Spitsbergen 2018 Logbook

By Gary Alt, Wayne Lynch and Rinie van Meurs on Oct 01, 2018

Sunday, June 24
 
The Spitsbergen Pack Ice Voyage aboard the Freya officially began at 3:00 PM in the lobby of the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel in Longyearbyen where 20 participants gathered to meet and receive instructions from their three JVO tour leaders, Rinie van Meurs, Wayne Lynch and Gary Alt.  As so often is the case, conversations soon grew animated as participants renewed old friendships and initiated new ones.  With our luggage, we all took either a bus or a taxi for the short ride to the pier and boarded the Freya at about 4:00 PM.
 
Immediately after getting our luggage into our cabins on the ship, Edvin Vidarsson, first mate of the Freya, met with us in the lounge and presented a review of safety precautions and procedures in the unlikely event of a fire or emergency disembarkation.  Edvin reviewed viewing guidelines and Zodiac travel instructions, and then led us on an orientation walking tour of the ship pointing out where the lifeboats were stored, how to put on life vests, and how to get into a “survival suit.”
 
At about 6:15 PM our Expedition Leader, Rinie van Meurs, spoke to us in the lounge concerning the timing and selections of viewing destinations for our tour.  He explained that our actual itinerary may vary from the previously published itinerary because it would be determined by current weather and ice conditions and by information gathered by other naturalists who recently completed tours of Spitsbergen and nearby areas. 
 
Rinie then projected images of ice maps for the Spitsbergen area for today (June 24, 2018) compared to the same date last year (June 24, 2017).  Today there is no significant sea ice anywhere near Spitsbergen.  In fact recent persistent strong south winds have driven the nearest pack ice to approximately 125 miles (200 km) north of the north shore of Spitsbergen!  Last year at this date, the entire northern shore was locked in by ice, preventing ship tours from even cruising in that region!  This is an area where travel conditions can vary enormously from year to year—sometimes even from day to day, resulting in no two trips being quite the same.  Flexibility in the schedule is a necessity to make the most of the conditions you are faced with here in Spitsbergen.
 
As members of our group unpacked, walked around familiarizing themselves with their new floating home, and the finally settled in their cabins and drifted off to sleep, the Freya sailed west out of Isfjorden and then north along the coastline of northwestern Spitsbergen—taking us to the destinations of tomorrow.
 
Monday, June 25
MAGDALENA FJORD, NW SPITSBERGEN
 
We sailed overnight to the Magdalena Fjord, one of the most beautiful spots along the west coast of Spitsbergen. The seas were very calm at night so we could sail north in the protected waters between the long island of Prins Karls Forland and Spitsbergen.  Big ships have to go around the outside, so sailing on small ships like the Freya has more advantages.
 
Just after breakfast we turned over starboard into Magdalena Fjord where we dropped anchor near a small peninsula called Graveneset, a whalers’ grave yard from the 17th century.  We were surrounded by spectacular pointed or jagged mountains—hence the name Spitsbergen which was given by the Dutch shortly after Willem Barentsz discovered the islands in 1596.  The plan was to visit a walrus haul-out site in Gully Bay in the morning.  But first we met the expedition team in the lounge for a quick safety briefing regarding our Zodiac operation and environmental guidelines.  Soon we were on our way.
 
Blue icebergUnfortunately, when we arrived in Gully Bay there were no walruses.  These animals leave for feeding trips that can take up to a couple of days.  They feed mainly on clams and mussels they excavate from the seafloor.  After some time they come back ashore to digest their catch.  There are always individuals coming and going, but apparently today they were all on the same schedule and were all at sea.
 
Instead we went for a Zodiac cruise to photograph the many beautiful blue icebergs that had broken off the Waggonway Glacier at the head of the bay.  Waves had created beautiful sculptures and, with a little imagination, all kinds of “animals” were seen.  Ice is not blue, but what you see is blue light as the red and yellow wavelengths of the visible spectrum are absorbed.  Only the blue wavelengths refract from the ice.
 
Photographing dovekiesWe stayed in the fjord and after lunch we cruised with the Zodiacs to Alkekongen, a scree slope with nesting dovekies.  When we pulled the boats up the beach we could already hear the loud calls of the little birds flying along the hillside.  Dovekies or little auks are related to puffins and build their nests under boulders to avoid predation by arctic foxes.  However, they are not safe from glaucous gulls.  There are no large birds of prey, like snowy owls, in Spitsbergen but these big gulls are replacing them.  The site turned into a beehive as thousands of screaming dovekies took to the air to escape the massive lethal beak of the gulls.  When caught by the glaucous gulls, they are swallowed whole!  The sun came out as we made our way up the slope (which took some effort for some of us).  However, once we had reached our goal we were rewarded with fantastic views over the fjord, as we photographed and listened to these “mini puffins.”  It was definitely the Magdalena Fjord at its best.
 
