A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg

A Journey to the High Arctic - by Liz Stagg

Natural World Safaris

Liz Stagg

11 Aug 2016

Heading to the Pack Ice

We boarded our little ship – MS Freya, moored in the bay - using zodiacs as there was a large cruise ship occupying the quayside at Longyearbyen. We all agreed we would not want to be aboard the massive cruise liner which seemed to carry at least 200 passengers. We sailed out of Isfjorden to the west then north through Forlandsundet, heading for the pack ice where we hoped we would find polar bear.

Well above 80 degrees north, considered the high Arctic, we found the pack ice and spent time on the bridge scouring the ice floes for the creamy white shape of our target – the polar bear. We listened in awe as MS Freya moved through the leads in the ice; sometimes the bow scrunched noisily past an ice floe.

Occasionally we saw a bearded seal basking on the pack ice and approached quietly so as not to disturb the resting creature. I’d have said it was more of a ‘moustachioed’ seal than a bearded one but who am I to argue? After a zodiac ride and landing we saw a harem of walrus – or should that be a blubber of walrus - who collectively decided to retreat into the sea. Even when there were no animals visible the scenery was vast and breath-taking.

A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg

great first sighting

I had been slightly concerned about spending 10 days on board a ship having never done it before but MS Freya is a comfortable expedition ship with a fantastic crew. She’s not a cruise ship but the big advantage of a ship like Freya is that she can navigate through the narrow sounds and into fjords where the bigger vessels, whose draft is too great, can’t venture. The weather was kind to us, allowing us to spend time out on deck, binoculars scanning the ‘landscape’. Amongst all those ice sculptures it’s hard to spot anything.

At 81 degrees 16 North and 23 degrees 48 East we had our first sighting of a polar bear – with a fresh kill. He can only have caught the seal minutes before as he hadn’t even torn the skin to get at the delicacy – the blubber. He proceeded to devour his meal as we looked on, thrilled with such a great first sighting. A few minutes later I spotted three seals basking on the ice, blissfully unaware of the fate which could have met them. They slipped into the icy water.

A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg
A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg

There was fog forecast so we had to leave the pack ice and head south east. After all the excitement of the day fellow passengers retired to get some sleep – despite the 24 hour daylight. Our captain elected to allow the ship to drift gently. I was still up on the bow when I spotted a bearded seal slumbering on an ice floe behind us. The ship silently drifted back towards it, undisturbed.

The next day we arrived at Karl XII island where we anchored and got into the zodiacs. We encountered a large male bear which climbed the hill in search of birds’ eggs. Unsuccessful, he came down to the shore and adopted a nonchalant pose on the cliffs. We couldn’t believe our luck when, on another part of the island, a mother and her two 6 month old cubs walked over the rocks.

Their creamy-white fur was in marked contrast to the black rocks of the island. Mama bear came right down to the water’s edge, sniffing the air for any danger. The only thing in sight was a pack of intrepid adventurers, whispering as they crouched in the zodiacs, watching every move of this mother and her cubs.

We left Karl XII island with a warm glow of satisfaction after the sightings. It had been reported that as many as seven bears were stranded there as the pack ice retreated northwards. Next stop Storoya or Great island where we took to the zodiacs and witnessed walrus swimming around us, showing off their whiskers and their diving skills. We were expecting to see walrus just lolloping around on the shore. We were not expecting to see a young male bear trying to work out how he could have walrus for lunch. Oskar commented that this may be the first time this young bear had encountered such massive walrus. He seemed unable to decide whether the prospect of a meal was worth the risk. The walrus were three times bigger than the bear so in the end he wandered off forlornly.

A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg

Fantastic glacial views

Following our bear and walrus interaction we moved onto another part of the island – much to the annoyance of the Arctic terns who were nesting on the ground. The larger Eider duck had commandeered the higher ground for their ‘scrape’. There was still plenty of evidence of the presence of ‘ice bear’.

That night our ship did a long overnight passage alongside the ice cliffs of Austfonna which extended for miles and miles. As we went past we saw great ice caves, deep crevasses and gushing waterfalls emerging from channels in the glacier. After anchoring and landing on the beach we were able to walk along the moraine slopes and onto the Brasvellbreen glacier. It was great to climb up for a fantastic view – sea, sky and ice as far as the eye could see.

A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg

We crossed Hinloppen Strait to Wilhelmoya island where we saw another bearded seal resting on the ice, completely unperturbed by our presence. Most of us stayed out on the zodiac until the early hours of the morning. We did have a sighting of a collared bear; we suspect she had a cub hiding behind the hillside & we saw two reindeer posing symmetrically on the snow.

