SPITSBERGEN – THE REALM OF THE POLAR BEAR
25th June 2019
OSLO, LONGYEARBYEN SVALGARD AND M/S QUEST
An easy journey to Heathrow, ending with a night in the Park Inn.
We slept like logs ready for our flights to Oslo and eventually to Longyearbyen. Once arrived there, we had time to walk around, buy a snack and relax before boarding the Sea Quest at 4pm.
We had already spotted Snow Buntings singing loudly, Eider Ducks, Arctic Terns, Kittiwakes and Fulmars.
Our cabin was small but well designed and comfortable with a large square ‘porthole’. We unpacked and settled in. As the ship sailed along we watched from the large lounge on the fifth deck.
A lot of excitement, a whale had been sighted. It was immediately identified as a Minke Whale and it stayed long enough for all to see it. It was feeding under a large flock of Kittiwakes. As we were about to return to the lounge a flight of fourteen King Eiders passed us quickly.
We enjoyed a superb rare roast beef supper and retired early.
27th June – Misty
Up at 7am, we enjoyed a good varied breakfast and then returned to our cabin to dress for our first sortie on the fast rubber rib ‘zodiacs’.
An excited air while we were helped in and after a short trip to land, out of these very reliable little boats.
We watched thousands of Kittiwakes breeding, Glaucous Gulls and Purple Sandpipers and a pair of mating Arctic Skuas.
We returned for lunch and watched for the rest of day from the lounge. We spotted two seals, but were unable to identify them easily. They were large and therefore almost certainly the ‘Bearded Seal’.
At the same time, a large brown bodied animal swam or ‘floated’ across in front of us, much larger than the seal and almost certainly a lone bull Walrus.
Hundreds of Kittiwakes and Fulmars flew past, the former often chased by Arctic Skuas.
It was rough that night and I was not well! Early to bed for me!
28th June – Bright, dry, sunny
Up early, feeling better after Cherry ‘nursed me’ last night. She’s a very good sailor.
We took off in the zodiacs and on our way to the bay we spotted a pair of King Eider Ducks; lovely sighting of these beautiful ducks. Although the female looks very like the more common Eider, the male had a striking orange frontal shield on his bill bordered with black. When swimming his wings end with small points. In the bay were a couple of Long-tailed Ducks. The male was mainly black with chestnut chequered wings and white underparts. The female is a rather bleeded out version. He of course sports the long black tail. Five Pink-footed Ducks flew over.
Arctic Terns fished around us diving like tiny Gannets. Snow Buntings sang from the rocks. Kittiwake and Fulmar flew over continually and Glaucous Gulls patrolled the bay waiting to chase any bird loaded with fish.
During our walk, we spotted many small arctic alpine flowers, the tiny arctic willow and several interesting remains of Glaucous kills – Guillemot, Fulmar and Kittiwake. We spotted cast antlers, the shell of a hatched Eider Duck egg as well as droppings of reindeer, fox and geese. I photographed most of them.
In the afternoon, we visited a beach where almost 30 walruses were hauled out. Five remained playing in the water. These large animals continually moved in aggravated fashion and showed their tusks to great advantage. While we were photographing them, a pair of Dunlin flew over, a group of about nine Barnacle Geese flew inland and Arctic Terns fished around the Walruses where they disturbed the water.
Again, I got good photos.
29th June – Dull, snowy and grey
I woke up to the sound of a small iceberg hitting the ship. We were travelling through a fjord, part of a series of gigantic glaciers. Icebergs streamed past us. They were as black as volcanic dust, white and blue. The glaciers were mainly white but dark at the bottom. Some appeared made of marble, others were like whitish coral and some like greenish glass. All magnificent.
We were lucky enough to hear and see a massive chunk split off from the main glacier – an explosion like a cannon going off. The main chunks of ice crackled and popped like the famous breakfast cereal. It was here that we saw our first ever Ivory Gulls – pure white, Kittiwake sized with a short thick pale yellow bill and a red eye ring. These birds often scavenge after Polar Bear kills.
That morning, we scouted for bear and enjoyed a lecture on Glaucous and their science.
Pm, still scouting, rotten weather and a talk on Svalbard birds.
We enjoyed a lovely supper of very good steak and went to our cabin quite early. We were well asleep when the tannoy told us that the ‘bridge’ had just found a Polar Bear. We piled on our outdoor clothes over our night attire and went up to the spotting lounge where there was much excitement. It was, after all, and expedition into the ‘Realm of the Polar Bear’.
He was a long way off but clearly identifiable and I obtained a photo, not a good one, but a photo at least. He was lying down and then sitting up, then down with his nose between his paws. Near, but not too near were eight Reindeer, so two sightings in one. We celebrated, Cherry with a whisky and me with a hot chocolate with brandy. We retired to our cabin for the second time. The sun came out from behind clouds and we celebrated the midnight sun of the Arctic.
