Svalbard | M/S Freya Trip Diary

Hannah Champion

11 Jul 2016

Polar bear safari on the M/S Freya in Svalbard - first charter of 2016

As soon as I'm back in the country, you can expect a ream of blogs and updates on my first experience of the Arctic. For now, read on for some short and sharp updates direct from the M/S Freya on our first Svalbard polar bear charter of the year; the Svalbard Polar Bear Explorer.

Day 1

The guests boarded the Freya around 5pm and we started getting to know each other and getting our bearings of the ship. We headed north up Forlandsundet towards the pack ice. As we hadn't reached the main wildlife area yet the focus was on the birdlife we saw as we sailed by. This included fulmars, puffins (Atlantic), guillemots, little auks, some guests saw walrus and whale (albeit briefly and at a distance).

Day 2

Heading through the pack ice eastwards towards Phippsøya. Today we saw Greenland (harp) seals swimming alongside the boat, a bearded seal right beside the ship on an ice floe, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls. After anchoring up near Phippsøya, we took the zodiacs out for a dry landing with the aim of wandering around the island. Instead, we were lucky to meet a large colony of walrus right on the beach. We safely walked towards the group and observed the interesting and sometimes amusing behaviour of the walrus. There were a number of juveniles as well as three young calves.

Day 3

Headed back north into the pack ice, continued east along the edge of the floes. From a huge distance away, Mark (Steele) spotted a yellow tint and the Captain headed towards the location. 

We came across an old, male polar bear on the ice with a fresh seal kill. 

It is expected that the kill had been made approximately 10 minutes before our arrival. Alongside the bear were a few ivory gulls, a rare Arctic breed, acting like vultures around the kill. Today was the first day we encountered black guillemots. Later in the evening we were drifting in the ice and were lucky enough to have a large bearded seal float towards our ship. The seal remained on the floe directly next to the stern for well over half an hour before gracefully sliding back in to the water. Again, Mark saw what he thought was a polar bear way into the distance, but as we were just drifting in the ice we would only have been able to encounter the bear if it had walked and swam all the way towards us, unfortunately not on this occasion. John and Russ also spotted a pomerine jaegar (skua).

Day 4

The crew sailed overnight towards Karl XII Øya where there was a large colony of kittiwakes and black guillemots that we could see directly from the ship. This was first time we came across Eider ducks too. We boarded the zodiacs to circumnavigate the island and encountered a large male polar bear mountaineering in search of nests to plunder, before settling on an outcrop providing us with a majestic ”lion king” pose. Further round the island we came across a mother with two six-month old cubs!! We spent almost an hour enjoying the behaviour of this family even watching her come down towards the water's edge. Continuing our circumnavigation, we disembarked on the other half of the island but didn't stay for long. Days before it has been reported there were seven bears on the island and as we had only seen four today we couldn't be too sure as to where the other three were hiding!

We then headed to Storøya meaning Great Island. On our journey there from the Freya we had a huge colony of walrus swimming alongside the zodiacs. Being down at water level with them was fascinating. Nearer shore we were extremely fortunate to encounter a young male polar bear interacting with a group of walruses on the beach. This is extremely rare and provides unique behaviour as the bear tries to suss out the walrus colony and vice versa. He was perhaps attempting to find some sort of weakness or opening, but only seemed perplexed when a larger walrus reared its head. Moving round the island we stopped for another dry landing in search of a variety of bird species. Here we saw Arctic terns (which decided that John, Caron and their lenses were too close for comfort so tried to dive-bomb their heads and cameras. John made a hasty retreat but never one to miss a photo opportunity Caron continued her photography in the hope of getting that one awesome action shot). Other sightings included the red phalarope, one of the most beautiful Arctic birds and the rare Sabine gull. 

What an incredible day in the Arctic!!!

Day 5

Overnight we moved down the east coast of Austfonna towards Kapp Mohn, experiencing the first rough seas of the trip. Nobody was at breakfast on time. However, the journey was definitely worth it for the glacial scenery we were greeted with at Vibebukta! The weather cleared, leaving nothing but blue skies, the perfect contrast to the huge ice shelf glacier with numerous waterfalls. Another dry landing on the beach followed by a hike onto the glacier for spectacular panoramic views. On the way back to the boat we drove really close to the waterfalls and saw the cracks in the ice, knowing the when that carves it is going to be an incredible sight!

After the glacier we headed to Bear Sound at Wilhem Island to see what wildlife we could find after dinner. We saw a lovely bearded seal who was very cooperative allowing us to get close enough for good photography. It was also nice to leave the seal in the same position we found it knowing we hadn't disturbed it.

The majority of the group stayed out for a late one this evening (not getting back to the ship until 1.30am!) Although there were not any more close encounters with wildlife to be had they saw two more polar bears and some Svalbard reindeer at a distance. One of the polar bears was collared and they saw a suckling den and tracks in the snow (both mother and cub) so it was thought she had a cub with her and that was the reason she disappeared behind the ridge. Continued north and found a male polar bear walking on the dolomite ridges with beautiful backlit lightings, but that one decided not to cooperate either, he walked over the ridge in search of bird eggs. 