The following day we landed on Wahlberg island where a large colony of walrus were just lazing on the beach and then moved on to Gylden island. Travelling in Svarlbard is not all about the big mammals – don’t forget to look down to see the tiny, exquisite flora, struggling to survive in such a harsh habitat.

We went back across Hinloppen Strait again to Odinjokulen and the bird cliffs, home to Brunnich’s guillemots. The birds don’t care who’s below them – but guano is supposed to be lucky. At the foot of the cliffs we had a very brief sighting of a beluga (white) whale but it dived out of sight all too quickly.

To our surprise a bear had been trying to find an easy snack at the foot of the cliffs. She was out of luck, despite the ‘lucky bird droppings’ on her head. She ambled along the shore, over the rocks, seemingly not wanting to get her feet wet. Eventually she did have to take a dip but got out very quickly and adopted a ‘glacier mint’ pose on a rock. Not content with her antics on the shore she proceeded to dry herself on the snow, rolling onto her back, paws in the air, completely oblivious to an excited bunch of humans on ‘burst’ mode on their cameras …. click, click, click.

A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg

fjord of sorrows and the love fjord

We sailed into Songfjorden – the fjord of sorrows, named after the killing of a number of Dutch hunters by French sailors. We landed; there was no fauna in sight but flora in abundance. We moved further westwards into Liefdenfjorden – the love fjord. Out on the zodiacs we had a light rain shower which produced a magnificent triple rainbow.

An overnight passage took us into Raudfjorden. An early zodiac excursion produced more wildlife sightings of Arctic fox and a blue fox with a bird in its mouth. They move so quickly that photography using a long lens and aboard a zodiac bobbing on the water is challenging.

We headed west through the sound, down through Smeerenburg (blubber) fjord and into Magdalena fjorden. We took to our trusty zodiacs and landed to climb up the steep cliffs and just sat on the rocks below a little auk colony, the birds flying over our heads. Those without a head for heights be warned – it’s a steep climb.

A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg
A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg

The Perfect Camouflage

After another overnight passage we woke to grey skies. We sailed into Kongsfjorden, the fjord of Kings where we anchored and landed on a beach. We encountered Arctic turns in attacking mode and a harem of lazy walrus. Elsewhere on the fjord we climbed up to view some vertical bird cliffs, home to Brunnich’s guillemots, kittiwakes and their chicks. A few of us scrambled down into a gully and were able to sit right across from the birds. It was amazing to be up there on the cliffs of their breeding grounds, just watching them feed their chicks and bicker with their neighbours. The nests were very precarious; we humans really needed to watch our step. On our way down we saw a group of reindeer nibbling at the sparse grass and moss.

Aboard the zodiacs again we spotted an Arctic fox high up on the hillside. We stayed watching it for a while; people saying ‘where’s she gone now?’ as she wandered across the gullies, perfectly camouflaged.

We returned to the ship and headed out of Kongsfjorden, passing the only settlement we’d seen since leaving Longyearbyen – the scientific research station at Ny-Alesund. We crossed Forlandsundet to the small outcrop – Fugelhuken –at the end of Prins Karls Forland – where a group of harbour seals were settled on rocks. Sadly their presence is indicative of climate change as they are not indigenous to Svarlbard.

Leaving the seals to bask we resumed our journey and headed back into Isfjorden. Our captain anchored in Tryggshamna (safe harbour) fjord. Our last zodiac excursion did not disappoint. We walked onto a hillside where Mats knew there was a fox’s den. A small herd of reindeer, including two young calves, grazed nonchalantly. As we came down off the hillside Matts spotted an Arctic fox on the move. In fact she had left her four cubs in the den and was out searching for food. We sat quietly, just watching her, watching us. She was completely unperturbed by our presence, even settling down for a snooze.

A Journey to the High Arctic - Liz Stagg

Seize the day

We returned to Longearbyen, our hearts full of wonder at this magical place, at what we had seen and I, for one, was so grateful that a chance online search had led to NWS’ website.

Thank you to Captain Kenth, to Mats & Oskar, our expedition leaders, to all the crew who looked after us so well and to my fellow passengers aboard MS Freya. Now it’s time to plan my next adventure, life’s too short not to ‘sieze the day’ whilst you can.

All images copyright to Liz Stagg, NWS client



1/10/2016 11:44 AM

Thank you, Liz, for this extremely interesting report concerning your expedition through the High Arctic. It is absolutely fantastic and fabulous to read about the fjords, the ice and the wonderful inhabitants of this fascinating region up North. The furthest north I went was past the Arctic Circle in Sweden in February some years ago. With students working on a project, we drove there from Lulea, and I was mesmerized by the landscapes. I think it is the most attractive part of the world!

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