Arctic Cruise Adventure: July 15-29, 2019

Arctic Cruise Adventure: July 15-29, 2019
August 2019

Tuesday July 16: Arrive Oslo, Norway

The journey begins. Under blue skies, our party has gathered in the bustling Norwegian capital of Oslo, from which some of the greatest polar expeditions in history have begun. An early start allows our charter flights from Oslo to touch down in Svalbard shortly afternoon. The sun is high overhead now, and at 80º latitude, we will not see a proper night sky for the remainder of our trip. As our expedition staff prepares our ship, 'Le Boreal', for departure, we are provided a glimpse into daily life at Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard and the former centre of the region’s historic coal industry. Relics of this past are visible everywhere— coal carts and pieces of machinery are still glimpsed among the infrastructure of this remote outpost of humanity.

This evening we board the magnificent 'Le Boreal', where we are greeted by captain Etienne Garcia, the ship’s officers, and our Abercrombie & Kent staff. Over a glass of champagne, we situate ourselves with this state-of-the-art expedition ship and take a few moments to rest in our luxury staterooms. After checking in and conducting the mandatory abandon ship drill, we hear from our expedition director JD and expedition leader Brent, who briefly discuss our plan for the upcoming few days as we scour the Svalbard archipelago for wildlife and scenery. After a long day of travel, we are finally at the top of the world — the lines are cast free and our expedition sets forth.

Wednesday, July 17: Svalbard Islands

After leaving Longyearbyen, 'Le Boreal' continues to head North along the coast of Spitsbergen. We sail quietly under the midnight sun, and shortly after a breakfast aboard the ship we arrived in the small colony of Ny-Ålesund. This eclectic village is considered by some the northernmost permanent settlement on the planet, and we are invited to explore its streets while our bear guards patrol the perimeter, wary of any unexpected guests. A few hours in Ny-Ålesund is more than enough time to get a sense of its historical significance; a few buildings date back to the early 1900s when optimistic coal companies attempted to set up large mines in the area. After several years, however, harsh conditions had claimed dozens of lives, and the settlement slowly shifted its focus to research. The simple, colourful huts that scatter the shoreline now house scientists from around the globe who seek to better understand the Arctic environment, and though life here appears unglamorous by most counts, the work of the hardy folks in Ny-Ålesund is critical in developing our understanding of the changing Arctic.

As we wander the few streets of Ny-Ålesund, many of us are drawn to a tall, steel structure on the outskirts of town. Our expedition guide John reveals this odd tower to be an important relic from the ‘golden age’ of Arctic exploration; an old docking platform for airships. In the mid-1920s, famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen launched two expeditions from this tower in an attempt to cross over the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole. While the first trip was unsuccessful, his second attempt a year later was a resounding success; Amundsen reached Alaska a mere 70 hours after departure, his crew becoming the first to traverse the Arctic by air.

One of the biggest highlights for many on this visit was the unexpected presence of an ivory gull — the pure white seabird native to Arctic waters. Ivory gulls are typically found near dense pack ice, and it was thrilling to get to see one up close as it harassed the nesting terns and darted around the settlement.

We bid farewell to our last glimpse of civilization for the next several days, and head even further North. After a few hours of scenic cruising along the coast of Spitsbergen, we arrive at the mouth of a small bay, and a spectacular glacier face comes into view. This is Fjortende Julibreen—Fourteenth of July Glacier, named by French explorers after Bastille Day. While 'Le Boreal' drops anchor in the mouth of the bay, we prepare to explore the area. Excellent weather gives us the chance to get ashore, hiking up towards the face of the massive glacier to take in its stark beauty. To our delight, wildlife also abounds; colourful Atlantic puffins and elegant Brünnich’s guillemot sit along the rock faces near the ocean’s surface and often approach quite closely as they fly past. In the peaks far overhead, the silhouettes of several thousand black-legged kittiwake can be made out. The dense colonies of these birds, always in the rockiest and most inaccessible areas, are like beacons to predators. Below the colony, the ground is lush and green, fertilized all summer long by the droppings of the birds above. Reindeer are well-camouflaged against the rocks and lichen, though we make out several before heading to the glacier. We spend the final moments of our excursion surrounded by icebergs and enjoy the atmosphere of this incredible place.

