The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Europe & Surroundings

SVALBARD & FRANZ JOSEF LAND: Polar Bears, Ross’s Gull & Bowhead Whale below the North Pole

Monday 1st August – Friday 12th August 2022

Leaders: Mark Beaman, Inger Vandyke, and Oceanwide Expeditions leaders

12 Days Group Size Limit 20
Longyearbyen & Isfjorden Pre-tour Extension

Saturday 30th July – Monday 1st August 2022

3 Days Group Size Limit 20

SVALBARD & FRANZ JOSEF LAND: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s Svalbard birding and wildlife expedition combined with even more remote Franz Josef Land is surely our most unusual European birding and wildlife journey! Our Svalbard & Franz Josef Land tour is a fabulous wildlife adventure in this remote Arctic wilderness, offering regular Polar Bear encounters, large numbers of Walruses (they are far more numerous in Franz Josef Land than Svalbard), Ivory Gulls and a good chance of the fabled Ross’s Gull, Little Auks, Red Phalaropes, ‘Pygmy Reindeer’, Arctic Foxes, Belugas, the rare Bowhead (or Greenland) Whale, Bearded, Ringed and Harp Seals, the real possibility of Narwhal, and much more besides!

The remote archipelago of Svalbard (commonly referred to as Spitsbergen, after the largest island in the group), Europe’s largest High Arctic territory, extends from over 76°N to nearly 81°N latitude, its northernmost point being only about 1000 kilometres (around 600 miles) from the North Pole! Situated at the same extremely high latitudes as northernmost Greenland, unlike that area, it can be explored by ship during the summer months, for the warming effects of the Gulf Stream extend even this far north and melt the pack ice to such an extent that the archipelago can be circumnavigated in high summer.

Svalbard, in the form of Spitsbergen island, may have been discovered by the Vikings, but there is insufficient evidence and so its formal discoverer is William Barents who reached the west coast in 1596 while trying to find a Northeast Passage to China and the Pacific. Barents failed in the attempt, being turned back by the ice yet again, but the news of huge numbers of whales and Walruses resulted in further exploration and then, in the early 17th century, the establishment of commercial whaling bases by the English, Dutch, Basques and others, while in the 18th and early 19th centuries hunting of Arctic Foxes, Polar Bears and Reindeer for pelts became important. Eventually, coal mining was established by a variety of nations at the beginning of the 20th century, although only a limited amount of mining continues to this day. In 1925 an international treaty granted Norway sovereignty over Svalbard (which means ‘Northern Frontier’), although the treaty powers, which include Russia, Germany and Britain, retain equal economic rights.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Svalbard became the focus of polar exploration and science. Starting with the expeditions of Scoresby, Franklin and Sabine between 1806-1823, numerous expeditions either explored the Svalbard archipelago itself or used the islands as a forward base for attempts on the North Pole. Nansen’s famous ice-strengthened ship Fram emerged from the ice near Svalbard after being trapped for nearly three years and drifting to within a few hundred kilometres of the pole, while the doomed balloon expedition of Andrée left from the northwestern tip of the archipelago, as did Wellman’s unsuccessful attempts by airship, and Amundsen’s by seaplane. Finally, in 1926, Byrd (who was later also to be the first to fly to the South Pole) flew from Ny Ålesund to the North Pole and back.

Today Svalbard is an environmental showcase, having the highest proportion of national parks and nature reserves of any equivalent landmass on earth (the great majority of the archipelago is now protected), and it is the absolutely stunning Arctic scenery and rich Arctic wildlife and plant life that draw visitors intent on a more peaceful appreciation of the islands. Here are fantastic pointed mountains draped in snow (the mountains that gave Spitsbergen its name), enormous interior ice caps, vast glaciers that carve their way down to spectacular fjords, immense areas of sea ice and impossibly blue icebergs carved into weird shapes by the action of wind and sea.

Further to the east, and extending even further towards the North Pole (the islands span from 80 to almost 82 degrees north, just 560 miles or 900 kilometres from the pole!), is the seriously remote and rarely visited Russian territory of Franz Josef Land, which we will also be exploring on this very unusual Svalbard & Franz Josef Land expedition.

The Franz Josef Land archipelago consists of 192 different islands amounting to 16,134 square kilometres or 6,229 square miles in area. The islands were first sighted in 1865 by the Norwegian sealers Nils Fredrik Rønnbeck and Johan Petter Aidijärvi, who kept their discovery secret for commercial reasons. It was not until 1873 that Julius von Payer and Karl Weyprecht’s Austro-Hungarian North-Pole Expedition reported the first ‘official’ sighting of Franz Josef Land. The two explorers named these newly-discovered, uninhabited islands in honour of Austria’s then Emperor, Franz Joseph I.

From that time onwards, Franz Josef Land was the site of numerous scientific and commercial expeditions, and possession of the islands was at times contested until they finally became incorporated into the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The islands have been a nature reserve since 1994 and in 2012 they were incorporated into the huge Russian Arctic National Park.

Both Svalbard and Franz Josef Land are nowadays a fragile paradise for nature, no longer threatened by human exploitation but instead facing an uncertain future owing to the effects of global warming.

