Day 5 |
Jul 16, 2008

Cruise & Explore Svalbard

By Chris Srigley, General Naturalist

Morning: At sea

Position 0800: 78° 33.799' N 022° 52.831' E

Afternoon: At sea, in the ice

It seemed after all we had seen over the last few days - Polar Bears, Arctic Fox, Walrus plus great weather, just to name a few - that the fog which descended on us as we dropped anchor last night was a sign of a change in the wind. As we awoke this morning however, this was not the case. Although it was overcast, the fog from last night had lifted and we were left with what can only be described as a greasy, calm sea. Not a ripple to be found less the wake, which we left in our path. Raising the anchor in the early hours of morning, we headed off in a north-northeast direction.

Again, the ice had moved as we were left with clear sailing until just before 0800 when it reappeared in front of us, and along with it Polar Bear swimming off of our Starboard side.

As we pushed into the ice, those whom may have been sleeping still would not be for long. This ice was not much of a challenge for our ice class Prince Albert II abilities. So in no time we again were through and into open water, with scattered bits of what we had been told, was multi-year ice. This couldn't have worked out any better since just as we cleared the ice it was time for Dr. Claudia Holgate to give her lecture "Weather and Climate of the Arctic". Attended by most, this lecture was very intriguing. You can bet that those of us who may not be convinced about global warming have walked away with some food for thought.

Once again it seemed that the saying "timing is everything" was the quote of the day. Claudia had barely finished when we worked our way back into the ice, having changed our course form north by northeast to east. Our plans had changed once again. Rather than our initial thought of heading for Nordaustland, our expedition staff had decided we would work our way towards a group of Islands called Kong Karls Land. This group of islands, which consists of Svenksoya, Kongsoya and Abeloya, is part of the Nordaust Svalbard Nature Reserve. They enjoy special protection because of their importance for the regional Polar Bear population: there is a year-round ban on all traffic within 500 metres of the nearest part of the shoreline, which includes even the smallest rock above water. This biological importance comes from the island groups' high density of Polar Bear dens, with the highest density on one island being 10 dens per square kilometre. Most recently, a team from the BBC was onshore here for to film portions of their series, Planet Earth. These people were the first humans to set foot on these islands in twenty-five years.

Another hour and we were back in a thick fog. Our expedition staff and bear rangers were scanning what they could of the ice for bears. During this search they were able to spot Bearded, Ringed and Harp Seals, along with three King Eiders that flew past. King Eiders are always something special to see. The afternoon passed along with no more than the anticipation of a lecture from our resident geologist, Juan Carlos Restrepo. As we gathered, Juan dimmed the lights and began, “Glacier Ice”. With his second slide up on the screen and half a sentence out of his mouth, “Glacier Ice is the…” BING BONG!!!!!!!!! “Ladies and gentleman, a very good afternoon to you all. We would just like to encourage you to join us on the outside decks, we have spotted another Polar Bear”. With that Juan was left standing at the front of The Theatre wondering what had just happened!

Gathering on the upper decks, expedition staff did their best to point us in the right direction, a sleeping Polar Bear some kilometre away, a small speck. With that however, our Expedition Leader, Conrad Combrink, decided to lower our Zodiacs and begin a Zodiac cruise. Which, in the end, offered us what may have been the experience of a lifetime. As we set off from the Prince Albert II in the Zodiacs, a thick fogged enveloped us, making finding the bear from water level next to impossible. With this in mind, Professor Tony Huntley, our marine mammalogist, volunteered to head back onboard the Prince Albert II to direct us from the bridge as visibility allowed. At first it took us some time, but alas Isbjorn was once again located, and we pushed the Zodiacs up against the ice for viewing. At this time we were still a distance way, with the Polar Bear lying on the ice motionless. Enter the hotel department in their own Zodiac, cruising around serving us all champagne and chocolate covered strawberries, for a fleeting moment Polar Bears were forgotten.

As our attention returned to the Polar Bear, Tony came over the radios, “all staff, all staff, we have a second polar bear on the ice floe. A second bear heading for the first”. With that, we scanned. As the second bear approached, the first stood and headed away, ending what we thought might be a meeting of the two. Our second bear cruised the ice, lifting his head and smelling the air. As it continued on, we thought it might approach us. Sadly, just as it looked like this was to happen, it turned around and headed away. Our hopes were dashed, until the first bear took a turn and made its way directly to the ice edge in front of us!! Several Zodiacs needed to retreat from their position to relative safety. For the next hour plus we enjoyed this young Polar Bear’s curiosity. It would lie at the water’s edge looking at us before moving along to another place to do the same. I think that everyone’s cheeks will be sore tomorrow from the size of the smiles we had.

After yesterday’s experience we had wondered how it could get any better. Now we know.