In the evening, we cruise past some of the most stunning scenery in Svalbard and find ourselves at the base of the Lilliehöök glacier, which has receded a great distance in the past few years. The tremendous ice wall rises some 200 feet from the water’s edge and seems to almost encircle the ship as we gently pass by icebergs that have recently calved. Calm seas and light, pink skies make for dramatic photographs, and we end the day excited for more adventures in this amazing place.

Thursday, July 18: Svalbard Islands

This morning we arrive at the westernmost island in the Svalbard Archipelago — Prins Karls Forland. The foreboding peaks and battered coast make for a stunning backdrop as we enjoy a hearty breakfast. We eagerly re-board the zodiac fleet and make the journey to shore at the northern tip of the island, Fuglehuken, where we have the opportunity to see more of the Arctic landscape close-up. Flowering plants such as saxifrage and willow are everywhere, fertilized once again by the enormous colonies of kittiwake, puffin and murre in the cliffs overhead. Many of us are surprised at the volume of loose timber and driftwood littered along the beach: Fuglehuken was once a popular trappers’ destination, at a time the pelts of Arctic fox, polar bear and caribou were incredibly valuable. A human influence is clear even today: a large navigational marker dominates the Northern tip of the island, letting large vessels know the water surrounding this point are very challenging.

This afternoon, 'Le Boreal' sails Eastwards, towards the coast of Spitsbergen. We approach a long, sandy spit and get our first good looks at a herd of walrus, hauled out on the cobble beach near the ship. Eager for more encounters with the local wildlife, we board the zodiacs and quietly approach the beach for a closer look. Walrus have historically been hunted throughout the Arctic, and these magnificent creatures are thus understandably wary of our presence. Huge tusked heads turn our way as the animals consider our intentions, though we are quiet and respectful, and the walrus keep to the beach. These strange animals’ diet is comprised almost exclusively of shellfish, and though very few walruses have been seen foraging in the wild, we know they must eat a tremendous amount of food each day to survive. Both males and females have tusks, though our naturalists identify some of the largest individuals as bulls.

Friday, July 19: Svalbard Islands

We begin the morning far to the North of where we have been previously, on the edge of the polar ice pack. Seabirds such as little auk, murre, and kittiwake make occasional passes by the ship as they go about their frantic lives, collecting food to bring back to their chicks many miles away. Just as breakfast comes to a close, our expedition leader Brent announces that two fin whales have been spotted close to the ship. These whales are the second-largest animals ever to have lived on Earth: at lengths up to 80’ long, the North Atlantic fin whale population still evades strong scientific understanding. These are also fast animals, and as the two we encounter quickly demonstrate, they are capable of taking off at bursts of speed exceeding 30 miles per hour.

As our ship cruises swiftly through the Arctic Ocean in search of life, our expedition staff begins their programs in our educational lecture series. We first hear from our historian Bob Burton, whose talk ‘The Slow Race to the Pole’ is a riveting tale of lies, deceit, and the intrepid adventures of early Arctic explorers hoping to claim an impressive world-first discovery. Later in the afternoon, our botanist Kristine Westergard gives an excellent informative presentation on high arctic flora. After our landings at Fuglehuken and Fjortende Julibukta, we have come to appreciate the hardiness and beauty of these diminutive plants, and Kristine’s passion for her subject is obvious.

As the day continues, our naturalists scour the edge of the polar ice cap for signs of life. Those guests brave enough to join them in the cold are instantly enraptured by the alien world of drifting sea-ice. Large floes silently drift by, and occasionally ringed and harp seals stare back at our wildlife spotters. Once, and for a brief moment, our team is surprised by the sudden appearance of a bowhead whale. These rare animals can weigh up to 100 tons, and are some of the longest-lived species of animal on the planet — some bowheads are expected to have lived more than 250 years. The whale quickly dives out of view, emphasizing the importance of constant vigilance when it comes to Arctic wildlife viewing.

In the early evening, we gather in the lecture hall once again to hear our marine biologist, Sabina Leader-Mense, speak about marine mammals unique to the Arctic. Many whales, dolphins, and seals make their home among the shifting ice, and Sabina shares some of the secrets of how they live in such challenging conditions. Just as she’s getting started, however, we hear a surprising interruption from Brent — our naturalist team has spotted a distant polar bear. We rush on decks, where our guides help us spot not only one, but two polar bears hunting seals in the distance. Though they may appear tiny in our camera viewfinders, it is a phenomenal experience to see wild polar bears in the place they feel most at home: thick pack ice. We end the day with smooth sailing, the midnight sun shining brightly overhead as we reapproach the remote island of Nordaustland for tomorrow’s adventure.

