This day didn’t start after a good night’s sleep … instead, we stayed up until midnight to welcome the midnight sun, the first time we had seen it on our voyage. I had to get a photo of me on the ship’s uppermost deck so sorry about the image below! What made this moment all the more special is that we were in Wahlenbergfjorden, this 50km long fjord is rarely visited and the depths are as yet completely uncharted. This really was an expedition voyage and we only found out, upon our return, that the advanced sonar had been damaged earlier on in the trip … we were sailing relatively blind following a previous expedition’s navigation.
There was also a Polar Bear on a piece of fast ice (ice that is attached to the shore) and it was obviously hunting seals but eventually it was so small that we called it a night and headed off to finally get some sleep.
The next morning the weather was a lovely 5 degrees Celsius with the sun still shining down upon us. It was a morning for a Zodiac cruise and in the night the Polar Bear had come past the ship to another piece of fast ice and was obviously hunting seals. We approached this ice, the Zodiac drivers beached the front of the boats on the ice but the bear was still at quite a distance. We decided to turn our attentions to the magnificent bird life that seemed to be all around us. There were Arctic Terns, Grey (Red in America) Phalaropes, Common Eider, King Eider, Long-tailed Ducks, Glaucous Gulls and a Ruddy Turnstone that I just could not photograph! It was an amazing place but not the easiest to photograph in.
We headed off to one of the many glaciers that flowed down into the fjord from the huge ice sheet and a seal was spotted on a small ice floe. This was another huge Bearded Seal, this time with a very red head due to the iron ore deposits that stain the sea bed. As the seal feeds and searches in the sediment at the fjord’s bottom, it manages to stain its fur with this intense natural dye. The next half an hour or so was an amazing close encounter with this large marine mammal and it was only when we got within a few metres that we realised this individual had been through the wars. Its face, as you can see, was terribly scarred as were it sides. It seemed a Polar Bear had once tried to catch this seal but had failed, forever leaving its mark upon its intended prey.
We left the seal alone and made our way through the mass of ice that had calved from the glacier, before heading back to the Ortelius for a spot of lunch. This was truly a wild and remote place, with amazing scenery and fabulous wildlife one could not really have asked for more.
As we cruised out of this stunning fjord we were greeted by the amazing sight of three individual Humpbacks feeding, at times only 25 metres from the ship. After about an hour with these huge cetaceans we had to continue onwards towards Torellneset, where we would hopefully find a Walrus haul-out.
We had an early dinner before heading out onto the Zodiacs and landing on the shingle bank at Torellneset. There we were, on a remote beach in the High Arctic with a large group of Walrus … a truly remarkable experience. We were photographing these blubber behemoths on the beach when our guide Mick waded into the water and started to ‘tap dance’. What happened next was amazing ...
There were already Walrus in the water and Mick's little dance routine (he was really just paddling) seemed to create enough noise to lure in the curious Walrus. They don't really have any natural predators and are curious about things that are in their territory. It was amazing just how close these amazing mammals came and it made for some stunning photographic opportunities. At times, they were so close that I was unable to take any photos ... I just had to sit, watch and enjoy the moment (I can cope with that).
After some extreme close ups of these inquisitive Walrus they backed off a bit and there was even a bit of a scuffle between two individuals. One seemed to have a bit of an itch and started to roll on the rough beach to ease its discomfort. Our guide Mick was still standing in the shallow water watching intently.
What an incredible day it was, it can be so easy to go overboard with superlatives when visiting somewhere like Svalbard but it is the only way one can describe this remarkable destination (you see I just can't help it). The days can be long in the Arctic, this was certainly one of those days but you could never say that it dragged. It was action-packed and the sheer variety on offer was astounding (there's another one!). After a day like today, you wonder what on earth could be in store tomorrow and how could it possibly compete with a day like this? The next day was going to be a little different but still great for photography ...
Having had an action-packed day in the High Arctic does not necessarily mean that the day is done and bed is soon to follow. With 24 hour daylight a wildlife sighting could happen at any time and the camera always needs to be kept close by (in my case it went pretty much everywhere with me except to the dining room). Today was definitely a day when the wildlife watching didn't stop after dinner, in fact were above 80 degrees North and we were in the pack ice.
