We had one last night on the ship and were told we were in a good place for whale watching. A wake up call came over the loud speaker around 2 am; “I’m sorry to disturb, but there are three large whales on the starboard side of the ship.”
I thought to myself, I wish they announced what type of whale as I didn’t want to get up for a humpback to view in the distance when I have snorkeled with them.
A little while later, we heard over the loud speaker, “We believe these are blue whales.”
Well, that got me out of bed. It is rare to spot the largest animal in the world. David and I, not appropriately dressed for the cold, scampered up the stairs to the deck to have a look. Along with other passengers and crew, we spotted some blows and dorsal fins, both near and far. There were a few pods of whales around, both blue and humpback. After about 45 minutes of waiting to see a fluke, we finally retreated inside to warm up.
Sharon came bursting through the door, and excitedly questioned, “Did you see the blue whale?”
“Yes, but only the blow and dorsal fin,” we replied.
“That’s all you usually ever see…back, back, back, fin…back, back, back, fin.” It was true. We saw the back for forever and then the fin. I always waited for the fin to take a picture, and then it would promptly go underwater. So, anyway, after we heard that is the best we’d see, we felt satisfied and went back to sleep.
We exited the ship the following morning. We had the rest of the day to spend in Longyearbyen. I recommend not doing this and booking the first flight out! I was worried we might miss the plane if our expedition was delayed, but I think it would be worth the risk. There are very few half-day tours in Longyearbyen, so there is not a lot to do. We purchased the brewery tour, but it turned out the brewery was closed, and the agency mistakenly sold it to us, so that wasted our day! We strolled in and out of all six or stores at least twice to try to find a “trip treat” for the kids. We finally settled on truffles from the northern most chocolatier in the world and a scarf.
What a great final paddle for our trip! After having the kayaks shuttled to the coastline, we loaded up and headed into the fjord. David and I took singles for the last outing. After being in a double, I found the single to be a little less stable and more rocky.
The landscape around the area was absolutely spectacular. To our left, an old fishing cabin was perched on the point while kittiwakes peppered the pebble beach until we neared. The sea was still until we reached a receding glacier. The wind coming off the icy slope blew us toward the middle of the rippling bay. I found myself snapping a photo and then paddling on the right side to bring myself closer to shore.
We had an option to end our paddle early in order to hike on land, but the scenery was just too good. The wildlife made our kayak even better. Soon after we passed an island which was home to geese and gulls, we spotted two harbor seals resting on rock by the shoreline. It looked like a mama and older pup. The light brown pup stayed on the rock while the mama came to check us out.
She circled around the kayaks while popping her head out of the water. We were always guessing where she would be next. Sometimes she swam back to her pup who watched her intently. As she tried flopping back onto the rock, the pup would slap her on the face with its fin. It was like a game for it. Then she would join us again. As we sat entertained, the wind blew our kayaks toward a shallow area. Every few minutes we had to reposition.
Finally, they both settled on the rock again. We all paddled in a circle, gained speed, and aimed our kayaks toward the seals. We stopped paddling and let the wind blow us away from the shore just enough to snap photos while not scaring the seals off the rock. It was really fun to interact with them. We hung out long enough to require a warm up paddle.
As ducks buzzed the bay, we paddled deeper into the fjord to reach another glacier that came to the water’s edge. As we approached, a piece of ice calved into the bay. We weren’t close enough for the moving glacier to affect us, but it was fun to see. We had covered quite a bit of distance, and it was time to return to the ship.
David wanted to practice a roll in the kayak. Originally, he wanted to try it on a sunny day. Unfortunately, with the exception of one of our first days on the water, we hadn’t had a sunny day. This cloudy day was his last chance to try what he called his polar plunge. He set up the kayak to roll over, but after he tilted underwater, it took him a while to flip up. He was so cold, he blacked out (lost his vision), and now we had to take the zodiac a LONG way back.