Saturday, July 20: Svalbard Islands

This morning we awake to find ourselves deep in Hinlopen Strait, the large fjord separating the islands of Nordaustland and Spitsbergen. The captain weaves 'Le Boreal' between small, dark basalt ledges as our team of naturalists readies the zodiacs for a morning in the ice. This zodiac cruise allows us to get up close and personal to sea-ice, arguably the most important feature of the Arctic environment. Sea ice forms when saltwater chills to a temperature of about -1°C, and can form large ‘floes’ that can be many miles across. During the winter months, these floes fuse to create the massive swirling ice cap that stretches across the Arctic Ocean. As summer approaches, however, pieces begin to disintegrate, and ice travels freely under the coaxing of currents and winds. It’s on these icy wayward platforms that seabirds and ice seals take refuge; it’s also a prime place to encounter hunting polar bears.

In the afternoon, a slow cruise through Hinlopen Strait brings us to the jagged and rocky dolerite cliffs of Alkefjellet. We once again board the zodiacs and approach this thriving colony of over 60,000 breeding pairs of Brünnich’s guillemot. Mesmerized, we navigate beneath the sea cliffs these birds have carefully chosen as a nesting site, far out of the reach of arctic foxes and polar bears. Each pair of guillemots will attempt to raise a single chick. In addition to these penguin-like birds, our naturalists point out the black-legged kittiwakes, black guillemots and glaucous gulls that also call these dramatic cliffs home.

Tonight, 'Le Boreal' sails East — into the mouth of the scenic Wahlenbergfjord. As we slowly wind our way among the shifting ice floes, our naturalist Peter spots another polar bear on the ice. Although distant at first, the bear’s interest is soon piqued, and he cautiously approaches the ship. These animals are incredibly curious but spook easily — a single slamming door can scare them off. Luckily, the ship stays silent, and the young male polar bear walks straight up to the side of the ship. He eyes everyone on board individually, trying to figure out what we are. It is the perfect encounter: caution and curiosity prevail on both sides. As we return to our staterooms for the night, it’s difficult to process how lucky we have been.

Sunday, July 21: Cruising the Arctic Ocean

Our final day in Svalbard begins before breakfast, with an early zodiac landing at a gravel moraine called Texas Bar. We enjoy this last chance to stretch our legs off the ship before Greenland, and marvel at the lush vegetation blanketing the gravelly slopes. The short hike gives us the chance to take beautiful photos across the length of Liefdefjord, often considered one of the most scenic fjord systems in Svalbard.

After a quick breakfast, we once again board the zodiacs for our final cruise in Spitsbergen. Though we’ve spent the last few days looking for bears among the sea ice, today we get to ride through the mighty icebergs that have calved from the surrounding glaciers. Sculptural glacial ice is vastly different in composition to flat sea-ice floes, and our naturalists take us by some particularly luminous blue icebergs. We also approach the face of the nearby glacier, Idabreen, and watch thousands of kittiwake and arctic tern taking advantage of the nutrient-rich currents that upwell throughout the area. It feels like a full day of adventure, though we arrive back at the ship only in time for lunch.

In the early afternoon our ship weighs anchor, making preparations to head directly to Greenland. With a long sail ahead, it proves more difficult than we imagine to leave Svalbard: first, a humpback whale is spotted close to the ship — it slaps its massive flukes on the surface briefly before continuing to feed. Not long after, Brent interrupts our geologist Jason Hicks to bring us news of yet another bear sighting: this time, it’s a mother bear with her two cubs, slowly strolling along the beach at the mouth of Woodfjord. We approach as close to shore as the ship will allow, watching mom lead her two-year old offspring along at a steady pace. These young bears will stay with their mother for another year, before leaving her to experience the world on their own. These are healthy and happy cubs, well-fed and covered in leftovers from a previous meal of seal or whale. We watch them until they curl up on the tundra and tuck their heads in their paws for a rest.

