Day 5 |
Jul 07, 2011

Ingebrigtsenbukta, Bellsund, Spitsbergen, Svalbard

By Peter W. Damisch – Historian, General Naturalist, Cartographer & Polar Bear Guard

Co-ordinates: 77o 33’ S, 015o 05’ E
Weather: Overcast and misty but with very little wind
Air Temperature: 4o C / 39 o F
Pressure: 1005 HPa
Wind: 20 km / hour

Today was thoroughly great with a combination of history, marine mammals, geology and Arctic vegetation. Each day of the voyage is nominally planned to provide a variety of activities that allow everyone to observe many different, fascinating aspects of this very beautiful and unusual Arctic environment. We are still heading north but are already so far above the Arctic Circle that there are only just a few hundred people currently working or living between our current position and the North Pole.

Of course flexibility is one hallmark of Silversea Expeditions where all plans can immediately go out the window such as was done yesterday to take advantage of something like our wonderful encounter with the polar bear. Even so, we were still able to conduct the planned Zodiac glacier cruise in Burgerbukta along with a landing on a glacial outflow plane further to the west in Hornsund. Now we are heading north in hopes of exploiting an unexpected opening in the sea ice, which we hope will provide a greater chance of observing polar bears, walrus and seals along the edge of ice along the northern reaches of Svalbard, something not usually possible at this time of the year.

Overnight the ship had relocated to Bellsund, named in 1610 after a bell-shaped mountain in the region. I found myself on the Bridge quite early in the morning along with the Captain, bridge team and my three colleagues who also serve as polar bear guards. Everyone carefully observes the shoreline as the Silver Explorer approaches the landing site. In this manner we can take the first steps to ensure that we do not have a polar bear in the area. We are quite happy to observe polar bears from the ship or during a Zodiac cruise, but never while ashore at the landing site. Soon enough we were able to certify the first level of safety and soon I picked up my rifle from the ship’s armory, then ammunition from the ship’s Security Officer and then the rifle’s bolt from Carolina, who along with Chris, serve as our senior and most experienced Polar Bear Guards.

Soon we are in the Zodiac and are rapidly approaching the beach at Ingebrigtsenbukta in Bellsund. This site is quite famous as it has the skeleton remains of almost 500 beluga whales that were hunted and processed at this site in the early 20th century. These are toothed whales of relatively small size, which initially allowed them escape the early attention of whalers. Kara, our resident biologist, gave us a superb overview of the physiology and behaviour of these beautiful animals. We could also compare the skeleton with our memories of the live belugas that we saw yesterday just off the glacier face in Burgerbukta.

In addition to our other responsibilities, one of the advantages of serving as a Polar Bear Guard is that each of us fans out from the landing site to establish a secure perimeter. This entails additional careful study of the surrounding mountainsides, smaller hills and Arctic tundra plain for any signs of the great ‘ice bear’. It’s nice to have some time out in this beautiful landscape and I use my binoculars to carefully view unusual rocks along with snow patches and other areas for any signs of this magnificent animal, but fortunately for the continuation of the landing, no Polar Bears can be seen.

Other Expedition Team members are carrying flare guns and flare pins for defensive purposes but our primary methodology to avoid bear confrontations is to evacuate the land if necessary and conduct all of our appreciation from Zodiacs or the ship. Once the safety of the landing site is initially secured, our Senior Bear Guards maintain the perimeter and I return to the landing site to serve as a guide for our first group of guests that are just now coming ashore.

Another term that we sometimes use for this landing site is ‘Bamsebu’, which is the name carved over the old hut that was previously used by trappers of Arctic fox as well as the whalers who operated along the beach. The structure is solidly constructed with reinforcements of large tree trunks, which were likely salvaged as driftwood in this treeless environment, from trees that had floated down rivers in Siberia before being carried to Svalbard by the circumpolar currents. I am always amazed and amused when I view the hut as it has a steel plate for a door along with large nails sticking out from the window covers, all designed to keep those hungry polar bears away while you might be sleeping inside. Fortunately the old ‘convenience’ (with a heart carved over the door) is just outside so one did not have to travel very far in the middle of the night should the need arise.

Farther down the beach is another storage hut along with an overturned boat that was utilized as a food and equipment storage area in the olden days. This site gave me a chance to discuss and answer questions about the lifestyle of the people who lived in such a beautiful but remote environment. In the distance we could also see a small shelter that was used as a lookout point for people looking for the white beluga whales swimming in the bay.

Fortunately the ground was dry enough to allow us to hike across to a nearby bay. Along the way we had simply great views of snow buntings, purple sandpipers and Arctic skuas. The first two are somewhat rare so I was quite pleased that we were lucky enough to observe these beautiful creatures and discuss their feeding and nesting behaviors.

Unlike yesterday, we did not spot any reindeer. However we did observe many droppings across the Arctic plain along with a set of antlers that had been shed. This allowed me to convey some information regarding the ‘lifestyle’ of these large animals along with some observations made by my wife and myself when we were previously river rafting in the high Arctic.

Walking across the sometimes-spongy surface that overlays permafrost, we were also able to take a close look at the surprisingly large number of plant species that inhabit this cold region. Many different plants are represented, including yellow, purple and tufted saxifrage along with moss campion and dwarf willow. It is truly amazing that plants can eke out an existence in such a difficult environment. In fact I pointed out that very small differences in ground moisture and salt content make correspondingly large changes in plant density in the tundra that we were hiking across.

In addition to my discussions regarding the geology of the area, we also stopped by to see Juan, our expert onboard geologist, who gave us additional great information about ice wedges, frost heaves and ‘troll bread’ – all very unusual results of the freeze / thaw cycle that we see in this northern area of the Earth. These cycles actually move materials over time and their effects can clearly be seen across the land surface. The results are also one component that directly affects the plants’ adaptability to the soil.

From history and marine biology to bird life, vegetation and geology, it’s clear that this Spitsbergen landing site is one of many that provide a large variety of interest. This is just one of many reasons why I so much enjoy voyaging in remote areas like this. There is always something to attract your attention.

My time back on board the ship in the afternoon was utilized to attend Kara’s presentation on the behavior and life cycle of the polar bear. This apex predator of the Arctic is a major driver of much animal behavior in the area including seals and birds, as they try to avoid becoming the next meal.

Tonight we also held our special Venetian Society reception and dinner. We have a large number of repeat guests on board, including many with whom I have sailed with before, especially in the Antarctic. Many of these people have literally cruised hundreds of days on board Silversea ships and it is great fun to renew old acquaintances along with meeting new friends. We had dinner while watching the snow and ice-covered mountains of Svalbard pass by while illuminated by the light of the Midnight Sun. Tomorrow we’re hoping for another great day!