Land of the Midnight Sun – Svalbard

Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Fly from Chicago to Stockholm
  • Day 1/2: Fly Stockholm to Longyearbyen
  • Days 3-5: Exploring Longyearbyen
  • Days 6-15: Quark Cruise:
    • Day 1: Longyearbyen
    • Day 2: Smeerenburgfjorden
    • Day 3: Liefdefjord, Worsleyneset and Moffen
    • Day 4: Hinlopenstretet and Alkefjellet
    • Day 5: Chermsideoya
    • Day 6: Fjortende Julibukta and Blomstrandhalvoya
    • Day 7: Bourbanhamna and Camp Miller
    • Day 8: Alkhornet and Forlandsundet
    • Day 9: Longyearbyen

Dates: June 10-23, 2015

Our Odyssey:

Going to Antarctica in March of 2014
as part of our round-the-world trip was, for us, a no-brainer. Going to
Svalbard in the Arctic a little over one year later was, again, an obvious
choice. For most of our friends, however, the first thing we heard was, “I
didn’t even know that was a place!”

Well, to be honest, we didn’t either
until we booked our second trip with Quark just a month after disembarking from
our Antarctic cruise in 2014. Looking at their available trips for the summer
of 2015, when we wanted to go, our priorities were to find something that was
lower-cost and that offered the best opportunities for spotting elusive polar
bears. After reading that there are more polar bears in Svalbard than there are
people, and that Quark’s 9 day trip around the archipelago was also the least
expensive of their Arctic offerings, our choice was obvious.

Over a year after booking, we
embarked the Sea Adventurer, a small ice breaking ship, along with only around
80 other passengers and 40 crew and staff. We could tell right away this ship
was very different from our ship in Antarctica (the Sea Spirit) – this ship was
clearly designed with toughness, not luxury, in mind. Given that we would be
going beyond the 81 degrees latitude mark (way further north than we had gone
south in Antarctica), a ship with strong ice-breaking abilities meant we could
go further and increase our chances of seeing wildlife. Who needs a hot tub
when there are animals in the wild to admire?!

image

Our ship, taken from one of the zodiac cruises. 

Several members of the team from our trip to Antarctica were also working on
this ship – Liz, a marine biologist; Will, a geologist; Franny, a nature guide;
and Liliana, an ornithologist. Their familiar faces made us all the more
excited for all we would learn and see over the coming days, and for the
acquaintances that would become solid friendships by the end of the trip.

The first evening on the ship was
filled with briefings on logistics and safety, followed by dinner and an early
night for me and Tim. We were already asleep around 10pm when we heard on the
overhead speaker that the team had spotted a blue whale near our ship!

Tim and I leapt out of bed and were all elbows and knees jostling around our
room to throw on clothes and get outside to the deck. Once outside (where it
was still light out since the sun never sets in the summer), we were able to
see the blue whale blow air from its blow hole a few times before he (or she?)
went back under for a bit. Eventually, we caught not only views of the back of
the largest species to have ever graced planet earth, but after about a half
hour, also the tail fin- a sight few ever get to see!

image

The tail of the blue whale we spotted our first night. Photo shared courtesy of another passenger on the collective photo journal for the trip. 

It was a hell of a way to start the trip, and after all that excitement, we
could hardly go back to bed. It was time for a drink under the midnight sun
where we met some other passengers and all shared the excitement of the moment.

The next morning Liz sat with us at breakfast, which gave us the perfect
opportunity to ask her more about the blue whale we saw last night. She said
that one blue whale is about the mass of 40 elephants, and it is incredibly
rare to see – in her experience working with Quark, they have spotted on
average less than ONE blue whale per season. And here we were, lucky enough to
have seen such a majestic animal on the first night of Quark’s first trip of
the season. Months later, I still get chills.

The next day, Monday, we caught our first glimpse of puffins, small birds with
colorful beaks who reside primarily in northern, sub-Arctic areas (like
Scotland or Iceland, for example), but who also make it up to some parts of
Svalbard as well. The puffins were adorable, but the polar bear paw prints we
spotted in the snow on the land created a bit more of a stir. Where there are
tracks, there is a bear. This sign meant it was only a matter of time before we
would see our first polar bear!

image

Puffins and their unique bills. 

Photo shared courtesy of another passenger on the collective photo journal for the trip.

 

image

Polar bear tracks. 

Photo shared courtesy of another passenger on the collective photo journal for the trip.

 

That morning we went on our first excursion out in the zodiacs, around an area
called Smeerenburg. During the zodiac cruise we saw numerous walruses and
harbor seals sun bathing on the rocks.

image

Walruses hauled up on shore.

