A "Christmas Saga" with M/S Stockholm
Christmas 2021 is just around the corner, and since we have not been able to travel for some time, we have searched through our archives and found a beautiful travel memory to share with you. We hope that this "Christmas Saga" from our Svalbard trip onboard M/S Stockholm back in 2013 will spread some warmth and a feeling of adventure. Please sit back, relax and share this wonderful story together with your loved ones.
Expedition Svalbard with M/S Stockholm – Aug 2013
This story is written in 2013 by our popular expedition guide Rinie van Meurs.
In the morning, during breakfast, we all met our cruise leader Rinie van Meurs in the hotel for the final updates regarding luggage, lunch, museum and boarding the ship. After the luggage was picked up we joined Rinie for lunch in one of the local restaurants called “Kroa”. Here we had the first opportunity to get to know each other.
Chatting along the way we went as a group to the museum, where Rinie gave us a personal tour with additional information flavored with personal anecdotes and stories, before we set off to the harbor to board our “hotel” for the next ten days - the M/S Stockholm.
Our luggage was already in the cabin waiting for us and soon we were called to the lounge for an introduction to the ship. Martin, the first mate, introduced the crew and gave us the mandatory safety briefing. Soon we were on our way for the adventures which lay ahead.
We were all very excited and many of us stood on deck in the evening to watch the beautiful landscape in the Isfjord. The day was not yet over because just before we left the fjord we encountered a feeding party of Fin Whales and Minke Whales. What a nice way to finish the day before we turned north to our destination in the northwest corner of Spitsbergen.
Virgohamna, Smeerenburg & Raudfjord – GPS Noon position: 79º 43´N 010º 54´E
The morning welcomed us with sunshine as we cruised through a narrow passage Sørgattet between Danish Island and Spitsbergen. The idea was to start with a ship’s cruise in Smeerenburgfjorden to get our photo equipment ready and use to the ship but above all to admire the view over the Smeerenburg glacier. The captain maneuvered the ship around the bay to maximize our photo opportunities. By late morning the captain dropped anchor in Virgohamna, a small cove on the north side of Danish Island. This bay is named after the ship Virgo in which the Swedish ballooner Salomon August Andre arrived in 1896 to build his balloon and sail to the Geographic North Pole. He left finally in 1897 and was never seen again until 33 years later when the remains of the expedition and the bodies were found on Kvitøya in the east of the archipelago.
However, our plan was not to land in Virgohamna but go in the Zodiacs to photograph Harbor Seals, which only came in recent years to this bay hauling out on the rocks along the shorelines. Some were hauled out on stones just below the water surface, which gave the impression as if they were lying on top of the surface. They were surprisingly easy to approach; apparently they know the difference between a Zodiac and a Polar Bear.
On our way to Virgohamna we spotted a group of seven Walruses resting on the sandy beaches of Smeerenburg. So after many photos were taken of the seals we went over to Smeerenburg with the zodiac to meet our first Walruses.
During our scenic voyage on the Stockholm around the Northwest Islands we found our first Polar Bear on Klovingen Island. It was a big male resting in the lush vegetation under a small bird cliff. We finished the day in the afternoon on a Zodiac cruise in Hamilton Bay and the Raudfjord. No more animals were encountered but the scenery was spectacular. In the evening we decided to go straight north east for the pack ice, as the weather forecast looked promising for this region.
The Sea ice – GPS Noon position: 81º 44´N 017º 34´E
It was a beautiful morning and it all looked hopeful as we approached the pack ice edge. A light breeze and sunshine, however the sea state was a bit rough. Big swells, coming from the south east, possibly from stormy weather area in the Barents Sea. The ship was rolling quite a bit and we had to be careful making our way around the outside decks. As soon as we reached the ice it became very foggy. This is also called advection sea fog, which is notorious in these areas: what happens is when relatively warmer air moves over a cold surface, like sea ice, the moisture in the air condenses and simply creates the fog. Our problem was that a strong south easterly gale force wind earlier that week had packed the ice floes to a very densely packed edge. Together with the big swells it was impossible to penetrate and rather dangerous for the ship’s propeller and rudder. The captain cruised along the edge in hopes of finding the right conditions to enter the ice pack, but it looked a bit hopeless.
Because of the conditions no wildlife was spotted this day, other than a few Harp Seals in the water. In the middle of the sunlit night the captain did find an area where he could go in the ice. The ice was banging and crushing against the hull of the ship which we heard from our cabins. Apparently he found a place out of the sea swells for a calm night sleep but it took effort and courage to do so.
