy going ground past a lake where lots of purple sandpipers frolicked around the edge, large jaw bones of the rare bowhead whale lay in the same position as whence it came. Henrik's brisk walkers went up onto a small lookout point to take in the beautiful surroundings of Rosenbergdalen and saw several reindeer. While Alan and co explored the nooks and crannies between the boulders finding a lush haven for some new wild flower we haven't seen like the Arctic Dandelion. It was time to make an orderly retreat to the beach after a great day in the Arctic wilderness. It was then back to the warm comforts of our Polar Pioneer and Tilly's happy cocktail hour.
After a great dinner and Don's well-attended talk on his South Georgia crossing, everyone was off to their beds for a well-earned snooze.

Day 7 -
After quietly riding at anchor overnight we were already in position for our first landing of the day. It was a fine morning as the zodiacs rode into what is one of the finest natural harbours in Svalbard. The early whalers had established a base on the low headland of what is now known as Habenichtbukta. As the whales depleted in numbers so the men pulled out. By the mid 18th century the site was once more occupied, this time by Russian hunters, the Pomors, who journeyed from the White Sea in their small sailing boats each year to over winter and hunt polar bears and arctic fox for their valuable white coats. We looked over some fifteen building remains; it had been quite a large settlement. The nearby freshwater lake abounded with bird life and the rich mossy ground was home to a variety of flowers.
Back to the ship and Alan gave a talk on the bird life of Svalbard before lunch. Time then to get in a few ZZ's whilst on passage for our afternoons outing on the small island of Bolscheoya to the south of Edgeoya.
As Polar Pioneer moved slowly across the shallow waters to the anchorage several walrus were startled, it's probably not very often that they are disturbed at their feeding grounds by such a large monster looming down on them. We were soon ashore and again seeing such a variety of wild life, terns with chicks, little auks, red-throated divers and a number of puffins. On one of the beaches we saw more remnants of the old whaling days, some graffiti on a whalebone with the date 1859 engraved, together with a couple of sailors graves. Whilst walking over to get a closer look at the puffins nesting beyond a small tarn, Amanda (Tilly), who was taking a zodiac ride around the island, informed us of a polar bear. It wasn't long before it was sighted again and it was time for us to make an orderly retreat back to the boats. As the bear, a skinny looking female with a tagged collar moved forward, we retraced our steps. Once on the water we were able to skirt around the coast and see her at a close, safe distance. Stranded on the small island that she is, with very little food, she made rather a sad sight. And it's a long time yet before the sea will freeze and with it the chance of a proper feed.
We left the island and made back to the ship for the long overnight passage around the southern tip of Spitsbergen and the balmy Gulf Stream side of the west coast.

Day 8 -
It was back to the Gulf Stream side of Spitsbergen and wow, what a day we had. During the night we had rounded Sorkappoya (the south cape), then turned north for Hornsund, which we entered around breakfast time. The ship steamed east and stopped by Samarinbreen. The sun was shining brightly on the jagged peaks of the surrounding mountains.
We went for an amazing Zodiac cruise in search of the illusive polar bear, which was sighted by some, while the kayakers headed out for a long days paddle! We then headed across the waters to the glacier front. A few beautiful blue icebergs scattered the water as we sat in silence amidst the brash ice and listened to the rumblings inside the bowels of the glacier.
A timid ringed seal popped up near the Zodiac to enchant us. A mixture of birds were sighted as we cruised along the glacial front - black guillemots, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls and fulmars. We sat quietly, taking in the gentle, relaxing ambience of it all and watched small pieces calve from the ice wall. It was a spectacular morning. Back on board, to enjoy a nice warm hot chocolate before we set off again.
Just before noon the Polar Pioneer headed towards the spectacular cliffs of Sophiabogen that towered over Burgebukta. We had a nice time ashore. Beneath the cliffs were lots of nesting kittiwakes buzzing around like one gigantic beehive. Their constant chatter broke the silence. An old trappers hut on the beach was surrounded by the clutter of many expeditions and residents before. Some of us scaled the high peaks where the barnacle geese grazed and the kittiwakes lived. A young Arctic fox played around the large boulders with onlookers only metres away, he gave us a great show and didn’t seem to mind our presence. The slopes were filled with the last wildflowers of summer. It was hard to drag ourselves away from this Arctic environment.
Then it was onwards to Brepollen, the bay at the end of Hornsund into which numerous glaciers flow. In the evening twilight, on the bow, in front of the Hornbreen Glacier we were treated to close up views from the bow as Captain Nikolay moved the ship to within 200 metres of the snout of the glacier - a position that on a 1976 chart was well over a mile inside the ice front. Possibly a bit of global warming? A huge crack and a bang was heard as a big piece plummeted in. The gulls and fulmars peered at us from above as the ship turned, the light on the jagged glacier front only got better. The grand finale ended with a whole face of the glacier front crumbling into the sea sending out a monstrous wave which Polar Pioneer surfed away on and the Captain voice over the PA "Passengers beware".
Dinner was a surprise from our trusty chefs, Tina and Judd, who put on a BBQ banquet on the stern deck. The fine food and mulled wine warmed the hearts on this tranquil summers evening. What away to finish off another great day, “Truly awesome!”
Overnight we have travelled north into Bellsund. Time to do a little more exploring.

