Spitsbergen 2016 Trip Report and Logbook

By Expedition Staff on Jul 26, 2016

Tuesday June 28, 2016
It was a beautiful sunshiny day as 52 passengers from seven countries converged in the high Arctic town of Longyearbyen in Norway's Svalbard archipelago.  Many of the people on our Spitsbergen–The Pack Ice Voyage had arrived a day or two early to avoid potential airline delays and to spend a little time exploring the environs of the northernmost town in the world.

By 4 PM most of the group had assembled at the biggest hotel in town and prepared to board our bus to take us to the dock to meet our small Russian ship, Polar Pioneer.  Earlier in the afternoon our luggage had been collected, placed on a truck, and taken to the ship. Upon boarding Polar Pioneer we were directed to our cabins where we reconnected with our luggage.

pdf-icon-spits-2016-logbook.jpgAn orientation meeting in the ship’s bar introduced three of the four leaders of our Arctic photography voyage—John Shaw, Jeff Vanuga and Joe Van Os.  The fourth of the Photo Safaris leaders—Rinie van Meurs—would arrive after dinner to an enthusiastic welcome as he transferred from a larger ship to Polar Pioneer via Zodiac.  Rinie had just completed a similar voyage to the one we were just starting.  Therefore, he had good advance knowledge of where the pack ice was located and potentially where there was a good concentration of wildlife associated with it.

In our orientation meeting we were also introduced to the ship’s doctor, the hotel manager, and another Arctic adventurer—Christian Genillard—a Swiss sailor who had participated in America's Cup as well as around-the-world sailboat races.  Following these introductions and some words of wisdom regarding shipboard life, we participated in the mandatory lifeboat drill as we watched Longyearbyen disappear into the distance.

Numerous seabirds could be seen from the ship as we made our way to the dining room for our first meal aboard.  The sea was flat and the temperature outside was very mild.
Wednesday June 29
From satellite ice charts as well as Rinie's reconnaissance from his prior trip we knew we had to sail northward overnight to reach the pack ice.  Whether due to the El Niño weather pattern that had prevailed over the previous winter or other phenomenon, Svalbard—"Spitsbergen" as it is usually referred to by non-Norwegians—had mostly remained ice free the entire winter and snow had not been on the ground in Longyearbyen since the start of the new year.  We knew we had to travel far to the north overnight to arrive at the pack ice floe edge this morning.

The water was extremely calm as we cruised northward to 81.30 N, about 585 miles from the North Pole.  We woke to fog so thick little could be seen.  It was a “perfect storm” of cold icy water and warmer moist air—not a good combination for searching the pack ice for bears and other wildlife.

During the morning there was a meeting in the bar about the use of our Zodiacs, and a review of the rules and regulations for onshore visitation.  Waterproof boots were also distributed to those who needed them.
Shortly after the meeting ended, we sailed into our first serious ice.  Pans of ice covered what we could see of the ocean, both ocean and ice disappearing into the fog.  We soon grew accustomed to the noise of the ship as it powered through the pancaked floes.  At first this sound was disconcerting, to say the least; the word “Titanic” came quickly to mind, but we were reassured that Polar Pioneer is indeed an ice-hardened vessel.

Quite a few birds would appear suddenly out of the fog.  Joe gave a slide lecture covering all the birds we could expect to see, so once on deck we tried to connect the names he had mentioned with the bodies we saw flying by.  Even so, “What is that black and white bird?” was still the most asked question.  But soon we could distinguish between:

thick-billed murre (Brünnich’s guillemot)

black-legged kittiwake

dovekie (little auk)

glaucous gull

black guillemot

northern fulmar

While identifying the birds was possible, photographing them was another story, especially in the overcast light of a foggy afternoon.  We got a few shots, but tomorrow is another day, and maybe better conditions—hopefully, with no fog.