That evening, at 5:45pm (I took good notes of our wildlife sightings!), we
spotted our first polar bear! He was walking along a stretch of land not too
far from our ship, heading towards the water. He neared the water, and
gracefully slipped in, and began to swim. Polar bears are outstanding swimmers-
they can regularly swim over 30 miles at a time in search of the best hunting
territory.

image

Our first polar bear sighting. 

Photo shared courtesy of another passenger on the collective photo journal for the trip.

 

The next day we ventured out on another zodiac cruise, this time around Monaco
Glacier. Glaciers are always fascinating to observe because they don’t easily
give away their size. Without another object to compare size to, you wouldn’t
realize this glacier is 5km wide and 40km long. Likewise, she only reveals her
age in the evidence left by rock debris pulled along as the glacier moved
across the earth. In this case, we see Devonian redrock 4 million years old-
from when Svalbard actually was on the equator.

During the cruise, I spotted a seal sitting on a rock, and far in the distance
through binoculars we could faintly see a reindeer. During this excursion it
became even more apparent to me just how different this region is from the
Antarctic. Antarctica is frenetic, noisy with the squawks of penguins, and the
wildlife is abundant and in your face. The Artic doesn’t reveal her secrets
quite so readily. Wildlife spotting in the Artic requires patience. It’s still
and silent. Some may consider this less rewarding than the amount of action you
would see in Antarctica, but I think this quietness is part of the thrill of
the Arctic and the excitement when you finally see a polar bear.

image

The seal I spotted. 

Photo shared courtesy of another passenger on the collective photo journal for the trip. 

Which, by the way, happened again, just a few hours later during lunch. We went
out on the deck of the ship to watch, and saw she was eating a seal, blood
smeared red against the white snow. We observed as she slid off the snow down
to the shoreline and grabbed something else – a dead bird maybe – and then
climbed back up to her spot, where she appeared to eat whatever she had grabbed
before walking along the shore away from us.

At this time our crew loaded us up in our zodiacs to see if we could spot her
closer. We came near where she had decided to rest and noticed she had a
tracking collar on. We learned that scientists do this only to females, since
the relative thickness of males’ necks compared to their heads always results
in their collars falling off.

image

Polar bear yoga time!

image

How rude! This polar bear showed off her long black tongue for a moment. 

Photo shared courtesy of another passenger on the collective photo journal for the trip.

 

This was also a fantastic day for bird watching. We saw long-tailed ducks,
yellow wind pipers, eiders, and one very unique gull. The Sabine gull is a bird
so rare that Liliana, the ornithologist, had never seen one before, even though
she’d been working in the region for nearly a decade. She teared up when
talking about it later that night, and we knew that we’d seen something really
special. There are fewer than 50-100 breeding pairs in Svalbard, and only
20,000 individuals in the whole world.

image

The black-headed gull is the very rare Sabine’s gull.

We also saw a unique optical illusion that occurs in this region. Far in the
distance, vertical lines along rock faces appear curved in a C shape, even
though they are actually straight. This happens as a combined result of the
composition of the Arctic air and the curvature of the earth at this latitude.
Crazy!

Before returning to the ship we
stopped back near the resting polar bear. She was still laying in the same
spot, and, with us watching, she began to stretch out- doing yoga-like poses.
We also checked out the area where she’d eaten her meal earlier to get a better
look at her lunch. We saw the bloody carcass of a bird near a trail of large
bear paw prints.

image

Paw prints and blood stains from a polar bear lunch.

That evening, while approaching Moffen Island (home to a protected population
of over 100 walruses), we crossed the 80° latitude line- bringing us within a
mere 10° of the north pole. We celebrated with a chilly on-deck champagne
toast. Brrr!

image

Crossing 80 degrees north!

The next day was another great day for the birds. We took zodiacs around
Alkerfjellet, an area with towering cliffs of 150 million year old volcanic
rock sandwiched between limestone that are now home to thousands of Brunnich’s
guillemots. These small sea birds are born on the cliffs and when it’s time to
get a move on, they all jump off their cliff and straight towards the water.
Hopefully they fly, but some make a splash, so it’s a good thing they are adept
swimmers. They can dive down 150 meters into the water to search for food, and
spend their winters in the water.

image

Brunnich’s guillemots on the cliffs and one taking flight.

image

Brunnich’s guillemots making a splash.

The following day, Thursday, was a magical polar bear day. We reached our most
northern point, positioning our ship into the sea ice, and sat patiently there
in hopes of spotting bears, since they love to hunt for seals in the pack ice.

