Magic, Mystique and Magnificence aboard the MS Malmö

Peter Haworth

02 Aug 2018

NWS client Peter Haworth tells his tale of an Arctic wildlife safari

Arrival

Arrive in Longyearbyen. Off the plane, get our bags and step into a postcard. Awesome scenery all around, stunning. Check into the hotel and off to the Svalbar for “lunch”. It’s buzzing. Get a table, order and then a game of Cards Against Humanity. Hilarity reigns. Lunch arrives and we discover that she is Irish. Struggling with how to properly pronounce the name of this town... after listening to some Norwegians I found out I’ve been using too many vowel sounds. It’s more like “How long yr bin working here”. Problem solved.

Wander around the town, admire the huskies, look at the parking lot full of dead snowmobiles (snow has left town for the summer), not to mention a place to park your dog team. Fantastic. Bed, but hold on, these curtains don’t work – 24/7 daylight – get used to it.


Day 1

Breakfast and then explore the town some more. Off to the Svalbard Museum which is really good – great to get an understanding of the history of this northernmost city in the world. Also at the museum, taxidermy versions of what we hope to see live in the wild. Excitement builds…

Back at the hotel ready for pickup and a very distinguished-looking gentleman checks our names off the list. A bus arrives and we climb aboard – this is a big bus – I’m sure you could fit the whole population of Longyearbyen in here. Pick up the rest of the group from another hotel and off to the wharf to meet up with our vessel for the expedition – the MS Malmö. She was initially built as a research vessel in the 1950s for the Swedish Maritime Administration. The ship was rebuilt in 2013 for the purpose of cruises and has now been ice-strengthened in order for the ship to explore difficult-to-reach areas. With space to accommodate just 12 expedition passengers and two experienced expedition leaders on board, it feels more as if you are on board your own private yacht than an Arctic cruise ship! OK, so I stole that last bit from the brochure.

Taken to our cabins then to the saloon for safety briefings. Up onto deck and the postcard is now a moving panorama from a BBC documentary. I pinch myself and ask one of my fellow Kiwis if this is a dream. It is magic – you have no idea how splendid this world can be.

Dinner and we are introduced to our Swedish chef. Just one look at him and you know the food is going to be delicious. He explains that he will be serving us Swedish dishes throughout the expedition and in fact at each meal he tells us about our fare along with hilarious tales and jokes. This journey is getting better and we’ve barely left!

Our guides (more on them to come) tell us that seeing that now we’re coming out of the Isfjorden, the swell may start to hit the vessel until we get into the lee of Prins Karls Forland. And we start to feel it. A couple of nameless people develop greenish tinges and step outside onto the poop deck to recover. I check to make sure my motion sickness bands are in place.


We adjourn to the saloon for another briefing from our guides. These men are awesome. One (Mats) has been leading arctic expeditions for years, including months working for the BBC and THAT man. The other fellow (Hadleigh) has only been a polar guide for 10 years! He’s worked both poles and other places around the arctic circle. The expedition has a great feel to it – led by these two, the crew are also very chatty and helpful, and my fellow expeditioners turn out to be great fun.

They proceed to outline the plan for the voyage – to head north, but it will depend on the weather, the wildlife, oh and ice! They show us how to read an ice chart which gets updated regularly by the Norwegian Met people. Charts, navigation, boats, radar – I love this stuff.

Bedtime – the end of an exciting day. Manage to work out how to close the curtains over the porthole – it’s very light outside and I fall asleep. Vaguely aware of the ship’s movement during the night.


Day 2

Wake up, dress with several layers because it’s brisk and go up to the mess. It’s calm now as we’ve travelled north to Virgohamna and Amsterdamoya (yes I can read a map). Breakfast is consumed and our first zodiac outing is afoot. We clamber – well, we were assisted – down a ladder onto the zodiac and take off. These things are the go-to Arctic runabout - black rubber, stable and fast.

Straight amongst the wildlife – harbour seals – they almost look like the rocks they’re chilling on. Birds are all around and we cruise the area around ice and bays with a watchful eye out for you know what. Wind comes up, colder now so we head back to the vessel (this is how Hadleigh refers to the Malmö over the RT – very professional, and a bit hip to boot). Aboard and lunch and warmth.