Monday and Tuesday, July 22&23: Cruising the Arctic Ocean

Over the next couple of days, 'Le Boreal' sails swiftly to Greenland across a glassy sea. Out on deck, our naturalists stand watch for any passing wildlife, and we can observe seabirds such as the northern fulmar, brünnich’s guillemot, little auk, and arctic skua fly past. On board, we’re treated to a variety of lectures as we make our way Southwest. A few highlights are as follows:

We hear from Richard, our resident photo coach, who gives a lecture entitled “Photographing the Arctic: Beyond the Basics”. Richard shows us the best way to set up our cameras for certain situations and explains some of the more complex technical terms that may have mystified us before.

Our botanist Kristine explains in great detail how Arctic plants have evolved to survive extreme fluctuations in temperature, light, and water availability. We learn how their small size, thick skin, and adaptive pollination strategies originated and how they have helped these plants proliferate in an Arctic environment.

Bob Burton, our resident historian and naturalist give a brilliant series of historical vignettes throughout our time at sea. Once, we hear him talk about the sad history of whaling; how humans systematically attempted to harvest every whale from the seas once we learned how to use their oil and baleen. Many of us are surprised to learn that the practice stopped not because of ethics, but because we simply moved on to fossil fuels, and the market for whale oil collapsed.

We also hear from our expedition leader, Brent Houston, who shares some of his experience with polar bears. After a few incredible encounters, we’re very interested in learning about the behaviour of these animals, and how they are faring in such a changing climate.

Overall, our time at sea is a welcome respite after such an action-packed time in Svalbard; a chance to relax, peruse our photos and listen to our impressive selection of expert lecturers.

Wednesday, July 24: East Greenland & Scoresby Sound

This morning, we awake to find 'Le Boreal' surrounded by wispy tendrils of pack ice. Our expedition leader Brent gathers everyone in the theatre to explain the situation: a sudden change in winds has blocked the entrance to Scoresby Sound, and an impending storm means that even if we were to force our way through, we may be caught in massive waves, high winds, and deadly rafts of sea ice hidden in the swell! We decide the best course of action is to head South, to another fjord system, and try our luck there.

All morning, our naturalists scan the passing sea ice for wildlife. Hooded, ringed, harp and bearded seals can be seen distantly on passing ice floes, and our naturalists point out some of the bird species as well — as we travel further south, we begin to see a few common guillemots, and pomarine skua mixed in with the rest of the ‘high arctic’ birdlife.

Around 11 o’clock, Captain Garcia announces over the ship’s intercom that whales have been sighted in the distance. We gather on decks, eagerly looking for the tell-tale spouts of these marine giants, and are met with a shocking surprise: there’s not a direction you can look where there aren’t spouts. We find ourselves the largest aggregation of humpback whales our naturalists have ever seen — at least 200 whales, and likely many more, feed in small groups all around the ship. Many whales pass by so close that you can see their immense, white pectoral flippers under the surface, and in every direction, you can see whales raising their flukes as they dive. Among the humpbacks, fin and minke whales also feed on the dense swarms of food: likely either herring or Euphausid shrimp. It’s a magical moment as we spend an hour or so wildly looking in all directions, taking in the cacophony and frantically trying to take pictures of passing whales.

This evening, our daily recap features two vignettes of the humpback whale. Our marine mammal lecturer, Sabina Mense, tells us about the life history of these animals; how they feed, communicate, travel, and otherwise make a living in the vast expanses of our world ocean. Our naturalist Matt Messina tells us about the current research being done to better understand these animals; how Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic keeps an official record of all whale flukes in both the North Atlantic and the Antarctic, and how we can contribute to citizen science by sharing our photos of whales at www.happywhale.com.

Thursday, July 25: Cruising the Denmark Strait

Today, we find ourselves in the Kangerlussuaq fjord system, on the Southeast coast of Greenland. Eager for a chance to get ashore and stretch our legs, we enjoy a scenic landing tucked into the foothills of Greenland’s immense mountains, at the site of an abandoned hunting village. Our naturalist John greets us, quickly pointing out an interesting rock outcrop that he identifies as part of the famous Skaergaard formation. The strange-looking, pinstriped rock formed as a magma chamber cooled and reheated millions of years ago, leaving bands of minerals similar to the patterns commonly observed in sedimentary rock faces. Now, this region is famous among geologists, who study the Skaergaard to better understand the forces that cause volcanism, plate tectonics, and more.