The Sea ice – GPS Noon position: 82º 04´N 023º 29´E
In the morning at breakfast time the captain decided to leave our relatively calm “ice harbor” as there was a danger: when the wind picked up it would pack the ice even more densely and we could become trapped. It still took some time and effort to leave the ice but we managed without any problems. We were now back along the edge and the swells had not dropped at all. In the early morning the visibility increased a bit and we had good hopes, but shortly it became foggy again as we were bouncing around on this little ship in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.
We were slowly making our way east along the edge in search of the right ice conditions to enter. Meanwhile it was still foggy and hardly any wildlife was sighted. At one point we reached our northernmost position of the trip; 82º 15´N. We were at that point 860 km (465 mi) from the North Pole. We kept searching for most of the day for a possibility to enter the ice. At some point the captain found reasonable ice to enter and he decided to give it a try. However after a couple of hours we were only a few miles in the ice and we hardly made any progress. Together with the foggy conditions we decided to leave the ice yet again. In the middle of nowhere, Rinie spotted a juvenile Ruddy Turnstone which flew around the ship, thinking he had found an island where it could find something to eat. These birds breed rarely in Spitsbergen so it was very likely that this bird had lost his way from Siberia or north Greenland. Apart from this Turnstone only a couple of Ivory Gulls were spotted. The conditions did not improve and it did not look like it would improve shortly so after two full days of hard work to search for wildlife in the sea ice we gave up and decided to go south to avoid loosing another day along the ice edge. Our course was south towards the Seven Islands to look for Walruses and Polar Bears on land.
Phippsøya in the Seven Islands – GPS Noon position: 80º 41´N 020º 55´E.
From the ship we saw at least 200 Walruses lying on the beach of Phippsøya, one of the northernmost islands of the Spitsbergen archipelago. It was a sunny morning so we quickly went in the Zodiac to visit the haul-out site. In the distance were a few Polar Bears but they seemed to be asleep. Rinie kept an eye on them. He briefed us before the landing and told us that if one of the bears got up and came closer he wanted everybody to stop photographing and without any questions make way to the Zodiac. Once on the beach, everybody was overwhelmed by the size of the Walrus herd lying piled up on the beach. Some animals came right up to us and it was a great opportunity to photographic portraits. Until Rinie called it off with an approaching Polar Bear. Everybody stopped taking pictures and went straight for the Zodiac. We were sitting just offshore in the boat and anticipating what would happen. Within ten minutes or so a big male Polar Bear arrived at the shore line. First looking at us then he walked over to the Walruses. Polar Bears show great respect for Walruses and we all wondered what was going to happen. The bear moved around the herd and caused a little curiosity as a few Walruses looked up, but he did not attempt an attack. Walrus tusks can be lethal to Polar Bears. This was a rare moment and we took hundreds of pictures.
Back on board for lunch we decided to stay and go back for a second trip, but lunch was barely finished when Rinie called that the Polar Bear mother and her cub were coming to the beach. Within minutes we were back in the Zodiacs for a second Phippsøya photo session. In the meantime the swells had built up a bit but it was still possible to take some pictures of the bear family along the rocky shore, the mother leading the way with the cub following not far behind. The late afternoon was finished of with a ships cruise around Nelson Island where yet another big male bear was asleep on the mossy slopes.
Raschøya & Snöholmen – GPS Noon position: 80º 10´N 026º 02´E.
Our anchorage for this morning was one of the most remote corners of Spitsbergen. We were surrounded by a barren, dry rocky landscape, typical for Nordaustlandet. After breakfast we decided to go in the Zodiac to scout the area for wildlife. It was not long until something showed up in a distance in the water. For a moment we thought it was a Bearded Seal but a closer look revealed that it was a Polar Bear swimming in the middle of nowhere. We kept our distance and waited patiently until the bear left the water. After more than an hour she finally landed on an island. It was an adult female, she was very confident and she provided us a great photo opportunity. During this event Rinie spotted another bear on an island in a distance. While the female kept doing her business we went over to check out the other Polar Bear. It was a big male bear who came right down to the shore to have a look at us. When he decided to go to another island nearby we let him follow his plan and went back to the ship for another delicious lunch.