Among these Arctic archipelagos are teeming seabird colonies, notably of Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots) and delightful Little Auks (or Dovekies), beautiful Arctic shorebirds (including Purple Sandpipers and stunning Red Phalaropes), ice-loving Ivory Gulls, Pomarine, Parasitic and Long-tailed Skuas (also known as Pomarine, Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas), nesting Barnacle, Brent and Pink-footed Geese, King Eiders and a host of beautiful Arctic wildflowers ranging from Svalbard Poppy, saxifrages and Moss Campion to Mountain Avens and arctic buttercups.

In late July and August, part of the population of Ross’s Gull disperses westwards from Siberia to the seas around Franz Josef Land, the birds feeding mostly at the edge of the sea ice. We will be hoping for an encounter or two with this elegant little gull as we approach Franz Josef Land along the ice front or while we explore the northern part of the archipelago.

The star attraction of this polar region is of course the huge and powerful Polar Bear and, on this special expedition, it would be hard to imagine missing this wonderful creature that surely epitomizes the threats to the Arctic from global warming. In fact, as we have the rare privilege of sailing up to the polar drift ice en route to Franz Josef Land, and as these Russian islands now have a higher density of bears than Svalbard, we have an excellent chance of multiple sightings. We could easily see 8 or 10 or more individuals, with some up close from the ship or zodiac!

The bizarre Walrus is another favourite with visitors and these fascinating creatures are far more numerous in Franz Josef Land than in Svalbard, so we are likely to encounter large numbers.

We can also expect to come across the pretty little Arctic Fox, Reindeer (of the distinctive Svalbard-endemic ‘pygmy’ subspecies) and Bearded, Ringed and Harp Seals (the latter only in Franz Josef Land).

Cetaceans are slowly recovering their numbers in the region and are likely to include Fin, Northern Minke and Humpback Whales, Belugas (or White Whales) and with a bit of luck the enormous Blue Whale. In Franz Josef Land waters we have a good chance of encountering the uncommon and impressive Bowhead Whale and even a chance of a Narwhal encounter!

It is important to stress that one travels to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land for the awesome High Arctic experience (many people find an expedition like this such an uplifting experience that it ranks as one of the best things they ever did) rather than simply for seeing Polar Bears, Walruses, Ivory Gulls, Little Auks and other wildlife. The species diversity this far north is naturally limited, so you have to be motivated primarily with the idea of seeing a spectacular part of the High Arctic and its natural history – and what an experience it is!

The great advantage of this Svalbard & Franz Josef Land birding & wildlife tour, if you are especially interested in seeing and photographing Arctic wildlife and flora in all its glory, is that the expedition itinerary and landings are strongly wildlife-orientated. In addition, the group will also benefit by having extremely experienced naturalist guides on board.

Birdquest has operated Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding tours since 2004. This will be our first visit to rarely-visited Franz Josef Land!

The Nature of Svalbard & Franz Josef Land Birding & Wildlife Tours: Tours to this part of the world are very different from most birding tours, as we expect you to realise, and it is important to understand this and accept how Svalbard and Franz Josef Land birding and wildlife tours roll before signing up for one.

There are, of course, rather few bird species in these High Arctic archipelagos, and almost all are easy to find. For this reason, most landings are not about seeing some key avian speciality, but instead enjoyable walks, often in pristine wilderness areas, with a mix of birds, mammals, arctic wildflowers, history, scenery and geology to enjoy. Some focus on birding at teeming seabird colonies. Our Svalbard & Franz Josef Land expedition is definitely one of those journeys where a partner who is not a keen birder, but who has a general interest in nature, can have a wonderful time.

Our participants generally find our Svalbard expeditions such an awesome experience, complete with incredibly tame and trusting birds and other wildlife, and beautiful Arctic wildflowers, that longer landings are to be welcomed, not considered a disadvantage. At most landing sites it is not allowed to split up the group, owing to the potential presence of Polar Bears. Our expedition leader and staff will carry rifles and thunderflashes, although it is exceedingly unlikely they will ever have to use either during our tour! The usual procedure, if a bear is sighted approaching (as opposed to wandering along in the distance), is to retreat to the ship. This only rarely happens.

Also, participants on our tours realise that a voyage in Svalbard and Franz Josef Land is a truly unique wildlife and nature encounter and the great majority of group members want to extensively photograph the birds, Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes, Walruses, Reindeer, whales, seals, wildflowers, historic sites and extraordinary landscapes that will be encountered. If you are not a keen photographer yourself, you will need to be tolerant of this. You can watch away to your heart’s content while others photograph. There is plenty of time on our expedition to enjoy the wondrous nature of Svalbard and Franz Josef Land.

Accommodation & Transport: We shall be sailing on the MV Hondius, a purpose-built expedition ship of 5590 tons and almost 108 metres in length operated by the well-respected Oceanwide Expeditions, which is based in the Netherlands. She has the highest available, Polar Class 6, ice rating for a passenger vessel. While very comfortable and modern, this is still not a ‘cruise ship’ in the traditional manner. She is specifically designed for exploring wild places and enjoying wild nature, rather than carrying huge numbers of people, with multiple restaurants and all the rest!

