Day 8 |
Jul 23, 2013

At sea north of Spitsbergen

By Uli Kunz – Oceanographer and Zodiac-Driver

Co-ordinates: 81°01’ N, 19°24’ E
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: 1 °C, 33.8 °F
Pressure: 1013 hPa
Wind: 24 km/h

The early bear catches the seal! With small eyes, but equipped with big binoculars, I headed to the outer decks of the Silver Explorer at 7:00 in the morning. Together with the rest of the Expedition team, I was looking for white fluffy creatures on the sea ice that surrounded our ship. All our guests could have continued their well-deserved sleep, had it not been for the first polar bear of the day at precisely 7:35, discovered by our safety officer Alexandr. 

The available space on deck 6 forward soon became smaller and smaller with the amount of sleepy people rushing out, as we slowly approached the bear that seemed to be sleeping. The remains of a seal could be seen on a nearby ice floe, so that bear obviously had just finished his meal and definitely was already dreaming his sweetest dreams with a full stomach. I guess he was very much surprised when he just lifted his head for a couple of seconds and saw a giant blue-and-white monster made of steel that suddenly blocked his view. He did a funny double-take, stood up and showed a curious behaviour, as he might have been attracted by the smell of our galley in the back of the ship. He jumped from one floe to the next and approached the ship, but as we were still surrounded by open water, he slowly lost interest because he was not in the mood for a decent swim to his next meal. We left him alone and continued our ice cruise. 
The Silver Explorer soon crossed 81° North, the furthest north the ship has been in that Arctic season. A reason to celebrate…and a reason to offer the Polar Plunge! I am still not sure about the exact reason why people do it, but it seems a favourite activity on the ship to put on a bathing suit in the middle of the Arctic Ocean and jump head first into the water with a temperature around freezing point. Most likely because it is actually big fun...
My colleague Juan and I were in charge of the Zodiac boat that was attached to the side gate and that was used as a platform for our brave Polar Plungers. It is always very entertaining to see faces of the Polar Plungers once they emerge again from the painful bath in the freezing water!
Our lunch was interrupted by the sighting of another polar bear, who was not that cooperative this time. He swam away from the ship and was obviously not interested in our presence. It is always breathtaking to observe those creatures in their natural environment. It gives everybody an idea how well adapted polar bears have to be to survive in such a place that shows some of the harshest conditions for life on Earth.
In the afternoon, our guests had the choice to either watch our historian Peter's lecture about the various attempts to reach the North Pole or to go into the observation lounge to listen to Hans-Peter and learn more about the diversity of life on Planet Earth. I suppose most of our German speaking guests went for the latter as the lecture was given in German. 
Our daily recap and briefing took place a little earlier than normal, as we wanted to give our guests the chance for another, additional landing on our way back to the island of Spitsbergen. Lagøya, a low island to the north of the Hinlopenstrait, is home to a certain number of Walrus that find good feeding grounds on the shallow seafloor just off the coast. The amount of Walrus we had seen during the cruise so far was not impressive so we were positively surprised to see so many on the beach. At least 80 honking and burping sausages were lying in the sand very close to each other and a bunch of them were pretty active in the water too. They seemed to be less skittish than the ones we saw in Torellneset so all guests enjoyed a closer look and had a great time watching those freaks of nature lolling around. 
I was waiting in my Zodiac on the landing site when suddenly a group of about ten walrus came closer to the beach to find out what we were and what on earth we were doing in their territory. Within ten seconds, the two boats on shore were surrounded by walrus and I found myself face to face with an adult walrus that suspiciously eyed me from a distance of about two meters. My 300mm tele lens suddenly turned out to be the wrong choice and all I could do was start taking pictures of walrus eyes, walrus whiskers and walrus lips. A great way to end a good day in the High Arctic.