Second zodiac cruise after lunch, moseying around the stunning scenery (I think this was in Raudfjorden but don’t quote me on this) eyeing the birds and up there on the slope – a group of Svalbard reindeer. They hoof it over the ridge and I ponder whether any of the clicking sounds from the Canon around my neck managed to get anything in focus. Drifting with the scenery, then one of the more observant of the team spots an Arctic fox racing up the hill. Is that something in its mouth? I’ll have to check the blurry images to see if there was. (Checking later there was both – blur and something in its mouth!)

We return to the vessel and find out some more about our fellow expeditioners. Up on deck and there is an impromptu competition to see who can get the best shot of one of the birds that buzz the Malmö as we steam northeast. A judge is chosen. Hadleigh informs me that all my shots are to be discounted as they are all of the black-legged kittiwake, which are common as muck, and in fact any score I might receive from the judge will be marked down in favour of less common species. The judge says unilaterally that either he or possibly his better half have won the competition. No photos were viewed and I discover that they are professional wildlife photographers, and if that’s not enough, she paints wildlife as well. Having said that I got some great advice (mostly about photography!) from both of these two and my photos definitely improved during the voyage as a result.

More on how I won the bird photo comp later.


Day 3

During the night we travelled further north – passed latitude 80 degrees and sailed into the Hinlopenstretet, south to Lomfjordhalvøya and the famous Alkefjellet – one of the biggest bird cliffs in the North Atlantic, so says Mats.

All aboard the zodiacs and into the fray. This is a total sensory immersion. Look up and the sky is black with swirling birds. A cacophony of squawking and screeching. And the smell. 'Nuff said. On the cliffs nest some 200,000 pairs of Brünnich’s guillemots. Not to mention tens of thousands of black-legged kittiwakes and several other species, as you will see. This place is amazing, unreal. Love these guillemots. There was a couple fighting in mid-air, oblivious to everything and falling like bricks into the water not far from us. They carry on battling on the water right by us, splashing and squawking – full on beak to beak until one of them yields and gets chased away. Move along the cliff a bit and there on a rock is a glaucous gull ripping the intestines out of some poor unidentified bird species. Mats calls out – "Over there!" – as ahead of us in the water is a great skua who is bringing down death and destruction on a black-legged kittiwake.

Then – "Over there!" – it’s another Arctic fox, trotting along the shoreline looking for food. We pull alongside in the zodiac. Still wearing his winter coat, with glimpses of the darker summer coat peeking through from behind the icicles hanging off its haunches. The fox cares not a jot for our presence and continues working his way along the shoreline. Cameras click and whir and the fox carries on about its business – humans, who cares?

Life and death in the Arctic! Just a totally fantastic experience. We tootle along a bit further and have some interesting examples of geological formations pointed out. It’s now a bit cold and sleety, so we head back to the MS Malmö for some of the Swedish chef’s immaculate cuisine.

If this isn’t a highlight I don’t know what is!!! Fantastic. By the way, today I learned that Mats is a bird man. After he reincarnates his plan is to return as a wandering albatross!


We sail on further amongst more drift ice. There! Where? Over there on the ice. Oh now I see. Engines stopped, we drift a bit closer through the ice to three walruses (walri?) enjoying a lazy siesta on some ice. The skipper adjusts our position so we can get a better view. As with the fox and everything else – humans, pshaw – nothing’s gonna shift us. More whirring and clicking – Canon would be proud. We travel ever onwards.

Food time and after dinner we have a presentation from Hadleigh on the failed attempt of S.A. Andrée’s 1897 expedition to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon. We’d passed by Dansköya where the balloon was erected, filled and launched earlier in the trip. The expedition failed, and the three intrepid explorers survived the landing and apparently started trekking over the ice only to fall victim to the Arctic’s bitter winter. This was a great mystery until their bodies were found 33 years later on the island of Kvitøya. This really adds to the atmosphere of our own little expedition – there’s so much history all around us.

Bed. (OK there was some single malt).


Day 4

Our guides had been on watch during the night (remember there’s no dark) looking for whitish shapes on the ice. Spotted. The first officer nurses our icebreaker through the pack ice as far as we can go. Everyone’s up looking – binoculars, telephotos, you name it.

