NWS Arabella and Pam Explore Svalbard

Arabella Lakin

08 Aug 2016

Abandoned breakfasts & dancing seals

ABS:

We're having a fabulous time here up in the Arctic with some incredible sightings already...

I've actually just had my breakfast disturbed as Bjorn, our guide, spotted a polar bear on shore, not far away. The guests were very excited and abandoned plates and bowls still sit in the dining area...

Yesterday was a real treat and a first for our guides, Bjorn and Finn. We were out in the Zodiacs at the foot of a glacier minding our own business when a seal came to say hello. He was very inquisitive and particular fascinated by our propeller. Finn whistled to him and after about 5 minutes of swimming around and under the Zodiac he started a little dance like a dolphin. It was an incredible show that lasted around 10 minutes as he flung himself out of the water and twisted around a few times. In and out and in and out. Our guides were beside themselves with excitement and confusion as they had never seen such a sight and had no idea that seals could behave in this way. When we got back to the boat, the crew were anxious to see photos as they couldn't believe it either. We have no idea why this little inquisitive seal did, but will hold this memory for life. It truly was breathtaking, especially with the emerald blue glacier which roared as ice broke off, provided such an incredible backdrop.

This morning, we are off in search of walruses and of course our breakfast bear. We're then going to head north into the glaciers in search of more wildlife. 

It is clear blue skies here, but the forecast is quite windy, as it was yesterday, we had a very choppy sail up here.

walrus, 82 degrees north and a polar plunge

PAM:

Greetings from the top of the world!

What an incredible few days aboard the M/S Freya. We've been quite lucky to have such a terrific group of guests and a stellar crew, and have spent the last couple of days heading north to the ice pack, which we reached this morning. Amazing to have left land behind to be surrounded by only ice as far as the eye can see! Everyone is in terrific spirits and quite excited to be here.

We were awoken yesterday at 12am to a very large colony of walruses which we observed from the bridge. Both the crew and guests got some very good photographs. After breakfast we took the Zodiacs into quite high seas as we zipped around the last few pieces of land (apparently the northern-most spits of land in Europe!) No wildlife but incredible scenery and the ride was an adventure in and of itself. After a delicious taco lunch at 82 degrees we spotted another walrus family of about 20 and visited them quite closely in the Zodiacs. Having learned our lesson we all climbed into our full-body dry suits and spent quite a bit of time with them. What a thrilling experience for all. The guests were delighted and the two most professional photographers among us got some incredible footage. 

However the highlight of the day came after dinner. Following a wildlife talk by our guide Bjorn, Abs and I (joined by our most intrepid guest) took a polar plunge! Wow. All I can say is thank god for the sauna. And if you hesitate to believe us, we have photographic proof! Needless to say we slept like babies.

I believe the M/S Malmo has spotted a polar bear - they reached the ice pack a few days ago - so we are currently in hot pursuit while ensuring we remain at a suitable distance so as not to encroach on their encounters. :-) 

Hopefully we'll encounter one over the next few days and will have a sighting to report! 

Wow, what an amazing 2 days

ABS:

Quote from guest 'if the ship sinks tonight, it doesn't matter'.

Quote from Peter, Chief Engineer 'this is the best trip I've ever experienced'.

We arrived in the pack ice and headed north and then got in radio contact with the Origo saying that they were with three bears, of which one had a seal kill. To get there we had to head back south, then east, and then north again, as going in a straight line would have been impossible as the ice was so thick. After four hours or so we spotted the Origo on the horizon and two moving black spots through the ship's binoculars. We slowly made it through the pack ice and saw a mother and two cubs in the distance, another polar bear and then we found the three bears, one with the seal. The Origo left and it was just us. 

We spent most of the day watching as the biggest bear protected and ate his seal and the other two bears (one only two years old), attempting to get some seal meat but being growled and chased off by the bigger bear. This all happened just  150 metes from our ship. Eventually the baby bear wandered off and the middle bear was allowed a couple of mouthfuls, before being growled off again by the bigger bear. Meanwhile Peder was busy cooking smoked ribs in the kitchen so we opened the door and the sweet smell was too irresistible for the middle bear, who got within four metres of our ship. We all gawped in silence as this bear sniffed around and then eventually retreated. With a total of eight bear sightings today we decided that the pack ice had done us well and we left our bears in peace. 

                  We all had a very jolly dinner with high spirits throughout the boat. 

The captain was really excited as he worked out that a glacier island called Kvitoya may be accessible. Due to the thick pack ice is it not normally reachable, but as we are at the end of the season we think there may be a chance. So we set off overnight and arrived here at lunch today to find three polar bears on a nearby shore. I slept for 13 hours..! 

