Monthly Archives: February 2017

Awe-inspiring icy scenery on a journey to Nordaustlandet

John has recently said goodbye to Franz Josef Land, an Arctic archipelago – but not long before he embarked on a trip to Nordaustlandet, a large island with an impressive ice cap. On the way there, he got to indulge in Arctic wildlife viewing like that on offer if you book with us at WILDFOOT.

Day 12

Sunday: I opened the curtain to another foggy morning; I couldn’t see anything of Kvitøya (otherwise known as White Island, a name given by an unimaginative Norwegian explorer years ago). It made me realise just how lucky we all were last week with all that clear sky and sunshine.IMG_2957

Nevertheless, after breakfast, we went out on a Zodiac cruise into the mist and through the dense, floating ice. It was quite cool today, around the zero mark. Here, we came across lots of walrus – singly, in pairs and in large groups – hauled up onto chunks of ice. Even though we have now seen loads of these animals, this was a different environment again, with lots of ice and fog.

Lots of ice, ice, baby!

Heading back, the ship gradually materialised like a ghostly ‘sea spirit’ out of the mist! There was a relaxing day ahead now, as we sailed towards the big island of Nordaustlandet, which had the third largest ice cap in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. Would we actually see any of it? DSCN5510

Well, believe it or not, the answer was yes! The island not only has that icecap but also the longest ice cliff in the northern hemisphere at some 250km or approximately 160ml. The fog cleared for us just as we approached the coast. So, we slowed down for half an hour and just stood on the balcony, sharing a bottle of wine with our Aussie neighbours as we passed through the brash ice and watched the cliff go on for as far as the eye could see in both directions, with the glacier sloping away behind. DSCN5512

We also had talks on polar bears and the history of Svalbard this evening – so combined with a night cap or so in the bar, it’s another past-midnight-in-broad-daylight night!

 

A big glacier and a big walrus on a final day in Franz Josef Land

John certainly got close to nature during his recent time in the Arctic – and today, he’s going to tell us about the last of the awesome sights he enjoyed before leaving the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land, a place you can also enjoy thanks to our wildlife travel specialists.

Day 11

Saturday: 85% of Franz Josef Land is covered in ice – and this morning, we again looked out on the snow-clad landscape, albeit under grey skies. Over the last few days, we have seen amazing glaciers, but our trip out this morning really took the breath away.DSCN5417

We caught sight of a rugged, intimidating and purely magnificent glacier with a jagged wall, over 100 feet high, creaking and breaking and, as we moved along the front, the classic slope down to the sea.  And all this under a brooding sky with the mist coming in, changing perspectives in seconds. Just when you think you have seen it all, nature still has the power to surprise… DSCN5416DSCN5398

Where did all of the ivory gulls go?

Later that morning, we were back off Alexandra Land and went out especially to see a rare nesting site of ivory gulls. This particular species does not migrate far and has a very limited distribution. It is also unusual in that it does not always return to the same nesting site each year. This was proved today; there were flocks of them here last year, apparently, but not one to be seen now!

Nevertheless, we did have the bonus of a big fat walrus posing for us on an ice floe, just a few yards away, with that beautiful glacial background. That was it – our last excursion in Franz Josef Land. We were then on our way back to the Russian military station where the officials would return on board to process our exit from the country.

That really was that for Wednesday. Steaming (figuratively) south, we expected to be off Kvitøya in northeast Svalbard the following morning. However, before that, there was – I’m afraid – another big night in the bar…

 

Embracing the history and meeting a polar pioneer at Franz Josef Land

Recently, we’ve been giving John the opportunity to tell us lots about what happened during his recent time at Franz Josef Land. This Russian archipelago just seems to keep on giving, as you can discover for yourself when you embark on one of the Arctic holiday cruises we offer.