Just before dinner we gathered in the bar for a Captain’s Welcome Toast where we were officially introduced to Captain Sasha.
Thursday June 30
We were awakened at 7 AM by our morning announcement for breakfast and were greeted to a glorious sunny day with warm temperatures and calm seas.  Our position was 81.06.544 N, 19.03.867 E and our course was North at 357.5.  After breakfast, many of the staff and passengers were up on the bridge and at the bow scanning the horizon for polar bears.  As the morning progressed we encountered large ice floes with many open leads as our ship continued on a northerly course.  As we sailed searching for bears we were entertained by black guillemots, northern fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes and glaucous gulls circling and feeding around the ship.  By midmorning we were spotting numerous ringed seals resting near their breathing holes deep in the pack ice.

We did have some luck photographing an adult bearded seal at close range.  It is really amazing that you can sneak up on such a shy animal hauled out on the ice with a 72-meter-long ship and get such great photos!  It was our first large mammal shoot of the trip.

At around 9:30 AM we could visually spot the Seven Islands (Sjuøyane) to the south—the most northerly islands of Svalbard.  Rossøya, Phippsøya, Martensøya and Parryøya were some of the main islands visible on the southerly horizon.

By midmorning the weather turned cloudy, the wind picked up to a mild breeze, and the temperature and wind chill factor had everyone adding more and more thermal layers to stay warm.  At this point we were surrounded by ice with intermittent open leads.  At about 11 AM we spotted a polar bear on a large ice shelf, but we were unable to penetrate the sea ice.  Our crew patiently worked along the open water and the curious bear finally wandered over to an open lead where we drifted waiting to see if the bear would approach.  It did!  We were all quiet on deck and the ship was still. Happily, we managed a pretty good shoot over the period of an hour.  After the bear decided to wander off, and as we were packing up for a late lunch, our first brown skua flew over the bow of the ship.  Our position at this time was 81.15.2217 N, 19.45.8189 E.  Lunch was served at 2 PM.

At 5 PM another large male polar bear was spotted, but after maneuvering through the ice it became apparent that the bear was not interested in us and started to move away from the ship.  A decision was made to not follow it. 

Dinner was served at 7:30 PM and just as we were settling in for the night another bear was spotted at 8 PM.  The ship paralleled the bear for some distance and eventually the inquisitive bear gave everyone some close-up photographic opportunities.  We had about an hour of shooting before everyone settled in for the night.  Afterward the ship pushed into the ice where we drifted and spent a quiet night.
Friday July 1
The sky was clear and bright and large ice pans containing hundreds of ringed seals were visible as little specks strewn across the broad landscape—each seal sitting next to its breathing hole escape route in the event of an approaching polar bear.  No matter how much we searched we could not see that approaching polar bear.  It was a mystery.  Here was an Arctic smorgasbord fit for any polar bear to gorge on and yet none were to be seen.  And it was not for a lack of us trying!

Unfortunately, fog started to develop after lunch and soon visibility was near zero.  Later in the afternoon Rinie gave a lecture on polar bear biology, and Jeff presented a slide show on landscape photography.  (We really do need to come up with another term to replace the archaic "slide show" to use for an image illustrated presentation.)  Joe and Rinie kept watch on the bridge until after dinner to no avail.  The fog persisted well into bedtime.
Saturday July 2
We slept in the drifting ice last night, waking this morning at our furthest position north so far: 81.30 N.  Our morning location was NNW of the Seven Islands—the very northernmost part of the Svalbard archipelago.  Although we were surrounded by ice floes, which usually mitigate any wave action, the ocean still had a bit of swell causing the ice to slowly undulate up and down.  This movement was especially apparent when we stood on deck and gazed into the distance.   As we continued to sail into the ice, the swell stopped, and our old nemesis—fog—returned.  We had good “bear ice” conditions, but limited visibility, which meant that seals or bears would be extremely hard to spot.

In midmorning John gave a lecture on “The Basics of Lightroom.”

After lunch, as we crunched through the ice, we noticed kittiwakes swarming for little fish (polar cod) along the broken floes.  This gave us a photography opportunity, although a very difficult one.  We tried and tried, with mixed success.  Then an announcement: a bearded seal was spotted in the far distance.  Slowly we advanced, until at last we were in shooting range.  The seal was lying on the edge of an ice floe, such that its clear reflection was visible.  As we eased the ship into position, the seal turned its body to face us.  Even better!  This offered both vertical and horizontal photo compositions, depending on the focal length used.  And we had enough time to change lenses, allowing for even more photos.  We were happy photographers, until the seal slowly hunched to the ice edge and slid into the water.  Moments later the fog returned, seemingly having waited for our seal session to end.

