Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 9: Alkhornet at the Entrance to Isfjorden

The last shore excursion on this Spitsbergen Explorer Cruise took place on Alkhornet at the entrance of Trygghamna and northern entrance of Isfjorden. Alkhornet is part of Northern Isfjord National Park and dominated by a sheer mountain cliff, named for its prominent shape, “auk horn.” The landscape around this large bird cliffs is lush and beautiful; loaded with hundreds of thousands Brunnich’s Guillemots, and a large colony of Kittiwakes. The daily briefing said fox dens who eat birds, and a substantial community of reindeer possibly could be seen. The moss tundra below the cliffs are extraordinarily lush thanks to all the bird guano (bird shit) which fertilizes the area.

The cliff mainly consists of old bedrock which is more than one billion years old! (I can’t even get my mind around that kind of number.) East of where we landed is a deep and long bay which has a diverse history; important and vulnerable cultural remains from several of Svalbard’s historical periods.

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Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 8: Zodiac through Burgerbukta in Hornsund

The Sea Spirit cruised deep into Hornsund to explore its eastern bays; Brespollen (Glacier Bay) and Samarinvagen (named for a craftsman on the Swedish-Russian-Arc of Meridian Expedition 1899-1901). Steep mountains and glaciers provide a habitat for nesting birds and we hoped, seals, walrus and bears. Finally, a Polar Bear was spotted walking across the ice by the sharp-eyed crew and staff who kept a round-the-clock vigil for wildlife.  Everyone rushed on deck with tripods, extreme lenses and cameras that captured every detail while I almost sobbed with camera envy and tried to focus in on that bear (at least a half-mile away), keeping the camcorder steady. That was almost impossible, and I apologize for shaky footage, but it was a Polar Bear.

Ecstatic people then spotted a mother with her cub walking along the snow at least one mile away, but I just could not focus in on them; even with instructions from those who were able to make them out, e.g., “Do you see that pointy spur? Look down towards the shore, to your left and then by a big rock. Do you see a yellow lump?” Lupe (in charge of Sea Spirit boutique) was jumping up and down with happiness and shrieking, “Oh, the cub just climbed on the mother” while I frantically searched using the high powered binoculars placed in every cabin. Damn! From this distance, a Polar Bear has to walk which makes it easier to spot the yellow blob. Surprised? Oils from the seals they eat can make them look yellow and some have been known to turn green due to colonies of algae growing in their hollow hair shafts. Read more »

Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 8: Shore Landing in Gashamna (“Goose Bay”), Hornsund

Lots of activity was scheduled for today; a shore landing in Gashamna, Arctic-style Barbecue outside on deck (if weather cooperates) and a Zodiac cruise at Burgerbukta.

Gashamna (Goose Bay) is a large and open bay on the southern shores of the Hornsund fjord. Land is made up of  vegetation-free gravel and a large delta which is flooded during spring and summer melting. Cultural remains, remnants of whaling (1618-1650) and Russian and Norwegian overwintering trapping are situated on graveled ground, highly exposed to erosion. One of the first great international research expeditions in the Arctic – the Swedish/Russian Arc-de-Meridian expedition was used by the Russian contingent in 1899. Gashamna is loaded with historical value and whale bones. Yes, there certainly were whale bones in all directions as the Zodiacs landed on the beach. Read more »

Are you ready for a Wild and Crazy “Polar Plunge” into Arctic Waters?

Before attempting the insane Polar Plunge, the Sea Spirit sailed north of Storfjorden, an area rarely visited by ships in Svalbard for its potential to see mobile marine mammals (mmm) because recent ice charts indicated a significant band of ice forming . Young ice is blown out of the fjord south by northerly winds, leaving a large area of open water which freezes again. During freezing, the water layer under the young ice is enriched with salt, thus having a higher density and sinks to greater depths. Sea ice formation is an important factor for deep water currents and hence the “global conveyor belt” – a system of surface and bottom currents, a major force in the Earth’s climate system. (Video: Sea Ice and Pack Ice.)

Ice concentration is reported in tenths: Open water – large area of freely navigable water in which sea ice is present in concentrations of less than 1/10; Very open Drift Ice – sea ice with concentrations of 1/10 to 3/10; Open Drift Ice – sea ice with concentration of 4/10 to 8/10; Close Pack Ice – sea ice with concentration of 7/10 to 8/10 comprised of ice flues mostly in contact with each other; Very Close Pack Ice – sea ice with concentration of 9/10 to 9+/10, solid floes in close contact, nearly no water visible; Compact Pack Ice – sea ice with concentration of 10/10+, no water is visible but floes are not frozen together; Consolidated Pack Ice – sea ice with concentration of 10/10+ and ice floes are frozen together. Read more »

Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 6: Walrus! A Zodiac Cruise through Dolerittneset on Edgeoya

Passengers were hoping for a shore excursion on Dolerittneset on the Northwest corner of Edgeoya but that was cancelled because of too much ice in the water. Instead, a Zodiac cruise was scheduled to begin after dinner. Disappointing because this area was not only a hunting station in the Eighteenth Century but whaling and scientific expeditions also came to Edgeoya. The landscape has a wide elevated plateau, steep cliffs, areas of tundra, and was named for the dark, dolerite (basaltic) rocks curving.

