Weather: Clear and sunny with outstanding visibility
Air Temperature: 4ºC
Pressure: 1011 hPa
Wind: 8 knots
Early this morning found me on the bridge as the ship completed its transit of Freemansund, the beautiful and narrow, East-West channel between Barentsoya and Edgeoya. These starkly beautiful islands lay East from the main island of Spitsbergen. As such they are much less frequently visited and thus today provides us with a marvelous opportunity to observe a very remote landscape in the Arctic.
Our first landing came a bit early as we have planned an afternoon landing at a location which requires us to approach at only high tide and that timing drives the rest of our day. Kapp Lee is one of my favorite locations as it offers an incredibly diverse set of options for our exploration.
Our first very pleasant surprise could be seen from the ship as we approached. We could see several walrus lounging in the shallow waters just offshore. These magnificent creatures have been missing from this location for many years even though they had been here in large numbers in long prior years. It was great to see that they may, just possibly, be starting to re-colonize the area.
While driving in by Zodiac towards a vegetated plain beneath a line of towering snow capped mountains, we could already see a number of reindeer grazing along the nearby slopes. Once ashore we established our standard polar bear security perimeter, then signaled the Silver Explorer that it was safe to begin guest operations. During this time frame one of the walrus hauled himself out onto the beach as we had organized our landing to ensure that we provided no hindrance to just such an expected behavior. Several other young males also swam over to inspect some of our anchored Zodiacs!
The leaders of our guided walk ashore have multiple options to consider. There is a very large walrus bone ‘graveyard’ which remains from the historical days of exploiting these animals for only their ivory tusks starting in the 1600’s.
In addition, numerous ice wedge formation can be found in the patterned ground which lies just above the permafrost layer. These structures are unique geological features of the high Arctic.
Of course this time of year also offers a wide variety of flowering plant life ranging from Svalbard Poppy to Mountain Avens as well as ‘Mouse Ear’.
My location as one of the four long barrel polar bear guards was just above the walrus haul out area in amongst a series of three historic trappers hut. There is also a foundation of an older structure and this site also contains archeological remains dating back to Pomor activity in the 1600’s. This is one of the oldest human inhabited sites in all of Svalbard.
The Pomors were nomadic sea faring trappers and traders whose primary base of operation were in the Northwest Siberian Arctic. I was able to chat a bit about their history of walrus hunting which operated in a very similar manner to current day ivory trading in other parts of the world.
The existing huts date back to the 19th and 20th century and were more focused on the hunting of Polar Bear, Arctic Fox and Reindeer. Fortunately Walrus and Polar Bear were protected by law in 1952 and 1973 respectively but not before the population had been drawn down to near extinction. Now the walrus numbers are increasing but polar bears remain under threat due to the reduction of sea ice which contains their primary food supply, seals.
Just before departure Juan and myself both spotted two different small pods of beluga whales in the distance offshore as we continued to scan the area for potential polar bears. These relatively small whales are about three meters / ten feet in length and are not often observed which made this sighting quite a treat. They are an off white color which usually blends in with sea ice but the lack of such material in the water gave us a chance to see these beautiful animals but only at some distance away.
All too soon it was time to leave this lovely place in continuing sunshine and return back to the ship by Zodiac. Quite soon the anchor was up and we were on our way to Diskobukta for the afternoon where we planned to offer both short and long hikes towards, above and into ‘Kittiwake Canyon’, home for tens of thousands of nesting birds and their chicks.
During the late morning Christian Walter, gave a great presentation which reviewed many of the very earliest people who braved the cold and unknown dangers to explore these new areas of the high Arctic. Imagine trying to push through the ice in small wooden boats while wearing only wool and oil skins. In addition, you didn’t know where you were going or even if you would be able to return home safely. They must have been remarkable and daring individuals.
As usually the primary polar bear guards, Chris and Karolina, were up on the bridge as we approached our afternoon landing site. This is part of our extensive set of safety procedures to ensure protection against potential polar bears. This includes Zodiac scouting of the shore side as well as hiking across the landing site with the team before any guests come ashore.
In this case they saw a polar bear in the water swimming directly towards our landing site. Animal protection guidelines prevent us from approaching any bear in the water for their own safety. However, we hoped and expected that the polar bear would soon exit the water and head into the canyon to feed on the birds and either chicks or eggs.
Thus we launched our Zodiacs near the ship at several kilometers distance from the bear and by the time this had occurred the bear had done just as we anticipated. Soon we were off with guests to observe the bear from the safety of our Zodiacs as the bear started moving towards its next meal.
I was waiting for one specific action and was not disappointed. Polar bears pick up salt contamination on their fur during any swim. Soon after they will soon roll across the ground or ice to remove this material to improve their fur’s insulator capacity and just as I was describing this behavior, the huge polar bear begin to roll about just like a child.
Observing this marvelous polar bear was unplanned and unexpected but that is one of the joys of expedition cruising. Yes, we had to give up on a hike but only to have another opportunity to observe, first hand, some of the true wonders and beauty of Svalbard.
There were only a few last things to do in order to cap off this spectacular day. More than two dozen of our hardy guests on board braved the frigid waters of the Arctic for our traditional ‘Polar Plunge’ which was observed and filmed by all. A recap and briefing for covering tomorrow’s plans came to pass just before our formal Venetian Society dinner, another Silversea tradition to celebrate being in one of the most incredible locations on Earth.