The excitement of being surrounded by ice had led many of the group to head out on deck and to the bow of the ship and start to scan the horizon for the mammal everyone had come to see ... the Polar Bear. As we were often reminded anywhere in Spitsbergen could be the temporary home of a Polar Bear, even in the far South of the Island. The weather had gone on the gloomy side again after a glorious few hours of Arctic sun but we were not deterred and we were all scanning.
In the mist we noticed a large 'blob' on a small piece of ice, it was so large in fact that for a while we thought there must have been more than one mammalian being in this 'blob'. As we got closer and the mist cleared a little we realised that this was in fact just one large piece of blubber. It was an incredibly obliging Bearded Seal, you would not believe that animal would allow a large ice-breaking vessel to steam right up towards it, only metres away, but it did just that!
So having spent a good 20 minutes with the seal we decided that it should be left alone, having an ice-strengthened ship is probably not a seal's favoured company. The ship carried on through the ice field, trying to avoid the worst of the ice by using the natural channels that form due to the currents and tides.
As we continued onwards into the night there were more than 30 people on the ships bow continually scanning and enjoying the evening light when suddenly there was a shout ... "Bear, Polar Bear!". And sure enough, on the horizon, due North, there was a cream coloured lump among what seemed a sea of ice. The crew turned the ship straight towards the bear and the excitement and buzz that everyone was feeling was very apparent. The slight tension (only slight) that was felt before had evaporated and everyone was there with a smile on their face.
As we approached the bear we noticed that it was watching a seal on the ice and was slowly making its way towards the black blob (there were a lot of blobs on the voyage). We spent what seemed an eternity trying to get closer to the bear, with success, but it soon became clear that this bear did not want company and we eventually decided to call it a night.
As the Polar Bear off towards the icy horizon we were told that the ship would be spending the night in the ice and that we would set sail again in the morning. With our first sighting of this truly stunning mammal it was time to head to bed and hope that tomorrow would bring us further sightings. After all, we had now all been bitten by the Polar Bear bug.
Today we awoke to some truly stunning scenery to the East and a shroud of mist to the West, the next land stop ... Greenland. We were working our way North to the High Arctic and aiming to visit a Little Auk colony (something I have always wanted to do). These little birds are superbly charismatic and fly in flocks of a few hundred to a few thousand, the colony easily numbered over 50,000 and it was absolutely breathtaking.
We arrived on shore, after another short Zodiac transfer, before arriving to the superb guides who were already checking out for Polar Bears. We were greeted by a pair of Arctic Skuas before the numbers of the group grew too big and eventually they flew off to the refuge of the rocky cliffs. We then slowly made away across the rocky scree slope towards the little Auks and the next couple of hours went so so quickly. I could have stayed all day long and photographed these wonderful birds but before I was even settled it was time to head back to the ship. Having packed some of the camera gear away I looked at my watch and realised a couple of hours had passed, it seemed like not time at all.
This afternoon there was to be no landing, instead we were to go on a Zodiac cruise from the Ortelius towards a glacier edge. As we boarded the Zodiacs the sun came out, the mist started to clear and we were soon surrounded by an intense blue with the white snowfields and snow-capped mountains.
As we started to make our way down this beautiful Arctic fjord we spotted a distant rock moving, as rocks obviously don't move we knew that we must have a seal ... we certainly did, our first Harbour Seal (Common Seal). We daren't approach too closely in case we scared it off so we made sure we left it alone after capturing a few record shorts. The ice in the fjord, which had broken off from the glacier, littered the water and the Zodiac was forced to weave in and out to avoid the larger pieces.
We then came across a posing Black Guillemot silhouetted upon the top of small piece of ice as well as a swimming and rather wary of us. The landscapes were just absolutely stunning and I really hope some of the images do it at least a little justice. We also came across an individual Arctic Tern sunning itself in the warm afternoon sun.
The Arctic, at this time of year, has 24 hours worth of daylight and that means the wildlife watching doesn't stop after dinner, in fact sometimes the best sightings are when you are getting ready for bed. This was just the first half of our day with plenty more to come ...