It wasn’t long before we saw our first polar bear, albeit from a long distance.
Shortly after, again at a distance, we spotted a momma bear and her two cubs! I
was able to watch them for a while from my binoculars. I’ll never forget the
blurry scene of mom and her two babies trotting behind her.

Then, while we were eating lunch, a fifth polar bear approached the ship. At
this point we had five bears all viewable from the ship at once. Eventually
they all found spots to rest. Polar bears are very solitary animals, so they
didn’t approach one another. Our guides told us they are very aware of one
another’s location and proximity, however.

At one point, the bear who approached during lunch came near again, and for at
least a half hour everyone on the ship was captivated, silently observing the
bear as she walked towards and around our ship. At the closest point, this
female polar bear came within a few meters of our ship while we looked down on
her from the deck of the ship. It was truly incredible!

Our favorite polar bear of the trip – healthy and curious! 

A polar bear approaches our ship.

Shortly later, we saw evidence of the bears’ awareness of one another. One bear
began running away from the ship, approaching where another bear was resting.
That bear then stood up on two legs, as if to scare the nearing bear off. What
a show!

Polar bears in the pack ice.


The following day we hit the water again with a zodiac cruise around the 14th
of July Glacier, where we saw puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, and reindeer, as
well as a bearded seal swimming around us.

The bearded seal swimming about our zodiac.

Tim and I in front of the 14th of July Glacier.

We also literally hit the water by jumping in that afternoon for a polar
plunge. I have to say, nothing has ever taken my breath away quite like that
Arctic water (and that’s also considering the plunge I did in the Antarctic
last year).

Tim and I take the leap.

That afternoon, after drying off and warming up over lunch and hot chocolate,
we set out for a landing at Ny London. We joined Will, the geologist, for a
guided hike up to the top of a small mountain. We saw two rare birds during our
hike – a rock ptarmigan and a red throated loon.

Tim and I at Ny London.

That night the crew hosted a cookout
on the deck and asked everyone to come up with a creative hat. Admittedly this
is pretty hokie but Tim and I participated with gusto. We didn’t technically
make hats, but we created little fox ears and dressed as Arctic foxes. Tim was
a summer Arctic fox in brown fur, and I was a winter one in white fur. Arctic
foxes change their fur with the season to help camouflage into their
environment.

Arctic foxes! 

The next day was one of my
favorites. We hiked at two different landing sites. In the morning we visited
South Bellsunde which was a beluga whaling station in the past with many
historical artifacts and whale bones on shore. In the afternoon, we made my
favorite stop at North Bellsunde, where we hiked through boggy tundra, saw many
reindeer, and finally saw Arctic foxes! We were lucky enough to see one in
summer coat and one in winter coat. This was also a great spot to watch and
listen to hundreds of little auks, who sound like helicopters when they swoop
overhead all together.

Winter arctic fox. 

Photo shared courtesy of another passenger on the collective photo journal for the trip.

 

Summer arctic fox. 

Photo shared courtesy of another passenger on the collective photo journal for the trip.

 

Tim the Silly Reindeer.

And of course a real reindeer.

The next day we had another morning
hike at our last landing site. It was a bit of a scramble but the view of the
fjord at the end was magnificent.

Our hiking group on the last excursion.

That afternoon Tim and I had a note
in our room inviting us to dinner with the captain. We thought this must be
some special captain’s dinner for the last night. When we got to the dining
hall and sat with our friends Margaret and Harry, Franny came up to us and
whispered, “The captain is waiting for you at his table…” Suddenly
we realized- for whatever reason we were actually invited specifically to dine
with the captain. So we relocated over to his table. It turns out Ashley, a
woman about my age, and her mom Jane were also invited to dinner with the
captain and had made the same mistake we did. We all found it funny and
thankfully the captain didn’t take offense to our blunder.

That night was full of celebration-
lots of dancing and drinks, and Tim and I may have gotten fake married
playground-style. Thanks to Will for officiating, Franny for being my maid of
honor, Harry the National Geographic photographer for being Tim’s best man, and
everyone else for indulging in our whimsy with us – we had a blast!

Getting back to shore in
Longyearbyen was bittersweet. We definitely formed great relationships on this
trip and it’s sad to part ways from the bubble you live in when you’re on a
ship with a small number of people in one of the most remote regions of the
world.

Many people have asked us to compare
this trip with our trip to the Antarctic, and really the two are so different
it’s hard to say that one is better than the other. The Antarctic is sensory
overload at times- wildlife everywhere, the stench of penguin poo, and their
constant squawks. The Arctic is stiller and the wildlife more elusive- to me
this gives it a mysteriousness that makes it even more fascinating.

You might think
that now having been to both polar regions, we’d cross that off our
“list”, but we’re only itching to explore more…

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