Day 7 |
Jul 30, 2009

Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard

By Juan Carlos Restrepo, Geologist

Co-ordinates: N 80º 23.7’, E 018º 24’. The furthest north latitude for this voyage!

Weather: Overcast sky, rain and fog in the morning, and blue sunny skies in the afternoon.

Air Temperature: 1ºC

Pressure: 1009 hPa

Wind: A gentle breeze (7-10 knots) from the NW

Today the Prince Albert II went further north (N 80º 23.7’) than she had ever been and sailed into the thickest ice that she has ever sailed through. Big thanks to our Captain Alexander Golubev for an absolutely unforgettable day. 

The plan for this morning was a landing at Lagoya Island, which is part of the Nordaust-Svalbard Nature Reserve on the NW side of Nordaustlandet. This nature reserve is the most ‘High-Arctic’ part of Svalbard. The fjords are covered in ice, and pack-ice floats around the islands for most of the year. Glaciers cover large areas of the terrain. This is the kingdom of the polar bear and the walrus. It has been protected as a nature reserve since 1973. 

The ship’s crew had an early start. At 5 am, two boats set off in front of the ship. The first Zodiac was manned by our Staff Captain Mika Appel and our Expedition Leader Robin West. They went ahead of the ship, in thick fog, taking depth soundings of the poorly charted waters around Lagoya, making sure that the ship could safely sail closer to the island.

In the second boat were Chris Srigley and our two bear guides, who went ashore to scout the area for polar bears. Once ashore, they found 2 first-year cubs dead on the beach, possibly from starvation. Although there were a couple walruses hauled out on the beach and there was some interesting bird life ashore, the hilly terrain, the fog and the prospect of a hungry female polar bear wandering the area meant that a landing was not a safe option on Lagoya today. The option of doing a Zodiac cruise was discussed, but we decided not to do this because of the very shallow rocks along the coastline and the thick fog.

Once the scouting team came back to the ship, the decision was made to cancel the morning’s activities and start heading south into Hinlopen Strait – the stretch of water that separates Nordaustlandet from Spitsbergen.

Since we had quite a long distance to cover, two lectures were scheduled to entertain our guests during the morning. Christian Walter started with his second part of “Early European Discoveries” followed by Claudia Holgate who presented her “Climate Change” lecture. 

At noon we arrived at Alkfjellet, which is the largest bird cliff in the Hinlopen Strait area, with several hundreds of thousands black-legged kittiwakes and Brünnich’s guillemots. The Captain brought the ship very close to the cliff, the fore deck was opened and we had a wonderful opportunity to see the overwhelming number of birds flying around and nesting on the cliff.

It was truly amazing – every ledge, nook and cranny was occupied by birds. The Kittiwakes were sitting on their nests made from seaweed and moss, but the guillemots sat directly on the rock ledges. The baby guillemots were already fledged and nearly the same size as the adults, but I could easily tell them apart and point them out to the guests because they appear a bit ‘scruffier’ than the adults.

In the water there were hundreds of rafting guillemots that would take off either flying or diving as the ship approached.

The Prince Albert II then continued sailing south. While en route, the weather condition improved, the sky cleared and the sun shone. A few hours later, one of our Expedition Team members spotted two polar bears on the ice. One was plodding along the ice, obviously on the outlook for seals. The other one appeared to be sleeping at first, but then we realized that it was actually waiting patiently at a seal breathing-hole – it was hunting!

The ship was following the ice edge, and not far from it the two bears were putting a great show together. I was glued to my binoculars, along with most of the guests, watching one of the bears stalking and slowly creeping up on a bearded seal. The tension was great as we watched this top predator in action. The bear seemed to merely wander around as it approached, then at one point stopped, lowered down into a crouching position and started to creep forward. Polar bears sneak up on seals in a very distinctive way – they flatten out their head and upper body on the ice, but leave their rear-end sticking up in the air, while using only their hind legs to push themselves along. It was really funny! The bear looked like a slowly moving iceberg! Although the seal periodically lifted its head up and looked around, it did not seem to see the bear, and finally, after nearly a half hour of this game, the bear made a dash for the seal. We could see the snow-dust flying as the bear sprinted toward the seal. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the seal) the seal finally realized the danger it was in and made a dash for his escape hole and managed to get away.

While we were watching the bears, another ship, the MV Origo, was coming out of the ice from the south. Friends on board informed us that the conditions down south were a bit difficult, with quite thick and dense ice and strong currents. Captain Golubev, knowledgeable and confident of the capabilities of the ice strengthened hull of the Prince Albert II, and knowing what our ship is good for, decided to push south through the pack ice. 

This journey was amazing. During dinner the Captain very professionally sailed through the ice, breaking and pushing big ice floes apart as we progressed. The ship behaved beautifully and everybody was very excited and happy. 

And just when I thought I was going to finish writing this log, another bear showed up! The third bear of the day (not counting the two dead cubs). The conditions were magnificent with clear sunny skies, no wind, birds flying around, sea ice as far as the eye could see and a polar bear walking in the direction of the ship. He approached the vessel, then cut across our path. Every time he approached an area of open water, he would slip into it and swim across to another floe. His pace was incredible – they can swim at speeds of over 9 km per hour using their huge front paws as paddles. When in the water all we could see was what looked like a double iceberg moving along – this was the bear’s head and rump sticking out of the water. When the polar bear climbed back onto the ice floe, as if on cue, he turned back towards us and gave us the most perfect photo opportunity! He then walked off into the low-lying sea fog and simply faded away. 

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to wrap up a pretty much perfect day.