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 »

Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 3: Shore Landing at Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

The Zodiac accident put a damper on spirits especially after a briefing informed passengers that an American woman had died. Periodic announcements took place the rest of the afternoon while the ship sailed towards Ny Alesund and waited for the Governor of Svalbard to come aboard and investigate the accident. Who knew if the cruise would even be allowed to continue? Sea Spirit was supposed to have free Wi-Fi access but since it wasn’t up and running, the ship gave everyone a Satellite address to use for e-mails only; no attachments or surfing the web would be available and this was cut off immediately after the accident until late that night. I personally think so that no one could inform the outside world!

Dinner was served at 7:00p and then another announcement said there would be a chance to disembark and walk around Ny Alesund around 8:30p and Zodiacs would stand by to return  passengers back to the ship whenever they wanted. A nice perk of daylight around the clock is that it never mattered what time it was; an excursion could take place at 2:00a without any problem. Read more »

Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 3: Zodiac by 14th of July Glacier, Spitsbergen

Two excursions were tentatively scheduled for today. The first was a zodiac cruise at 9:00a past one of Sea Spirit’s favorite destinations; the 14th of July Glacier (Fjortende Julibukta) in Krossfjorden named after, what else, Bastille Day. Once underway around 9:20a, zodiacs set off in different directions. Some cruised past the 16 kilometer/10 mile long glacier first before motoring along rocks and steep cliffs filled with Gulls, Black Guillemots (also birds) and a few Puffins while others reversed directions; visiting the cliffs first and then the glacier.

The steep mountains provide an ideal habitat for thousands of Kittiwakes, breeding Brunnich’s Guillemots (not that I ever learned to tell one bird from another) and all the guano at the bottom (forget niceties, just call it bird shit) enriches the tundra and provides rich vegetation for animals (not that we saw any animals).

Our Zodiac with driver and Glaciologist Colin loaded up and began cruising along the spectacular 14th of July Glacier face. At least five different Medial Moraines help meld the 14th of July into one long glacier. A Medial Moraine is formed when two glaciers merge and their lateral moraines come together to form a single moraine as evidenced by two long streaks of brown in the photograph below.

 

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Sea Spirit Expedition Cruise Day 2: Ice, Ice and Still More Ice

Smeerenburg was on the proposed schedule for today. Located on Amsterdam Island in northwest Svalbard and originally the center of whaling operations in the North by Dutch and Danish whalers, it was an excursion to look forward to. (Smeerenburg in Dutch means “blubber town.”). Concretized remnants of whale oil still can be seen around large copper kettles in which the blubber was rendered and leftover blubber was used as fuel. Smeerenburg once had 16-17 buildings, a fort in the center, and cobbled alleys between building with drainage gullies allowed men to walk dry-shod. When men began processing blubber into oil on return to port around 1660, this settlement was abandoned and its ruins became part of Norway’s Northwest Spitsbergen National Park.

An optional snowshoeing excursion was also planned to a memorial erected in 1906. This historical site remembers whalers who lost their lives in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries working in extreme Arctic conditions. Sadly, sea ice prevented the ship from reaching its objective at 80 degrees north (considered a number to celebrate), approximately 600 miles from the North Pole (90 degrees north), and giving a fast shout-out to Santa Claus. Read more »