The wind and intermittent spitting rain was enough to encourage Sharon to pull out a blue tarp from the emergency supplies. We all sunk down into the zodiac and ducked beneath the tarp. It was nice to have some protection from the elements. Despite the cold, we couldn’t have asked for a better paddle. This area with towering cliffs, waterfalls, glaciers, and islands, was simply amazing.
Today was the summer solstice. Due to leap year, the summer solstice actually falls a day earlier. This morning we signed up for the hike in Isbjørnhamna as it was the only chance we would have to see nesting little auks. We chose to be in the group of “fast” walkers along with at least 20 other people. It would be our first chance to cover some ground while we were in the Arctic.
We started along the beach and soon followed a single track trail. I think this was the first time we even walked on a trail. There are two points of view about trails in the Arctic. One is to mess up one small portion of the land by creating a trail and a trace. As such the rest of the terrain is protected. The other is to spread out and walk so that a trail is never created and no trace is left, but a larger area of tundra is trampled. I don’t really know what is best, but I preferred the trail.
The trail led us up through black rocks, maybe volcanic in nature. Along the way, we stopped to enjoy the views that changed with rolling fog. Somehow, we never stopped by the few flowers, so it was an effort for me to get any good pictures of them. I couldn’t lag behind, or I could have been polar bear bait. Upon reaching some scientific monitoring equipment on the other side of the bay, we turned up the hill toward the awk colony. In all of our layers, we worked up a sweat as we climbed up to the rocky path.
Little auks are truly tiny! The small birds nest beneath the scree and then stand guard atop it. If a predator threatens them, the whole flock lifts up in flight. They protect by sheer numbers. Along with the auks, we spotted other birds such as geese and gulls who rested on the cliffs that towered above the scree. There had to be a fox up there somewhere. We didn’t realize how lucky we were when we saw the Arctic fox our first day. We hadn’t seen one since.
We kept our eyes peeled as the clouds rolled along the cliffs. Yuki, one of the guides, spotted one. She shouted, “Fox” as she pointed to the area up by the resting geese. The fox slipped behind the boulders before anyone could see it. We patiently waited for it to reappear as a chill came over us after sitting for 20 minutes. When our time and patience ran out, we prepared to leave just as another cloud enveloped the cliffs.
I commented to David, “Watch, the fox will come out under the cloud cover, so it can hunt.”
David turned and looked one last time, and with his eagle eyes, he shouted, “Fox!”
As soon as he shouted, I had heard what seemed like a barking noise. I heard the same noise when Yuki shouted fox. I don’t know if it was the fox making the noise or the little auks responding to the sly critter, but what I do know is the black-coated fox was trotting across the cliff with a bird in its mouth! It’s amazing how well these fox blend in with the cliffs. About the only way to spot them is when they are moving, and that is still hard.
Fortunately, the little guy was headed for a snow patch! I snapped a photo when the snowy background contrasted with its dark coat. I have to say my 18-270 lens just couldn’t zoom enough for anything great, but the fox had been recorded! We found out later that the fox we spotted was the rarer Blue fox. 75% of the Blue foxes die in the first year. The mean age is only 3-4 years.
After the fox sighting, it was really time to go. My numb hands and feet were already aware of this fact. As we hiked down the hill back to the shore, I trailed slightly behind while I tried snapping a few more flower photos. As I was taking a few steps forward, I came across an egg. I don’t know how no one stepped on it. The whole group had walked right over it. I shouted, “Egg!”
Hardly anyone stopped at first, so I thought well maybe people didn’t think a bird’s egg was exciting. But this one was big and speckled and still intact. I shouted a little louder, “Egg!” Our guides hadn’t seen an egg like this, so they radioed one of the bird scientists that joined the crowd. He said it had been abandoned. Of course, we asked why. He said some birds have to concentrate on their own survival. If they are having a difficult time finding food, and don’t think they can survive, they will abandon the egg so they have a chance to breed again the following year. Anyway, it was the biggest bird’s egg I’d ever seen. Even bigger than the chicken eggs we eat. As we headed back to the ship, David and I got several pats on the back from our group since we were the spotters of the fox and egg!
