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Encounter with ice and yellow fur.......

Polar Journals - Day 5 & 6

MS “Expedition” sailed a northerly course throughout the night, making the great distance to Liefdefjorden, before anchoring deep inside the fjord.

After a hearty breakfast, we prepared ourselves for the first zodiac experience of the tour. The weather was glorious, sunny with no wind, the sea calm and the scenery awesome; jagged snow-covered mountain peaks and two vast glaciers which I remember from an earlier visit in 2004 as being one single ice front! Monacobreen glacier was named in honour of Duke Albert I of Monaco, who first mapped this area in 1906/07.

With the zodiacs lowered we cruised a path, weaving through the field of assorted ice, constantly fed by the calving ice wall. Although temperatures were barely above freezing, with the sun on our backs it felt much warmer as we passed seabirds decoratively poised on chunks of ice; their own cruising vessels. We proceeded slowly between the ice-blocks.

Nature’s ice sculptures are a breathtakingly radiant blue: old, very dense and clean, ice from the bottom of the glacier. Many trigger the imagination, conjuring up dragons at rest or a lizard with outstretched paws, though to my unimaginative mind all I could make out was a pig!

Gradually, we closed in under the steep glacier, keeping a safe distance from its rugged-torn face. Here we sat in silence, with only the humming of the outboard engine, listening to the cracking and snapping sound of the ice as air bubbles burst out of their frozen prison. We viewed the ghostly beauty of the ice-scape, leaning towers in all shades of blue, green and white, deep crevasses and fissures, caves and inlets, arches and protruding peninsulas of frozen minerals.

When in retreat, sub-glacier meltwater rivers well-up from deep beneath the glacier, bringing a source of plankton to the surface, which in turn attracts
 huge clouds of birds, all frantically feeding on the rich pickings. The majority of these were black-legged kittiwakes, joined by Glaucous gulls, Arctic terns, black guillemots and the odd Arctic skua causing havoc. More to our surprise and amazement, were the presence of a few beluga whales (white whales) swimming in the shallows at the front edge of the glacier. This activity of rubbing along the gravelly sea-bed apparently helps remove old skin that is being replaced by new growth. We returned to the ship after disappointing views of a distant little auk colony and frustrated at missing out on a king eider that was present close-by.

During lunch, “Expedition” repositioned further up the fjord at Texas Bar. A Hunters hut, built in 1927, its’ so called name (Texas Bar) is lost in antiquity and it is now used by the Svalbard Sysselmannen (Police) and occasionally for scientific research. After a splendid lunch, we were soon aboard the zodiacs again for a quick transition ashore and our first landing. The weather remained stunning and a good number of guests opted for a short leg-stretch to an elevated point where they were rewarded with spectacular views of the glacier and mountains. Arctic flowers were in full bloom, adding a splash of colour to the sombre mountain and a Svalbard reindeer grazed unperturbed in the distance. The plants included purple saxifrage, mountain avens, as well as a few specimens of Woolly Lousewort, uncommon on the northwestern regions of Svalbard.

Once back on board tea, cakes and relaxation was the order, before assembling in the Polar lounge for the pre-dinner recap and briefing to be followed by another splendid meal. This evening the ship sailed further north in our quest to find the pack-ice and hopefully Polar bear and bearded seal.

By breakfast the following morning we had reached the ice-edge at 81° 53’ North. This was the further north than I had ever travelled, normally the pack-ice would be much further south, and we were approximately 450 nautical miles short of the North Pole!

The ice-edge in mist is a unique place, providing incredible sights and challenging light conditions. The pack-ice was broken up, with rafts of one-year ice forming jagged archipelagoes. With a rich base to the Arctic pyramid of life comes a diverse group of predators harvesting the energy of the sun as captured and stored by these micro and macroscopic creatures. Minute life-forms that occur in immeasurable amounts and the fundamental building block to the mega-fauna that captures our attention.

Wrapped in warm clothes and thermal gear everyone was either out on deck, or enjoying the warmth in the bridge, all eager to spot a bit of ‘yellow-fur’ in this vast, wild, white environment. Our first bear was spotted resting on an ice-floe at some distance, while a second much closer bear, also resting on ice slipped by unnoticed by most, as the ship was stealthily and skillfully maneuvered ever-closer. Our down-wind approach to the bear was crucial in getting close, so close as to see its breath, without disturbing its natural behaviour. The bear was thought to be a large male, estimated to be 4mts in length from nose to tail and in good physical condition. Out of the mist, small snowflakes danced down melting on the deck and the bear's nose – wow an exciting beginning in the pack-ice!

The dining room buzzed with excited chat over another wonderful lunch, apparently happiness was yellow and fury! We sailed along the ice-edge during the afternoon, the grazing sound of ice scraping along the ship’s hull reminded me of school-days and finger-nails scratching down a blackboard! Another bear was seen asleep on an ice-floe, the ship gradually turned, quietly and slowly steered to where the bear was lazing. This bear appeared a little smaller than the earlier one, but for all intent looked just as healthy. The bow-deck was suddenly filled with people dashing out of a lecture, and together we all gazed down in awe at the slumbering Ursus maritimes (Polar bear).

It wasn’t long after that we were alerted to the presence of another bear in the water very close to the ship. This one, a slightly larger individual, swam past the stern and getting our scent proceeded to do a 360-degree swim around the ship, amazing!

He stayed a while resting on a small berg half-in, half-out of the water before swimming past the ship again heading towards where the smaller bear was laid. The smaller bear was perhaps much younger and when approached by the second bear it took-on a very submissive posture. It is said that the Polar bear is the loneliest animal on earth. In most parts of the Arctic they roam the pack-ice in solitude, males avoiding each other and lone females bonding with their cubs. The behaviour of two bears in such close proximity is seldom witnessed and was a truly memorable experience.