Friday, 13 August 2010

Arctic Adventure - 6

Friday 6th August 2010

My Arctic pictures are here.

Around 6.00 a.m. we anchored off Palanderbukta and a couple of Zodiacs went ashore with the Expedition Team to check-out the landing site. It had been a bright morning with mist on the tops of the surrounding hills but, as we took breakfast, the mist came down leaving very poor visibility and so it was no surprise when the proposed landing was cancelled and the ship moved away to give us a close view of a glacier front.

The foredeck was opened to passengers. On the way to the glacier front, we'd spotted a bearded seal just resting on an ice floe so, when we'd finished taking pictures of the glacier, the Captain re-traced his route and very gently brought the bow of the ship within a few dozen yards of the seal and stopped. The image of the seal in a 'face-off' with a relatively-huge ship crammed with humans in red parkas was irresistible but the seal was quite unfazed and remained on the ice as the ship backed away, turned and continued to Alkefjellet.

While the ship was positioning, there was time for lunch in the restaurant, today sitting with with a young couple from England I'd met earlier in the cruise and the couple from Sydney who'd been on the Captain's Table the other night. Equipped with warm clothing, binoculars and camera I then went on deck.

The ship cruised past the cliffs which are home to a large colony of Brunichs Gillemots. The Captain pointed the bow at the almost-vertical cliff and gently brought the ship to within a few dozen yards of the cliff face, making full use of the bow thrusters. Using occasional power, the Captain 'drifted' the ship across the cliff face, keeping the bow pointed at the cliff - a most impressive piece of seamanship. The cliff face was split by a number of vertical fissures, some quite deep and with waterfalls cascading into the sea and a series of very narrow generally-horizontal 'shelves'.

There were thousands of breeding pairs clinging precariously to the cliff, with hundreds flying in an out continuously and some bobbing on the surface of the sea. They made quite a racket and, once we got downwind, the smell of guano was obvious. My camera hasn't got the lens for wildlife photography, but many of the passengers were sporting cameras with massive lenses I'm sure I'd have had trouble carrying, let alone using.

The ship then carried on, working its way around the coastline until we came to our Anchorage at Augustabukta. The survey Zodiacs went ashore to make sure we could make a landing. Having set things up, groups 4 and 1 were landed whilst groups 2 (mine) and 3 waited on the ship.

Eventually, it was time for my group to go ashore and we made a 'wet' landing in a few inches of water on the shingle beach. We dumped our lifejackets in a large blue plastic bin. Colleen briefed us on the need for silence and the avoidance of sudden movement. We were to walk along the shingle a few hundred yards to a position where we could take photographs of an occupied walrus 'haul-out' near the sea. When we got there, there were a few tons of Altantic Walrus lying in the sun, occasionally raising a tusked head, slight altering their position or using a flipper for a scratch. There was one juvenile in the group, easily identified by the much shorter tusks. We stood there in wonder until Expedition Staff hustled us back to the Zodiacs with an air of urgency. At the time, we thought that this was because a sea mist was quickly rolling in and our ship, although only a few hundred yards away, was becoming hard to distinguish. We donned lifejackets and clambered aboard the remaining Zodiacs in record time then stood offshore a few yards whilst the Expedition Staff distributed themselves amongst the Zodiacs. The last person off the beach was one of the armed Bear Guards who had had to run back from their observation position a little way inshore.

It was only when we were safely back on the ship that we discovered that the real reason for our hasty retreat was the spotting of a Polar Bear just a mile away - the mist was only a secondary concern.

After this little adventure, I decided to have Afternoon Tea in the Panorama Lounge. I had tea with excellent raisin scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam. Whilst I was enjoying this, I was joined by a number ofr my American friends and discovered that it was Pauline's birthday. Her husband immediately invited us all to dinner with them and we decided to invite Chris Srigley and Victoria from the Expedition Staff as well. For some reason, I was delegated to make the invitations and confirm the arrangements with Marcello, the Maitre'd.

We enjoyed a very special meal but it did finish a little abruptly. We had started to cruise along the glacial edge - the longest in the Northern Hemisphere - and the sun was shining on the wall of ice. Robin came on the Public Address and, in excited tones, said "You REALLY ought to be out on deck", so we dutifully trooped outside to watch the passing scene. It was 11.0 p.m. before I returned to my cabin.