Generally, we tended to finish our morning excursion just before lunch. I haven’t mentioned food in any of my blogs recently, so I thought I’d add a little more information about our dining. In the beginning, the food seemed pretty good. Now, it seemed to have deteriorated slightly, but it was still reasonable. The chef had a tough job catering to so many different nationalities on the ship. The lunch buffet always included a salad. Of course there was also a heated meat, fish, starch, and veggies. The options didn’t exactly go together. Sometimes, we could get grilled fish and egg rolls at the same lunch.
We sat with this one couple from England that were quite funny. They represented their home county in international bridge tournaments. It was quite fascinating to listen to all the rules, and how they competed. Somehow we also got on the topic of food. We had mentioned that the first night we thought the fish was very good, but since then it was disappointing, and we had switched to eating meat because the chef did an excellent job with beef. The English lady agreed and continued with a story about their recent travels to some islands off of Scotland.
In her English accent she said, “You know over there, many people are fishermen. It is their job to bring home fresh fish, and the fish we ate tasted like it was out of the freezer. It was just atrocious!” I couldn’t help but chuckle. She could just rip a topic to shreds and with her English accent, she sounded nice about it!
Anyway, during lunch, our ship motored to our next destination, Burgerbukta. It anchored in the bay pretty far from shore. As such, we had our kayaks shuttled to a starting point and we took another zodiac to the location. Otherwise, it would have taken far too long to get started. The seas were pretty rough, so we could only unload off one side of the zodiac instead of both. I can’t say the kayak loading process was very graceful as we clutched the side of the zodiac while getting situated.
David and I were the last to load. Once again, I am happy to say, we took the double out! The rest of the kayakers were inspecting an iceberg while they were waiting for us. Sharon paddled over too them and suggested that they back up little. No sooner did she do this then the iceberg exploded! A piece shot right over her. Since David and I were busy loading, we only saw the splash when everyone hollered. We had been warned icebergs will roll over or break apart and to stay three times the height away from them. They were just so pretty, however, sometimes our excitement got the best of us. Not to mention, it was hard to imagine. Not anymore.
Once we joined the group, we paddled out of the rough sea into the protected bay of icebergs toward a glacier. David really wanted to get close to the glacier, though close was relative…300 feet away. Regardless, we led the pack past cloudy white and bright blue icebergs. They changed colors with the sun as the light shimmered through the clouds. The ice snapped, crackled, and popped like a bowl of Rice Krispies. We all took a quiet moment just to listen.
With all the activity, we had a sense something else might happen. Sure enough, another iceberg just fell apart right next to us! Others looked like they might roll over as they bobbed and tilted in the water. In addition to the icebergs popping, we heard thunderous booms. We kept looking in the direction of the noise to our left, where we finally spotted an avalanche tumbling down the mountain side. As many as four at time would trigger. They looked like small waterfalls. One of the slides was finally large enough to reach the water. It was happening every ten minutes. I can’t really explain the excitement. We felt like bobble head dolls spinning around to catch the next activity.
In the meantime, the skies behind us and the ship were black! Sharon told us to slow up and stay close because a katabatic wind could blow down the glacier face. If this happened, we needed to unload immediately as they can reach hurricane force speed. Sure enough one started coming. It swooped down over one glacier, but it was stopped by a rocky point before it reached the next glacier. Fortunately, it didn’t make it to us and we only had to contend with a slight increase in swell. It would have been disappointing to cut this dynamic paddle short. The closer we got to the glacier ahead of us, the more brash ice we found. We paddled through it in search of a clear piece that we could use in our whiskey this evening.
The clear ice is 10,000 years old. All the air bubbles inside it compressed over time to give it this appearance. We were told if we placed the ice in whiskey, the air bubbles would expand and the ice could explode. We were ready to experiment. Much to our dismay, it didn’t explode, but saying we drank Maker’s Mark and a vodka soda over 10,000 year old ice had a pretty good ring to it!
