Below you'll find an excerpt from the expedition cruise with M/S Stockholm to the Orkney and Shetland Islands, 30th April – 11th May 2016.
Friday 6th May - Fair Isle
This small, remote island half-way between Orkney and Shetland has a population of about 70 people, and is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, mainly because of its great importance for seabirds and migratory species. We berthed in North Haven, near the Bird Observatory, and went ashore in lovely spring sunshine to explore this island gem. Fair Isle sheep with their new-born lambs keep the grass immaculately short, and first we investigated Landberg, a 2000-year old promontory fort defended by several banks and ditches, where we sat watching puffins rafting in the bay below and coming to land at their burrows by our feet. Then most of us went for a hike with Adam to the dramatic scenery of the northern part of the island, ending at the 1891 Stevenson lighthouse.
Photo: Adam Rheborg
Photo: Adam Rheborg
After lunch we explored the nooks and crannies of the shoreline by Zodiac, gazing up at ledges full of Common guillemots, Razorbills, Northern Gannets and Northern Fulmars preparing to nest. The rocky waterline revealed Purple sandpipers and Ruddy turnstones, and Grey seals popped their heads above the water to observe us. Then there was time to wander at leisure taking in the evening light, or purchasing some of the famous Fair Isle knitwear at the Observatory.
During an expedition cruise to Svalbard, one of our last untouched wildernesses, you have the chance to experience unforgettable wildlife encounters. Svalbard's unique fauna includes several species of seals, and below can you read some brief facts about five of them.
The ringed seal belongs to the polar bear's favourite food. It is the most common seal species in the Arctic Ocean and is recognised by its grey fur with dark spots that sometimes can be taken for rings, hence the name ringed seal. The ringed seal is the only species in the earless seal family that continues to grow thruoghout life and can reach between 120 and 195 cm in length during a lifetime. Despite this, it is still slightly smaller than the harbour seal.
The harbour seal not only lives along the Swedish west coast, in the North Sea, the North Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, but a small population has also ventured as far north as Svalbard. It is black or grey in its coat with dark spots, like the ringed seal, but is thus slightly larger in comparison. A more distinctive feature is its V-shaped nostrils. It can dive up to 200 meters, after which its heart rate is lowered by about 20 beats per minute, from normal 150 beats per minute to about 130.
The bearded seal is one of the larger members of the earless seal family. It occurs only in the Arctic Ocean and is well adapted to life in a harsh and cold climate. It stores large amounts of fat during the winter months and can then reach a weight of an impressive 400 kg, which makes its head during the same period look disproportionately small. During the summer, it has thinned slightly but is still easy to recognize thanks to its characteristic moustache. If you are quiet, you can hear how the male seals, like whales, sing under the water. It is not entirely known why they do so, but it is probably to impress females nearby and to mark their own territory.
The harp seal is approximately 200 cm long and weighs 140 kg. The males are slightly larger than the females, have a black head and a black spot extending from the shoulders, along the sides back to the tail. It is thanks to the shape of that spot the seal is named harp seal, as the spot is reminiscent of a harp. The female's spot is paler but can also be split. They can dive as deep as over 200 meters when hunting fish, molluscs and crustaceans. Its young ones are completely white and lack a warming layer of fat, but the white coat instead conducts the sun's heat directly to the skin.
It may not be completely obvious, but the walrus is also included in the group of seals, even though it is classified as the only living species in its own family of walruses. Its size and characteristic tusks create a powerful impression and suggest that it is in the cold and distant waters of the Arctic that the walrus belongs. It eats large numbers of small animals such as mussels and molluscs that it grazes on the seabed, but it also happens that it eats fish and that males feed on other seals or even whales. They have almost no natural enemies and are therefore very curious animals. In the past, however, they were hunted extensive by humans, but thankfully the species has started to recover and on Svalbard you have good chances to have great encounters with these charming and fascinating animals!
Lillemor Främberg works as travel producer and travel consultant at the PolarQuest office, and we asked her to share her favourite travel memory. Below can you read about an adventure which lies a bit closer to her heart than others - among fjords, mountains, orcas and whales in magical Tromsø!
"One of my favourite travel memories is participating in PolarQuest's Orcas and Northern Lights expedition on board M/S Stockholm in November 2016. The journey started and ended in Tromsø.
We had great fortune with the weather which was cold and clear. We got to experience fantastic sunrises and sunsets, and were able to see the northern lights for several nights too. I had never seen the northern lights before, so it was powerful to see how it danced across the night sky. The fact that the sea was also almost boiling by both orcas and humpback whales did not make the trip any worse! Imagine being able to sit completely still in an Zodiac at sunset with orcas just a few meters away and hear their blow when they come up to breathe. It was magical. You become very humble about the grandeur of nature, which becomes even more important to preserve, on a journey like this. "
The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard offers many beautiful seasons, and the autumn is truly one of them! Take a few minutes to watch a short slideshow with a section of images taken during some of our previous autumn expeditions in Svalbard.
