Svalbard Trip Report: 3 to 13 june 2013

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

Day 1: Leaving Longyearbyen

Most of us reached Longyearbyen, capital of Svalbard in the afternoon. Rupert, Rick and Heïdi welcomed us on board the Polaris I, and we immediately set off towards the 86km long island of Prins Karls Forland, West of Spitsbergen. The dramatic and varied landscape of the island mostly consists of wild alpine mountains made of the oldest rocks of the archipelago, called the basement. We anchored in the bay of Selvågen.

Svalbard Photo Expedition

Day 2: Prins Karls Forland – Kongsfjorden

We sailed along the northern half of Prins Karls Forland and traversed East towards Kongsfjorden, originally called King’s Bay, at 79°N.  While sailing, Rupert gave us the first instructions regarding polar bear safety and the protocol to follow in case of an encounter on land.

We anchored by the broken-up glacier Blomstrandbreen, which finished surging in 2012. Surging is a phenomenon by which some glaciers have a bi-polar and cyclical behaviour. The surge phase is short (up to a few years) and is defined by high flow velocities that stretch the glacier and break up its surface in a chaos of seracs. The quiescent phase follows and the glacier flows abnormally slowly, allowing it to regain its pre-surge mass and geometry. We were able to observe the consequence of a surge during a hike along the true left side of Blomstrandbreen. The walk turned into an interesting experience as some of us got stuck in very sticky mud! In the evening we got the chance to experience the midnight sun and meet many of Svalbard’s inhabitants during a walk in Ossian Sarsfjellet Nature Reservet. Reindeers, foxes, kitty wakes and Guillemots, they were all there! A party looked at the bird cliffs from below from the sea with Rick while the rest of the group hiked along the cliff from the top of the hill. From there we could see the Tre Kroner or Three Crowns of King’s Bay and their unique pyramidal shape. A great and sunny walk with the Captain.

Day 3: Ny London – Madgalenefjorden

After breakfast, Arthur sailed along Kronebreen the fastest flowing glacier of the archipelago. We got onshore on the island of Blomstrandhalvoya to explore the former mining settlement of Ny London. Between 1910 and 1920 the Englishman Ernest Mansfield founded there the Northern Exploration Company. During 9 years, 60 workers would mine the marble of the island.  Buildings and rusting machinery are the last remains of these times of “gold rush” on the archipelago.

We then took the direction of the North-West Corner of Svalbard and the magnificent fjord of Magdalenefjorden.  Heidi guided us through the Geography and Geology of Svalbard before the seas became too rough. Once in the fjord, we anchored at Trinityhamna, a landmark in the history of Svalbard. It is said to be the place where Willem Barentsz landed when he first discovered the archipelago in 1596. The little peninsula sheltering us from the wind and waves, Gravneset, was used by the British whalers as a burial place during the 17th and 18th centuries. The site, today protected and fenced is the largest burial site of Svalbard with about 130 graves. The gloomy atmosphere did not stop us from celebrating the birthday of our best French photographer. Bon anniversaire Marion!

Day 4: Sailing the North West corner – Holmiabukta

We started the day with a 4km walk across Gravneset towards the tidewater glacier Gullybreen. The wind had pushed the clouds away, and we all enjoyed the view of the blue ice of the glacier.

In the afternoon we followed the footsteps of the 17th century whalers and sailed through the fjords of the northwest corner of Spitsbergen. Belugas made an apparition in front of the glacier Smeerenburgbreen, while many of us were bear hunting armed with binoculars. As we were approaching Holmiabutka our very first polar bear was spotted waking up from his day bed. We anchored the Polaris in the little bay and observed the magnificent bear directly from the deck. Unfortunately by the time we took the zodiacs out, the shy bear had already disappeared behind large rocks!

Svalbard Photo Expedition

Day 5: Sailing East – Woodfjorden

Pumped up by our encounter from the day before we kept on looking for bears while sailing around the eastern lobe of Reinsdyrflya, the largest and flattest piece of land in Svalbard. Rick braved the rough seas to give a fascinating lecture on marine mammals. By the early afternoon we reached Liefdefjorden and wandered around the Andøyane islands. The sun was shining on the magnificent Monacobreen, largest calving glacier of Svalbard, and Arthur proudly parked the Polaris I in the sea ice.

The scenery was breath taking. In the afternoon Jordan and Rick were sent out scouting for wildlife around the islands. Several seals were spotted on the sea ice, but unfortunately no bears to be seen. We tried our luck by sailing to the other side of the fjord into the very icy Bockfjorden. A Minke whale made an apparition on the way. Heidi and Jordan went on yet another adventurous zodiac trip to the far side of Woodfjorden towards Mushbukta and somewhat struggled to make their way back to the ship stuck in the ice! But again, they did not see any signs of bears.