Late in the day the light opened up, and everyone went out on the deck to see the display.  The water was perfectly flat with no wind to cause ripples, thus a mirror reflection of sky and ice appeared.  With no wind the temperature was quite mild, creating a very comfortable time to remain outside and enjoy the evening and the slowly changing light.  As we slowly sailed along, we created lots of “landscape” images, although there was little land in sight.  For a final act, the low sun broke through in very late evening and created a fogbow in the opposite direction.  All in all, it was a pretty good day.
Sunday July 3
At 7 AM our position was 79.37.1500 N,19.10.999 E in the Hinlopen Strait of Nordauslandet.  The temperature was a cool 6°C under light rain and fog.  Breakfast was served at 7:30 AM and was immediately followed by a briefing on Zodiac and landing protocol.  Our destination was Torelineset Beach to photograph the approximately 100 walruses that frequent the end of the peninsula.  After everyone landed on the beach we started our group approach to photograph the walruses.  As we neared we discovered that the walruses were mostly cows and calves and were not comfortable with our approach, so we stopped about 200 yards from where they were resting on land.  Some walrus headed for the water and we waited patiently and over a period of time several herds of cows and calves came swimming up to our group, providing some close-up photographic opportunities.  We photographed on the beach until 12:30 PM just as it started to rain and heavy fog moved into the area.  Lunch was served at 1 PM.

In the afternoon we headed to the Austfonna ice cap (the third largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland) and the Bråsvellbreen Strait where we photographed a “castellated” arched iceberg floating near the front of the Bråsvellbreen glacier.  (Breen is glacier in English.)  Thousands of photos were taken as we circumnavigated the berg almost three times! Our position was approximately 79.10.985 N, 23.34.604 E.  We continued our cruise, eating dinner at 7:30 PM then downloading images and relaxing in our cabins and in the bar for the rest of evening.
Monday July 4 American Independence Day
Our morning started at Bjornsund (Bear Sound) in the southern part of Hinlopen Strait. There were mixed patches of blue sky and huge swaths of interesting and photogenic clouds hanging over the land.  Much of the landscape here looks like a Bundt cake drizzled with white snowy icing.  And that combination of mountain and sky made for some interesting early-morning photography.

From up on the bridge visibility was very good, and as we traveled two very distant polar bears were spotted on the land where they had been stranded after the ice melted from underneath them.  We did not “shoot” them; however, they did add to our tally of bears at the end of the trip.  The weather was relatively calm—and we joked that the forecast was wrong because it called for rain and very strong wind.  But as we rounded an island and entered the wider part of Hinlopen Strait the joke was on us.  The wind picked up dramatically and it started to rain as we approached Alkefjellet—the towering bird cliffs on the eastern side of the big island of Spitsbergen—that we had planned to photograph both from the ship and by Zodiac.
The wind howled and the sea was rough and white caps whipped with froth as foam danced across the water.  It rained horizontally.  Quite a few brave souls stood outside on deck and photographed the cliffs and the flying birds—predominately thick-billed murres and northern fulmars that were slowed by the wind has they flew alongside the ship.

Drastic action was called for.  Joe called an “all hands” meeting in the bar to outline what he called a “Hail Mary” plan where he proposed the ship head back north to the ice and go much farther east in search of bears.  A Fourth of July barbecue was planned for the evening outside on the stern deck.  Because of the really poor weather we decided to scrap that idea and head immediately northward to get as much ice time in as possible and see if we could find more bears.  It was a popular idea.  As we traveled northward Rinie gave a presentation on polar bear hunting strategies and food preferences.
Tuesday July 5
By the time Rinie gave the 6:30 AM wake-up call, we were once again in the midst of ice floes.  We had sailed all night to get back into the ice, so it was a welcome sight, as was the absence of fog (at least there was no fog at this early hour).  We started the day at 81.13 N and 27.05 E, much farther to the east than we had been before.  Now, the search was on for bears and seals.

