Arctic Landing Reports – Silver Explorer
Expedition Itineraries: The itinerary of every trip will be different depending on the weather and ice conditions. On the August 2010 trip, we were able to circumnavigate not just the main Island of Spitzbergen but go around the permanent eastern ice cap of Austfonna on the island of Nordaustlandet. No ship had done this for the previous two years and this was new territory for many of the expedition staff as well. On that trip, we saw 24 polar bears.
TROMSOE TO LONGYEARBYEN
Storstappen Island, Norway
Here the days expedition will ve a zodiac tour around what we have been previously told was called Bird Island. The correct name is Storstappen Island. From a zodiac, we were able to get close into the cliffs and get better views of the nesting birds. We first spent some time with the skittish puffins - getting pictures is hard they will not allow you too close and they fly away when you try. We saw many Sea Eagles that were quite spectacular soaring over the cliffs and the zodiac. The highlight was going into a wonderful small cave area with brilliant green algae and interesting rock formations. We had some swell on one part of the tour that was probably the most swell I have ever encountered on a zodiac but everyone was fine so I am confident that those new to zodiacs are going to be fine for the whole voyage.
In the afternoon, we arrived in the North Cape area. The tough ones among us did a hike from the shore up the cliff side and then walked to the North Cape. You could see the trail from the ship as it zigzagged up the mountain. Not for me! Those doing the walk debarked and took a zodiac ashore. It was much tougher than anyone had anticipated but all made it safely to the top. The ship sailed onto a small village named Skarvag where the ship provided a bus trip to North Cape for the non-walkers. Skarvag is a small fishing village that is home to 47 people, with 8 children in the one school. Reindeer were everywhere and they like to hang out on the football field. There was one big reindeer in front of each goal and the others milling around the field. It really looked like a game was in progress. It was a beautiful sunny day and the scenery was terrific. North Cape was in sun then heavy fog and then sun again.
Bear Island (first island in the Svalbard archipelago)
Guests do a zodiac tour of Bear Island. Fabulous scenery with thousands of nesting birds on steep cliffs of many varieties. The new chicks literally fall from the cliffs to join the fathers as they prepare to leave and go to sea. We did not see any new chicks take that huge leap from the cliffs but saw some little ones in the water. The adult birds encircled to the small chick to provide protection. Wonderful sight. A highlight was going through a cave. The entrance provided a little thrill as we ran the swell to the entry, the other side was covered with birds swirling around the cave entrance. It was really dramatic and we all loved it. So on the way back we decided to "do the cave again" from the opposite direction.
The original plan was a landing at Kapp Lee however the presence of two Polar Bears changed the afternoon from a landing to a zodiac ride to view the bear and the walrus. One of the polar bears that had wandered down closer to the shore and a small group of walrus on the beach. During lunch, we could see the bear walking around but by the time we got there he had run out of energy and was sleeping on the rocks. There was one walrus that was more fun raising his head out of the water. We were all hoping he would haul himself on land to join the walrus already on the shore but he did not oblige us. We got reasonably close to him about 100 yards but then again I am terrible at judging distances. In this case, you really needed binoculars to see the animals well.
At the recap tonight, we were told due to the perfect weather and ice conditions we are going to circumnavigate not just the main island of Spitzbergen but go around the permanent eastern ice cap of Austfonna on the island of Nordaustlandet. No ship had done for two years and this was new territory for many of the expedition staff as well. They are all really excited about this opportunity. Supposedly the chance of excellent polar bear sighting is really high in this area.
Alkefjeller an area of a large colony of guillemots perched on sheer rock cliffs, over 10,000 breeding pairs. The ship came really close and we drifted sideways in front of this magnificent rock formation and every tiny ledge was covered with birds. I am sure Ken got some good pictures but no picture could do this scene justice. It was different than being in a zodiac as we were at the same height as some of the nesting birds rather than looking up at them from the water. They look like penguins and there was a pink algae in the snow that look like penguin poop. Thought I was on the wrong end of the planet! The weather was again perfect, no wind, bright sunshine the expedition team were very excited about the conditions and had their cameras out as well.
We were in the first group to leave for the landing to see walrus on a beautifully sunny day with no wind and totally calm seas. We were not disappointed. Walrus can be like the elephant seals in Antarctica where they just lay there like blobs with little or no movement. Today, we had a couple that were active; that is active relative to discussing walrus activity on land. One big walrus in the front was constantly scratching, sitting up and looking at us and rolling around. I am sure many have some great shots. Shortly after the second group arrived on shore, the polar bear lookouts spotted two polar bears coming from different directions towards the group and the fog started rolling in at the same time. Needless to say, it was major fast exit from the land as everyone grabbed a life vest and boarded the zodiacs. All made it safely back from the shore and I hear from some in the group this was handled extremely well by crew and passengers. The Captain even came on the PA congratulating the passengers for the fast and efficient evacuation from the beach
Dinner concluded with the most spectacular sail alongside the Brasvilbreen. We went to the bridge and watched waterfall after waterfall pour from the sides of the glacier. This is a spectacular sight and runs for 190 nautical miles alongside the southern and eastern edges of Austfonna. The expedition staff said it's the best glacier sighting they've ever seen. The weather was perfection, blue sky no wind, totally calm sea. It was hard to leave and go to bed. A sight I will never forget.
