Arctic Wildlife Diary Aboard the MS Quest

Tom Brown

16 Feb 2015

Exploring the Arctic

I have been doing wildlife trips to the Polar Regions for years, but my recent trip to Svalbard on the M/S Quest was one of the best experiences for seeing Arctic wildlife that I have ever had. 

I departed with high hopes as my trip was in August, considered to be part of the prime-time wildlife watching season and I wasn't disappointed. Alongside numerous sea birds and several Arctic mammals I was fortunate to have some close encounters (from the ship and zodiac) with 10 different incredible polar bears. 

Polar Bears

I would say that Svalbard has some main wildlife attractions, the main players of the Arctic if you like. At the top of that list is obviously the polar bear. The great ice bear is the reason most people go on polar cruises to Svalbard, and I must admit that I would have been disappointed if I had not had an encounter with the King of the North. Our first sighting was from a distance, but I think it was the one that the ship got the most excited about. Everybody was up on the deck, binoculars in hand eager to get their first glimpse of the animal we were all here to see. He was on some rocks in the distance close to the Smeerenburg glacier making it difficult to get a decent picture without a large zoom lens. He then plunged into the ice filled water close to the glacier and we set out in the zodiacs to search for him, following as he climbed back out of the water, carefully walking along the steep edge of the land.

As mentioned we were lucky to see 10 bears in total, of which the majority were from a distance. We did however have two incredible close encounters while traversing the pack ice, drifting southward off the eastern coast of Spitsbergen Island. The first was spotted by one of the Expedition Team with a telescope from miles away. After giving the Captain the bearing we made a beeline towards the bear, slowly pushing through an ice floe until eventually we stopped in the ice about 20-30 metres from the bear.

The bear was just chilling on the ice with not a care in the world, not at all fazed by us.

After a while he decided to get up and put on a bit of a show as if he realised there were several cameras pointing at him and decided to strike a few poses. It was an incredible experience and I managed to get some great shots. After a while he sauntered off leaving everyone on board extremely satisfied and buzzing from the encounter.

After a night nestled in the ice floe, drifting 4 nautical miles with the ice, we set out in search of more bears. It wasn't long before we found one. The Captain positioned the ship in the ice a little further away this time. We wanted to see the bear from Zodiacs; our aim was to get as close as possible to the bear lying on the ice. We set out in 5 different groups and slowly headed as close as we could to the bear. The bear ignored us and we were allowed to do various loops, each time getting a little closer as he continued to be unbothered by our presence. Again it seemed like he was posing allowing us to get some great pictures.

Walrus

Once you have seen the polar bear, other wildlife sightings don’t seem to be quite as important, but the truth is that although you may consider the polar bear as the ‘King of the Arctic’ there is a lot of other Arctic royalty to be found. One of those is the mighty walrus and we found a herd of them at Poolepynten, on the east coast of Prins Karl Fordsland. Ronald, our Expedition Leader, made us walk round so that we could approach them from an upwind position. 

This meant that they could smell us coming from a distance and in that way they would not be alarmed by our presence. 

We then began to move closer and closer as a group towards the walruses. We moved to a point of about 20 metres from them and then stopped there for about 10 minutes before edging to within about 10 metres of them, slowly spreading out a little in order to get some good photos. It was a fabulous wildlife sighting.

Whales

I think that people always hope to see whales when they are on an Arctic cruise, and I was no different to other passengers on the trip. There were quite a few sighting of whales, the majority nothing more than a spray of water in the distance. However, on one evening we were blessed with an incredible experience. At the southern tip of Spitsbergen Island, we were called to action as the captain and his crew had spotted a high number of whales in front of the ship. 

It turned out to be what looked like a feeding frenzy of fin whales, about 20-30 of them in total. The Captain slowed the ship down and we managed to get really close to them. They were often in groups of 2-3 and coming to the surface every now and then. In amongst them there was a minke whale and right at the end we also caught a glimpse of a blue whale and I was lucky enough to get a picture of it fluking. 

By that point I began to think that the wildlife experiences couldn’t get any better.

More Arctic wildlife encounters

Sea Birds

The bird-life is also vast in Arctic, and although they are never on the top of my wildlife viewing lists, there were so many birds to be seen. Many bird cliffs were visited but the best by far were at Alkfjellet. These are huge vertical cliffs where kittiwakes, Brunnich Guilemotts and other birds lay their nests. The reason that they nest in this area is because it means that the Arctic foxes cannot get to their young. The Captain positioned the ship with the bow head-on to the cliffs. One of the advantages of the M/V Quest is that it has 2 observation decks at the front of the ship. This meant that you could view the cliffs from a greater height to get a better perspective of the nesting birds. The captain also made the ship drift sideways along the cliff so that we could see as many birds as possible. Supposedly there were between 100-200,000 birds on the cliffs at the time. These same cliffs were covered in the BBC’s Frozen Planet. We saw many other birds such as Arctic terns, albatross, skuas, fulmars and puffins leading a long list. 

Seals

Some of the other great Arctic wildlife encounters experienced on the trip included seeing seals hitching rides on ice floes, very skittish and always on the lookout for polar bears. As soon as we got close they were in the water. We saw bearded seals, harbour seals, harp seals and the ringed seal, the favourite food of the polar bear. 

Arctic Fox

Whilst we were on land excursions we came across the Arctic fox on three occasions, twice in his grey summer coat and once in his winter white coat, which we were told is extremely unusual at that time of year. 

Arctic Reindeer

We also had a very close encounter with some Arctic reindeer, another animal that didn't seem to fear our presence. I managed to get some great photos and one of the other passengers managed to get some great pictures of me photographing the reindeer.

Overall this trip on the M/S Quest proved to be an incredible experience for the variety and type of encounters with Arctic wildlife.

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Comments

Jan Schippers

2/12/2015 5:30 PM

Hello Tom, remember me? I was on the same trip. The Norwegian guy with his long tele. I liked your story and for a moment i was back to August 2014. Greetings from Norway. Jan Schippers.

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