 
Tuesday, June 26
ALKEFJELLET & BJORN SOUND
 
We were awakened at 7 AM by Rinie knocking on our cabin doors and imploring us to come on deck for a morning surprise.  We were about to experience one of the great seabird cliffs of the Arctic.  On deck we were startled to see the bow of the ship a mere 5 meters from the face of a vertical cliff that climbed 380 meters above the glassy surface of Hinlopen Strait, its summit cloaked in fog.  Thick-billed murres on cliffThis was Alkefjellet, a nesting colony for 75,000 thick-billed murres as well as large numbers of black-legged kittiwakes, northern fulmars and black guillemots, all crowding the ledges and crevices of this impressive granite cliff defending a precious sliver of real estate where they could lay their eggs and raise a chick or two.  Besides the visual wealth of the experience there was the challenging acrid smell of guano and the continual grating noise of the squabbling seabirds.  We finished the event shortly before breakfast and, with some fancy manoeuvring by the captain, we were able to cruise by a tiny iceberg decorated with dozens of thick-billed murres that had hitched a ride.
 
After breakfast we headed south deeper into Hinlopen Strait.  Within an hour we had another photo target in sight—a solitary bearded seal afloat on a small pan of pack ice.  The bearded seal looks like an overstuffed teddy bear; it is the largest seal in the Arctic weighing up to 425 kilograms.  The seal uses its long set of bushy whiskers to search the soft sediments on the ocean bottom for clams, crabs, squid and fish.  This cooperative seal allowed the ship to get extremely close and everyone got spectacular views of this photogenic pinniped.
 
Mother polar bear with cubsAfter a quick lunch, curry-in-a-hurry, we lowered the Zodiacs and headed over to the remnant of shore-fast ice in front of the Moltke Glacier where we could see a mother and two yearling cubs.  Expectantly, we waited at the ice edge for almost two hours while the mother still- hunted at a seal breathing hole and the cubs wrestled a distance away.  There were five ringed seals scattered around the ice shelf but none came up where the mother was waiting and she finally gave up and strolled to the shore with her cubs in tow.  She climbed a low ridge above the ice and disappeared behind a hill, possibly searching for a secure place to rest and nurse her cubs.
 
At about 6 PM, as we cruised through Bjornsundet (Bear Sound), another family with two yearling cubs was spotted from the bridge.  We quickly launched the Zodiacs and off we went again.  This time Lady Luck was on our side and we were able to follow the family as it walked along the shoreline for nearly a mile.  One can only guess how many gigabytes were consumed but the motor drives were cranking.  We returned to the ship about 7:30 PM after a remarkable day with six bears and a bearded seal under our belts.
 
Wednesday, June 27
 
We arrived at an area of land fast ice adjacent to the Hochstetter Glacier just south of Wilhelmøya in the southwestern portion of Hinlopen Strait just after midnight, 12:10 AM.  This turned out to be our polar bear photography “gold mine” of the tour.  Within minutes we were notified that a large male polar bear was at the bow of the ship and the observers were amazed how it had arrived without early detection.  Instead of coming out across the ice where everyone expected, and where everyone could have been notified at least 15 minutes before it arrived, it instead swam to the ship from behind and was undetected until it magically appeared at the bow!  This provided little warning time to get everyone out of bed, dressed, camera gear organized, and out on the bow to photograph.  By the time most people got there the bear was already moving away from the ship but—not to worry—this was the beginning of a series of bear visits over the next 36 hours or so on the ice at this location.  
 
Shortly after the bear left the ship, most of the people went back to bed.  But a few of us stayed on the bow for another hour or so, captivated by the stark beauty and riveting wildlife behavior and the natural sounds that were happening all around us in the light of the middle of this Arctic summer night.  There was a beautiful deep-blue iceberg glowing in a sea of gray and white clouds reflecting in the water like an oversaturated blue gemstone in a black and white photograph.  Every once in a while there was a thunderous rumbling of glacial calving into the sea that reminded us that everything was not as tranquil as the ice our ship was sitting in. 
 
