NWS Nathan at 80 Degrees North

Nathan Roe

19 Jun 2018

Our new Polar Destination Specialist Heads to Svalbard

DAY 1: Saturday 26 May

A busy Heathrow Airport was the starting point for, and a complete contrast to, the upcoming Arctic voyage.

A balmy Oslo was the first stop for a connecting flight onto Longyearbyen via Tromsø. The distance can be partly understood by the 1,150km it takes to reach Oslo from London, while Oslo to Longyearbyen is over 2,000km. Given the remote destination, a half-day journey from the UK to reach Svalbard makes it quite accessible – longer of course for our US counterparts, but still, flying over ice and snow-covered mountains in a 737 is pretty unique. I’d suggest a window seat for the flight into Longyearbyen for these views.

Another piece of advice would be to pack your waterproofs and at least one warm outfit in your hand luggage, as luggage can be lost in transit – trust me! However, a day’s buffer before a voyage also helps as the luggage should then arrive on the next flight from Oslo… phew!

DAY 2: Sunday 27 May

24-hour sunlight during the summer months is something I really couldn’t get used to, and although expected, it was still a bit of a surprise on the first night. The next morning is spent at leisure before pick-up around 4pm for embarkation. In summer months, you have the option for such activities as ATV, boat trips or dog-sledding on wheels! I used the time to pester the airline regarding my bag and check out some of the hotels. Longyearbyen is an easy town to wander around, but don’t forget the pick-up time!

The M/V (or R/V) Kinfish was only recently refurbished into a passenger ship, having previously been a successful Rescue and, more recently, Research Vessel. Embarkation was of course very straightforward for a ship with a capacity of just 12 passengers. I was impressed by the space available, particularly the common areas and, although not luxury, the standard of fixtures and fittings. The bathroom and shower, for instance, is larger than those of other ships I have seen which are advertised as more luxurious.

The common areas are nicely furnished with comfortable chairs and a nautical theme. The stairs on board and on the exterior (either side of the bridge) are steep and need care, but perfectly manageable. The bridge is an ideal area for scouting for wildlife, as well as hearing some of the fascinating stories of the crew. The bow of the ship is a really good size, another ideal area for socialising and perfect for wildlife spotting.

The first evening on board was a little rocky with a few swells coming together and causing some discomfort. However, the morale of this group couldn’t be dampened and we were on our way into the remote north.

DAY 3: Monday 28 May

The first morning on board and after a rocky start (excuse the pun!) we awoke to motionless waters. Although a little cloudy, everyone was out on deck admiring the scenery of Smeerenburg Fjord.

The first disembarkation followed. Being such a small ship, we were already well into the fjord and surrounded by ice, but the zodiacs allowed for a much closer inspection of the glacier, and we got some photos of the bright blue icebergs up close. A bearded seal was then spotted after lunch and there was a second disembarkation of the day – all very quick with just the 12 of us. Zodiac cruising allows for much closer viewing of the wildlife, whilst ensuring we remain a safe distance away and not causing a disturbance.

Following a much more successful dinner than the night before, we disembarked for the third time of the day, landing at Fugelsoyen for a walk to a nesting black auk colony, coupled with some beautiful views as the blue skies had opened up. Back on board we then set sail north to the very remote Seven Islands, or Sjuøyane, where the abundance of ice should mean a higher chance of seeing a polar bear.

DAY 4: Tuesday 29 May

This morning was spent at sea, in search of sightings but cruising at a fair speed, showing what the Kinfish is made of! We slowed to a stop upon seeing a walrus on an ice floe in the distance. Upon closer navigation, it turned out to be a mother and newborn pup fending off glaucous gulls.

Upon reaching Sjuøyane at around 80 degrees north, we disembarked for what turned out to be quite a strenuous walk, mainly due to the beautiful weather. We came across a number of bear prints and so anticipation was growing for the first polar bear sighting. Back on deck and all were scanning the bridge for the elusive bear. More tracks were spotted and we were well on course.

Then, one of our eagle-eyed expedition guides, whose passion and dedication I’ve yet to mention, spotted something well into the distance. So, the Captain, similarly dedicated to the cause, changed direction and headed towards what we had all come to see. Binoculars and multiple cameras at the ready, we sailed on for quite some time, showing just how far eyes were scanning. As we approached, the cream-coloured image looked less and less bear-like and more and more rock-like… alas, it was indeed a rock.

DAY 5: Wednesday 30 May

Today was to be at sea, showing the capabilities of the Kinfish, navigating through the ice with her strengthened hull. The first major sighting on this route was a few adult walrus and a small pup. Continuing through the ice, we then had another potential sighting from the ever-aware expedition guides. Somehow, through the ice and in the far distance, a large male polar bear had been spotted. As we neared the pack ice, he moved closer and could easily be seen with the naked eye. The excitement on board was fantastic, with the crew and passengers all out on deck witnessing the bear standing on his hind legs, rolling around in the snow and hitting the ice in search of seals.

