Co-ordinates: 79°’33’N – 012°26’E (Noon position)
Weather: Sunny & calm start, overcast & windy later
Air temperature: +8°C
Our wake-up call came a little earlier than expected, at 6.50am – “Good morning – we have a polar bear on the ice straight ahead of the ship” came Robin’s announcement. We scrambled from our beds, grabbed warm clothes and were soon out on deck with our binoculars and cameras. Incredibly, there was a large, fat, healthy bear on an ice floe directly in front of the ship and s/he was just finishing breakfasting on a seal! As our captain inched the Prince Albert II forwards cautiously, stopping a good distance away so as not to disturb the bear, we were privileged to see this glossy animal dive into the ocean and swim around the ship (having eaten its fill), curiously staring at us the entire time.
Before we ourselves headed for breakfast, we were able to take in the sight of beautiful Liefdefjord all around us, which is part of the Northwest Spitsbergen National Park. Views of glaciers and ice-capped mountain peaks were spectacular. By 7.45am we were positioned right in front of Monacobreen, the Monaco glacier. This was particularly appropriate for all of us sailing on Prince Albert II, since this glacier was named after Prince Albert I of Monaco, who took a serious interest in science and sponsored expeditions to Spitsbergen in 1906 and 1907. We very much wanted to take a closer look and were able to enjoy two spectacular Zodiac cruises along the glacier front, at 8am and 10am respectively.
Having supervised embarkation of both groups at the side-gate, I hopped into the last Zodiac and was able to experience first-hand what returning guests had already described to me. There had been an especially massive calving during the first cruise, around a cave area near the join between the two glaciers we could see spread before us – Monacobreen and Seligerbreen. During the second cruise too, we had a lot of smaller calvings, all of them followed by the splintering and crashing sound of the ice front, the noise reaching us just after it had collapsed vertically into the sea. Even when no activity could be seen, the glaciers emitted sounds like gunshots, contributing in no small part to the atmospheric beauty of this remote spot.
It was as if we were on a different planet – so it was all the more of a contrast to tie up next to the “hospitality” Zodiac, driven by the Captain and manned by members of Prince Albert II’s hotel department. Magnificent scenery lay all around us as we sipped glasses of champagne and munched on strawberries dipped in chocolate and other sweet treats. With a big “thank you”, we then moved on to glide past blue ice caves and massive ice pillars, standing poised ready to tumble at any moment as more glacier ice pushed from behind in its downward flow to the sea.
Another special experience was the number of birds we spotted – clouds of hundreds (and probably thousands) of swirling kittiwakes and diving Arctic terns, feeding on the nutrients surging out from beneath the glacier face, via melt-water streams. And our sightings included quality as well as quantity – our Zodiac drivers helped us spot skuas, a few rare and beautiful ivory gulls and even the extremely unusual sight of a Sabine’s gull, which certainly put a grin on Chris Srigley’s (naturalist) face for the rest of the day.
Shortly after the return of the second group to the ship, lunch was served in The Restaurant, accompanied by much animated conversation. There was time for a short siesta afterwards too, before our afternoon got under way. We were hoping to make a landing in the Andoyane island group, but were prevented by the presence of a large polar bear hiding on shore. Nothing daunted, out came the Zodiacs again and a scout party was sent to search for (more visible) bears whilst our Captain attempted to find a wind-free position for the ship; it was a challenge to create a lee so that guests could disembark, but we were finally able to set off for a thrilling 10-15 minute ride to the small island of Makeoyane.
It was now overcast and the wind was blowing at 35 knots, which made for a rough and wet trip; but that’s why we have waterproof clothing! Upon arrival, we were rewarded by the sight of a female bear and cub dozing just above the beach. Those of us who hung around long enough caught glimpses of movement; mum occasionally stretched out a huge paw, or raised her head lazily to sniff the air. Her small offspring was curled up beside her, but stood up from time to time to gaze wonderingly at our Zodiacs, before settling down to suckle a meal of warm milk.
We were all back on board by 5.30pm and most of us headed either straight for the hot whirlpools on deck or for a hot shower in our suites. Recap & Briefing began at 6.30pm, kicked off by Robin Aiello, our biologist, with a discussion of crevassed ice and comments on today’s bear sightings. She was followed by Chris Srigley to show a great photo to those of us who may not have seen the Sabine’s gull from this morning, then by Juan Carlos Restrepo (talking about permafrost) and Hans Peter Reinthaler (on the multitude of Arctic plants we saw yesterday). Finally, our Expedition Leader, Robin West, briefed us on tomorrow’s expected landing and Zodiac cruises, soon after which dinner was served.
For most of us an early night was planned – the last few days have been amazingly action-packed and who knows what tomorrow will bring?