Parasitic jaegers were incessantly harassing black-legged kittiwakes in flight, like sparring fighter jets, in an effort to get them to regurgitate their catch.  The threatened kittiwakes would sometimes make high-pitched pitiful vocalizations that eerily resembled the cries of an infant child—not a sound one would expect to hear above the High Arctic ice in the middle of the night, especially from a bird.  In one incredible encounter a screaming kittiwake disappeared behind the ship with a determined jaeger in close pursuit.  Parasitic jaeger in flightSeconds later the jaeger emerged from behind the ship and flew right past us with its parasitic reward, a huge fish hanging out of its mouth which I was able to capture in a photo.  Standing there, on the bow of the ship, watching this avian pirate steal from the weak right before my eyes, it was hard not to pass judgment on the jaeger invader—a bully bird, a thief, making a dishonorable living from stealing.   But though morals, ethics and righteousness rank high in the mental judgments of humans, it is of little concern to the jaeger.  He does it because it works.  That’s how it makes a living.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember that evolution operates without emotion and success of the species is not measured by the judgments of “right” or “wrong” but rather in reproductive performance and survival of offspring. 
 
An ivory gull flew nearby and landed on the surface of the ice about 200 yards in front of the bow of the ship.  Upon closer inspection with binoculars I noticed the gull had landed on a blood-stained spot on the ice supporting a naked skeleton.  This was obvious evidence of a kill site where a hapless seal paid its dues for not paying enough attention to a polar bear that was “just trying to make a living.”   Bones were about all that remained.  
 
Recent research indicates that polar bears of the Spitsbergen area have two different summer movement/range strategies for survival.  Some leave the islands, migrating north and staying with the retreating pack ice in summer, while others abandon the pack ice, staying on land-fast ice as long as it lasts and then stay on the islands while reducing activity and sometimes opportunistically feeding on carrion or birds and eggs. 
 
This group of bears we were watching on the land-fast ice in front of Hochstetter Glacier was representative of those that abandon the pack ice and stay on the island.  In this case, by the end of the day, we observed at least 13 bears (including two females with two cubs each and another female with a single cub) concentrated on their very limited piece of ice habitat of only a few square miles.  A curious polar bear approaches our boatThey were moving quite a bit on the ice, following each other’s tracks around and still-hunting, trying to capture seals at air holes.   
 
Throughout the day a series of bears came right up to our ship, providing great photo opportunities and displaying their high level of curiosity and inquisitiveness.  Several bears walked up to the back of the ship, stood up on their hind legs, and either looked through port holes or over the railing at their human admirers.  Two different bears pushed and pulled and began to splinter the wooden posts that were driven into a hole in the ice to prevent the ship from drifting away from the ice.   It was humorous to watch as they also bit and pulled on the ropes as if they were trying to pull us out of the water and onto the ice—as if the ship were a giant seal!  One female bear gave us a brief swimming demonstration right along the edge of the ship to the delight of many photographers.  This was what brought us to Spitsbergen—what a great day!
 
Thursday, June 28
HINLOPEN STRAIT
 
This morning we found ourselves still in the ice in front of the Hochstetter Glacier waiting for the bears to come and check us out.  It was not long before Rinie came running into the mess room and shouted, “in coming!”  Polar bear guarding wooden stakeEverybody was suddenly finished with breakfast and rushed out.
 
The young female who had visited us the evening before was back at the ship and once more created great photo opportunities.  After a while, she walked away and lay down not far from the ship.  This was a little problem for us, as we had plans to leave the spot to check out a walrus haul out at Wahlbergøya.  The ship was moored along the fast ice with ropes, which were connected to a wooden post hammered in the ice.  Now someone had to go out on the ice to take the ropes off and the posts out.  However, since we had this sleeping bear close to the ship it was not a great option.  So we had no choice then to wait until she woke up.  After an hour or so she got up and walked away.
 
Soon we were also on our way to Wahlbergøya.  Unfortunately, when we arrived we found only two walruses on the beach and there was a strong wind which prevented us from going ashore. We decided to go to the Brǻssvell Glacier to look for walruses on ice.  It was still a bit windy on our way and every now and then a snow squall moved through.  Hauled out walrusesThe Brǻssvell Glacier is part of the third largest ice cap in the world, the Austfonna. It covers about 80% of Nordaustlandet, the second largest island in the archipelago.  The tidal front is the longest one in the northern hemisphere—120 miles!
 
Closer to the glacier we saw many female herds in the water with calves and sub adults. Mothers with their calves live in separate groups from the males.  Only in February will the females in estrus meet the breeding bulls at traditional open-water areas between Spitsbergen and Franz Joseph land for mating.  We found a mother and grown calf on an ice floe and the first mate positioned the ship skilfully, so it would slowly drift by the wind towards the animals. When the two animals turned around to look at us they showed their sexy tusks and posed for the photographers who were crowded at the ship’s bow. What a nice way to end the day!
 