We spent the day cruising as the weather was rather poor. But we still saw:-
Fulmar – dark phased
Numerous Walrus – on ice floes
2nd Polar Bear
Beached Seal – not identified
1st July – started rough and wet
Lecture by Nikita Dvsyanikov about Polar Bear – Conservation
Polar Bear Spotted best sighting to date.
Talk by Sara (one of the guides) “Her walk across Svalbard solo with a dog.”
After lunch very good views of Harp Seals.
2nd July – cloudy and dull
We went out on the rib very early. The sea was reasonable. Well dressed, we moved about half a mile to the coast, the area where we saw the first Polar Bear.
This time however, we watched a small herd of most attractive Reindeer. I hope I got some good photos.
We also saw:
Eider Duck in flight
Snow Bunting on the rocks
Arctic Tern diving in the bay
Fulmars and Kittiwakes
A pair of Grey Phalarope on the beach
A Red-throated Diver was patrolling the nearby sea covered rocks.
Back for a late breakfast and then a lecture on the marine status and life in the Arctic by one of the guides.
The Arctic, as we know is a harsh environment. High mountains, mainly grey, partly snow covered and partially vegetated. The sea itself can be very rough. Our first night was the worst, sending the ship pitching and rolling. Although I felt bad, I lay down and was OK. Cherry as always was a brilliant sailor. When you go to the coast on the ribs, no landing is easy or dry and the shores are full of pebbles. The sand is very sparsely vegetated with adapted Arctic plants. Nothing grows higher than a few centimetres.
As we sailed on in the afternoon we saw most of the usual birds, particularly Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Guillemots, but the sighting of the day was a Fin Whale. Several people particularly, obtained some decent photos.
The ship motored all night and we enjoyed a quick trip to the edge of the Fjord. Some very good sightings. An Arctic Skua flew over with its fellow predator, the Glaucous Gull. Both were worrying Kittiwake and Guillemot. On the beach, just in the water was a female Grey Phalarope, bright red in her summer uniform. Purple Sandpipers were flying over the rocks and Eider Ducks floating around in small groups. The Barnacle Geese were resting high up on rocky outcrops. From the ship before lunch, we watched Fulmar, Glaucous Gull and Guillemot and Kittiwakes.
In the afternoon, we enjoyed a further cruise in the zodiacs. We watched for over an hour, a large male Polar Bear. We were very near, probably within sixty to seventy yards. Wonderfully moving. He lay flat out with his head resting on his paws, never taking his eyes off of us.
We continued on this wonderful zodiac cruise by visiting the great stacks of Brunnich’s Guillemots and Kittiwake breeding colonies. Hundreds of thousands of birds all crying out. The Guillies braying, the Kittiwakes crying their names. The whole cacophony was set off by the cries and mews of the predatory Glaucous Gulls and the few nesting Barnacle Geese. Rafts of up to one hundred birds were on the water all around.
After a very smooth overnight sailing, we moored in a quiet fjord, almost glass like sea. We went on an early zodiac cruise and at last both Cherry and I saw two Artic Foxes and another sole Red-throated Diver, a pair of King Eiders, two Greater Blackbacks, several Puffins and a Bearded Seal swimming nearby. The scenery was magnificent in bright sunlight.
Four hours nearer Longyearbyen, we spent an afternoon on shore studying numerous plants (Arctic Alpines) with Rob, as well as enjoying the scenery – two Reindeer, a family of seven Barnacle Geese and numerous Snow Bunting.
Again, overnight, we motored to our start and finish, the frozen over Longyearbyen. We left the ship M/S Quest, a small specially reinforced, 53 birth ship at 8am. The weather was awful; rain, snow, wind, simply foul. We collected some presents and gathered at the airport for our flight to Oslo and then on to Heathrow. Superb hotels but £25 for a glass of wine and a beer, not a place for Cherry and me.
In all we had travelled 2,137 kilometres on the ship into the deepest ice, where we saw the Polar Bear as he should be.
We had stood on a beach just fifty yards from the villainous walrus.
We had seen stacks of breeding birds taking advantage of the short summer.
Whales, seals, the Ivory Gull and Black-throated Divers. We had been immersed in the Arctic wildlife.
We had successfully made ‘wet’ landings transferring from the ship to the beaches by zodiacs, all handled fabulously safely and kindly by the staff.
One special man we met and I wrote a short essay about him you can read here.
Incidentally, Cherry and I have now seen bears in the wild which we have failed to do so far in our wanderings, and we have watched all three divers this year:-
Great Northern Diver in the Scillies
Red-throated Diver in Scotland
Black-throated Diver in the Arctic.
Gallery of Photos from our trip
- A collection of short stories -
Tony is a passionate writer as well as an active conservationist. He is currently working on a number of books and we are delighted to be able to share a few stories from them.