Arctic Cruise Report: Hinlopen Strait

From the National Geographic Explorer in the Arctic July 15, 2010

Today, National Geographic Explorer was cruising around the Hinlopen Strait, which is the narrow body of water between the two biggest islands of the Svalbard archipelago. We left the fog of Hinlopenstretet to do today’s activities in the sunshine of the Wahlenbergfjord. This beautiful fjord is surrounded by gently sloping ice caps, giving it an Antarctic look.

In the morning, we went ashore for a walk on the south side of Wahlenbergfjord. We walked over interesting Permian rocks with brachiopod and bryozoan fossils. The adventurous hikers went up the mountain, whereas the more relaxed walkers walked around the flat marine terraces. We also saw several varieties of saxifrage blooming in this dry polar desert along the eastern side of Svalbard. Most of us saw bones from animals such as seals and reindeer.

In the afternoon, the ship sailed farther into the fjord. As part of the family program, the kids on board toured the dive locker and saw our Remotely Operated Vehicle on the deck of the ship. The ship went past thousands of blue and white icebergs that had broken off from the myriad of glaciers around the fjord. All of the icebergs had perfect reflections in the calm water. Some of them even had seals on them. Then we spotted our main objective: several polar bears on the frozen sea ice ahead. There was a single adult on the left and a mother and cubs on the right. Our 360-foot long ship crept forward ever so slowly without disturbing the bears. In fact, the mother and two cubs almost slept through our entire visit. The single adult bear slowly meandered toward the ship, jumping water obstacles on the melting sea ice. She came within 100 feet of the ship before deciding we were not of interest, as which time she slowly wandered away. That was OK, because we still had the mother and two cubs to observe ahead of us. The cubs looked up first, flanking the mom. She finally got up and wandered slowly away. We could see how the cubs followed the mother, often from a distance, as they followed the dry ridges of ice and jumped the deeper water areas. We all got photos of the perfect reflections of these bears in the meltwater ponds on top of the sea ice.

During the cloudless evening, we spotted a fin whale. We watched its 60-70 foot body as it spouted, glided across the water, and then went down. Then we approached Cape Fanshaw, which was a tall sedimentary rock cliff hundreds of feet high lit up by the low-angle sunlight. There were thousands of Brunnich’s guillemots flying right over our heads. These black and white birds were flying to and from their incredibly tightly packed nests on the shear cliffs. The ship inched up to within only 100 feet from the cliffs for a very close view of the nesting guillemots. The combination of the birds, cliffs, and distant ice caps was a perfect way to end a perfect day in Svalbard.


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