In the afternoon we sailed to our second stop for the day. This time we entered completely new waters for Stockholm and the entire crew. The captain had completed soundings in yet another remote area. This area was at the beginning of the longest glacier front in the northern hemisphere, the Austfonna ice cap of Nordaustlandet. The captain dropped anchor near Snöholmen. From here we could see the group of islands called Frostøyane and they were packed with Walruses, mainly mothers with calves. However, Rinie did not want to go there as the islands were in the fog, which can be tricky. Instead we cruised with the Zodiac around Snöholmen and upon return to the ship the crew was gone! We found out that the crew had prepared a BBQ ashore with a bon fire. As we landed we found a sick Walrus nearby and was apparently dying in peace on her own; we just left her alone. This was possibly the first tourist landing on the island, the Stockholm crew and Rinie had never been in this place and they were very excited. While warming ourselves around the fire we enjoyed the BBQ beautifully prepared by the hotel staff.
Frostøyane and Isisøyane – GPS Noon position: 79º 52´N 027º 10´E.
After a nice quiet night at anchor we left again by Zodiac to scout the islands of Frostøyane. The fog had lifted during overnight and it was sunny, nice clear weather. In the distance we saw large groups of Walruses hauled out on the rocky islands. This was a typical area for females and their calves. Walruses live in separated herds: females and their calves together and the males in bachelor herds. The males tend to stay farther west in the archipelago. Nobody knew about this large concentration in Frostøyane of mothers and calves. Female Walruses with calves tend to be a bit more nervous than males so Rinie kept his distance to avoid any disturbance, especially from the big groups. However, he found a small group hauled out on a rock and carefully he approached them. They looked very relaxed and at closer range we had a great photo opportunity without having them alter their behavior. There were also groups all around us in the water. Here the Walruses are in their element and are not afraid to approach the Zodiac. Walruses are known to sometimes attack boats so we kept a paddle handy in case one of the defensive mothers came too close. When they become a threat then just hold the paddle towards them, this usually is enough to keep them at a distance.
In the afternoon we kept cruising in new territories and the captain dropped anchor near Isisøyane. These islands were not long ago a rocky point sticking out from underneath the glacier ice of Austfonna. Now the glacier front is at least 3.4 km (2 mi) back as a result of the changing climate. Rinie remembered walking from this rock onto the ice only 17 years ago, so in this relatively short time the glacier front had receded this distance.
It was very foggy and after a cruise around the island Rinie decided to go back to the ship as we could see little nothing in this dense fog.
Cruising along Austfonna – GPS Noon position: 79º 19´N 025º 11´E.
The plan for today was to sail with the Stockholm along the full length of the ice front of Austfonna. This glacier front is about a 180 km (100 mi) long. Most parts are active producers of small ice bergs which we call “bergy bits.” There were large and small ice bergs everywhere, millions of them! The water had sculptured to all kind of different animals from Crocodiles to a Dog’s head and from a Penguin to a Polar Bear’s face. These “sculptures” contained different tones of beautiful blue. Our hope was to find a Polar Bear on one of these blue bergy bits, which would make a great picture. When the sea ice in mid summer has gone far north, some bears miss the ice and get marooned on land and often move towards glacier fronts. Here in this refuge they hope to find a seal resting on these bergy bits which they stalk from the water. Miles and miles of glacier front passed before us. Rinie was on the outside deck from the early morning scanning with his binoculars the thousands of pieces of ice. Holding up a pair of binoculars becomes tiring in your shoulders after a while so he was using a special stick to make it more comfortable and to minimize the ships vibration.
This was not without result! Rinie spotted something on an ice berg in a distance. Captain Per slowly moved the ship through the ship toward the target. When we came closer we got very excited we discovered that it was the highly sought after Polar Bear on the blue ice berg! The captain maneuvered the ship toward the bear and we were thrilled to see that the bear came right over and started to climb the ice berg towards the ship for a closer look. It was a female and we called her the “acrobat bear.” Hundreds of pictures were taken and everybody was happy that they had photographed the ultimate Polar Bear on a beautiful piece of ice. The bear took breaks then continued her performance. Our captain kept the ship close and perfectly in place. After the exciting moment we continued our cruise along the glacier. Other then a close Bearded Seal, no more bears were seen but the encounter which we had could not be topped anyway and through our pictures we will remember for a long time this spectacular encounter.
Alkefjellet & Murchisonfjorden – GPS Noon position: 79º 47´N 018º 23´E.