Now the skipper was a fine fellow and had a policy of an open bridge on the Malmö as long as there wasn’t some tricky navigation happening. The bridge is THE PLACE for spotting, and it’s a tad warmer than on deck. Over the ice up towards the glacier face is a female polar bear, some way away staring into a breathing hole waiting for an unlucky ringed seal to pop its head up. There were a few seals hanging around on the ice but none of them were stupid enough to use that breathing hole. Patience, grasshopper. The polie stood and stared and stood and stared and lay down by the hole and stood and stared, but never moved away from the hole. Persistence.

Here’s a chance for me to test the reach of my camera and lenses. OK pictures but need much work in post.

After lunch our guides went over the side of the vessel onto the ice to test and see if we were safe to walk on the ice. And it was, and we did. Some experience that is, walking on water, ok it was frozen, but still something else standing on the water next to the MS Malmö. Photos, snow angels and we climb back up the ladder.

Mats gave us a talk on polar bears and described one time he spent five months on location working for the BBC not far from here. Fascinating.

Now on board there are some books on the history and wildlife around the Arctic and Svalbard. One of our passionate American photographers gets his head into a book called “Polar Bears on the Edge – Heading for Extinction While Management Fails” by Morten Jørgesen. He reads excerpts. Wow. This book is worth a read (I now have a copy). Depending on which of the less-than-perfect census data you accept, the worldwide population of PBs is around 20,000 +/-.

In the afternoon the crew reposition the MS Malmö around the bay to see if we can spot any more bears. More are sighted. Some count at least four. I fix my eyes (via Mr Canon) on one. He walks, dives in, climbs out, walks. Rolls, walks, rolls. He’s having a ball. Frolicking around. Our guides tell me the rolling is to squeeze the water out of his fur. He briefly turns and ambles towards us, but thinks better of it and returns to his left to right track. My camera is working overtime. Interesting when I get back and load them onto my computer I see that in one image behind him there’s also the female from this morning staring into that hole. He walks on by. No time for women either, there’s seals to be stalked. Later we worked out that that female spent over 12 hours staring into that hole. Totally amazing.

The crew kept us parked in the ice overnight in case he at the top of the Arctic food chain changed his mind and came visiting. Not this time.

We head off in search of pastures bearer. There’s low clouds hanging in the sky as we check out another beautiful glacier and its daughter drift ice. It is calm. The water is the colour of black ink and in the near distance the magnificent fjord’s edge reminds me of a scene from Game of Thrones. I think that’s Jon Snow up there on top of the Wall. So wonderfully atmospheric.

What a day.


Day 5

Hadleigh tells us about the plan for the day. The weather’s changed a bit. A southerly wind is coming up and blowing the drift ice up the Hinlopenstretet towards us. The skipper didn’t want us to get stuck, despite his prowess at finding the way through pack ice, so we headed north. Destination: Eolusneset, Sorgfjorden, a well-known walrus haul-out. Icebreaker in action! How cool. I hang over the bow with my camera trying to get some footage of the ice being rent asunder. Pretty spectacular!

All the while the bridge is manned and womaned with binocular-wielding spotters looking for a close encounter of the bear kind.

Instead we are visited by aliens. Strange lights appear in the fog behind us. What interdimensional beings are these that have come to pay us a visit? Turns out it’s a sundog. This is a phenomenon that is sometimes visible when the sun lies 15–20° above the horizon and is on the same horizontal plane as the observer. It’s the ice crystals in the ice fog. So there. Another magic, mysterious Arctic experience. Love it. We sail on.

We arrive and sure enough a herd of walri, a pod of walrus, a herd of Atlantic walruses, a clan of Odobenus rosmarus, or a huddle of toothwalkers. Whatever, you decide which you like best. On the beach there were some 15 of them, hanging out together, an old codger with only one tusk by himself in the shallows and some wild teenagers frolicking in the water and trying to pluck up the nerve to hang with the big boys. 

We land the zodiacs down the beach and approached slowly and quietly. There are standard distances to approach each species agreed by all the expedition companies and we gradually moved to the range limit. They didn’t really care, we certainly weren’t disturbing them, as we quietly watched them sort out the pecking/flopping/snoozing order, accompanied only by the click of shutters and the grunts from these magnificent creatures.