While we warmed up, the ship moved away from the threatening weather. Amazingly the captain was able to find a protected, sunny cove nearby. Upon anchoring, the call came over the loud speaker, “It’s time for the polar plunge. Please head down to the gangway on the starboard side of the ship.” Since David was still sick, he passed on the opportunity. I don’t blame him. Jumping into icy water wasn’t a way to heal.
In fact, it was probably stupid, but I did it anyway. Dressed in the ship-supplied robe, I headed down the gangway along with 40 something other crazy passengers and prepared to make a splash. David joined the spectators on the fourth deck to take pictures. I did a cannon ball into icy water on the summer solstice. I didn’t remember it being quite that cold in Antarctica, though I’m sure it was similar. As soon as I hit the water, I whipped around and flailed back to the boat. I could hardly think as I frantically reached for the deck to pull myself out. I must have had a crazed look on my face. Woody said, “It’s OK. We’ll help you out. Nice cannonball.”
After a long hot shower, I was ready for the summer solstice BBQ and hat competition night. The staff grilled chicken, burgers, and sausages as passengers with different homemade hats filed through the door to the back deck. Many pinned white surgical gloves (anything on the ship was available for use) to their heads to be reindeer. The best costume, however, was of a polar bear. Not only did she come sporting a hat, she had a full body outfit all the way down to black electrical tape on her nails for claws.
dark clouds below the sun
As the evening continued, people started dancing to the boom box music. It was amazing that we even got to enjoy the sunny weather at all, as black skies surrounded us. At some point, the captain pulled up the anchor and moved the ship, but that didn’t stop the partiers. They continued the fun in the salon until the wee hours of the morning. I wish I could say we joined them, but we had a much tamer evening. ETB
Two days ago we tried to enter a passage that was blocked by ice. This morning, our expedition leader, hoping for better conditions, decided to try again. We were in luck. The winds and currents had broken the ice into large pieces. The captain of our ship carefully moved forward. We could hear the bow scrape the ice as we headed southwest. While we stood outside on the deck admiring the beauty, we scanned the ice floes for wildlife. We spotted a walrus and lots of dirty ice that looked like seals to our hopeful minds until we came close enough to see that was not so.
For our first outing today, we had an option to zodiac cruise or kayak. David caught a cold, so he decided to rest. The cruising area was enormous, so I decided to take the zodiac as it would cover more ground. It didn’t take long to find a walrus on an ice floe. Our zodiac was the first to find it. Other drivers radioed for coordinates, but the currents in the area were very strong, so the ice floe was moving. The description Woody could give was, “I just went straight out from the bow of the ship!” It was fun to photograph because the background kept changing! I liked it best with the iceberg behind it.
Speaking of icebergs, there were several in the area…lovely shapes and sizes glistening blue in the sunlight. One iceberg looked like the Sphinx. Our zodiac maneuvered through the ice field to the shoreline where we found some bear tracks. They didn’t look that fresh to me, but what do I know. We followed them around the point, but never spotted a bear. We did, however, see an Ivory Gull. One of the bird scientists involved in the Penguin Watch I mentioned a few days ago was on our zodiac. He was very excited to spot this bird, so I guess it was special! I’ll be the first to admit, I know nothing about birds.
The small gull looks like a pigeon. It is the only species in the genus Pagophila. It’s all white plumage did a nice job camouflaging it on the ice. The gull put on a show for us. It would fly up into the air and hover over us before it swoop down and land on the ice. It certainly didn’t like the kittiwake that try to land nearby. It squawked, flapped its wings, and charged them as it protected its territory.
We also enjoyed seeing the Arctic Tern. While we had spotted it previously on the trip, I was never in a good position to snap a decent photo. Today I felt like I captured this seabird’s beauty. The small, slender white bird is known for its long, yearly migration. It breeds in the Arctic, and flies all the way to Antarctica for the winter…some 25,000 miles round trip! It is the farthest yearly travel of any bird.
