Blue Whales and more Bears
We were woken super early by a Tannoy announcement that a blue whale was sleeping (called logging) close by. Wow – I’ve rarely moved faster in my life! There were people out on deck in their pyjamas, all desperate to see this almost mythical sounding creature, the largest animal that has ever lived. I was dressed, but juggling several cameras and trying to find the best place to get a shot. The ‘whoosh’ of its blow was so loud even from a distance. What a magnificent sight, unforgettable.
For more photos of Greenland : https://flic.kr/s/aHsmnH6Bnb
For photos of Spitsbergen:https://flic.kr/s/aHsmsDMpgK
We were now in Raudfjord, still 79 degrees north.
It was an exciting day already and more was in store later that morning, when a mother bear and cub were spotted on shore.They were a LONG way off , resting high above the small bay we were due to land on.We watched them for a while before it was decided to launch the zodiacs and head for a bay on the opposite side of the fjord, it being too dangerous to risk a landing below them.Also, the guides can incur hefty fines if any activities disturb a bear’s behaviour. I was a bit frustrated by this as I thought it would be far more interesting to wait to see if the bears ambled off anywhere. My plan (without any nautical knowledge at all of course) was that the ship might be able to follow them by sailing round the other side of the narrow promontory, so that we might get a close up view.No-one read my mind about this cunning plan and instead we headed for a fairly dismal, rubbly shore enlivened by a brief sighting of a bearded seal, some skuas and arctic terns.But compared to polar bears….
Frustrated, I didn’t join the walk up to the mucky scree run-off of a glacier, but footered about at the shore before worry about negotiating the shallows (the tide was falling) , drove the main group back to the zodiacs in jig time.It was good careful navigating by our leaders that we managed to squeeze slowly out of the bay again without getting stuck on rocks – it struck me that if a polar bear had appeared, we might have been easy pickings! Further frustration came when a couple of people on my zodiac complained of being on the cool side so our leader’s suggestion that we go for a cruise along the shore, to see what we could see, was promptly cut short! I could have murdered that pair, New Zealanders and vowed never to go on the same boat as they did again. The leaders have no choice if someone is cold, they need to get them back on board. But I heard afterwards that similar things had happened with this couple and also some others, on various trips over the past few days while everyone else sat fuming that their outing had been cut short. I did wonder if there should be a ‘short trip’ only – designated zodiac for those folks who preferred the warmth of the ship, when it came down to it.
Ah well… the joys of holidaying in a group! There really weren’t too many major issues as it turned out, apart from feeling a need to escape the constant start-up conversations and chit chat. It takes a certain type of person to go on a big trip like this one, people interested in extreme places and they tend to be well travelled and adventurous to a point, so they were often, though not always, interesting to talk to. Heaven knows what they thought about me, as I’m sure trying to have any sort of long conversation with myself, must have felt like drawing teeth.
After lunch, more excitement as THREE Blue Whales – two adults and a calf – were feeding about 300 metres away and remained for an hour or so.It became easy to time their re-surfacing as they only stay down for a few minutes then surface again very slowly, giving three separate blows.Sensational. I was thrilled beyond words ; I had never expected to see such whales nor get some decent shots on the zoom lens.They really were blue in colour! (and of course, why wouldn’t they be? But any photos I’d seen they looked quite dark/greyish.)
Walrus Island: Smeerenburg
Our late afternoon zodiac trip was an absolute cracker, my favourite of all the landings during the trip. Amidst wonderful mountain scenery, we landed on the small island of Smeerenburg, an old Dutch whaling station, where a huge group of Walrus were resting on the beach. As we all crept a little closer – but not too close- to get photos their enormous size was now very apparent.Steam rose from the group, clouding the air around them. Then three young males shuffled inelegantly down into the water and swam along the shore in the shallows, seemingly to get a better look at the strange brightly coloured creatures who had invaded their territory.Sure enough, as we all as a one turned to watch them and crept towards the water’s edge, they too swam in closer – alarmingly so! What an encounter!
They were very playful with each other and looked to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Then one would turn its huge red/brown eye our way, sniffing the air before slapping its companion. What great fun they were! However, meeting them in a zodiac can be fatal – in the water, the boats are seen as a threat and may be attacked. With their long tusks, they have been known to puncture a RIB in a nano second(and no doubt a rib too.)