With morale at a high, GPS at plus 80 degrees, and only 500-600 nautical miles from the North Pole, a polar plunge was in order. On a 12-passenger ship, there was no hiding and I was first in. Cold doesn’t really describe it! Luckily only a short dash back to the cabin and a hot shower!

DAY 6: Thursday 31 May

This morning was another perfect Arctic summer - blue skies and calm waters reflecting the surrounding snow-covered mountains. We landed at the northwest corner of Nordauslandet at Chermsedoya to see an Arctic fox in its white winter coat, completely tame and not affected by our presence. The location was also that of the last German station to surrender at the end of WWII, due to its inaccessibility. There had been activity during the war across a number of locations in Svalbard, as the archipelago’s strategic location allowed for the collection of important weather data. This was the purpose of the station at Nordauslandet.

Back at sea, we headed towards the Hinlopen Strait, however weather deterred the route and the crew took the decision to shelter for the night in Sjordfjorden. Kinfish and her crew were extremely flexible for the duration of the voyage, even backtracking two hours for a reported bear sighting at one point, showing the all-round dedication to the cause of wildlife spotting, but also keeping everyone comfortable while trying to avoid discomfort and seasickness where possible.

DAY 7: Friday 1 June

It was again a perfect morning for the weather, and enjoying a morning coffee on deck is quite special. Being out on deck offered panoramic views of two glaciers at Leafdefjorden, which until a few years ago would’ve formed as one, showing just how powerful and changeable the scenery in Svalbard is.

Then came a report from another ship that was part of the NWS family, reporting a polar bear sighting the other side of the fjord at Mushamna. Our bear sighting excitement kicked in again and we set sail in hope. With all eyes scanning from the bridge and deck, we covered a lot of ground to no avail, but decided to launch the zodiacs anyhow. We explored the shoreline and pack ice, spotting eiders and a king eider too. Upon returning to the ship to warm up and enjoy a hot drink, our guide spotted something moving in the water... quickly it came into view as a swimming polar bear, another great sighting!

The bear crossed our path in front of the zodiac and effortlessly waded out of the water, shaking the water off his back and striding on to the snowy shore. We watched from only 100 metres as he patrolled the shoreline, following and sniffing out another bear’s tracks that had been spotted previously. We watched the bear for over an hour, clearly visible with the naked eye. His behaviour was fascinating, seeming to play around like a puppy. He rolled around in the snow on his back with his legs in the air – this is the way polar bears dry off – although he seemed to be enjoying it more than anything.

He continued on his back, sliding down the snow ledge, again with legs aloft, this time surely playing around! We followed the bear, without disturbing him but still in full sight, as he went back into the water, again without breaking stride. He swam back and forth, seemingly indecisive about his next move. We certainly weren’t expecting what he did next: he raised his head out of the water and took a dive down with legs in the air, diving to the seabed. This unusual behaviour continued four or five times, each dive lasting for 10-20 seconds. Despite being such a prolific predator, you couldn’t help but be endeared to the bear with its playful behaviour.

DAY 8: Saturday 2 June

We awoke at Kongsfjord on the return towards Longyearbyen and disembarked at Ny-London, for perhaps the closest thing to civilisation since we set sail a week before. Here, we got a feel for the ancient mining attempts, with machinery remnants and an inhabited hut nearby. Over the water is the inhabited town of Ny-Ålesund, primarily a research facility but with permanent residents too. On the second landing at Ossian Sarsfjellet we saw a number of reindeer, as well as ptarmigan in both summer and winter plume, before reaching the top of a kittiwake bird cliff with quite impressive views.

DAY 9: Sunday 3 June

The final day of an incredible voyage started off fairly grey and wet, but soon improved with a landing at Prins Karl Forland and a walk up towards a walrus haul-out.

As the day and the voyage seemed to draw to a close, the captain announced that a rescue helicopter was in the vicinity and wanted to use the Kinfish for its training. A proud moment for her crew and some more adrenaline-fuelled excitement for the guests. As we braved the cold and sea spray, the helicopter hovered overhead and began winching down its crew to the back of the ship. With military precision and efficiency, they dropped and lifted a number of rescue crew as well as a stretcher onto the ship. For all the excitement, the operation also demonstrated that despite the remote location, help was on hand if necessary.

If the helicopter overhead wasn’t enough for the last day, a blue whale was spotted only 200 metres from the bow of the ship. The weather had cleared since the morning mist, and the blow and fluke from the largest animal to have ever lived could be seen in close proximity a number of times.

There was just about time for some goodbyes, and only later would there be chance for a full recollection of a very fortunate and memorable voyage.

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