This bird watching was a change of pace from our previous stints of cruising the coastline. We just sat in one location with ice swirling around us. I really wish I took a video. I’ve never seen such noticeable currents in the ocean. The water swelled and circled at the same time, like two rivers meeting. It was really cool!
The afternoon afforded us a paddle along the shoreline and a landing. I can’t say either were terribly exciting. A few birds flew overhead as David and I kayaked in a double along the smooth waters. He is probably wishing he never offered this option. I loved having the chance to take good pictures in a kayak. Unfortunately for this outing there wasn’t much to see. I was grateful to make a landing. Much to my dismay, we had to trounce through bog, sometimes shin deep, just to see a few flowers and a reindeer that was far less cooperative than any of the others we had spotted. It kept walking off! Come to find out later, Woody had never before stopped here. I recommend not stopping here again! I don’t know…maybe the folks who hiked to the top of the ridge enjoyed it, though one person lost his boot in the muck! Anyway, a day in the Arctic is still a good day. ETB
The weather has finally improved. It was good enough for kayaking. We enjoyed a lovely outing in Faksevagen this morning. We paddled against a light headwind as we followed the coast out of the fiord. Sea birds and reindeer peppered the rocky coastline until we turned past the point.
launching from the gangway
Here we admired the caves created by water that eroded the soft cliff side. Snowmelt trickled over the cave openings and dripped into the ocean below. The farther we paddled, the more dramatic the landscape appeared. Soon we came upon a magnificent waterfall and a rowdy reindeer that ran around like a hyper puppy in the cold. It darted left, then right, made a few circles all while kicking its hind legs out. It was a hoot.
We had covered so much distance, we decided that we’d take a quick hard paddle the next point that didn’t look too far away, and we would make a landing to look at a historic fishing boat we passed on the shore. We paddled, four of us were leading together, then two of us, then it was just me. I was on a mission to get to that point, so I could walk on land again (it had been a while). With the wind, we couldn’t hear Sharon very well, so the zodiac driver, Fannie, motored up and advised me to stop paddling until the group caught up. Ok…I waited. When the group neared, I paddled feverishly toward the point. Resting had caused me to float backwards, so I had to make up ground. Once again, Fannie waved her arms and yelled, “Wait.”
I questioned, “Are we getting out here?” No response came. When everyone caught up…I stroked the water in rhythm. I was finally getting good at kayaking. Finally Fannie motored up in front of me by the point and stopped. I paddled to the zodiac and around a little more to see the glacier, but apparently we were supposed to stop completely the first time because the point was farther away than Sharon expected. Oops!
Fannie made fun of my vigorous paddling as she put her head down and motioned her arms back and forth. “I thought we were supposed to go to the point,” I said. “I wanted to get out!” I’m not sure how many people believed that, but it was true because I like hiking better than kayaking, and I wanted to look around on land! I guess I should have given up sooner, so we would have had more time to explore.
Sharon exclaimed, That was the farthest any group has ever paddled with me. Generally no one goes past the old fishing boat!” The fishing boat was at the first point, about three miles ago. The wooden fishing boat, from the 1920’s was pretty cool. David really loved it, as he inspected all the nooks and crannies. He noticed a trolley system for the fishing nets and the holders for the oars. The rivets along the boat were quite solid. It was fun to finally see the old remnants.
The weather turned from balmy conditions to windy and cool, upon our return in the zodiac. Or perhaps I had worked up such a sweat paddling to the point, I was cooling down quickly. My hands and feet were frozen, and it seemed like many others had the same issue as they wedged their fingers between their chest and life vest for warmth. A hot shower was calling my name.
Our afternoon paddle in Palanderbukt was shorter than our morning excursion, about an hour instead of two hours or more. David and I decided to take out a double kayak instead of individuals. It was fun. He paddled while I got to take a little more time with my camera. Usually, I did my best to stay even with the guide, so when I stopped to take a photo I didn’t get too far behind. I was still always playing catch up after I removed the camera from the dry bag, focused on my subject, snapped a quick photo, and then quickly strapped it back in its spot. I hardly ever framed the exact photo I wanted. I just aimed for a memory.