Day 10

Friday. This morning, for the first time during this expedition, we woke to cloudy, overcast skies, but at least it wasn’t foggy. We were anchored off Rubini Rock on Hooker Island, home to thousands of seabirds, where we watched Brünnich’s guillemots, kittiwakes and little auks vying for space on narrow ledges and crevices, amongst a cacophony of sound. Especially recognisable were the ‘kitt-e-wake’ calls – I never realised that the name was onomatopoeic.DSCN5255DSCN5218

The outcrop is basalt and full of amazing geological strata and shapes, especially the classic hexagons. We spent ages on the Zodiac around the base of the Rock and offshore, where we tried to sneak up, with the outboard off, on guillemots and kittiwakes perched on floating ice. We did manage to get pretty close, too, before the former dived and the latter just scattered into the air.DSCN5277 DSCN5329

Fascinating remnants of Soviet history

On the opposite side of the bay, Bukhta Tikhaya, or Calm Bay, are the remains of a Soviet weather station, which was operational from 1929 until 1959. It is now manned during the summer by a small team from the Russian Arctic National Park Service, which is gradually restoring the wooden buildings into safe condition as a historical monument.

We went ashore there this afternoon for a look around and – considering they really don’t get any tourists, just us once this year and the 50 Years of Victory four times – received an enthusiastic welcome from staff. One staff member was dressed in a polar bear costume, while another was attired as a postman standing by the original letterbox.

They do have a postal service here, so we sent postcards home – they will be picked up by the icebreaker in a couple of weeks. Then, the fog rolled in and we were hurried back to the ship, which was now invisible from the shore. Our driver said that these conditions were actually the norm for Franz Josef Land and we had just been incredibly lucky over the last few days. We weren’t complaining!

Meeting a true pioneer in polar exploration

We have also been enjoying a series of talks from members of the expedition team on history, geology, fauna and flora, etc. One speaker was Felicity Aston, who I vaguely recognised when we boarded. Then, when she started her talk, I remembered why. She had given a talk at the Birdfair in Rutland a couple of years ago.

She is a real polar explorer and is the first (and only) woman to have crossed Antarctica solo and unsupported – she skied from the Ross ice shelf, via the South Pole, to the Ronne ice shelf. Her talk was about how she coped physically and psychologically – and even though I had heard it before, it was still fascinating and quite inspiring. She is really interesting to talk to, too.

So that night, I was in bed without a view for the first time – just a blanket of fog…

 

Seeing even more birds and polar bears at Franz Josef Land

It’s a testament to the huge array of amazing sights at Franz Josef Land that John still has many more of them to tell you about. Here, the tale of his adventure on this Russian archipelago in the Arctic continues – and our wildlife travel specialists can help you to enjoy trips like this one.

Day 9

Come Thursday morning, we were out early on the Zodiacs, as we were later spending time at sea and so this was to be our only excursion that day. We landed near the spot on Wilczek Island where members of the Wellman expedition overwintered in 1898/9. Wellman was an American journalist on his second unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole.

For reaching the shore, our landing team had cut out some steps in the ice and fixed some rope hand-holds, which allowed us to climb about 12 feet to the level snow. We walked up to the remains of the hut and a simple monument and then just wandered. There was a wide stretch of tundra peppered with lots of diminutive bright yellow Arctic poppies and small patches of saxifrage leading down to the bay on the other side of the headland.DSCN5069

From no wildlife… to lots of wildlife

Here, it was choked with floating ice sculpted into innumerable beautiful and magical shapes. On our Zodiac return to the ship, we diverted into this field of white, gently nudging the miniature bergs and watching larger ones perform a perfect roll as their centre of gravity shifted. We saw no wildlife, apart from a few birds, today. However, there were footprints of both polar bear and Arctic fox near where we landed – I bet they spotted us!DSCN5046

Things changed this afternoon. We were supposed to go to Cape Tegetthoff, which is especially scenic with pointed hills; however, as the advance information on sea conditions was negative, we diverted up to a small island called Matilda, where we went for a Zodiac ride and watched another polar bear and lots more birds. These were mostly little auks, Brünnich’s guillemots (for my North American readers, these are also known as thick-billed murres), glaucous gulls and common eiders. I was really pleased to also spot a pair of ivory gulls, perched right at the top of one of the bird cliffs. DSCN5060

A serious problem for polar bears

This is an exceptional year for sea ice, which has receded at least a month early so that we have hardly encountered any – just a few ice locked bays. This means that the polar bears we have seen are effectively stranded since they rely on the sea ice for their principal prey, seals.DSCN5080

The first young bear we saw on the iceberg may not survive, because he would not have the skills to catch alternative food. The others may catch old or very young walrus or the occasional bird, but will probably struggle – and there are lots of them around. So for us, it has been good, because we have been able to access areas that would have been difficult – but the polar bears face a real challenge.