Spitsbergen: Land of the Ice Bears Jul 06—16, 2012

Posted by Brian Gibbons

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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Superlatives fail. The grandeur of the landscape, the ice bears, whales, walruses, tundra flowers, and the nesting frenzy of birds are impossible to capture. During our expedition on the National Geographic Explorer we saw amazing scenery and witnessed one of the greatest wildlife spectacles any of us will observe. The high Arctic in summer allows just a few short months for millions of birds to raise their young, flowers to set seed, and foxes to grow their white pelage. Just 676 miles short of the North Pole we enjoyed the midnight sun, which won't set in Longyearbyen until late August.

I'm sure everyone was captivated by the beauty of the Explorer; she provided an amazing mobile base from which to explore the Arctic wonders of the Svalbard Archipelago. Sailing west from Longyearbyen we could take in the sharp peaks that give Spitsbergen its name. Around the northeast side of Spitsbergen we entered Hinlopen Strait, separating it from Nordaustland. Cape Fanshawe hosted an amazing colony of Thick-billed Murres: 100,000 pairs hoped to fledge a chick on the cliffs of Alkefjellet.

polar bear and cub

polar bear and cub— Photo: Brian Gibbons

After seeing several distant polar bears we finally found a bit of shorefast ice near Wilhelmøya. Nearly a dozen ringed seals dotted the ice.  Here we were treated to a wildlife spectacle. A rangy old male ice bear awoke from his slumber to find a female and cub patiently waiting nearby.  We had seen the sleeping male and the blood-stained ice nearby and wondered. Soon he extracted a baby Beluga from the snow pile he was dozing on. He started gnawing on the whale, which had already been stripped of its skin and blubber. This emboldened the hungry female and so she made an approach, cub in tow. The male groaned at her and easily turned her back with a swat to the head from his massive paw. The pair scampered off, the female splashing through a lead. The male went back to feeding, occasionally scaring off the Ivory Gulls that were trying to pilfer a meal. The scent had spread all over the fast ice. At least three other bears could be seen patrolling nearby. Soon enough a heavy female came in and had the male defending his whale, which he did handily again. After being rebuffed, the losers each took a roll in the snow. Another bear was approaching, but never enticed the male's ire by coming too close. All the while, the female and cub watched the comings and goings patiently. Eventually, we left them as we found them, the male still eating and the others watching longingly.

The icecap of Nordaustlandet, third largest in the world, has an amazing array of ribbon waterfalls cascading over the blue ice at Bråsvellbreen. The next morning found us at Torellneset where a hundred molting male walrus were bellowing, bickering, and snoozing on the beach as one massive mound of blubber. While they like company, they seemed to be easily annoyed by their neighbors. The numbers of the Atlantic subspecies are starting to recover after commercial exploitation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nearly extirpated them. During the observation of the walrus some folks went for tundra walks further inland, spying plants, jaegers, whale bones, and reindeer.
The next morning we were alerted to the presence of feeding humpback whales just off the east coast of Nordaustland. We cruised along a young whale that was busy bubble-net feeding in the shallow productive waters. Corralling plankton with its wall of bubbles, it came up alongside the boat numerous times allowing for excellent observations and photos. This was just one of several humpbacks in the area. The icecap of Nordaustland provided an exceptional backdrop for whale watching. Isispyten, a few miles to our north, would be our next stop: here we kayaked among icebergs and some folks went for Zodiac cruises. The cruisers were rewarded with a sighting of a huge male bear on the other side of the moraine pile that was Isispyten. Here the ice cap was giving up bits and pieces to the sea. Massive rumblings would indicate a calving, and icebergs were born. Some of this thunderous roar would last for nearly a minute and the calving would cause tremendous waves.

walrus

walrus— Photo: Brian Gibbons

80° 15.424’ was our furthest north, just above Storøya. Unfortunately the pack ice was well north and we had to head back to the south from here, but not before an excellent Zodiac cruise past a few haulouts of walrus. The following morning we transited Heleysundet, a very narrow channel separating Spitsbergen from Barentsøya. Several polar bears watched our captain, Leif Skog, navigate this sound safely. Once in Storfjorden we anchored for a shore expedition. The dreaded quicksand of the north slowed us down, but we all made it safely through and enjoyed looks at a scruffy Rock Ptarmigan, reindeer, Parasitic Jaegers, and Barnacle Geese, as well as great tundra flowers and an old trapper's hut. Our final morning found us in Hornsund on the southwest coast of Spitsbergen. Below the towering peak of Honsundind, where seabirds nested all the way to the top at 4,700 feet, we made a landing. Another old trapper's hut, a whaler's grave, and the cacophony of the seabird colony above us made for a memorable excursion. An arctic fox was patrolling under the cliffs, hoping for an egg or a wayward chick. Underfoot in this milder environment, fertilized by the birds, was an array of tundra flora; mouse-ears, saxifrage, mosses, grasses, and campion were flourishing.

After our morning ashore we steamed out to try our luck at the dropoff once more. The water depth falls from 500 feet to nearly 2,000 feet causing cold and warm waters to mix and create great productivity of plankton, whale food. This time we had excellent conditions and enjoyed the company of a fin whale, close enough to hear the gush of this massive creature exhale. We glimpsed a Minke whale and had great studies of a couple of pods of the rare white-beaked dolphin feeding with a young one in tow. We also had our best looks at Atlantic Puffins, prompting Brent to scream, "PUFFINS!" repeatedly. The next morning we would awaken in port at Longyearbyen after an extraordinary voyage circumnavigating Spitsbergen and enjoying the land of the ice bear. A few of us walked out to the estuary where we added some great birds. Arctic Terns dive-bombed us one last time, Common Eiders and Barnacle Geese shepherded their cute young around, and the terns went into attack mode when a Glaucous Gull flew past, their camouflaged puffball babies looking like rocks on the beach. Red Phalarope, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Common Ringed Plover, and a wonderful female King Eider made our morning in Longyearbyen memorable.

Victor and I had a wonderful time traveling with each of you and we look forward to seeing you again on another amazing expedition.