WHAT A MORNING! Polar Bear Heaven We sailed very close to the glacier around 6:30 am this morning. Wonderful scenery, then at 8:30 am the PA came on that they had seen three bears on shore. We were in the first group out on the zodiacs this morning and initially we saw the bears but they were all laying down and doing very little. One was on the snow and one was on the rocks. At about the same time, they both started stirring and lifting their heads. One started walking and we could see him well in the binoculars but not that well without them. He was raiding the arctic turns nests and the birds were going crazy. We moved around the area and watched these bears for about 30 minutes and just as we were coming back in we saw two bears together moving over the rocks. We followed the bears with our zodiac and then it really got exciting. One of the bears head was spotted at the top of the rocks. The bear started to walk down to the water. He made his way very slowly and the cameras were going crazy. He came right to the water's edge and looked like he may get in the water to come and visit a nice food source - "US"! We were so close to the bear you did not need binoculars to see his massive feet and claws. We had the expedition leader in our zodiac and he told all the zodiacs to start backing away. It was an incredible sighting. Cannot imagine it can get better than that. We saw either 5 or 6 polar bears this morning but the one that put on a show for us will never be forgotten.
WHAT AN AFTERNOON Polar Bear and Walrus Heaven
The wind picked up and white caps were on the ocean. We were all in the second zodiac group so we were very comfy playing cards as the first zodiacs went out. Watching the zodiacs pitching around and spray flying it was tempting to stay onboard. After all, how much better could it get than this morning? All but three of us decided to venture out. Those coming in from the first zodiac were soaking wet but looked really happy and said it was worth it to get wet. Then we heard there are three polar bears and lots of walrus and the bears are circling the walrus and the walrus are everywhere in the water. So now we were all pretty excited about the adventure. It was not as rough in the zodiacs as it had appeared and then right after we started going to the shore line the sun broke through and the wind died down a little. It was still choppy but not bad.
When we got to the shoreline, there were walrus in the water all around us. It is amazing how graceful they are in the water. Our zodiac driver had to be very careful as he maneuvered our zodiac among the walrus and the other zodiacs. Three polar bears were on the shore all slightly separated from each other. The best was one bear that was really close to a group of walrus and started circling around the walrus. We were hoping he would make a charge at the walrus but no such luck. The walrus is as likely to win that battle as the polar bear. The bears only go for the old and weak or for young walrus. This was a scene straight out of National Geographic. The walrus were everywhere in the water and on land, three polar bears, and an incredible cloud formation that looked like mountains. We got a little wet coming back and the cold was starting to set in but worth every second for the sights we saw.
This morning we got close to 81 degrees and then we stopped to do the POLAR plunge (those brave souls that wished to take a dip in the Arctic ocean). Only one in our group, took that challenge and we all took pictures as he plunged under the water. It was fun watching people jump in and come out as fast as they could. The two executive chefs took the plunge complete with Chefs hats.
This afternoon there was a landing on shore and it was nice to step on land but this particular landing was not as interesting as other landings we had done. We were in groups and could not wander off and explore on our own.
Incredible Polar Bear, Glacier and Birds: At about 7:00 am, the PA announcement made us aware of a polar bear on an iceberg with a seal kill. We had about 10 minutes to get up on deck to see this wonderful sight. The bear was really quite close to the ship. He was eating the seal and the birds were flocking around for a few scraps. Unfortunately, the seal slid off the ice and then the polar bear went into the water and then started swimming to the shore. What a way to start a day.
At about 8:00 am, we departed the ship for a zodiac tour of the Monacobreen Glacier that proved to be another "wow" experience. The water was dead calm, the sun was shining and it was not very cold. We were fortunate to have the expedition leader, Robin, as our guide. The glacier was large and angled around the bay. There was a cave at one point that was constantly calving in HUGE chunks causing waves and swell. In the zodiac we edged as close as we could safely and saw some of the biggest calving I have ever seen and the appropriate waves and swell. We then stopped at another zodiac where the Captain was serving champagne and chocolate covered strawberries. Gives a new meaning to champagne on ice!!
Then we went over to an area that has thousands of birds that feed in this area due to the food that is churned up from the glacier activity. As we watched another major calving took place and the birds scattered in every direction. A scene out of Alfred Hitchock's The Birds.
We looked at a large piece of black ice that has large rocks embedded that had come off the moraine of the glacier where two glaciers met. Plus, we got right next to a huge blue iceberg where we could touch it and stand in the zodiac and see how beautiful it was on the surface of the iceberg.