 
Friday, June 29
TRAPPED BY WIND OFF WILHEMØYA
 
During the night we left the magnificent Austfonna Icecap and cruised west towards Sonklar Bukta where the latest ice charts suggested there might still be remnants of shore-fast ice where bears could be hunting.  As we crossed Hinlopen Strait we had some rough seas to contend with as the wind was gusting out of the north at 45 mph, causing our trusty little ship to roll and pitch which made sleeping a challenge.  By breakfast we had arrived at our destination to discover that the combination of an early summer melt and the windy conditions had completely cleared the bay of ice.  With no other choice at hand we decided to return to our anchorage alongside the shore-fast ice in front of Hochstetter Glacier.  But Mother Nature had other plans for us and she continued to hammer the ship with northerly winds, making the Hochstetter Glacier an impossible anchorage because of the shifting pack ice that would have continually hammered the hull and tossed us about.  Instead we found a quiet bay off the southwest corner of Wilhemøya and settled in while the storm blew itself out.  To pass the time we had some lectures.  Gary was first to speak and he shared his many experiences with black bears and compared them, a forest-adapted omnivore, with the polar bear an ice-adapted carnivore.  After lunch Rinie entertained us with a lecture on the different hunting strategies of polar bears.  We finished off the afternoon with a talk by Wayne on the various impacts of global warming and climate change on the flora and fauna of the Arctic.  We ended the day safely anchored in the relatively windless harbor of Wilhelmøya.
 
Saturday, June 30
 
At about 7:00 AM we returned to the ice in front of Hockstetter Glacier where we had some of our most spectacular polar bear viewing earlier in the trip.  Unfortunately, viewing opportunities and ice conditions had deteriorated considerably since our visit here a few days earlier.  Where we had been able to see up to 8 bears and many ringed seals scattered throughout the ice at any given time, now there were only a few ringed seals to be seen and just one polar bear about a mile away.  
 
Arctic landscapeWe were hoping to pull into the ice and stay put for a few hours to see if the bears might become curious and come to visit us as they had in the past, but unfortunately ice conditions were tight due to the strong winds from the south which packed it together and our ship could not get into the ice again here at the Hockstetter Glacier.  Given these challenging circumstances, we just briefly pulled alongside the ice for some scenic photos and then decided to sail north, across the Hinlopen Strait to Torrellneset, a walrus haul out site along the southwestern portion of Nordaustlandet.
 
We arrived at Torrellneset at 12:30 PM but, as fate would have it, strong winds causing rough seas prevented our planned Zodiac excursion to this walrus haul out site.  At this point we decided to continue sailing north and to see if weather and sea conditions would allow us to explore an area with ice in Palander Bay on the eastern side of Hinlopen Strait.
 
At 6:00 PM we made our way into Palander Bay, and though winds were 30+ miles per hour, the ice was not tight and we were able to penetrate into the land-fast ice field where we stopped, observed and waited.  For the next three hours we sat in the ice with as many as 28 ringed seals in sight at any given time, as well as seven bears including a mother with two cubs, a mother with a single cub, and two other single bears.  We had hopes that at least one of the bears would get curious and come to our ship but they didn’t—probably due to the strong winds which tend to reduce bear activity.  At 9:00 PM we departed Palander Bay, continued north through the Hinlopen Strait, and west along the northern shores of Spitsbergen with the goal of reaching Liefdefjord to explore the Duck Islands and the Monaco Glacier tomorrow morning and afternoon, respectively.   
 
 
Sunday, July 1
LIEFEDEFJORD
 
After a rather lively night on Freya we all appreciated the moment we entered the Liefdefjord and enjoyed the protection from the weather.  The plan for today was to search for a mother bear and two young cubs which had been regularly seen recently.  It was still a bit windy but the Lernerøyane (øyane is plural for islands) gave us enough protection to launch the Zodiacs for a cruise through a labyrinth of island passages and channels in search for the polar bear family. The kittiwakes provided some nice photo opportunities while plunge diving for little marine critters.  Some of us managed to photograph some flying eider ducks and even some king eiders!
 
Back on board we continued to the Monaco Glacier.  This glacier was named by a French expedition in the early 1900s, sponsored by the Prince of Monaco.  The glacier used to form one giant tidal front, but as we know all glaciers in Spitsbergen are receding very fast, and the Monaco Glacier is now split up into two fronts by a mountain.  Bearded sealSuddenly there was a loud rumbling sound and when we looked we saw two big chunks of ice crashing in the sea creating a big swell!
 