We were now in the Hinlopen Strait, a passage between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet. Our target was to visit a large bird colony with Brünnich’s Guillemots on a spectacular diorite sheer cliff. The water is very deep in front of this cliff and the captain moved the ship right up to only a few meters away from the wall. Many birds had already gone to sea but there were still some left, even with chicks. These birds have an interesting biology. The chicks can never be left alone on the ledge, so only one bird can bring food for it. After about three weeks this one parent can not bring enough any longer as the chick grows bigger and requires more food. However, the chick is still enable to fly, so instead, encouraged by its parents, it jumps of the ledge and then swims with a parental bird, usually the father, to the fishing grounds. So the problem is solved. Some of us actually watched a Glaucuos Gull trying to grab one of the chicks off the ledge but was unsuccessful as the adult bird was defended the nest aggressively. This cliff is rated as one of the most spectacular one in the Arctic! On top of the cliff thousands of Kittiwakes were still around. They arrive later in spring and finish the season later as well. So their happy sounds could be heard all around.
The plan for the afternoon was to look for whales in the Hinlopen Strait. In recent years more and more whales move into this passage for feeding on Polar Cod, a small fish, and on crustaceans. However only one large Fin Whale was spotted and she was apparently on a mission and difficult to follow. In the meantime the weather was deteriorating as predicted by the weather forecast.
Apparently the winds were supposed to pick up from the south in the afternoon to a near gale, which is a force 7. So whale spotting in this chop became more difficult and Rinie decided to explore the more protected Murshisonfjorden, in the northern part of Hinlopen, for wildlife. A group of Walruses and a far away Polar Bear were spotted but as the weather became unpredictable and we probably would need our time, we decided to move on as we had at least 175 km (100 mi) to go for our next and last destination on the west coast of Spitsbergen. In the evening we passed by Moffen Island. Moffen Island is a nature reserve and we had to stay a minimum of 300 meters away from the island. Nevertheless we could clearly see the hundreds of Walruses hauled out on the beaches. After a quick stop we continued our voyage back to the west coast.
Alkhornet in Isfjorden – GPS Noon position: 78º 15´N 013º 51´E.
Overnight, we made slow progress due to strong head winds from the south. We did not arrive at Alkhornet until after lunch. It was still windy but the little bay Trygghamna gave us enough protection for a Zodiac operation. As soon as the captain dropped anchor the Zodiac was launched and we set of to our landing site. Our goal was to find the native Spitsbergen Reindeer and Arctic Fox. The landing site was nice and calm. We pulled the Zodiac up on the beach and secured with a rope onto a big rock. We discovered that the Reindeer were not far from the landing. Alkhornet has a big bird cliff and the guano from the sea birds is fertilizing the plains below for many centuries. As a result the vegetation in the area is very rich. This is of course a perfect feeding area for geese and of course the Reindeer. Some really nice big stags were grazing on the lush grasses and mosses. They were carrying big antlers and still in velvet; ideal for the picture. The Spitsbergen Reindeer have no possibility to migrate, so the winter is their enemy. For them to store up as much fat as possible is the only strategy. The animals in this area are somewhat use to humans and there is hardly any hunting so they are easy to approach. Some of them came within 20 meters! When we visited the Arctic Fox den we did not find any signs of recent activity. They probably left the safety of the den and must have gone on their own hunt. We waited for some time but after a while we gave up and went back to the landing site. Upon our return we found the Zodiac on the beach filled completely with water. Within a couple of hours the tide had changed and a nasty surf had developed. The breakers were crashing into the boat over the stern. We all tried to lift up the boat to empty it but it was far too heavy. So we spun the Zodiac around so we could push the Zodiac off the beach so Rinie could move it away from the surf and “drive” it empty. Each swell he met he sped up to get rid of the water in the boat. After about twenty minutes he returned safely but very wet to the beach to pick everyone up to go back to the ship.
The evening finished with a toast by the captain in the lounge and of course a delicious and very appropriate meal; Reindeer steak. Our 1050 nautical mile (1.945 km) expedition voyage has come to an end.
Back in Longyearbyen it was time to finalize our packing and say goodbye to the crew. Some of us were staying a night in Longyearbyen as others were flying out in the afternoon. So there was time to do a quick last shopping for friends and family back home. Most of us flew back to Oslo in the afternoon and said goodbye to each other along the way.
Our almost two thousand kilometer expedition has come to an end, the crew of M/S Stockholm and Rinie wish you all happy travels in the future and hopefully we will meet again in another wild place, or who knows back on Stockholm.
Text written by Rinie van Meurs.