Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins

Abundant Wildlife and Glacial Adventuring in Svalbard

Natural World Safaris

Hywel Watkins

22 Oct 2019

NWS Client Hywel Journeys Through Icy Svalbard Aboard the M/S Expedition


We caught a late flight from Manchester to Oslo and walked for five minutes to spend the night in the Radisson at the airport.


We took a morning flight to Longyearbyen. There were wonderful views of the icecap over Svalbard and much excitement at the prospect of the adventure starting! There was a stuffed polar bear in the arrivals hall which was both unexpected and off putting! It was easy to catch the bus from the airport into town and we soon settled into the Polfareren Hotel. A very comfortable room with a large polar bear picture on the wall. We spent the afternoon exploring Longyearbyen – it has a somewhat rough, industrial feel to it with snow on a dead glacier visible above the town and the remains of old coal mining on the slopes above. The more modern houses are brightly coloured and as we walked along the road out of town, we passed two husky kennels and saw a polar bear warning sign. We also saw barnacle geese and a reindeer on the outskirts.

Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


I took a mountain and glacier walk with a guide who picked me up from the hotel. We stopped at the outskirts of town and put on our boots as the guide checked his rifle – mandatory when walking around Svalbard because of polar bear danger. We walked across a broad river valley and steeply up to a ridge into the mist where there was a glacier to our left. On the ridge, the mist eventually cleared to give us great views of Longyearbyen below. We walked down through soft moraine onto a flat dry glacier and came across old leaf fossils in the sedimentary rock on the glacier surface. We re-crossed the river, now swollen after the weak sun of the day and returned with wet feet to the car. Now we were looking forward to the cruise.

Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


Next, we met the M/S Expedition in Longyearbyen on a warm and sunny afternoon. A passenger who had just come off the ship showed us a video of a polar bear close to the ship on an ice floe – “here’s to hoping!” The friendly crew showed us our room which was very comfortable and clean. After settling in we had an explanation about safety and the plan for the trip. After a great supper meeting other passengers, we were given warm parka jackets and I spent the evening trying out my new zoom-lens, photographing the northern fulmars in flight as we left the harbour. A glorious sunny evening – and no darkness!

Fulmar in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


An overcast day and no sun forecast, so the staff decided to sail north to Magdalenefjorden on the west coast. After breakfast we were fitted for waterproof boots and when we arrived at the fjord, blue patches of sky appeared. The day got gradually sunnier and clearer giving us a wonderful view of the jagged peaks and glaciers coming down towards the sea. We had our first sighting of icebergs in the fjord, calving from the glacier. A sailing boat dodged through the small icebergs using her engine.

The staff scouted the shore for polar bears (one having come ashore during an excursion in the past) and after staff with rifles were in position as lookouts, we went aboard the zodiacs. We were glad of our many layers to keep warm on the water and as we passed the headland into the next bay, we could see a group of walruses lying on the seashore.

We kept our statutory distance from them in the zodiacs, but they started to take notice, got up, and moved swiftly into the sea scattering dust as they moved their ponderous bodies surprisingly quickly. We watched them for a number of minutes in the sea as they kept a watchful eye on us. Back towards the boat, we landed and went for a walk past an area with whalers’ graves. Here in the 17th century there had been a whaling station, but the whalers had to move on eventually, as they were so successful in decimating the local whale populations. We saw the remains of a blubber-rendering station with pieces of 400-year-old blubber, hardened by the frost, which had come to the surface. A short walk uphill gave a wonderful view of a glacier and the remains of the lateral moraine of a large glacier, some 50 feet tall as it entered the sea in the 1920s, now confined to the upper aspects of the mountain.

We returned to the M/S Expedition for hot drinks and snacks before a briefing which told us we were going to the sea ice tomorrow!

Walrus in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


We woke to the sight of sea ice both sides of the ship at 80 degrees 51 mins north, 1015km from the North Pole! Not long after breakfast there was a sighting of blue whales on the port side. We watched at least three of them swimming 2-300m from the ship, blowing before they disappeared. Shortly afterwards a minke whale appeared briefly 50m away and dived under the ship not to be seen again. Going slowly through the ice in foggy conditions, we saw a bearded seal resting on an ice floe, quite undisturbed by the ship’s presence.

The foggy conditions were present all day but we had interesting talks by the staff about Glaciology, sea ice, the birds and how to photograph them. Another couple of seals were spotted by individuals and there was a constant stream of kittiwakes, the occasional fulmar, some guillemots, and little auks around the ship. A few younger passengers took a polar dip in the 2-degree sea as older folk watched on - not so jealously! It was a lovely sunny evening with high ribbed clouds reflected between the sea ice and a seal swimming in front of the ship just before bedtime!

Whale in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


This was a cold, cloudy day with a zodiac trip to Lågøya island. Not expecting much, we were thrilled to hear a polar bear had been sighted. Everyone was so excited as we saw a male polar bear with a brown stripe on his bottom search the side of the island for food. We watched him foraging for many minutes before he disappeared over the brow. We motored to the next island and to everyone’s delight, we saw a polar bear with two young cubs come into view. As the mother explored for food, she was dive-bombed by arctic terns and the cubs followed her, climbing up rocks and running across snow patches. Their noses were brown from foraging on the ground and they had such cute faces. We followed them around two sides of the island, coming to within 200m before they disappeared inland. There was no sea ice on the shore.