We also find a multitude of bones. Our naturalists Sabina and Matt help identify them as seal and whale bones from years of hunting activity. We have the chance to see fragments of narwhal skulls (including one that once held an impressive tusk), identify the difference between seal and whale vertebrae, and get a close-up look at the lobed teeth of Arctic seals.

In the afternoon, we seize one more opportunity to enjoy the majesty of Greenland and reboard the zodiacs for a cruise in drifting rafts of icebergs. In the distance, the spectacular Kangerlussuaq glacier looms, its icy face many miles across. We have one last chance to be mesmerized by many forms of ice, sculpted by water and air. The quiet solitude of this place is palpable as we reboard the ship in the evening and make our way East — Iceland beckons.

Friday, July 26: Iceland’s West Fjords

Day at sea.

Saturday, July 27: Thrilling Langjokull Glacier

Our first day in Iceland is packed with adventure, which begins early in the morning as 'Le Boreal' pulls into the fishing port of Akranes. Soon, the sound of twenty huge ice-trucks can be heard off the pier, and after breakfast, we eagerly board these monsters for a scenic, narrated a tour of the Icelandic interior. Local guides provide information on Iceland’s history and culture; we learn that although the country is covered in snowfields and glaciers, tectonic activity just beneath the surface causes frequent bouts of volcanic activity — in fact, subterranean Iceland is so hot that this thriving island country produces all its energy from this geothermal heat.

Our excursion today consists of two parts, and we split into smaller groups to enjoy the most out of the experience. In lush, low-elevation valleys carved from the volcanic rock, we visit Barnafoss, a rushing waterfall that thunders through a narrow gorge, throwing spray high into the air and providing some amazing photo opportunities. Only a few hundred feet downstream, the mysterious cascades of Hraunfossar pour into the same ravine, and the many streams of waterfalls disappear into a hidden ledge above. Iceland’s waterfalls number in the thousands, and form from large glaciers in the country’s interior which we are excited to explore first-hand. The ice-trucks soon show their real utility as we climb into the rocky highlands and onto the very face of Langjökull Glacier, nine miles across. As we careen swiftly over the snow-covered ice field, the faint silhouette of base camp comes into view. A large steel tube directs us into the very heart of this shifting glacier, and we had the rare opportunity to experience what it is truly like inside these massive rivers of ice.

Sunday, July 28: Westman Islands

We kick off the final day of our journey early, as our Captain Etienne Garcia expertly manoeuvres the ship — backward — through the narrow straits that protect the small Icelandic harbor of Heimaey (“Home Island”). After another delicious breakfast, we leave the ship on our pre-arranged tours, eager to see what these remote volcanic isles have in store. A major highlight of our time in Heimaey is a visit to the ‘Pompeii of the North’ museum, which provides us with an impressive account of the volcanic eruption in 1973 when most of the village was buried in ash as cinders blasted through windows and tephra plummeted from the skies. Amazingly, nobody was injured during the eruption, and the entire population was evacuated to safety. Today, Heimaey offers bold scenery, abundant seabird colonies, and a charming atmosphere to visitors.

In the afternoon, 'Le Boreal' sails along the coast of the rocky sea stacks that make up the rest of the Westman Islands. We watch as thousands of bright white gannets swirl behind the ship — their 2m (6ft) wingspan dwarfs the other seabirds we have encountered! Puffins, guillemots, kittiwake, skuas, and fulmar also appear in large numbers as we cruise past colonies of birds that must number into the tens of thousands. Finally, we approach the island of Surtsey, one of the youngest islands in Iceland at only 56 years old! This volcano sprang from the sea in 1963, and the eruption persisted until 1967. Today, Surtsey is the site of many research projects studying island colonization by plants and animals. The basalt cliffs offer more photo opportunities until our ship makes its final turn towards Reykjavik.

This evening, upon turning in for the evening, we gather for our final recap in the theatre. Our expedition naturalist Blackjack has been taking photos and video of our cruise throughout the voyage and assembled them into a slideshow, which captured our experience traveling through this remarkable region. We attended our final dinner on board 'Le Boreal' with new friends and rested before our travel day tomorrow.