It was good having the time to just potter around this old station, with its discarded pipes and paraphernalia, memories certainly of a time of bloodshed and slaughter and appalling smell.
There were graves to avoid, animal skulls and bones littered the landscape though now of course, the island was quieter, a land of walrus and seabirds and ghosts.
That second last night before we arrived in Longyearbyen was Party Night. I felt de-mob happy and don’t think I was the only one. It’s amazing how people are transformed when wearing party hats! An excellent BBQ buffet was followed by line dancing round the dining rooms, impromptu star turns – Peter gyrated to a string of Village People hits and had everyone egging him on.He was good! Then it was up to the bar for Karaoke and the star turns were Ryan who rapped his way through an Emin song and the ship’s cook, who had a belter of a voice. Three of the leaders including Gary, became a chorus and reeled off a few numbers behind the bar. A merry evening (in both senses) was had by all….
What gradually became clear however, was that the weather had turned wild again and the ship was pitching heavily! Just standing up was becoming difficult. Eventually everyone made their way down to the cabins and I began to feel awful. The ship pitched and tumbled, rolled and swayed and eventually lying down was the only remedy. Once more, the hatches were battened down, the doors to deck secured as we hit strong gale force winds of 44 knots. That meant very rough, high seas with 7m – 10m waves. It was true Arctic weather – though not that dissimilar to our own in Scotland, though a fair bit colder here in August than we might expect at home.
Sick bags had been left out for everyone though thankfully, though I felt poorly,I had no need of one. The next morning at breakfast, the two dining rooms were quiet as many folks were still recovering. I was relieved to manage some toast and gallons of tea.The wind had died down a fair bit though not completely and it was a dodgy business trying to get safely into the zodiacs.They were pitching and tossing in the choppy sea and it was a case of timing your entry to the boat very carefully so as not to end in the sea or in the lap of someone else – or pitching overboard. It was bitterly cold, unpleasantly so, even wrapped up to the nines.There had been nothing like this cold in Greenland.The morning was spent cruising along the foot of the enormous Kongs Glacier and dodging huge chunks of ice. Some of the ice was of great beauty however – like fish scales made of glass.
A chilly morning and a warming lunch and then we set sail for Ossian Sarsfjellet. But our landing was postponed due to another mother bear and cub again resting high up on the stony hillside.Fascinating to watch however.The zodiac trip would now be confined to cruising up and down the shores to see what we could see – something I really enjoyed.There was a Kittiwake colony on the high cliffs and we were thrilled to watch a hardy, nimble Arctic fox trying its very best to access the birds.Teetering on sheer ledges, picking his way down impossible cliff faces, I was astonished at his agility. His coat was beautiful, pure white and watching him was another highlight of our short time in Spitsbergen.
I’d picked the wrong zodiac again(everyone is so wrapped up, it’s a sea of blue Goretex jackets, woolly hats and waterproof trousers in the RIBS.You can barely tell gender.) It was only when two people began to complain about being cold that I realised that the same passengers were once more keen to return to ship, despite the chance of more animal viewing. And possibly bears! So with sinking heart, I watched the leader turned our zodiac around and make for the Polar Pioneer.I looked enviously at the other boats still whirling along the wild coastline.Being Antipodean and relatively elderly, I assume they had underestimated the cold in these northern climes.Certainly they had the thinnest of waterproofs and were relying on the thin thermal inner issued by Aurora Travel.Their faces were pinched and very pale.I had on my big duvet jacket as an inner under Aurora’s Gore-Tex jacket, as well as several thermal layers under that and a heavy wool jumper. Plus a mega warm hat and gloves.
That was our final zodiac outing as tonight would find us heading into the shelter – eventually – of Longyearbyen’s wide bay. It was an evening of packing and returning gear and generally preparing to leave the lovely Polar Pioneer. But I was ready for it and looking forward in 3 days, to finally arriving home. Another bumpy night lay ahead however and I didn’t sleep well. In fact , I managed to mis-read my phone and got up, thinking it was nearly 7am.It was 5am! I was still feeling dodgy so drank gallons of tea but skipped breakfast. We were in calm waters now and outside was a very unusual sight – a town!
For more on 24 hours in Longyearbyen…..(still to write up)