A group of breakaways, led by Mats, skirted the huddle and climbed a nearby hill to some old whalers’ graves. The view stunning. Looking back to the walrus in the distance on the beach and the MS Malmö, riding her anchor on a sheet of shiny glass, snowy glaciers rimming the horizon.

We returned to the others and on the way back to the zodiacs, picked up plastic rubbish that had washed ashore. Quite a big pile in a short stretch of beach. Disgusting, and despoiling this wonderful wilderness. Informed by Mats – who feels some passion about this – that it comes mostly from fishing boats that work the waters here and to the south, dragged north by ocean currents. A picture is taken and Mats vows to write to the Norwegian Government, the Department of Fisheries and the Governor of Svalbard. Since then he is as good as his word and has had an article published in the Barents Observer, an Arctic publication, here. Read it and show your support for our planet – choose products packed in compostable bioplastic, rather than oil-based pollutants; pick up five plastic items each time you visit the beach – take action. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

We collapse into bed – another brilliant day.

Oh yes, there were some more single malts and it turns out our maître d′ has a stash of special ones below. Excellent. Good chap, that.


Day 6

Into the zodiacs for a pleasure cruise! Moseying around the Liefdefjorden.

Bird photo competition part 83. So there is a lot of wonderful bird life around Svalbard. Heaps. Amongst them are several species of goose and duck, including the eider. There’s flocks just here. They beat the water into rhythmic patterns with their wingtips as they take flight. Trying to capture these on the camera’s sensor is a challenge. Armed with the advice from our professional fellow photo-expeditioners, I adjust the settings and click away in burst mode. Some success. I am then informed again that my shots will be discounted if all they contain are the common eider and I should really see if I can get a shot of the rarer king eider, particularly the male with the prominent orange bulge above its beak. Mumble mumble. Love a challenge, though. Click click click. Later that night… I look at my photos on the laptop and there it is! Seven male king eiders in one frame, plus five females thrown in for good measure. Focus is good, freeze frame is good. I don’t care what the judges say. In fact I won’t even show them. Winner winner chicken dinner.

After lunch another zodiac/land excursion. We visit the Texas Bar – the hut where Mats was holed up for five months working for the Beeb. It’s snowing and sleeting but a group of the hardier souls climb up and around the landscape looking for whatever we find. Footprints of various sizes (not human) and more spectacular views, way down there to the zodiacs pulled up on the beach. We walk back down and arrive somewhat chilled at the Texas Bar. Hadleigh has excelled himself yet again. In the hut on the table a bottle of Skanë Akvavit and shot glasses. You beauty. Compulsory. Skål. Instant warmth.


We continue cruising aboard the Malmö – starting to head back to Longyearbyen now. I’m up on the bridge. “There!” shouts the first officer, and I catch a glimpse of a Minke Whale as it sounds off the port bow.

Evening downtime, but wait, there’s more. The skipper has spotted a pod of beluga – the white whale. Stunning. We slowly follow them around the bay – there’s several pods of them with some calves; they keep us at a distance. Hard to get a convincing photo of these magnificent mammals. Hadleigh reckons there were about 50 in total. What an unexpected nighttime surprise – I’m told it’s unusual to see them in this number around Svalbard.

Later he gives us a presentation in the saloon about the beluga. Fascinatingly mysterious and beautiful animal.


Day 7

In the morning we arrive in Fuglefjorden on the northwest corner of Spitsbergen. Off in the zodiacs. Stunning massive glacier faces dropping into the sea.  Other zodiac in the distance dwarfed by a massive cliff of jumbled ice. Watched a small iceberg calving off the glacier face and then came across the most vivid blue iceberg, sculpted magnificently by nature. Rewarded us close at hand with break rattle and roll. What a scene. Blue, blue ice, white, white glacier, mirror-glass water and an eerie bank of fog, lifted 100 feet into the air.

Magnificent. We continued, skirting the edge looking for signs of bear and other wildlife. It’s so quiet. But then Hadleigh spots something and our rubber zodiac becomes a mini icebreaker as we give chase. Whatever it was vanishes into the ether and we are left to pick our way back to open water. We cruise on. What is that track in the snow there? Likely where a polar bear slid down to the water on his tummy.

