Spitsbergen and at sea 12/08/14
For the first time since we left Longyearbyen, awoke to heavy fog and the ship moving very slowly as it threaded its way among ice floes. We had been scheduled to stay aboard this morning while the ship reached the southern edge of the Arctic pack ice, which is starting push down at the end of summer. We were to have worked our way to the most northerly point in the voyage, slightly north of 80 degrees, while we tried to enter the strait between Spitsbergen and the large island to its east. The expedition staff during this time had gone out in a couple of zodiacs to scout for sightings of polar bear or anything else that they could find that would be interesting for us to see. The belief was that this was highly unlikely since the fog had formed a cloud cover about 10 metres above sea level and we sailed in a world in which visibility was limited to a clear circle at sea level but was solid fog as soon as you climbed to the higher decks in the ship.
However, the ships radio came on to let everyone know that the team had spotted 2 polar bears on a stretch of shoreline a couple of kilometers away from the ship. The ship anchored and we all climbed into our zodiacs and headed for the sighting area and what led to one of the highlight moments of the trip. The mother and her year old cub were dozing among some rocks slightly higher than the level of the sea and only a couple of metres inland. We approached to about 25 metres from the water's edge so as not to spook them and sat in our boats and watched the two of them relax and move slowly around, unfortunately partially hidden by the rocks. The best was yet to come however and the mother began to amble along the shoreline, followed by her cub. We drifted along with them and they reached a small point where the rocks jutted out into the water. The mother bear walked to the end of the little spit right out to the water edge while she sniffed and searched, clearly trying to find something that she believed to be there. The cub during this time was sitting in the rocks where his mother had told him to stay and waited 'til he was called. Our boats were directly offshore in front of them and about 20 meters away so we had an unobstructed close up of them for the half hour that we spent watching them. Fabulous!
In for lunch and excited chatter from all on board, both about the experience but equally trying to understand how the scout team had found them amongst the miles of fogbound islands and ice floes that fill the sea where we are sailing.
We are now at the southern edge of the pack ice and the captain is trying to pick his way through so there will be no more zodiac excursions until we reach Greenland in 2 days time. In the meantime, the fog is clearing and it's a beautiful scene, limpid light on the water and the ice and the sea flat calm.
After dinner out on deck to watch the light on the water when there was a large fluke smacking the water and two fountains spraying into the air about 300 metres off the ship's side. Two whales, a mother and her youngster had broken the surface, smacked their flukes and then re-submerged, only their backs showing. Amazingly they were blue whales, which the ships crew only rarely see, and the marine biologist on board says that he has never seen a blue whale show his flukes as apparently they only show their backs above water.
Factual note: blue whales are the largest creatures that have ever lived, bigger than any dinosaur. They can be 30 metres long, as long as 3 school buses and can weigh up to 200 tons, their tongue alone weighing 17 tons, their heart the size of a VW, and their aorta large enough that a human can crawl through it. Amazing that we had a chance to see them as they have been hunted almost to extinction.
To bed with the ice very heavy around us.