The fog cleared and we were greeted by what I thought looked like a mini Antarctica. The island is called the White Island as it is 98% ice and covers around 700km sq. It is home to a colony of walruses numbering around 400 in total. We were happy to get back onto the Zodiacs as it is not possible to explore by Zodiac on the pack ice. We headed nearer the land to where the three polar bears were and then motored adjacent to the land to where a colony of walruses were playing in the water. We spent some time with them and then found two walruses on an ice berg, who looked like lovers. Great photo opportunity as we could get quite close. We heard the thundering of the breaking glacier, the song of hundreds of birds. We even saw some birds nesting on the glacier front, which Bjorn had never seen before. 

We were just about to head back to the ship when Bjorn suddenly said, oh my god, I think I see a polar bear. We all asked "where?" and low and beyond there was a polar bear sleeping on the top of an iceberg, not far from us. We could safely approach him and got within just a few metres. Occasionally, he'd look up and around, especially if the glacier roared.  

It was an incredible sight. Our Zodiac was between him and the colony of walruses, with a back drop of a glacier cliff. The guests couldn't believe it. To get so close to a polar bear is incredible and you could tell that it didn't feel threatened at all by us and was perfectly relaxed. We retreated back to the ship to be welcomed by some much deserved grogg. It isn't too cold (about 5 degrees) but we were out for some time. 

I am now on the bridge and the crew are off on the Zodiacs to check out our polar bear. We are two days from Russia so maybe myself and the guests up here will take command and set sail east!!!! But I think we are going to head to the other side of the island after dinner and head out on Zodiacs if we see the massive walrus colony. 

The captain and his crew are doing an amazing job and you can tell that they are as excited by the wildlife sightings as we are, which is lovely.  

So, far that is 13 polar bears, lots of seals and walruses and no whales or Arctic foxes but after leaving this island we'll head to the east coast of Svalbard main island to the bird cliff and hope to see some more wildlife there... 

                                          Best wishes from a very happy Freya! 

back in longyearbyen

So we've just arrive back into Longyearbyen after what the chief engineer Peter, and expedition leader, Bjorn said was the best trip ever...

After our incredible sightings of our three bears in the pack ice and our bear on the iceberg we had a 24 hour sail to catch up on a bit of lost time to ensure we got our flight, though I think everyone would have been happy to miss their flight and stay here for ever! Or at least until the winter sets in.....

Enroute, just south of Austfonna we had an incredible 2 hour encounter with 4 humpbacks who were feeding just metres from the bow of our ship. They kept in pairs and often dived in unison, giving us so many opportunities for double tail photos you only dream of taking. We even started scoring their synchronised diving out of ten and at the end of their feeding we got the perfect ten as all four dived down together. 

I was on the top of the bridge at this point and it was incredible to be looking down at our ship with these magnificent creatures just metres away.

We then continued to Hormsund which is a beautiful fjord on south west of Svalbard. Within the fjord there are further fjords and peaks rising into the clouds. The water was calm, the sky blue, enabling picture perfect reflections of the peaks and glaciers in the water. We came across a bearded seal relaxing on some ice and it was so relaxed that we managed to get quite close to it. The mountain peaks were white from snow the night before and multi coloured due to the minerals.

As we were leaving the fjord a fin whale decided to join us and feed around the boat. I'd never seen one before and couldn't believe our luck.

Tea Party of a lifetime

We then headed north and to the Old Russian mining town of Pyramiden, which is eery and strange. Our guide, a 21 year old called Dennis, had got the job and moved from Siberia. None of us could imagine living there, it has a population of 8!! We all agreed that this was not a place we'd like to spend too much time, though there is a hotel....

I then arranged a tea party back on the top deck of the Freya as it was Finn, our guide's birthday. We had cake, tea and Bjorn played his guitar. We all agreed it was the strangest tea party we'd ever go to, moored up in this Russian ghost town with a back from of a glacier. The sun was shining (again) and the glaciers were a brilliant white and the sea, a deep turquoise. We raised a toast to our Captain, crew and guides and all agreed that this trip has been extraordinary and perfect. We've been fortunate that the guests have got on so well, lots of laughter and mutual respect. The weather has been on our side and of course we have encountered so many special and incredible wildlife encounters. Travelling as part of a small group really is the way forward...

So here finishes a safari I will never forget. My first time to the Arctic and hopefully not my last. To be fortunate to spend time in this wild, often inhospitable environment, that wildlife chooses to reside in, is a rare pleasure. Every day was different, but everyday we saw something spectacular.

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