A night watch was organised by the keenest photographers to make sure no bears would be missed. During two hours each pair of the passengers and staff would scan the sea ice and shores. Around 4:30 am, during Rick’s and Heidi’s watch the sea ice started breaking off and dangerously pushing the boat and threatening to break its anchor chain! Arthur saved us from this perilous situation and moved the boat to the sheltered Andøyane islands.


Day 6: Raud-fjorden and Hamiltonbukta

After a short night the bear watch resumed and we sailed once more along the shores of Woodfjorden. The boat had to zigzag between the huge ice floes drifting by. The lack of tracks was surprising, and we headed back West to Raud-fjorden and the beautiful Hamiltonbutka. The bay is famous for its stunning scenery composed of chaotic calving glaciers, bird cliffs and small islands. It did not take long before a bear was spotted! Rupert described the animal as a young 6 year-old male. The location could not have been more ideal to get close to the bear as it was walking and swimming from one island to another. We rapidly took the zodiacs out and Rupert and Rick slowly and silently drove us around the little archipelago without disturbing the bear. This is the safest way to approach the animal and take our best photographs.  For a short time the bear disappeared from our sight, and we found it again eating a Skua caught seconds before. A moment we will never forget!

Day 7: Raud-fjorden Sallyhamna

The next morning Rick and Heidi took a zodiac to find the bear, but it was already gone. His tracks could be followed all along the western shore of Raud-fjorden, and it was not long until we spotted the animal. We took the zodiacs out and observed the bear still hunting on the sea ice in front of Arneliusbreen. In the afternoon, while we sailed back to HolmiaBukta Heidi took us through Svalbard’s unique History and Politics made of whaling, trapping and mining. We got the chance to observe the remains of these times on land a couple of hours later when we took a short walk to Sallyhamna. The place is covered by blubber ovens, and graves. A trapper’s cabin, built in 1937 is also found in the vicinity.  In the shallow waters of Holmiabukta Rupert and Rick also took us to a whale skeleton scattered like an underwater puzzle.

Day 8: Scheibreen – Magdalenefjorden

The day ended better than it started. The zodiac platform got broken by waves just as we started sailing towards Smeerenburgfjorden. The incident quickly fixed we focused all our efforts on finding bear tracks and their related creators along the shores of the fjords. Despite the cloudy and snowy weather, Andrew spotted one in front of the glacier Scheibreen. We had to endure true arctic conditions to observe the bear from the zodiacs. Fortunately, the large male was extremely cooperative and kept playing hide and seek in the water between ice floes, and later joyfully rolled in the snow. The Captain and Hervé made some delicious mulled wine to warm us after these hours of observations. The best recipe to warm us up!

Day 9: Magdalenefjorden – Gullybukta

We woke up with the sun shining over Magdalenefjorden. What a place! No wind, lenticular clouds in the sky, it almost felt like summer! About eight walruses were spotted on the west shore of Gullybukta. We spent a couple of hours in their company, contemplating the animals rolling and scratching on the sandy beach. Before lunch, two of our fellow passengers namely Paula and Andrew braved the arctic waters and dived from the zodiac during and swam during several minutes, Bravo!

In the afternoon Arthur joined us for a hike to see the little Auks across the fjord. The hike was more like a climb, but the view was well worth the effort! We were surrounded by hundreds of little Auks flying and singing around us. It was truly magical and the view on the fjord was surreal.  While we resumed our route south Heidi gave us a talk about her dear glaciers and what glaciology is all about. We anchored along Prins Karls Forland in Murraypynten.

Svalbard Photo Expedition

Day 10: Prins Karls Forland – Murraypynten – Trygghamna – Longyearbyen

Prins Karls Forland in the sun is really a f* beautiful sight as the Captain would say. The bay was bounded by high peaks and thick glaciers. Once again our friends the walruses were lying on the beach at MurrayPynten. After a nice photo session we kept on sailing south towards Isfjorden and the bay of Trygghamna. We had a nice walk in this very bucolic place and around the sharp peak of Protektorfjellet. From there we could observe the Russian town of Barentsburg. We also found a goose nest with eggs inside.

Sadly all good things come to an end, and we reached Longyearbyen in the evening.

But thankfully we still had one night left onboard Polaris I! Before dinner, the crew of the Polaris came to greet us goodbye, and the Captain was even wearing his uniform! Paula showed us the slideshow of the trip, made of photos gracefully shared by the passengers, very emotional and some pretty funny. Tabernacle, that was brilliant! Thank you Paula!

Day 11: Longyearbyen and beyond!

In the morning we disembarked Polaris I and some of us got to spend a couple of hours in Longyearbyen before flying to more southern horizons.

Ha det Longyearbyen!

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