Day 9 -
Another beautiful morning for our first outing in Recherchefjord. The kayakers went for their final paddle and the rest of us Zodiac-ed into a large tidal lake trapped by an old terminal moraine of the Recherche Glacier. It was a maze of stranded bergy bits, all sitting on the shallow sea floor. Several ringed seals were seen in the water. Suddenly, Don reported a large Polar Bear near the entrance to the lagoon. The bear had a dirty grey-brown coat, probably from swimming in the murky glacier run-off. For the next half-our the bear wandered about on the moraine while we jockeyed our Zodiacs around to get better views. Eventually we all got good looks at him before he swam across the lagoon entrance and wandered off down the shore. But more excitement - the kayakers had spotted a pod of Beluga Whales within the lagoon. We positioned ourselves near the shore, moving slowly to avoid disturbing the whales and we were rewarded by excellent views as they surged about in the muddy water searching for fish. Two pure white adult Belugas were accompanied by two grey juveniles. The bear had been reported lying in the shallows of the lagoon entrance and so the Zodiacs accompanied the kayakers as they traversed back into the open sea.
Over lunch the ship re-positioned to Bourbonhamna. As we approached our intended landing site we spotted the carcass of a whale on the shore. And bears! One feeding at the whale carcass, another two snoozing on the slopes and then a female with two cubs emerged from behind a ridge and wandered up the slope. Six bears in clear view - all looking plump and well fed. As the anchor rattled down we hastily put on our warm gear and headed for the Zodiacs. A few minutes later we were drifting slowly closer to the whale carcass where one bear was still feeding, tearing bits of blubber off the whale. The bear ignored us but eventually lumbered off, hauling itself up the shoreline cliff and up the green slopes. We then motored in to inspect the whale - it was a Sperm Whale, and judging by the state of the carcass (and the aroma!) it had been dead for a while. It was sad to see this magnificent creature lying distorted and rotting on a beach. But it was not going to waste and, apart from the bears, dozens of gulls and fulmars were also feeding.
We then landed at Bamsebu, the site of a Norwegian Beluga-whaling base active until about 60 years ago. Dave described how the hunters netted and killed the whales, and Alan used the whale skeletons to explain some of the biology of the whales. Family groups of Belugas were spotted by the hunters from the sheltered lookout higher, up the hillside. A quick launch of their motorized clinker-built boats would be followed by the slaughter, and the many piles of hundred of old bones told of years of this activity. The log cabin, well fortified against polar bears, now serves as a weekend retreat for people from Longyearbyen.
Back on board after a hot shower and some packing, we all gathered in the bar for a recap of our amazing journey. Time to look back and realise how much we have done in the past 10 days. This was followed by our final get together - drinks with the captain. Tina and Judd put on a magnificent feast. They have done an amazing job keeping us well fed. Captain Nikolay took a final ship cruise past the coal-mining town of Barentsburg. It’s a Russian mining centre with a population of 1000 - 1200, which extracts about 250,000 tons of coal annually.
Our journey is drawing towards its end now, as we close in on Longyearbyen. We all came together from near and far; we have banded together; now leave as one. We have all endured amazing experiences in so many different ways, holding all the memories close to our hearts. We’d like to say a very special thank you to our excellent crew for an absolutely wonderful voyage.

Posted by TheWandera 06:40 Archived in Norway Tagged ecotourism

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