During the early hours of the morning the Prince Albert II dropped anchor just off the coast of Kvitøya (White Island), the most easterly island in the Svalbard archipelago.
With ninety-nine percent of this approximately 700-sq-km island covered by the ice cap Kvitøykøkulen, the options for landing, if there are no polar bears, are limited. However just having an opportunity to attempt a landing is a rare thing.
Our decision to attempt a landing had been made last night while Captain Aleksander Golubev and our Expedition Leader, Robin West, studied the newest ice chart. Before pushing on we would take advantage of the ice-free waters east of our current position. Our exact plan of attack, Andréeneset.
Named for Salomon August Andrée who in 1897, with two companions, arrived on Kvitøya after their balloon Örnen (“Eagle”) crashed onto the ice after a failed attempt to reach the North Pole. It wasn’t until 1930, after several rescue attempts during the subsequent years, that by chance a Norwegian expedition heading for Franz Josef Land made a landing on Kvitøya. Today a memorial to the Andrée expedition honors the three men.
Arriving on the Bridge at 0600, I was greeted by the officer of the watch, our safety officer and by able body seaman John. They informed me that they had spotted two polar bears onshore only a few hours before. With a quick scan along the shore the bears were confirmed and our plans were canceled.
Making a few adjustments, we dropped the Zodiacs and were off on tour by 0800. Straight away it was evident that our change of plans was for the better. Just along shore we found fifteen to twenty female walrus hauled out with several calves along with ten to fifteen in the water.
These sightings, ones you so rarely see, were worth the bumpy and slightly wet ride it took to get to them. To observe these female groups with calves out in these eastern waters that are almost always dense with pack ice, was extraordinary. Usually the chance of having the fantastic views we had today are slim to none.
With smiles on everyone’s faces we returned to the Prince Albert II just in time to join Christian Walter in The Theatre for his lecture ‘Exploration of the Arctic by Air’. Diving deeper into the story of Andrée as well as speaking of Noble, Amundsen and Ellsworth among many others, Christian captivated everyone in attendance with these amazing tales of early exploration.
As Christian gave his lecture, Captain Aleksander pointed the Prince Albert II back in a northerly direction for an afternoon of ice cruising before we would head south and under Nordaustland. With all eyes trained on the ice we searched for polar bears. As the afternoon wore on it seemed as though maybe we wouldn’t see one, until there in my binoculars appeared an off-white shape in the distance!
Informing the Captain of its location, he turned to make an approach. With a good amount of ice and several miles still between us, we kept an eye on the bear so as not to lose him. Once we were within half a mile it seemed as though it would not be interested in us as we drifted alongside a floe.
Suddenly, as if by design, it turned from what it was doing, sniffed the air and started to walk towards us. Within minutes it was standing some twenty meters from the Prince Albert II, so curious by nature. We had truly stumbled upon a fantastic sighting. As quickly as his interest in us had appeared, it vanished. After a few minutes of inspection it was evident we were not its next meal and with that it turned its back and moved on. There was not a face onboard without an ear-to-ear grin.
Gaining some distance between us and the bear, the Prince Albert II came to a stop amongst some ice floes. It was time for the Polar Plunge! Zodiacs were lowered and announcements were made encouraging a swim. Unfortunately there were only a few takers but those on deck to watch cheered them on with great enthusiasm. After our guests had taken their turn several of the crew had their chance before Captain Aleksander took the plunge to wild cheers from the spectators above!
With that it was time to close the distance between the amazing 24 hrs we had experienced in this part of Svalbard and our activities for tomorrow. Taking us in a southerly direction, the Prince Albert II pushed through a few last large floes of ice before picking up steam and moving us on.