A bearded seal was spotted just as we wanted to leave.  Edvin, the first mate, inched the ship closer to the seal which was hauled out on a small piece of ice.  The seal must have been already out of the water for a while because his whiskers were curled up, which is typical for bearded seals.  It made a comical impression.  It posed nicely for us and after another 20,000 shots we backed off slowly not to disturb it.

The weather had calmed down completely and as we left the fjord we scanned the islands to check if the mother bear with cubs was around.  Unfortunately, she was not seen so we continued to head for our next destination.
 
 
Monday, July 2
ALKHORNET
 
We spent the night cruising west on calm seas for our final day of photography in the picturesque fjords of Svalbard.  At breakfast we were quietly at anchor on the south side of Sarstangen, a 2-mile-long spit of sand and gravel that juts into narrow waters of Forland Sound.  To the east the morning sun lit up a range of snow-capped jagged peaks that made for a magnificent panorama.  Walrus in the shallowsBy 8:45 AM we were loaded into the Zodiacs and motoring to shore where we could see a blubbery pile of 15-20 walruses hauled out on the gravel.  Once ashore we slowly moved closer to the “tooth-walkers” until we were barely 30 meters from them.  Never once did they look disturbed by our presence and, in fact, it was a photo highlight when one even lifted its head for a moment.  As we were packing up to leave we were delighted to see a new walrus bull with a handsome set of large tusks swimming offshore and we headed towards the beach.  As our group huddled together the walrus swam to the edge of the shore and rested in the shallow water, giving us many chances for close-up portraits with beautiful coastal landscape in the background.
 
Our destination for the afternoon was Alkhornet, a headland on the north shore of Isfiorden. The triangular shaped massif towers above a wide strandflat of rolling spongy tundra.  The cliff itself is home to thousands of screaming black-legged kittiwakes, northern fulmars and thick-billed murres.  On the tundra below there were nesting parasitic jaegers, purple sandpipers and scores of grazing Svalbard reindeer along with a family of arctic foxes.  Svalbard reindeerThe race of reindeer in Svalbard (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) is one of the smallest subspecies of caribou in the world.  Its scientific name platyrhynchus means “blunt snout” which is a polar adaptation to reduce the loss of body heat in the frigid winters.  Further heat-conserving adaptations are the reindeer’s small ears and short legs.  On our afternoon hike we saw many reindeer calves grazing with their mothers.  The calves were roughly a month old and although some were still nursing the youngsters were in the process of being weaned and many had begun to nibble the green grasses, sedges and forbs that will be their diet throughout life.
 
A highlight for many was the discovery of an active arctic fox den with four energetic pups.  The pups were around four weeks old and we arrived just as they were beginning a play session outside the rock crevice that was the family home.  Young foxes first appear at the mouth of the family den when they are around a month old.  By then, their eyes are open and energy fills their every fiber.  Arctic fox pups coming out of denWrestling, chewing and chasing matches among littermates help them develop coordination and build strong bones.  Play serves an important social function as well.  A serious pecking order develops between young foxes at this age, and the skirmishes are unexpectedly vicious.  One author wrote a vivid description of what happens among a litter of fox pups when they are between three and four weeks of age:  "Fox pups do not act like cute cuddly puppies such as those of the domestic dog; rather they have always seemed to me to have a slightly demonic character.  They are tough month-old thugs, little street fighters, who initiate fights and establish a strict dominance hierarchy during the following ten days."  A similar struggle for rank occurs among coyotes and wolves at roughly the same age.  In all of them, the dominant pups in a litter eat first.   When food is scarce, the lowest ranked ones go hungry, and sometimes starve.
 
We returned to the ship around 7 PM for our final dinner on board the Freya.  The Captain thanked us for travelling to Svalbard, and we in turn expressed our gratitude for safely getting us to some great island locations.
 
 
Tuesday, July 3
 
During the night the Freya had completed its voyage and returned to the Longyearbyen pier where our trip had started.   At 7:00 AM we all assembled for one last breakfast on the Freya.   Soon after breakfast we completed packing and we put our luggage out in front of our cabins for collection.  We disembarked the Freya at 9:00 AM, took a bus back to the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel in Longyearbyen where we temporarily stored our luggage.  Between about 9:15 AM and 12:45 PM, most of the group explored the shops, restaurants and museum of Longyearbyen.  Between noon and 12:45 PM most of us made our way to the Longyearbyen airport by bus or taxi for our 2:45 PM flight back to Oslo, bringing our Spitsbergen adventure to a close.