We reconnect with the other zodiacs and Malmö by the entrance to the fjord. Turns out they spotted some Atlantic puffin.

Lunch and more wild and woolly jokes and tales from the Swedish chef – what a character. Weather’s packed it in a bit so we stay aboard as the skipper skirts the shoreline and the binocular brigade scour the scenery for signs of more you know what.


Day 8

Early breakfast for an early zodiac adventure. We’re here at Alkhornet on the northern shore at the entrance to Isfjorden. Our guides scout the shoreline for a suitable landing spot. We pull the zodiacs up the beach and then clamber a small face to a flatter expanse of tundra. Svalbard reindeer are here and continue to graze unperturbed by the two-legged interlopers. The ground underfoot is surprisingly spongy. Further along I spot what looks like a couple of birds doing something athletic on the ground. A reindeer close to them stares back at me as if to say "Mind your own business". Mats informs me they were skuas propagating their species. I turn away. Low cloud clings to the cliffs higher up. A familiar noise wafts down. A bird cliff sits just beyond our sight. There’s a blur up the hill a bit – our third Arctic fox apparently – but I missed it. We climb our way up through rocky outcrops, as the terrain becomes steeper and steeper.

Up there! I see it now. That fox is back, trotting on up the hill. Thief! In his mouth is an egg – it’s almost as big as his head! Likely filched from a barnacle goose. Expropriated to the fox den, or maybe hidden until winter. Life and death in the Arctic, lesson 64.

We continue to climb, at last coming over a blind ridge and there, not two metres away, is a mother reindeer and her calf from last season, with stubs where its antlers will grow peeking out from the top of its head. They continue to graze as we freeze motionless and photograph. The calf wanders along, coming within a metre of one of us. Again not at all in fear of Earth’s greatest danger.

We clamber down the hill past a pair of barnacle geese and onto the flat where we pause while the rest of the party re-joins. On the ground just to the left a purple sandpiper. Nature is everywhere. With some heaving and shoving and one flooded gumboot the zodiacs are launched and we make our way back to the Malmö. 


Along the way there’s something on the water. What is that? Finally, an Atlantic Puffin. I’ve been hanging out to see one of these and was marginally miffed when the other zodiac spotted one. Fumble with camera, bird moves away, picture’s not up to much, but hey, a Puffin. Brilliant, another tick on the seen-it list.

We sail along Isfjorden heading back to Longyearbyen. Up on the top deck northern fulmars buzz above us and hover just a wingtip away. Invisible and unspoken photo comp, the professional photographer is there. I strap my 70-200 on and snap away – I mean, after all, that’s one species I haven’t managed to photo yet. Happyish with the results and another secret win.

The skipper, Mats and Hadleigh conspire to take the Malmö into every nook and cranny looking for more bears. Not this time.

A slap up three-course dinner from the Swedish chef and our final night is over.


Day 9

Up at sparrow’s and exit gangplank left to catch an early flight back to Oslo. Leave in 0 degrees °C, arrive in 33 degrees °C. Somewhat of a contrast.

What an amazing experience for a Kiwi from the bottom of the world. Two main diseases caught: The Arctic and Wildlife Photography. Look out bank manager, I’ll be back.

Can’t finish without expressing lashings of extreme gratitude to:

  • Natural World Safaris for a beautifully crafted experience, managed down to the last unexpected detail, including little surprises; thank you, I’ll be back
  • The crew of the MS Malmö, for putting up with us, working for us and taking this little vessel to places others might not have the skill or knowledge to go, tusen takk
  • My fellow adventurers, thank you for your company, good spirits, and willingness to share your stuff, cheers, good on ya mate and thanks
  • Especially to our guides, Hadleigh and Mats. Your professionalism, knowledge and skill left me with a fascination and enthusiasm for the Arctic wilderness and wildlife, but also your happy and light tone and willingness to engage in banter with the loony from Enzed made it the atmosphere and mood special. Thank you.

BOOK YOUR SVALBARD SAFARI

Contact one of our Destination Specialists to start planning your journey.

Contact Us

Add your comment

You are being redirected. Click here if this takes longer than a few seconds.