Day 6 |
Jul 28, 2011

Hinlopen Strait between Spitsbergen and Nordaustland, Svalbard, Norway

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

Co-ordinates: 79o 22’ S, 020o 41’ E
Weather: Brilliant Sunshine all day (and night) with virtually no wind
Air Temperature: 6o C / 43 o F
Pressure: 1017 HPa
Wind: 5 km / hour

The weather all day was simply perfect. It doesn’t happen as often as we would like but we had a combination of things that make for meteorological happiness in the Far North: 24 hours of sunshine with no cloud cover, almost no wind or wind chill, the lightest possible winds and nearly unlimited visibility.

Of course the Silver Explorer always tries to take advantage of every possible opportunity and today was no exception. I started out the morning with my Expedition Team Mates out on deck as the ship conducted ‘ice cruising’. This part of the voyage allows us to cover a great deal of ground while looking for wildlife that live on and amongst the ice floes, something that simply cannot be observed from land. As an added bonus we could also enjoy the great weather!

Soon enough the combined efforts of many Expedition Team eyes looking through many pairs of binoculars rewarded us with our first of many sightings of Bearded Seals. These pinnipeds are a particular favorite of mine, perhaps because their whiskers seem to mimic my facial hair! Actually these animals can be found resting on the ice but always close to an escape path in case a polar bear comes by. Thus they can be quite ‘nervous’ when approached but our experienced bridge team and outstanding Captain were able to carefully and quietly maneuver the ship to close proximity with everyone on deck also cooperating by keeping conversations muffled with just a large number of camera clicks.

During much of the day the seawater in the Hinlopen strait was mirror calm. With the bright sun overhead, it was also possible to follow the underwater movements of both seals and Guillemots, watching their graceful movements as the ‘fly’ in a different medium than air.

One other fascinating aspect of ice cruising that never gets old for me is to watch the ship press forward into ice floes. There is a ‘thud’ against the hull, then cracks begin to radiate out in all directions. In some cases I commented that it was almost like being able to watch something like the Earth’s global plate tectonics but on a smaller scale. The cracks start small, then grow and move with liquid water bubbling up thus allowing the ship to slowly but safely move forward. Having a 1A ice rating is a tremendous advantage for the Silver Explorer, allowing us to travel to unique locations not available to most other ships.

Our next success was being able to spot one single, then a triplet of walrus that were also hauled out onto the ice. These are the largest pinnipeds in the Svalbard archipelago with both male and females having the characteristic twin tusks. Their ivory were so highly prized in past history that unfortunately they were almost hunted to extinction. However, now all are under full protection by the Norwegian government and these wonderful animals are slowly trying to make comeback.

Once again I watched from our observation area on Deck 6, forward as the ship was brought relatively close to these three magnificent creatures. They too are normally quite shy but again the ship was maneuvered so superbly that all they did was to slowly raise their tusked heads, take one sleepy look at us and then lay down again, undisturbed on the ice. As usual, myself and the other experienced Expedition Team members provided interpretation of all birds and mammals observed this day as well as answering a wide variety of questions about animal behavior.

Just before midday I took a brief break to walk back onto our aft deck where the Hotel Department had also taken advantage of the weather to serve drinks and Italian paninis outside in the sun, in part to honor the Italian heritage shared by many of our guests on board this voyage.

Even after such a great start, the day still got better. In the early afternoon one of our Polar Bear Guards spotted a female adult bear and two small cubs walking across the ice. We know that the adult was female since she takes care of all nurturing for the cubs with no participation by the male. All three were in good condition, well nourished and quite active. They moved slowly but continuously from one ice flow to another, occasionally jumping into the water to make a short swim. One cub seemed a bit more curious and often lagged behind his mother as he or she briefly stopped to investigate something interesting along the way. We followed this wonderful behavior for quite some time before they wandered off beyond the reach of the ship.

Earlier in the day we had observed about 20 walrus hauled out on a sand spit at Torellneset. In the true spirit of expedition cruising the Expedition Leader made a quick decision to add an unplanned landing to our day’s itinerary and take advantage of both the weather as well as the animals. With little warning I made my way to the ship’s armory to pick up my high-powered rifle, necessary to conduct my duties as a Polar Bear Guard.

This afternoon the three Bear Guards established a safe perimeter along with other Expedition Team members who carry flare guns and / or flare pins. Guests could then come ashore in both safety and small numbers to enjoy a close encounter with about 20 members of a species that is both very beautiful as well as very rare to be observed in the wild. We even were able to observe several more walrus in the iceberg-studded waters just offshore. In the sunshine, many pieces of ice just glistened like so many pieces of crystal.

After more than three hours ashore, the time available unfortunately began to run out and it was time to travel back to the ship by Zodiac. Everyone agreed that the day was absolutely spectacular and we all are looking forward to the adventures and wonders that we will be able to see and participate in tomorrow.