Hondius can accommodate up to 170 passengers in 80 passenger cabins, all with private toilet and shower. Cabins consist of 4 quadruple porthole cabins with two lower single berths and two upper berths, 3 triple porthole cabins with two lower single berths and one upper, 27 twin porthole cabins with two lower single beds (these first three cabin categories range in size from 12-18 square metres or 129-194 square feet), 14 twin window cabins with two lower single beds (12-14 square metres or 129-151 square feet), 11 deluxe twin window cabins with two lower single beds (19-21 square metres or 205-226 square feet), 10 superior window cabins with a double bed (20-21 square metres or 215-226 square feet), 8 Junior Suites with a double bed (19-20 square metres or 205-215 square feet) and 6 Grand Suites with a double bed and a private balcony (27 square metres or 291 square feet). Cabins have ample storage space and an outside view.

Public facilities include a restaurant, an observation lounge/bar with panoramic views, a lecture theatre, a library and a small shop. Food is plentiful, of good quality, waitress-served and prepared by experienced chefs. The ship carries a complement of expedition staff who, as well as guiding excursions ashore and zodiac cruises, double up as guest lecturers and give informal talks on the environment, wildlife and history of the areas visited. There will be at least one or two naturalists among them who will also be there to point out seabirds and cetaceans at sea. The bridge is normally open to all (except when the ship is docking) and the big ‘picture’ windows provide a great viewpoint whenever it is too breezy to stand comfortably at the bow.

Not only will the numerous amenities and onboard entertainments help make your Hondius voyage truly memorable, but this ship also gives you the peace of mind that comes with choosing one of the most environmentally friendly vessels on the polar seas. Hondius uses LED lighting, steam heating, bio-degradable paints and lubricants, and state-of-the-art power management systems that keep fuel consumption and CO2 levels minimal. This means that when you sail aboard Hondius, you get to enjoy the exotic landscapes and wildlife as much as possible while impacting them as little as possible.

Landings are carried out by means of a fleet of zodiacs/naiads, the rugged, fast-moving type of inflatables first developed by Jacques Cousteau for expedition work which allow safe landings on remote coastlines in all types of conditions. The speed and efficiency with which the crew and expedition staff carry out these landings allow everyone plenty of time ashore, a key factor when considering any cruise of this type.

Photographs of Hondius and her different cabin types are available here: https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/the-arctic/cruises/hds10-22-

The hotel we use in Longyearbyen for the pre-tour extension is of good quality (and, like everything in Svalbard, is remarkably expensive).

Walking and Landings: The walking during our Svalbard & Franz Josef Land birding & wildlife tour is mostly easy (walks tend to be short distance), although there are uphill, boggy or stony areas at times which make some walks moderate grade. Zodiac embarkation and disembarkation are superbly handled by the crew and expedition staff, making most shore excursions straightforward even for very elderly or unfit participants.

Climate: Surprisingly mild for so far north, due to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. Temperatures average between 3-9°C (38-48°F) at all times (there is no night of course), although it can feel warmer on still, sunny days ashore and correspondingly colder on overcast, breezy days on the ship. There is usually little or no rainfall and sunny periods are interspersed with overcast weather. Some fog is likely.

Bird/Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our Svalbard & Franz Josef Land birding & wildlife tour are good (and scenic photography is simply outstanding).

Important: You need to bear in mind that circumstances may be encountered during our Svalbard & Franz Josef Land birding and wildlife tour which will make it necessary or desirable to deviate from the planned itinerary. These circumstances include poor weather conditions and unexpectedly heavy drift ice. The expedition leader will provide more information at the start of the voyage and keep you fully informed throughout. You should not be concerned that such changes will prevent you from experiencing Svalbard and Franz Josef Land at their best: there are always alternative areas with excellent scenery, birding and wildlife to visit if the ship is thwarted from getting to a particular place.

Getting to Longyearbyen in good time: Owing to the possibility, however small, of a severe airline delay, we would strongly recommend that all participants on our Svalbard & Franz Josef Land birding and wildlife tour have at least one hotel night at Longyearbyen prior to the expedition start and preferably two. Kindly note that in the event you do not arrive in time, the ship will not wait and neither the cruise operator nor ourselves can make a refund in such circumstances. Arriving early also has the advantage that your luggage should still catch up with you, should it be delayed. We can make hotel bookings in Longyearbyen for you on request. There is also the option to join our Longyearbyen & Isfjorden Pre-Tour Extension.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Watching the incomparable Polar Bear, the king of the Arctic and its shadow, the ethereal Ivory Gull
  • Walruses, sometimes at close range, in the water and at their beach haul-outs
  • Sailing amidst the sea ice at the very ends of the earth, and spotting Polar Bears in their threatened kingdom
  • The quest for the wandering Ross's Gull among the ice floes, a regular post-breeding visitor to Franz Josef Land!
  • Reaching Franz Josef Land, a place where few have stood and the nearest place to the North Pole in all Eurasia!
  • An intimate experience, sitting next to Little Auks (or Dovekies) at a boulder-scree colony
  • