Tag Archives: Polar bear

Worlds apart

While Leonie is sweating in the tropical heat of Africa I have winged my way to the other side of the world. In a mere three days I jetted back to the starting point for our big adventure of twelve months on the high seas and am now cruising past the jagged ice-capped coastline of Svalbard. It’s surreal to think that our yacht is moored in a tropical estuary surroundedby mangroves and cheeky monkeys while I cruise amidst icebergs, seals and polar bears in the arctic island of Svalbard on a 100m meter ship!
I’m up in the arctic for 2 months earning some cash as a naturalist on an expedition cruise ship and sharing yarns about our travels in the Arctic with passengers from all over the world. Meanwhile Leonie is getting stuck into some serious science writing research articles on the epigenetics of small alpine flowers. We are worlds apart both physically and in our day to day life at the moment but we are both dreaming of the next eighteen months that lie before us.
ChimpWe have huge challenges ahead in the management of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project on the Gambia river but it is a challenge that fills us both with a sense of excitement, adventure and privilege. Here we have a chance to do some really meaningful work that has the potential to do some real good – both for the wildlife of the region and for the local people. Exciting times ahead!

Meanwhile it seems like we have both stepped into a surreal holding pattern with day to day tasks that are a far cry from the last 12 months of drifting free on the wide ocean. It certainly helps us to put our lives in perspective. It’s great here in the Arctic but I can’t wait to step aboard Widdershins and get into the swing of our new life with the chimps!

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Dawn Chorus

This morning we awoke to a strange new sound … and when you are living on a yacht in the arctic new sounds take on a new significance. The thing is, life aboard a yacht is never quite quiet. You become attuned to all the range of creaks, groans, tappings, whistles and gurgles that are the boat talking to you – and they are all sending you a message. The wind is increasing, the waves are building, there is a loose rope that needs to be tightened … you end up learning to know the language of the ship and what she wants you to do when she wakes you from your sleep with a whisper in your ear (or a scream as sometimes happens). This morning however, we awoke to a bizarre gurgling, scraping, grinding sound that was enough to raise the hairs on the back of the neck.

Needless to say such a strange sound caused a surge of adrenalin through the system and before you could say “hungry polar bear” I was up on deck in my long johns trying to decipher this cryptic new message from our yacht “Widdershins”. The vision that greeted my eyes was a new one for me: the entire bay that we had anchored in overnight had been transformed from a calm oasis with gently lapping waves into a solid sheet of ice that had formed overnight. The view was completed by the heads of a couple of ringed seals popping out from the occasional lead to peer at the strange apparition that was gurgling and grinding away to break the tranquillity of a perfect arctic dawn.

The gurgling, scraping noise, as it turns out, was caused by the ice drifting past the hull as it was carried out of the bay with the outgoing tide. The wind was dead calm and thus grinding of the ice caressing our hull as it sought escape was the only sound apart from the occasional snort of the bemused seals looking on with sceptical eyes. The grinding ice was doing no damage to the hull of course as it was only about 1 cm thick, yet I was a little worried about the sharp edges sawing through the rope anchor line that was holding us stationary in relation to the ice. A bit of quick thinking and I had a boat hook wrapped around the rope to take the brunt of the abrasion and we could relax. I was free to take in this novel experience with a hot cup of coffee.

As I sat on deck with my hands wrapped around the mug it was again time to reflect that the season was coming to a close. The winter is fast approaching and before long this bay will be permanently encapsulated in sea ice. Definitely time to head south along with the continuous flights of barnacle geese winging overhead. We just have to wait out the next storm system passing through tomorrow and we will raise the anchor and head on.

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Missing the musk ox

First up, apologies for the scarcity of blogs of late but it turns out the satellite reception here on the remote east coast of Greenland is somewhat occluded by the towering peaks and icecaps that surround us. Nether-the-less we have been busy exploring the region …. In the water, along the coast and inland!

Once settled into the picturesque anchorage of Ittoqqortoormiit we quickly donned the dry suits and plunged into the water which our dive computers quickly pointed out was somewhere in the range of 0-3°C! Despite the slight ice-cream headache experienced upon slipping into the clear waters the life here is far more varied and colourful than we have seen elsewhere in the Arctic. Here we started seeing larger fish in amidst the waving fronds of kelp and an array of shrimps, brittle stars, nudibranchs, ascidians and other life to provide distraction from the cold. There is also an interesting array of bottles, bullet clips, china and other refuse lining the underwater landscape to stand as testimony to the almost 100 years of human occupation in this remote outpost.

Once dried out we headed further into Scoresbysund, the largest fjord system in the world, and ultimately anchored in the deep ford named Hurry Inlet by Scoresby. The aim here was to find the elusive musk oxen that roam these hills. After twenty kilometres of stumbling over varied terrain that included  sandy desert, arctic tundra, rocky scree, swampy moorland and jagged boulder fields we had found plenty of signs of the beasts, such as prints, errant tufts of hair, droppings and the odd skull left by a more successful tracker than us … but still no ox! Regardless of this failure we had perhaps one of the most pleasant walks of the trip thus far.

Our stroll included some fantastic wildlife sightings such as a pair of bright white arctic hares bounding over the rock fields, small pippits playfully dogging our footsteps and the Greenlandic white morph of the gyrfalcon circling overhead. After Leonie expressed her doubts about any polar bears possibly heading this far into the fjord we also stumbled over a long line of fresh polar bear prints ambling along the shoreline! The vegetation also caught our eye. Colourful flowers still nodded on the slopes of the hill; however the fields of dwarf birch and other vegetation displayed hues of red and orange to flag the rapidly approaching end of summer. Clearly the season here is drawing to a close and it is time for us to head south in the wake of the many flights of geese winging overhead … next stop Iceland!

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Of Ice and Ittoqqortoormiit

Last night the fog that had been shrouding our passage across the Greenland Sea lifted to display a bright sun in a glorious blue sky. The horizon was punctuated by the first icebergs of the passage lined up like the teeth of the world. As the sun lowered towards the west we found ourselves skirting towers of ice reaching with craggy fingers towards the heavens. However, the new experience of night at these latitudes promised a scary new adventure – sailing through ice in the dark! As it turned out we had pretty clear seas for most of the night with only the occasional berg glowing white in the gloom. It wasn’t until the darkest hour of the night that we finally found our nerves a little frayed as we suddenly hit bands of dense fog…and those scattered dots on the radar … waves or ice? Oh …. ice ….. lots of it!

I have to admit my nerve failed me …. Rather than steering blindly through an unknown field of ice I dropped the sails, did an about turn to steer around the nearest few bergs and then settled down to drift amongst the ice until the light returned. It turned out to be a good choice. The scattered bergs we stumbled across were actually the outliers of quite a substantial band of sea ice that it took quite a few hours of twisting and turning to get though. The ice here is very different to Antarctica where generally you encounter single year sea-ice that is low and flat in profile. Here the sea ice is ridged and hummocked from the immense pressures of the drifting ice pack of the pole. Occasionally towering chunks of multi-year ice stand like monsters amidst the other flows and our poor little Widdershins looked like a toy boat amidst the splendid and scary sight of the Arctic pack ice.

Luckily dodging ice was only a limited diversion and soon clear waters opened up with only the occasional majestic berg bobbing on a horizon that was now clear and crisp. Passing the band of ice seemed to be like crossing a barrier into the true arctic – suddenly the temperature plummeted below zero, there was ice on the rigging and when the sails clapped in a gust of wind they sendt plates of ice crashing to the deck. We had also passed into whale territory – soon after the sea-ice slipped behind in our wake we were seeing the occasional blow of a whale on the horizon and soon we had the tails of humpback whales gracefully tipping up beside the boat as the beasts slipped into the depths. We encountered several; groups of humpbacks, some of which circled the boat very closely to cast a curious eye at us, as we in turn ran euphorically backwards and forward watching these beautiful animals.

Regardless of the spectacular end to the passage these weary sailors were looking forward to a rest, and the sight of the settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit (more pronounceabely known as Scoresbysund) was a welcome relief. Against the forbidding backdrop of bare rock and a distant ice cap, this small settlement is a small island of humanity in a rugged, icy land. However, it is also a community like nothing else we have encountered. Here subsistence hunting is the general rule – with only 2 supply ships bringing fresh provisions each year the local people rely very much upon harvesting seal, muskox, ducks and polar bear to provide the nutrition they need. Hanging up beside the drying clothes in front of the houses it is a common sight to see the shaggy pelt of an musk ox, or the white hide of a bear sending its rank odour into the breeze.

After a short period of awkward glances and shy hellos the people here have provided a warm welcome to us – in fact we can barely walk down the street without being accosted by children attacking us with imaginary guns or other inventive games of “tourist baiting”. It is another world here, but it a world that offers serenity and a pace of life that allows the community to develop its own unique identity. Here people count the seasons not the hours and there is no rushing. In fact it will be a hard place to leave.

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Two in the blue meets two blue whales

Today was a wildlife extravaganza! We began with the plan to head down to the Monacobreen Glacier to examine the crumbling glacial face there, and also hoping to spot some of the polar bears known to haunt the area. However we never made it that far because wildlife kept getting in the way! First off, we took a winding route amongst the Andøyane Islands where we quickly spotted the shaggy shape of a bear romping around the moss covered slope attended by an angry swarm of dive-bombing terns. We quickly threw out the anchor and watched cautiously from a distance as the bear ambled around the island in search of eggs before stretching out on the beach for a nap (despite the continued attack of the terns).

The bear was a female wearing a collar from the Norwegian Polar Institute who are tracking and studying the population on Svalbard. Such studies are critical as we try to determine how the bears are adapting to the rapidly changing environment of the Arctic …. While the lack of sea ice this year makes cruising in the Arctic a breeze for us, ice-dependant species like the polar bear are facing new challenges as their icy habitat diminishes.

While we watched the bear on the beach the fjord began to come to life around us. Small planktonic pteropods began to bounce around below the boat and a swarm of juvenile cod began to mill in the shallow water – soon kittiwakes were circling and we found ourselves in the midst of a feeding frenzy as birds dropped from the air on all sides only to be faced by a gang of jealous rivals each attempting to snatch the tasty morsel plucked from the depth. Offshore more birds darkened the horizon and soon we were watching minke whales lunging to the surface with water spilling out of their baleen as they gorged on the plankton below.


But the star of the day was yet to show – transfixed by the minke whales swimming barely ten meters off the bow, we almost failed to notice the towering columns of water being thrown to the heavens on the other side of the fjord. But when we did drag our eyes to the horizon we realised that we were in the presence of not just one, but two blue whales. Soon we left the minkes (one of the smallest Rorqual whales) behind for the largest animal in the world. The marbled blue surface of the blue whale back were shortly before us … the beasts were immense with the very small portion of back exposed with each blow making our yacht look like a small sailing dingy in comparison. Spending an hour with two blue whales is a privilege and a memory that will stay with us forever.

Today was outstanding – for the first time since arriving in Svalbard we were surrounded by wildlife. Too often landings up here entail less live wildlife and more focus on the history of whaling, sealing and trapping that ultimately led to the decline of so much of the polar life. Today was fantastic, but one can’t help contemplating the days when mariners had to “plow through” the throngs of whales in these waters …let’s hope with good management the whales one day return to their historic feeding grounds.

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Fowls, foul winds and frigid nights

We awoke this morning in the historic anchorage of Worsleyhamna – to the north is a spit of land that is buzzing with birds including long-tailed ducks, terns, purple sandpipers, kittiwakes and glaucous gulls. All around us are the scattered islands of Liefdefjorden, each with their own colony of nesting birds and the occasional prowling polar bear (though we have only found the skull of a young cub in this fjord so far).In the far end of the fjord is our target for the day – the spectacular Manacobreen glacier which once was so much more amazing. Today the glacial front is breaking apart and  bares only rudimentary similarities with the charted coastline that was first put to paper by the early explorers. Despite the diminished might of the ice we hope to spend the day cruising amidst the icebergs calved from the glacier and always with a sharp lookout for the numerous polar bears that we are assured call the area home.

And as for us? We are still having a fantastic time though the constant long watches and windy anchorages are starting to take their toll on our sleep. And talking of wind .. Much of it seems to be emanating from the rear end of our diminutive crew member Shy. Each night a blast of fetid air announces the urgent need for a walk on deck. Admittedly he is getting better, with fewer urgent calls of nature, however Leonie and I never escape without several rude awakenings during the night and a quick  lap of the deck while we shiver in long-johns and bare feet. Then again, the companionship of a warm sleepy head on the lap during a long watch, and the  pleasure of having a leaping dog taking such obvious joy in a walk more than  makes up for the more mundane aspects of dog ownership on a yacht. Now we  just have to teach him that no, the tiller of the yacht is NOT a chew toy ..

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After an amazing first day at Hornsund with Polar bears, ringed and bearded seals we explored the depths of the fjord, where four big glaciers tumble down to the sea from various valleys. Steering through the maze of smaller and larger bits of ice in front of the glaciers was quite a challenge, and I ended up bent over the bow of the ship trying to push away larger bergy bits. Luckily Widdershins is a tough steel yacht, so fortunately the pieces I missed didn’t do any damage.

After an over-“night” trip we arrived in Longyearbyen, where showers, toilets and laundry almost seemed like luxury to us. Finally we were also able to go ashore – as long as you’re in a village you don’t need a gun in Svalbard. Luckily our papers were all in order, so registering and renting a big rifle was no problem. Longyearbyen has developed in the last few decades from being a small mining town to a more touristy center with cruise ships arriving regularly (then the population explosively doubles or triples), a large range of shopping opportunities, and there were even some pubs with nice arctic beer.

Now we’re almost ready to set off into the wild again – except we got ourselves a little additional challenge. We’ve been thinking about getting a dog for the journey for a while, and as it so happens we came across this puppy husky from a big dog-sledging farm, which was extremely shy and did not mix with the other dogs at all. So we decided to give it a try and provide him with a new home on Widdershins. So far this is a trial period, we will be back in Longyearbyen in four weeks, and if “monster” (that’s the name given him by his owner) does not like us, the yacht or the sea we’ll have to give him back. But we surely hope that he’ll open up and be our companion for the adventures to come!

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Bear Island behind, bears beside

After a long passage from Bjørnøya in stormy seas we approached the grey coastline of Sørkapp in Southern Svalbard accompanied by a pod of white-beaked dolphins. These beautiful beasts kept pace with us for a while before leaping out of the water and disappearing and leaving us with the majesty of the rocky shore on the horizon. Ahead of us was a bank of grey cloud pierced by the occasional jagged peak and a sloping plateau of rock and ice merging with the mist to the east.  As we slowly drew near the grey pall dissolved revealing a stark landscape of ice and rock – glaciers clung to the valleys and the black rock seemed crushed and crumbling beneath the weight of ice and weather.

Sørkapp however, is a long way from the nearest safe anchorage. Thus these weary sailors gritted their teeth and sailed on looking forward to a respite from the constant round of four hour watches which is the lot of short-handed sailors on ocean passages. Eventually we dropped the anchor in Isbjørnbukta on the north of Hornsund and prepared to drop ourselves into bed for some slumber … except for the special problems of anchoring in the Arctic. A glacier tumbled to the sea just around the corner, and in the process of that tumble, various bergy bits and ice were released into the fjord and were attempting to make an escape to the open ocean. The only thing standing in the way: Widdershins, our yacht. Thus our planned nights repose was somewhat broken by hourly anchor watches and the occasional jaunt up to the deck to poke at the jagged ice to push it from our hull.

When we finally raised our weary heads from the bed we prepared to follow our plans of getting straight to Lonyearbyen (a 26 hour sail away) to get all the bureaucratic necessities out of the way. Except, that as we were preparing to set sail a crackle came across the radio and amidst the static we heard a few snippets about a polar bear and Hornsund. Following a couple of radio calls from our end to get further details we scrapped the plans for Svalbard’s version of civilisation and headed into the heart of the fjord to seek the bears.

Within a few hours of starting our first day in Svalbard we were sitting aboard our trusty tender Brad and powering off towards a small drift of fast-ice which apparently harbored the apex of the local food-chain, that apex being rather above the occasional grubby adventurer. Teetering upon our little inflatable boat we rounded the corner of a small bay to find ourselves face to face with not one, but two polar bears.

The bears were sitting on either end of the last patch of ice in the fjord and were hungrily watching the bearded seals and ringed seals lounging on the ice … I have an inkling that the seals are rather hard to catch and it did occur to me that a couple of soft white explorers might be an easy catch – especially since we currently had no rifle, this being the major reason for our planned first stop in Lonyearbyen. Thus we were a little nervous as we looked into the eyes of these powerful predators. However, it seemed that several days at sea had left a rather unappealing odor around us and the bears seemed content to watch us with an occasional yawn and perhaps a slight wrinkling of the nose. Jokes aside, this was the first polar bear either of us had ever seen in the wild and there is something awe inspiring, slightly scary and magic about sitting amidst the wilderness of the ice and watching these bears.

Posted in Bjørnøya, Norway, Svalbard | Tagged , | 2 Comments