On route to Spitzbergen: Pack Ice and Polar Bears
Polar bear look out began in earnest now, as we sailed slowly through what looked like impenetrable ice on 27 August.Ghostly white rainbows materialised out of the fog, an Arctic phenomenon.
I loved this part of the voyage – it was eerie, mysterious and utterly silent.Incredibly, bear footprints were visible on some of the ice flows that slipped slowly past the ship as we manoeuvred through channels – thrilling!And then, just twenty minutes before lunch, the cry went out. Bear!! Sure enough, WAY out ahead of us on the ice, a huge male polar bear was lumbering across the floes, on the hunt.
But he heard our ship and took to the water, swimming away from us; the ship drew closer but had to come to a halt.If an expedition begins to change the behaviour of a bear, it must stop or the guides could be fined thousands of dollars. It was so frustrating – he was just ahead , looking back over his shoulder, occasionally floating on his back, watching us.Fantastic experience but still a distance away. Luckily, I had the big 500m zoom lens so got a few shots.Lunch was delayed for half an hour (I don’t think anyone would have turned up anyway if it hadn’t been) but then we had to watch the bear disappear ahead as anchor was dropped.
The day at sea was peppered with various talks and films on Arctic related matters. The the announcement came over the Tannoy that we were moving away from the pack ice and heading out into open waters.
Another Day at Sea – 78 degrees north
The 28th August was another day at sea as we headed for Spitzbergen. It was filled with sea watching from the Bridge and deck, more talks on ice and its effect on the Arctic, a post -processing talk by ship’s photographer Michael and a talk on birds by Ryan.The rest of the time I spent on deck or on the Bridge, perusing the books, chatting with Ivor or Peter, occasionally meeting up with someone I hadn’t yet spoken too.There was very little birdlife as such – a few fulmars cruised past at eye level – but the huge Greenland Sea was impressive and mesmerising.
A fin whale was spotted pre-breakfast but only a few saw it. We had 600 miles of Greenland Sea to cross now and it soon got a LOT rougher.The wind had got up and the ship began to pitch and roll.Even being on the Bridge made me feel queasy.There was no chance of going outside as the doors were all closed – it was too dangerous to be on deck.The ship heaved and plunged dramatically and many of us went to bed early, lying down being the only real way to combat sea sickness.Despite taking Stugeron (I hadn’t used it at all after the first day) it didn’t stop me feeling sick.I don’t think many slept that night – I certainly didn’t and neither did my cabin companions.The chatter at breakfast next morning was how awful it had been – for those who made it to breakfast that is. I’ve never felt such seas beneath me.The ship seemed to plummet down, way down into a trough; then all went quiet before it seemed to hit something huge and solid;then a powerful juddering racked the vessel, as if it was going to fall apart.Bangs and thumps below decks added to the alarming noises which made it impossible to sleep.Thank God the rest of the voyage hadn’t been like this.
Aug 29th: Walrus on Moffen Island (80 degrees north)
Blue skies broke through finally and the sun was shining on tiny Moffen Island as we pulled in closer to watch 36 walrus on the beach.They were enormous – a male can weigh 1,500kgs and even polar bear teeth can’t bite through the hide, used for machinery belts in the 19th century.Walrus eat shellfish which they dredge from the sea floor using their long whiskers.I was thrilled to see them and hoped we’d get closer encounters over the next few days (we did – almost too close.)
The afternoon saw us landing at Texas Bar, a trappers hut on the shore of Leifdefjorden. The scene off NW Spitsbergen was truly epic – a series of grand landscapes of Alpine peaks, covered in snow and glaciers, rearing out of a frigid ocean.It was stunning.
A bearded seal poked its head out of the shallows as our zodiacs negotiated tricky waters to land on a shingly beach.
Arctic terns were feeding, always vocal and a few Great Skuas, impressively menacing, looked for seabirds which had caught fish – they attack the birds, sometimes drowning them to steal their catch.Another walk over rubbly ground revealed not very much at this spot.I was slightly alarmed to see one guy who stayed behind down at the shore, wandering off by himself. Polar bears had been spotted in the past at every area we landed on – it was incredible how some people had a false sense of security, albeit Ryan was posted on a high overlook with his rifle.I just hoped he (and the others ) were good shots! I did ask one of the leaders how good their shooting had to be before they were used on these trips but he suggested they simply have be designated as ‘competent’ regarding holding a rifle; that is, not afraid of it.No mention of having to hit say, 6 out of 10 Bull’s Eyes before you got your certificate! We had practised what to do if a polar bear came in sight and got interested in us; first, we all had to make a lot of noise and wave our arms; if it still came towards us, then the guides would launch loud flares above the bear; final resort was to shoot the animal (which is why I hoped we had some good marksmen or women amongst us!)
A Spectacular Calving Glacier
The highlight of the day however was to come; an evening sail into Monacobreen – the Monaco glacier, where we were treated to the calving of an enormous section of ice which created a mini tsunami of a wave.The captain hurriedly reversed the ship as it approached! The scale was hard to take in.Other smaller glaciers ran like highways between sharp, snow clad peaks as far as the eye could see. Leifdefjorden was quite something. It was 10pm or so before we steamed our way further up the fjord and myself and David were the last people out on deck, trying to capture the rose pink and lemon light and the shimmering reflections of the mountains on the millpond-like fjord.I had visited Norway’s fjords in 2017 and impressive as they were, these fjords over the past 10 days or so were on a different level again.
Thankfully, a nice calm night on board as we anchored further down the glassy fjord.
Next: A Walrus Encounter and an Arctic Fox on the hunt