Our luck in terms of sighting and weather has been absolutely ridiculous!! 

While we may not have seen 25 polar bears, the quality of the sightings are unbelievable and easily make up for quantity!

Day 6

Three zodiac excursions today. First to see a large colony of walrus on Wahlberg Island directly outside the ship – you could smell them from on board! Spent a few hours observing their behaviour as a group. 

Second island excursion was Gylden Island. Here we expected to find a lot more ice than there was so it was a little disappointing to find a lack of wildlife. Instead there were plenty of birds (more Arctic terns and snow buntings). 

Evening zodiac cruise more than made up for the lack of wildlife earlier in the day! We crossed the Hinlopen Strait towards the Brunnich's guillemot cliffs and as soon as we arrived Russ spotted a beluga in the water. It didn't hang around for long so most of us just saw a slightly raised bit of white out of the water but all the same we knew it was there. Not only did we find thousands of entertaining birds on the cliff edge but also saw an Arctic fox on the cliff edge and even a polar bear down by the waterside. The polar bear was on a mission along the water, getting in and out of the ocean when it came to impassible sections of rock/ice. It was very cooperative and seemed completely oblivious to our presence.

Day 7

This morning we were anchored up in the Fjord of Sorrows – an old Dutch whaling station where three French man of war ships arrived and killed a number of the Dutch. There was one cabin still standing on the island and some other remains. No wildlife to be seen but we did find plenty of bones and fur to know that wildlife had been here!

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Day 8

Overnight to Raud Fjorden where we took a zodiac out at 8:30 towards some more bird cliffs. We were lucky enough to spot a number of Arctic foxes too, including a blue fox!

After lunch and another journey we arrived at Magdalene Fjorden to climb up into a little auk colony. Not sure health and safety would approve of the climb but it was really amazing to sit among the rocks and have hundreds of birds flying overhead and landing nearby. 

On another nearby island in Magdalena Fjord there was another colony of walrus – a particularly stinky bunch!

Day 9

Quite a long journey overnight so most of us enjoyed an early night. We woke to wall to wall grey skies (the first one for us) so that was a shame. But when you've had as many sunny days as us I guess it's only fair.

Another hike today, fairly strenuous, up into another bird cliff. This one was home to a mix of kittiwakes and Brunnich's guillemots. We were able to sit really close to the edge of the bird cliffs and witness more amusing behaviour. On the way back down we spotted a couple of Svalbard reindeer who were fairly unphased by our presence. John had also seen another fox further along the coast so we got back into the zodiacs to go and watch. We stayed with the fox for quite a while and even though it was quite far away it was still good to watch it roam back and forth along the cliffs. We thought it might go for some of the birds but it didn't seem too bothered and just scavenged instead.

Back onto the ship for lunch followed by looking for bears, but to no avail. Instead we sailed further on Prins Karls Forland and headed out on the zodiacs to spend time with some harbour seals. They seem so awkward on land and even the smallest movement is so much effort, yet when they slip into the water they are much more elegant! 

Back on the ship now and I've just seen some walrus out the window from the bridge while writing this.

We're all looking forward to the much awaited cheese platter for dessert today!

last day in the arctic

As with the rest of this trip, the cheese platter certainly lived up to our expectations! The food throughout the whole trip has been delicious and we can't thank the chef, Peder and Gabriella enough for their hospitality.

For our final day in the Arctic we headed on land to have a nice long walk to see what we could find. It was thoroughly enjoyable to know we had hours to roam to island and were able to stop for as long as we wanted when we found some wildlife.

The first wildlife sighting was a joy: plenty of Svalbard reindeer milling around, nibbling on the grasses and flowers provided for them during the Arctic summer. It seemed almost sad that these tiny little flowers had probably spend months fighting to push up through the rugged, Arctic terrain only to be munched down in seconds by a hungry reindeer. However, the fact that the climate is allowing sustenance to continually grow for these beautiful creatures gives me comfort.

The reindeer seemed perfectly happy minding their own business grazing and wandering about the island. However, much to our (and their) dismay the Arctic skuas did not want them to relax. Out of the blue they decided to divebomb the reindeer heads and backs until the deer moved on. Perhaps the skua had young or eggs lying nearby, but as reindeer are herbivorous it seemed a bit unfair!

After spending time with the reindeer we moved on in search of Arctic fox. We watched a certain rocky outcrop for a while and then changed to another section of rocks in the hope of seeing our last Arctic wildlife sighting. Our luck was in! We spotted what we assumed was a female fox roaming around the rocks. She was very cooperative and allowed us to capture a number of photographs as she walked back and forth. At one stage, Mark saw some fox cubs hiding in the shelter of rocks, but they didn't feel brave enough to come out and play for the rest of us to see.

what a trip...

Seeing the reindeer and fox in such close proximity really finished off the expedition nicely. We have enjoyed numerous sightings, a huge variety of wildlife and blue skies and 15 degrees Celcius to boot! This Arctic safari has been unlike anything I have ever experienced before but is something that I couldn't recommend highly enough. 

The vastness of the landscapes, the unique wildlife, the knowledge of the guides, the incredible food... just everything was outstanding.

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