The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard offers many beautiful seasons, and the autumn is truly one of them! In late August, the midnight sun is brushing the horizon, preparing for the polar night giving us beautiful sunsets as well as a warm and soft light, perfect for anyone interested in photography.
During this time of year, the landscape is often snow-free and dry and invites to many scenic hikes. If lucky, you encounter the cute and curious Arctic fox during your refreshing hike. In the autumn, the Arctic fox’s beautiful winter fur is lighting up the autumn coloured landscape. Whales are often seen in the water and you also have the chance to see walruses with calves.
An autumn expedition could also offer an even greater expedition experience. The ice in the eastern parts of the archipelago has usually retreated at this time, which offers good opportunities to explore the more seldom visited parts of Svalbard.
The nights at these Northern latitudes are quickly getting longer and already in the middle of September you have some hours of darkness. It’s an extraordinary experience to be in the middle to the Arctic wilderness when the darkness falls!
Enjoy stunning Svalbard images!
Take a few minutes to watch a short slideshow with a section of images taken during some of our previous autumn expeditions in Svalbard.
Since 1999, we have taken travellers on once-in-a-lifetime trips to Svalbard. From May to September our three small expedition ships, carrying only 12 and 53 passengers, explore this magnificent Arctic archipelago. Unpredictability and flexibility are the main keywords when you travel with PolarQuest as the exact route depends on weather, ice conditions and wildlife encounters. Sometimes you might be woken up in the middle of the night if a polar bear has been spotted on the ice.
Disko Bay Exploration - Ice, whales & mountains
Disko Bay, located in Baffin Bay just off the west coast of Greenland, is known for its varied and magnificent nature. Fjords, caves, and huge icebergs surrounds us on our journey, but the landscape also invites us to hike over the tundra and among mountains. A trip here tends to touch you deeply, and it is easy to feel both humbled and amazed by the wonders of nature.
You can admire the world's fastest calving glacier - Jakobshavn Isbrae, or Sermeq Kujalleq as the Innuits call it, in the Ilulissat Fjord which flows out in Disko Bay. The glacier calves an estimated 40 cubic kilometres of icebergs per year, and it is therefore no coincidence that Ilulissat means iceberg. The fjord has also been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2004.
The Innuits are presumed to have settled in the area around Disko Bay after Erik the Red discovered it, but during the 15th century the climate became too cold for the Norsemen who first came here, and the Innuits have lived their lives alone here ever since. The main source of income for the inhabitants of the villages around the bay was trade of bones and furs with Icelanders, Englishmen, Scots, Irish, Welsh and other Europeans, and many villagers mainly live from fishing and hunting even today.
As we head further north we pass more glaciers, for example Eqip Sermia, which is a very active glacier too. It calves often, and it is a powerful sight to see huge pieces of ice coming off the glacier front and falling into the water! The sound is reminiscent of thunder as the air, long time packed inside the ice, finally is released.
Not only will we admire both magnificent and beautiful nature during our time on board - we also have good chances to experience unforgettable encounters with wild animals. In the fjords can we spot seals, walrus, and several whale species such as humpback whales, minke whales and pilot whales, and on land we have the chance to meet reindeer, Arctic hares and Arctic foxes.
Born in Sydney, Australia, Marty Garwood’s love for the ocean lead him to a degree in Marine Science, some extensive Scuba diving qualifications and a very hands-on job with an assortment of marine animals as a Senior Keeper at Sydney Aquarium. This role provided Marty with some very unique experiences such as being foster parent for penguin chicks. He was caught by the polar bug when visiting Antarctica seven years ago, and since then he tries to spend as much time in the ice as possible, working as a polar guide in Antarctica and the Arctic. Here Marty gives us 5 interesting and fun facts about his favorite topic – penguins!
• Most penguins support equality, with male and female sharing the rearing of their chick equally. Both will take turns incubating the egg to keep it warm and both will go out to catch food and return to feed the chick.
• The deepest dive by a bird was an emperor penguin that reached 565m! The longest time a penguin has been recorded holding its breath is 22 minutes.
• King and emperor penguins share a strange physical feature. In bright light, when their pupils contract, they become diamond shaped rather than circular. Some of the only animals on earth with pupil of this shape!
• Penguins and polar bears will never naturally meet because the equator is too warm for them to cross, making it a natural boundary line. Penguins only live in the southern hemisphere: the most northern species live in the Galapagos and are kept cool by the cold Humboldt current.
• In 1936, nine king penguins were introduced to northern Norway to increase their range. The birds survived the move but did not thrive in their new environment and the last sighting of a penguin in Norway was 1949. In 1937 one of the penguins was killed after wandering into a farm and being labelled a ‘freak of nature’ by the farm matron who had never seen a penguin before.
600 miles south of Cape Horn we find the world’s most isolated and remote wilderness – Antarctica. The grand and beautiful Antarctic landscape leaves its visitors in awe. The continent and surrounding islands are home to millions of penguins, seals and whales. Worth mentioning is the subantarctic island of South Georgia, a haven for anyone interested in wildlife and widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places on earth.