Day 15 |
Jun 19, 2010

Svalbard, Ice Cruising Along The East Coast

By Victoria Salem, Historian

Co-ordinates: 76°51’N – 019°18’E (Noon position)

Weather:  Sunshine, blue skies, no wind

Air temperature: +2°C

We reached the ice edge at about 6am. Many guests were up already, eager to catch a first glimpse of truly Arctic conditions. I woke to the wonderful sound of the Prince Albert II hitting ice, nosing small floes aside as we made our way as deep into the ice as we dared. By the time I had breakfasted and dressed to spend a day out on deck, the foredeck had been opened to increase viewing space and allow us great views of the ship “ice-breaking”. There were fulmars flying around us, reflected in open patches of sea and blazing sunshine set the ice sparkling. Beneath the surface it was possible to watch the sea wearing away the ice into fantastical shapes. And from time to time we glimpsed bear tracks, encouraging us to continue scanning the horizon for a looming white shape.

Around 10am we approached our first bearded seal, calmly lolling on an ice floe, occasionally turning its beautiful whiskered face to gaze in our direction. During the course of the day we were lucky enough to encounter around six seals close up – huge beasts stretched out on the ice in the sun. Some slithered off into the sea when they finally worked out how big the Prince Albert II was, but even then they surfaced nearby repeatedly, eyeing us curiously and giving us a marvelous display of underwater acrobatics. It seems incredible that creatures so ungainly on top of the ice can be so streamlined underneath it, in their natural element.

We were treated to hot chocolate out on deck, which enabled many of us to stay outside longer than originally planned. I retired indoors to put on sunscreen at one point, as the intense sunlight reflecting off the ice soon burned the skin. A number of guests decided to multi-task, promenading around the outside of Deck 6 to get some exercise whilst simultaneously enjoying the stunning views and keeping an eye out for those elusive polar bears. Where there are seals there are bound to be bears sooner or later - so we happily passed the day in the ice, searching, searching…

A group of guests decided to seize the moment and make use of the on-deck whirpools. The outdoor bar was open, so glass in hand, swimsuit-clad, in they went – only to leap out again fast with cries of “too hot, too hot”! Soon they evolved a system of a few minutes’ immersion followed by time out in the other, cooler Jacuzzi or on deck, thus enabling them to prolong their unusual experience in this remote and icy location. Other guests looked on from the comfort of sun-loungers – bodies wrapped in blankets, hats on heads and a book in their hands; not the normal beach scene, but enormous fun, especially on such a glorious day.

About 5pm the decision was made to withdraw from the ice and start our journey round the southern point of Svalbard, towards Hornsund and tomorrow’s designated landing spot at Gashamnar. We were soon out into open water, having spent a great day ice-cruising, though still hopefully on the look-out for polar bears. Chris Cutler spotted an ivory gull, causing great excitement, especially among the birding fraternity.

We gathered at 6.45pm for our usual Recap & Briefing slot. Kara kicked it off with some words on bearded seals, and was then followed by Rocky on the physics of mirages and the fata morgana. I spoke on Svalbard whaling techniques and the historic uses of whale oil and baleen, after which Robin gave us a briefing on tomorrow’s planned activities - including a landing, a Zodiac cruise and the much-anticipated polar plunge.