kayaker group at Monacobreen

Reflections in the Arctic at Bockfjorden and Monacobreen

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This morning on our Quark Arctic Expedition, we were called to breakfast at 8am. Along with the regular options, we could also order French toast. The weather was absolutely magnificent. The breezeless morning let us stand outside on the deck comfortably and snap photos of the surrounding peaks reflecting in the placid bay at Bockfjorden, a portion of Woodfjord, which is part of the Northwest Spitsbergen National Park. The area is home to an old, snow covered volcano and at least today, fantastic kayaking conditions!


Just like yesterday, the kayakers unloaded first. We took a short zodiac ride to a calm area near the shore where the hikers would be embarking. Our paddle took us along the shoreline in very shallow waters to a glacial moraine. The thermal shoreline was littered with driftwood and old steel buoys.

We were able to maneuver around the bay so easily, that we had time to go onshore for a short hike. I was thrilled to be able to go on land to see the flora up close. Probably some kayakers weren’t quite as enthusiastic as me, but the majority ruled and since we had another opportunity to kayak this afternoon and not make a landing, we headed toward the shore for some exploring.

After stripping off our life jackets and kayaking skirt, we lined up behind our guide armed with a 30.6 for protection from polar bears. We were required to always stay behind her and to stay closely bunched together. At a very slow pace, we managed a short walk in the bog, across a small stream of snow melt, past goose and reindeer poo to a rock for a nice view.

Along the way, we spotted the beginning blooms of purple saxifrage, arctic cotton grass, and the tallest tree in the Arctic, the Arctic willow, which was about two inches tall. While I would have liked to have made it a little farther, I was happy to set foot on Arctic soil and to check out the hardy plant life.


Back on board uur ship, Sea Adventurer, we motored to Monacobreen in Liefdefjorden during lunch. The Sea Adventurer which is registered in the Bahamas, was built in Yugoslavia in 1976. It has undergone some refurbishing over the years, but is in need of the multi-million dollar renovation scheduled for next year. The ice-strengthened ship is 101.1 meters long, is propelled by diesel twin engines, and can travel 12 knots in open water. It holds 83 staff and crew along with 117 passengers, though only 74 passengers joined this voyage.

The glacier, Monacobreen, was named after Prince Albert I of Monaco who led mapping expeditions of the glacier in 1906/7. The weather this afternoon was just as nice as this morning; clear skies and no breeze which resulted in calm seas. As such, we geared up for our next kayak which takes a little time. After dressing in a few layers of clothing, we pull on our dry suit, booties, kayak skirt, life jacket, hat and gloves and head to the gangway. We generally work up a sweat just by simply waiting to board our zodiac.

Our paddle this afternoon was spectacular! We started out circling the first sizable iceberg we have seen on the trip. The magnificent piece of ice reflected the blue spectrum of the light that shined through it and into the water. For icebergs this size, larger than us, we have to keep a safe distance away. The rule of thumb is to stay three times its height away from it in case it rolls over or in case ice calves off it. It especially important to remember that only one-third of the iceberg floats above water. The rest is below the surface.

Brash Ice and Bearded Seal

After paddling around the iceberg, we headed into the brash ice, small pieces of icebergs. As we paddled through the brash ice, we looked for pieces that were clear. This clear ice, whose air bubbles have been compressed over time to create this appearance, is over 10,000 years old. If it is added to whiskey, however, the bubbles expand again, and it can break apart. We might have to have a cocktail with 10,000 year old ice to see if it explodes!

Most of the brash ice today was cloudy white. Much of it was like a slushy too. As we paddled our way through it toward the glacial shoreline, we spotted a bearded seal resting on an ice floe. In Antarctica, the seals don’t have predators, so they lay there relaxed without much interest in kayakers. On the other hand, in the Arctic, as soon as they hear the vibration of our paddles and the kayaks hitting the ice, they look to see if a polar bear is coming.

We weren’t the best at containing our excitement and our first approach was a bit rapid and noisy, so the seal quickly flopped in the water. After popping its head up to inspect us a few times, it hauled itself back out on the ice floe. With our second opportunity, we floated quietly nearby until it was time to paddle further down the coastline.

On the way deeper into the bay, we detoured to another bearded seal which earns its name from its long whiskers that are used as feelers for food such as mollusks on the ocean floor. This one, with its small reddish head, was enormous and slightly less skittish. We hung out alongside two zodiacs and watched the mass of blubber rest on the ice and contemplate whether it should slide into the water to escape its potential predator. What an enjoyable paddle beneath crystal clear skies! Both the wildlife spottings and the immaculate reflections in the glassy water were amazing. I think we could have worn only one layer of clothes on this warm day.

As usual, we finished up the day with a debriefing, dinner, and nightly bar talk. ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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