And a good bear day it turned out to be!  In the morning John gave a lecture on “The Develop Module in Lightroom.”  Just as he was finishing, Jeff came into the lecture room with the news that a bear had been sighted in the far distance and, given all the ivory and glaucous gulls surrounding the area, it was presumed to be on a kill.  We had plenty of time to get ready and get out on deck.  In order to get close to the bear the captain had to maneuver the ship through quite a lot of ice, which he did with astounding precision.  As we slowly approached we could see a male bear on the remains of a seal, with quite a number of ivory gulls waiting not so patiently for any scraps.  All at once the bear walked directly toward the bow of the ship, where it stopped and looked up.  This was an impossible location for photography—and the bear must have felt all of our collective thoughts as it then walked just a short distance from the port side of the ship, dragging the seal remains.  It started to eat again.  Ah, perfectly located for photos, not too far, not too close, and broadside to the ship.  For a few minutes there was dead quiet with the only sound of shutters being tripped.  And then, just as we were congratulating ourselves on how perfectly things were going, an extremely loud ship’s exhaust fan roared into life.  Did I say “loud?”  It was more like LOUD.  Joe was immediately on his radio, trying to have the fan turned off.  The bear looked up, then grabbed what remained of the seal,  walked off and continued walking away from the ship.  After about a minute the fan was turned off, but the bear stayed far away.

But all was not lost.  Another bear had been spotted, a female with two large cubs.  These bears were very far away, far enough that we could leave our photo gear on deck (with lenses pulled off tripods and safely stashed in packs) and eat a late lunch while the ship worked toward the newly discovered trio.
We had a hurried meal, and rushed back outside.  The ship had traveled a lot closer, and the bears had definitely caught our smell.  The two cubs, a male which was almost as big as its mother and a slightly smaller female, were born last year.  The trio walked directly toward the ship, investigating this curious new thing that had appeared in their environment, while presenting us with many photo possibilities.  Then the best happened: the cubs were yowling loudly, obviously wanting to nurse.  The mother walked a short distance and started to sit down—and all of us had the same exact thought: please, please let her sit facing us, not facing away.  She did just that, they nursed within easy photo range from the ship.  We held our shutter buttons down.  This was fantastic!

Very shortly she had enough of her two demanding cubs.  She stood up, shook off the cubs even though they still wanted to suckle, and walked away from the ship.  The cubs followed, protesting loudly.  We followed for a short distance, but it was soon obvious they were not going to stop moving so we let them go on their way.

But wait!  What about that bear with the seal carcass we had photographed earlier in the day?  When we sailed away before lunch it was still hanging around the area, but would not come close to the ship.  Perhaps it was worth backtracking to see what would happen.  Sure enough, the bear was once again on what little remained of the carcass.  It had moved farther out on the ice, a long reach for our lenses, and the light was dropping with a thickening overcast.  After a few distant bear-in-landscape shots we called it a day.  We packed up our gear and headed inside to download full cards and to recharge camera batteries.

While we had been preoccupied with the bears, we had hit our furthest north and furthest east positions: 81.34.7 N, and 27.03 E.
Wednesday July 6
Our wake-up call at 7 AM welcomed expedition participants to a spectacular sunny day in the Arctic.  Blue skies and calm winds out of the southwest made for smooth sailing during the night and our position was west of where we had photographed several bears the day before.  To the south we could see the Seven Islands on the horizon and we were again heading North 26° into the ice packs of the Arctic.  Our position at around 7:30 AM was 81.095.499 N, 20.09.4830 E.  Temperature was a pleasant 4°C.

At 9:30 AM, a male polar bear was spotted in an open lead swimming between ice floes.  The male was covering a long distance in the water so the ship was careful not to approach or push the bear.  We paralleled the bear at a comfortable distance for 20 minutes when we discovered the large male was heading for another smaller subadult already consuming a seal kill.  Suddenly the male raced over the floe and sent the smaller subadult running full speed.  Eventually the subadult ran out of real estate and launched itself into an Olympic style dive into the water and away from the much larger male.

It took a few minutes for the large male to locate what was left of the seal, and although little scraps remained, the bear entertained us for several hours.  The captain brought us towards the bear and at times the bear came to investigate the smells of the ship, wandering within feet of the bow and our starboard side.  Some of the surface ice was melting and offered reflected hues of blue pools which the bear frequented, providing mirror reflections for our ship of photo enthusiasts.