This afternoon, with David keeping us up with the group and usually ahead of the group (and I paddled some), I was afforded the luxury to take a few photos at a time and to actually frame a shot! This was very exciting to me. Most of the action this afternoon centered around birds. The guillemots stood on the ice like penguins until we neared. Then they would try their hardest to fly. They usually took a running start across the water with their feet splashing fastidiously along the surface as they flapped their wings. Some just decided it was easier to swim as they ducked below the tranquil sea.
After admiring the birds, we paddled along the edge of the fast ice which is ice connected to land. In the distance, we spotted a walrus, but it wasn’t picture worthy with my lens. It looked like a brown blob. While we had hoped to see more marine mammals on the ice, the reflections in the calm bay were a lovely alternative. Frankly, they were magnificent given the cloudy skies and light sprinkles of rain. Back on board the ship, we heard the zodiac riders saw a baby ringed seal. I would have liked to see it, though it appeared wounded and unlikely to survive, so that was sad!
In our debriefing this evening, we learned more about the Arctic Circle. The eight countries that border it are the most involved in its plans and funding. Each country owns the bordering land plus the 200 nautical miles surrounding the land. The open land by the pole is considered open ocean that is frozen. An Arctic Council has been formed. The eight countries; USA, Canada, Russia, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, are voting members. Other countries interested in the Arctic may join, but they cannot vote. Three other members are the UK, Japan, and India. Of the voting members, some members express more interest in the Arctic than others and provide more funding. The funding is not based on the percentage of land owned. They form specialized groups to study climate change, the people of the Arctic and economics to name a few. The Council is not responsible for sovereignty issues, trade passages, the North Pole or the international Arctic water. These issues are controlled by the United Nations. The most important aspect to the Arctic Council is the Arctic Chair. The Chair is responsible for establishing the three most important initiatives for the Arctic. The Chair position changes every two years. Currently the USA is the reigning chair.
Today we traveled to Andreenesset Kvitøya or White Island. 99% of the island is covered by an icecap. The island is usually inaccessible due to dense drift ice which remains most of the summer months, but today, in rocky seas we were able to visit, the bay anyway. The fog kept us from landing as polar bears are hard to spot in such conditions. The large swells made for a bouncy zodiac tour. Regardless, between the waves we were able to spot swimming walruses. There were at least eight in the bunch. The curious fellows popped their heads up above the water’s surface as we neared.
Next, we motored toward shore around a handful of sand bars where the waves were breaking to see a memorial erected in honor of S.A. Andrée. The Swede attempted a hot air balloon ride to the North Pole and crash landed at this site in 1897. He and his crew members were thought to have survived here a few weeks before dying from trichinosis after eating spoiled polar bear meat. The wreckage and camp was discovered 33 years later by chance when the Norwegian Bratvaag Expedition, studying the glaciers and seas of the Svalbard archipelago came upon the camp.
glacial face on the island
This Wikipedia link explains why Andrée launched against the recommendation of the manufacturer as the balloon had become pourous and was leaking. It also details how Andrée sent messages home with buoys and homing pigeons. This voyage turned out to be quite the spectacle and the expedition’s journal and photos were recovered in remarkable condition. There is both a book and movie about the expedition, so I thought it best to provide the Wikipedia link, otherwise I’d be regurgitating for pages!
Next we sailed to Kræmerpynten, Kvitøya, but the seas were too rough to disembark. We did, however, take our group photo to mark the farthest north we traveled…above 80°. The Arctic Circle is currently 66°33′46.3″ north of the Equator. It is not fixed due to the earth’s tilt and tidal forces. It is currently drifting northward at 49 feet per year. In the Arctic Circle, the sun does not go below the horizon for at least one day a year (which we are coming up on) and it does not go above the horizon for at least one day of the year.
We were planning the polar plunge at the farthest point north, but they delayed it due to the conditions, so we have headed back south and have watched lots of presentations…whales, photo editing, overwintering in Antarctica, and history.