In the afternoon after another large lunch, we anchored in Sorgfjord. This was the site of whalers’ graves and of a battle between the French navy and forty Dutch whaling boats in the 18th century. The wooden coffin sides were still visible amongst the stones in some graves which we respectfully left untouched and there was a large wooden cross at the top of the small hill to mark the spot. There were lots of multicoloured metamorphic rock and basalt columns around the grave site with a large mud plain towards the snow-covered hills. Some reindeer could be seen foraging in the distance and there were plenty of reindeer droppings and antlers around. A team collected 500kg of plastic rubbish from the beach. Back to the boat for a debrief, a delicious supper before a musical evening in the bar.

Polar bears in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


Next, a bright and clear morning. We took the zodiacs onto a pebbly low-lying promontory to see a walrus colony at Torellneset. They were packed closely together, grunting with a very distinctive smell! They were lazing around and looking very relaxed apart from the odd fight for position. A very large male took four paces at a time before stopping, after hauling his huge bulk up the shore to push and bully his way to his favourite spot. Terns were diving for fish and we had the chance to have a brief walk to sample a stony, pebbly arctic desert. In the afternoon and in beautiful sunny conditions with a flat sea, we went along the glacier ice cliffs of Bråsvellbreen, motoring gently between icebergs. Sometimes they were white, sometimes shiny blue (fallen from the ice cliffs), with porridge-like sea ice and flat platforms. We were able to get off on a large ice floe and walk around for a few minutes.

The back right inflatable compartment of the zodiac sprang a small leak. But with regular manual pumping, we were able to keep going, secure in the knowledge that there are seven compartments and two are enough to keep afloat. There were also at least ten other zodiacs on the water! The scenery was just amazingly beautiful and we spent three hours on the water before getting back on the boat. As the weather was so calm and sunny, the crew organised a barbeque on the stern serving delicious paella, sardines, steak, pork and lamb. We spent the evening singing in the bar and occasionally dashing out to photograph walruses on the sea-ice or swimming.

Zodiac in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


Another bright and beautiful morning, anchored close to the Negribreen glacier. The zodiacs took us through a sea of ice of fragments from the ice cliffs. We heard and saw two loud cracks as pieces of the cliff fell into the sea. The patterns on the ice cliff-face and seracs up above were fascinating; white ice, dirty ice, and blue ice all combined. As we turned to the ship, the ice cliffs looked as if cut by a cake knife – regular and clear. After lunch and a rest, we were taken by zodiac to Kapp Lee where some of us went with a guide up to the top of the hill above the bay to see the ship below. The air was so clear and there were four reindeer which grazed close by, the sun shining on the velvet on their antlers. The views were stunning and as we came down over the heath there were white, yellow and pink arctic flowers dotted amongst the grasses. We had an excellent dinner followed by a talk on life in polar research stations around the world.

Walrus in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


This day was overcast but we took a zodiac trip to the base of a large granite cliff where hundreds of kittiwakes were nesting. Some glaucous gulls were prowling and one took a chick, another was taken by an arctic fox. Then there was a steep climb to the bottom of the cliff but wonderful views over the bay and across to a glacier. We visited a trapper’s hut, still potentially used and equipped with mattresses and sundry household items. It was used in the 1930’s by the first female trapper in Svalbard.

After lunch we took a zodiac cruise around the beautiful bay hemmed by glaciers and jagged peaks up to 1400m. We saw an ivory gull and a kittiwake chased by a pair of parasitic jaegers and witnessed some ice breaking off and crashing into the sea. The evening was calm with wonderful views around the bay. As we sat down to a photography lecture, we were told that a couple of fin whales had been spotted and we rushed on deck to watch these wonderful and long creatures swim and blow within 100-300m to the ship.

Ice in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


A walk of 4 km was planned this morning at Bamsebu, but after the scouting party landed, they were told by two women preparing for overwintering that a very large male polar bear, probably 600kg, had been wandering around the area for three out the past five days. It was then decided to cancel but we had a short stroll on the beach and a chat with the two ladies who were overwintering to raise the profile of global warming. They were looking to contact schools live by satellite twice a month to talk about what was happening in the arctic and the effect on local Svalbard life as well as the wider implications for the rest of the world. In the afternoon we crossed the fjord north to Camp Millar where there were thousands of little auks nesting in the crevices in the scree. We sat to see them flitting back and forth with reindeer grazing below.

Reindeer in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


After briefly having our phones buzz with an unexpected 4G connection we arrived north at St John’s Fjorden. The main party went on a zodiac trip to look at the ice cliffs of two glaciers, the most easterly showering ice at intervals into the sea as parts of the cliff broke off. There were bearded seals on ice floes. A dozen of us went on a walk up an airy ridge between the two glacier basins with wonderful views of the fjord, the anchored ship and the multiple glaciers of the ice cap merging before entering into the sea. Dozens of fissures were visible on the glacier surface and some occasional pools of bright blue melt-water. A purple sandpiper flew around us before we descended down a scree slope, passing an area with what appeared to be man-made rows of stones on the ground, surrounding areas of soft mud. In fact, these are caused by the permafrost freezing then melting, causing the stones to come together. We were picked up by zodiac to take us back to the ship. After a last dinner with friends we sailed to Longyearbyen harbour to anchor about 9pm. We had a good time in the bar with live music.

Arctic fox in Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins


Most of the passengers left in the early morning, leaving a few of us having breakfast. We then went by bus to the Radisson Blu hotel with our luggage and spent the day seeing the museums of the North Pole and Svalbard in the town. We settled down for an early start tomorrow to catch the plane home after a wonderful trip.

Svalbard |© Hywel Watkins
Kate Waite, Svalbard

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