Day 16 |
Jun 20, 2010

Ice Cruising In Hornsund, Spitzbergen, Svalbard

By Peter W. Damisch, General Naturalist & Cartographer

Coordinates: 76° 59'N and 16° 34’E

Weather: Blue skies, then overcast with just a slight touch of snow

Air Temperature: +0o C (32o F)

Wind: 50 Km / hour

Pressure: 1013 Hpa

We had a day with just about everything. I awoke quite early at 0530 in order to provide additional assistance on the Bridge with the rest of the Expedition Team as we kept a sharp eye out for wildlife. This is something that we always do and a process that extends throughout each day. Of course it is easy to sleep with the drapes closed over the window at this very high latitude. However, with 24 hour ‘midnight sun’, it is also relatively easy to wake up as soon as you open those curtains!

Upon reaching the Bridge I discovered that, as planned, we were just outside Hornsund, which is a deep embayment on the Southwestern coast of Spitzbergen, the largest island in Svalbard. While proceeding towards our first major activity of the morning, we spotted some reindeer lounging on the side of a snow-covered mountain. Naturally, the Expedition Leader and Captain conferred and the ship diverted from its projected course such that we could achieve a closer look at these magnificent animals.

The Prince Albert II then proceeded towards our anchorage at Gashamna where we began Zodiac operations to support our first landing in Svalbard. The set up process is somewhat extensive as we send out Zodiacs in opposite directions to conduct a thorough scouting of the area. I was asked to proceed in one direction, first dropping off one of our Polar Bear Guards on a small beach just east of our landing site. He and his partner, in conjunction with the remainder of the Expedition Staff, established a safety perimeter around our landing exploration area. I then continued on for another 30 minutes or so, stopping periodically to scan the snow-covered ridgelines for any signs of polar bears or other animals before turning back to the ship to pick up the first guests scheduled to come ashore. During this time I did consider that between our location and the North Pole there are less than 3,000 people and most of them live in Longyearbyen, our final destination of the voyage.

Gashamna is a wonderful location surrounded by towering mountains. There are an excellent variety of opportunities for people to learn and explore. Two of our historians were positioned to give interpretation near the remains of one old sealing hut and the foundations of buildings formerly utilized to pursue whaling. This location was also the site of an extensive Russian scientific expedition at the turn of the 20th century.

Our marine mammal expert was sited next to a series of bowhead whale bones and answered questions about these magnificent creatures and the results of past whaling. Our ornithologist found the nesting area of an Arctic Tern and was discussing this beautiful long-distance flyer when the nest was attacked by an Arctic fox, resulting in somewhat of a standoff battle that lasted over one hour. Of course people also took the time to explore on their own, hiking across snow and simply admiring the remote and rugged beauty of Gashamna.

During the lunch hour, the Prince Albert II proceeded to the north towards a twin-pronged bay called Burgerbukta. We were somewhat surprised to find a great deal more fast ice than had been anticipated. However, this was not a problem for the Prince Albert II, which is an Ice Class IA vessel. We proceeded some distance into the ice and almost everyone kept snapping photographs of both the ice as well as the numerous glaciers that tumbled into the sea all around the ship. In addition, the bird life was simply fabulous with many Guillemots and Kittiwakes as well as an Arctic Skua or two along with several other species.

During this cruise along and through the ice, Stefan, one of our onboard Geologists gave an outstanding presentation titled ‘From the Snow Flake to the Ice Age’. This gave everyone the opportunity to learn more about and ask questions about the geological phenomena that were literally occurring just outside our windows.

Our next surprise in the day occurred just after the completion of the presentation, which was just about perfect timing. While the Prince Albert II was cruising along the edge of the sea ice, a Walrus was spotted just ahead of the ship. With almost everyone out on the outer deck, the Walrus provided a long 30-minute encounter, alternating between the water surface and shallow diving but continuing along the ice edge with just perfect displays of the large body, big tusks and wide tail. It was simply one of the best encounters that you could ever hope for!

Of course our time in the Arctic would not be complete unless we offered the famous ‘Polar Plunge’. Yes, a number of guests stepped forward to jump or dive into the Arctic waters in this lovely area surrounded by tall, awe-inspiring and snow-covered mountains interspersed with frequent glaciers. The Expedition Team and the ship’s excellent crew set up the operation alongside the ship. By this time there were just a few snow flurries flying through the air. Nevertheless, a few hardy souls plunged in accompanied by the cheers of their shipmates. All participants pulled themselves back out of the water with a smile on their face but also rather quickly as well!

Next on our busy schedule was the Captain’s farewell reception. It seems almost impossible to believe that over 2 weeks ago we started in a different country and completely different climate. We’ve been so fortunate to have seen so much during this short time on board. Yet the voyage is not quite done and everyone is looking forward to our full schedule of activities planned for tomorrow, which should occur at two new and different locations in the wonderfully remote and starkly beautiful Svalbard.