The finishing touch to the morning was when a huge piece of blue ice popped up on the surface from below. I never knew this would happen but our guide said this is always a danger as these pieces break off the glacier below the water line and pop up to the surface and there is no way to know when that will happen. Another reason there is a distance that must be kept. As Jim B said it was like the glacier giving birth.
In the afternoon, the landing turned into more polar bears. We were supposed to visit a trapper's hut and do a landing, but the bears are everywhere. This trip has seen 19 bears so far. A large polar bear was between the landing spot and the hut so that made a landing impossible. However, the good news was they also spotted a mother bear and cub and so the plans were changed and a zodiac ride to view the mother and cub was planned.
The wind had picked up and the seas were white capping. It was obvious that it was going to be a wet and bumpy trip. The zodiacs are so stable that you can go in weather that you would not consider in a tender. The ride over was wet and big splashes hit us all. It took about 5-10 minutes in the choppy seas and spray to reach the polar bears. Then it started to rain lightly.
It looked like one bear was sleeping as it was curled up in a ball. We went round and round in circles looking at the bear but it looked like the bear was not going to move. She would raise her head from time to time and then just flop down again. So we decided to head back to the ship and had just started our return when we saw the bear had moved a little and you could see the cub. Quick turn around and we headed back. We were rewarded with the mother rolling on her side with her head up and cub started nursing. The area they were laying had some nice moss and flowers it was a lovely setting. Of course if we had sun, no rain and calm seas it would have been picture perfect. Ken was still able to get some nice shots and I am so ready for him to post some of these pictures as they are worth a thousand words.
This morning we were are at Smeerenburg and old whaling station. The plan was to do a landing and visit the remains of this old whaling station. We were in the second group this morning. After the first group landed, a bear was sighted in the water that had come on shore and was heading towards the landing site. So everyone quickly headed back into the zodiacs again and abandoned the landing site. Both groups did a zodiac ride to watch the bear. He was laying down and not too exciting just raising his head from time to time. We then did a zodiac tour of the whaling station. This is a stunning area with beautiful mountains that had just received fresh snow. Our zodiac driver was a Marine Biologist and spotted some jelly fish. One was really large with huge long tentacles and this added to the enjoyment of the morning excursion.
The original plan for the afternoon was to visit an area where a whale had washed up on shore that the polar bears were feeding on. This had been written up in earlier logs of the ship so I was enthusiastic about this plan. However the expedition leader came on and said we had seen enough bears already so we were going to head to Magdalena Fjord where people could do a landing and some walking in the Arctic. This is an area where there are not a lot of bears. Lots of complaints from the passengers how can you ever see ENOUGH bears? So off we went and when we arrived in the Fjord you guessed it immediately they spotted a bear and with a bear spotted no landing was possible. This is a beautiful fjord and everyone enjoyed the scenery while an alternative plan was put in place. YEAH! The expedition leader decided to return to the area of the whale carcass and polar bears. So we headed in that direction. Everyone on the ship was happy.
The weather changes so fast. The first group went out and came back saying there was hail and snow and rough water and it was very cold, but they saw four bears and it was worth it. When we went, the sea had calmed down the sun was shining, no snow or hail and it was not that cold. We saw two bears, both sprawled out on the rock and sleeping. By the time we headed back, the seas had become rough and the wind had picked up. The weather changes in an instant. I am not sure of the count on the polar bears not but it is in the low twenties.
July 14th Glacier
This morning we arrived at the July 14th Glacier. This is a spot that we visited last year. The expedition team map out the easiest route (still not easy) to go up to and stand on the glacier which is an activity many enjoy. If you do not want to do that climb, then you can wander around on the shore and see the bird cliffs with many birds, including puffins and hope for a sighting of an arctic fox raiding the birds nests and walk to the base of the glacier. It is a really nice landing the base is small round rocks for the most part with the bigger rocks and boulders closer to the glacier. The conditions were good only a very light wind and an overcast sky with patches of blue. During the landing, most made it up on the glacier, quite a few saw an Arctic Fox and the puffins were wonderful from the zodiac and many got some great puffin shots.
The adventure is over - it was an amazing trip! We purchased a transfer to town, which gave us two hours to look around and then a transfer to the airport for our flight back to Olso via Tromsoe. There is a free internet cafe in the mall area where I stayed and looked after everyone's carry-on luggage. I have been to Longyearbyen three times and spent three nights here and it is very small so I was happy to sit and play luggage- sitter. Many visited the museum which is really well done and lots of shopping took place. This is a good spot to eat lunch as it is tax-free and the food is much cheaper. The flight home was uneventful other than the hassle of getting off the plane in Tromsoe, collecting your luggage (supposedly clearing customs). I saw one officer day dreaming in a corner paying no attention. Then you have to recheck your bags again, line-up and board the exact same plane.
We had a marvelous time, fell in love with the ship and the BEST expedition team we have ever experienced and look forward to returning to hunt for more polar bears.