By 1:00 PM the bear had moved away and it was time to head south on our overnight journey to Lilliehookbreen (glacier) where we planned to do Zodiac cruising in front of the glacier.  The air now was bitterly cold due to a southwesterly breeze and brought the wind chill down.  It was time for hot drinks, soup and a hearty meal.

After lunch, everyone relaxed, downloaded and took naps.  The cold air and great photography took its toll and most passengers rested and enjoyed their images until cocktails were served at 6 PM.  At this time, Joe treated us to an open bar until dinner.  Everyone was in good spirits and dinner was tasty once again!
Thursday July 7
We sailed south during the night, and woke this morning to clear skies and warm temperatures: about 6°C (roughly 43°F).  Joe gave the wake-up announcement as Rinie was down for the count with a mysterious illness that was going around the ship.  Our location at 7 AM was 78.48 N and 10.57 E, much farther south and west of our location yesterday morning.

We were heading toward Prins Karls Forland, a long island off the west coast of the main Spitsbergen Island, opposite the area called Oscar II Land.  All of Prins Karls Forland and the surrounding sea area, constitutes Forlandet National Park.  More specifically we were going to Richard Lagoon, a seven-kilometer-long lagoon on the northeastern side of the island.  The area is named after Dr. Jules Richard, 1863-1945, managing director of the Musée Océanographique Monaco, who had done early scientific work in the area.  Even more specifically, we were going to one location in the lagoon, hoping to find walrus hauled out onto a rocky spit.

We were in luck!  With binoculars we could see 30 or 40 walrus in a jumbled pile.  The ship stopped quite a distance offshore, so as not to frighten the animals.  The first Zodiac to head to shore was a staff boat, Christian driving with Joe, Jeff, and John as onshore gun bearers (required of guides on shore).  They landed, checked for any polar bears than might be in the area, then radioed back to send the passengers.  Soon everyone was ashore.  Our plan was to move slowly forward as a group, stopping once we had advanced about twenty yards.  We did this several times, as quietly as we could given that we were mainly walking on rounded beach cobbles, photographing every time we paused.  There were two walruses in the water, not the best of photographic situations, with most of the others in a giant pile of flippers, tusks and blubber.  Joe called them sausages with toothpicks and that’s exactly what they looked like!  After a few quiet moves we were in good photo range, having gotten to that point without disturbing any of the animals.  We photographed for about an hour, then we slowly made our way back to the landing site where we packed up our gear, donned lifejackets, and then made the Zodiac trip back to the ship.

Once everyone was on board—and after a prompting announcement for forgetful passengers to turn their on shore tags—we began to sail to our next location which was several hours away.  We headed east into Kongsfjorden, up its northeastern arm Krossfjorden, then almost due north into Lillehookfjorden.  At its head was our final destination for the day, the immense Lillehookbreen (glacier).  This is a tidewater glacier, flowing from the surrounding peaks directly into the ocean.  With five Zodiacs in the water, everyone who wanted to could go for a two-hour cruise amidst the ice.  So off we went, slowly weaving in and out through the brash ice and larger floes.  We heard, and saw, many calvings off the glacier, some of which created large waves that reached our inflatable boats.  We photographed the glacier itself, the surrounding mountains, and the other Zodiacs juxtaposed against the ice.  At one point all five Zodiacs were surrounded by hundreds of kittiwakes, the birds swirling in flight from an especially large calving.  Fantastic!  When we were all back on board Polar Pioneer, passengers and staff both agreed: this had been among the best Zodiac cruises anyone had ever taken.
Friday July 8
We traveled most of the night and found ourselves anchored off Longyearbyen when we woke for breakfast.  A huge cruise ship occupied the entire dock so we had our final Zodiac trip from ship to shore as we disembarked Polar Pioneer.  Passengers relaxed at the Radisson Blu Hotel or walked through town for some last-minute shopping.  By 11 AM we were on our bus heading to the nearby airport for our flight south to Oslo.
Written by Jeff Vanuga, John Shaw and Joe Van Os.  Edited by Hedy Slack and Joe Van Os.