Pomors (Russians from the White Sea Area) and Norwegian hunters overwintered here and one hut was built in an unusual octagonal shape which was seen from the Zodiac. Hut foundations and brick fragments from whaling, hunting and scientific expeditions remain as well as walrus bones littering the area. Walrus had been slaughtered over three centuries, possibly after extensive whaling in the Seventeenth Century. Let’s cross fingers that there are still walrus around.

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Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 6: Shore Landing on Barentsoya

Excursion plans changed by the hour when large bands of sea ice forced Captain Oleg to repeatedly change course until a shore landing on Barentsoya was decided on. Sea ice is a good thing for viewing walrus and bears but not if the ship becomes trapped!

Two large islands east of Spitsbergen  called Barentsoya and Edgeoya are known for its rich wildlife; Polar Bears, reindeer, walrus, seabirds and geese as well as cultural remains from European whaling. Edgeoya was one of the main areas for Russian overwintering hunting between 1700 and 1850 but traces of Norwegian overwintering hunting can also be found. A nature reserve since 1973, the sea around these islands is not influenced by the Gulf Stream’s northern branches and is instead dominated by cold, Arctic water with drift ice for most of the year. Read more »

Are Harbin, China Tigers Killed for Body Parts?

Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin is the largest breeding center in the world for Siberian Tigers and located on the North bank of the Songhua River. It contains over 500 purebred Siberian Tigers (100 are visible to visitors), white tigers, lynx, black puma, Bengali tigers and white lions.

A full page article appeared in The Chicago Tribune 4-13-14 written by Stuart Leavenworth (McClatchy Newspapers) which referred to this park as one of the places that possibly makes their real money from sales of tiger pelts, tiger bone wine and other products, banned in China for over 20 years. Coincidentally, Marine Steve (spouse) and I were just there eight weeks ago and I wanted to elaborate on a few snippets.

 

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Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 5: Shore Landing in Isbjornhamna in Hornsund

It was around 3:15p before Zodiacs left the Sea Spirit for a shore landing on Isbjornhamna, still in Hornsund. Isbjornhamna is situated on the northern shores of Hornsund, between Wilczekodden and Hansbreen Glacier, across from Gashamna. and is considered the best natural harbor on the northern shores of Hornsund. A Polish research station is the only year-round station out in the field in Svalbard and summer is busy with scientists, personnel being exchanged, and making preparations for the winter season. Passengers saw their batteries in the ground, antennas, and parked snowmobiles as we walked higher.

Passengers were again divided into walking groups who were referred to by different names (fast, medium fast, etc.) every day except for the Chargers, people who were looking for a long, hard and fast hike. We walked with Group 2, medium fast, the largest today and set off across a soft black sand beach with strange looking stone depressions. These holes or depressions are caused by melting ice underneath. Ah so…  Up a short incline from there and down along the shoreline with amazing Hansbreen Glacier views and ice boulders near shore. A long stop to pose on and around the boulders while someone spotted a seal out on the brash ice; I never could zero in on it. Read more »

Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 4: Shore Landing on Bourbonhamna

It was a short zodiac ride through the calm bay to Bourbonhamna, Van Kaulenfjord. The bay was named for Prince of Bourbon who helped chart this area from his yacht (Fleur de Lys) in 1891-92. Heaped up piles of white whale bones from large-scale slaughtering could be seen as we approached the beach. Ingvald Svendsen established a station here which is also referred to as Bamsebu (home of the bear) solely for the purpose of white whale hunting. This building, or whaling station,  may have originally belonged to Northern Exploration Company and relocated from the eastern side of Recherchefjorden.

The main building, Bamsebu which served as living quarters, is the only private cabin in Spitsbergen National Park, considered to be in good repair and still used today. Even though the cabin is heavily fortified against Polar Bears, Sea Spirit staff told us to look for bear scratch marks outside the cabin;  I couldn’t see any. Outside the cabin is a large whetstone and disintegrating rowboats line the shore among piles of whale bones, some of which were still hunted in the 1930s. Read more »

Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 4: Shore Landing at Recherchefjord in Bellsund

Two shore excursions were planned on Bellsund today. South of Isfjorden, Bellsund cuts into Spitsbergen and splits into two branches. The landscape is dominated by high mountains, and large bird cliffs; seabird droppings account for the surprisingly lush vegetation in some areas. Recherchefjord in Bellsund is a small 8 kilometers/5 mile long fjord named for the ship La Recherche, used by a French scientific expedition in 1836 to chart most of the area. This site was used for many commercial ventures including whaling, mining, trapping and tourism. English and Dutch whalers came as early as 1612-1613. One group in 1630 become the first to overwinter in Spitsbergen after being inadvertently left behind. Can you imagine that conversation? “Oops, did anyone see …. on board ship? Don’t tell me we left them behind? Oh well, maybe next year.”

Russian Pomors – hunters and trappers from the White Sea area in Russia -  left ruins of houses and cabins that are still visible on much of Svalbard. According to Svalbard Archaeology, The Pomors arrived on Svalbard in the Eighteenth Century or possibly even earlier. However, the peak of Pomor activity took place in the Eighteenth Century. The Pomors used a wide-ranging system of base stations and outlying hunter’s camps in their activities, but nothing that can be defined as an industry.  Read more »