Arctic Cruise Report: Olgastretet and Austfonna

From the National Geographic Explorer in the Arctic July 28, 2010

After last afternoon and evening with all of the polar bears, we stayed with the ship in the ice to catch some sleep and recharge our camera batteries. How many of us had before slept though, with nice polar bear dreams, surrounded by plenty of polar bears?

Throughout the “night” we were able to go outside and check the marvelous High Arctic light shifts and also add more polar bear sightings. Right before breakfast activity fired up again. Polar bear 11 o’clock, polar bear straight ahead, polar bears behind the ship… It was hard to keep track and very soon the numbers were blurring away. Better to focus on bear behavior, watch how they move, hunt and mingle with other bears. Polar bear fiesta is almost an understatement.

We spent all of the day, until late afternoon, slowly cruising north through the pack-ice and constantly adding new polar bear sightings. One of the many highlights has to be two males with one kill each. Suddenly a new male arrived swimming into the area to take over the kill from bear no.2. Bear no. 1 swims towards bear no. 3 but he is a huge male and just by his looks, more or less scared away Bear no.1.

While watching all of the polar bears, we were also able to watch birds along the sea ice. Ivory gulls, Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls were following us as the ship pushed away ice-flows, exposing the tiny polar cod. The cod is also the main prey for seals and the later are the food resource for the polar bears. The keen birders also were able to add Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas on their list.

The first break for this polar bear frenzy was our headwaiter Gaylord making a silent lunch announcement on all outdoor decks with his home made sign; “Lunch is now served in the dining room , Bon Apetit.” Of course we did not want to scare away all the polar bears near the ship using the PA system outdoors. At last most of us were able to sneak in to catch a taste of the Swedish herring lunch with some Norwegian aquavite (Linie).

The next break from all the polar bears was a presentation, mid-afternoon, on the geology at Svalbard given by our onboard geologist. This was followed at four o’clock by the hotel department, which had arranged an afternoon tea at the back deck. This time they surprised us with “Norwegian Sandwiches” and beer.

In the late afternoon our Captain and his officers had taken the ship all the way north to one of the larger icecaps in the northern hemisphere – Austfonna. The ice-cliffs stretch more or less for 110 nautical miles along the island Nordaustalandet. The Captain gave us an example of navigation skill, as he took the ship right up and used the wind to push her along the ice-cliff, drifting with about two knots! Impressive waterfalls passed along as we traveled by the glacier front.

Right before the recap, more polar bears were spotted, this time on a smaller iceberg. This evening we had again planned to run a recap, and just as it started shouts came out from the Lounge: “WALRUS”. Everybody ran to starboard. The recap fired up again, but was then interrupted by more polar bears. All through dinner more polar bears were sighted, and to top off a long polar bear frenzy, the Captain took the ship up to more polar bears after dinner.

How many polar bears, 30, 40 or even 45? Almost impossible to tell! We just know we have seen plenty! Most important – throughout the last two days we were blessed by cold, crystal clear air from the north, and as we approached the southern end of Hinlopen Starit we were able to see the highest peak at Svalbard, Mt. Newton (1713 meters high). An impressive sight to add to all polar bears!

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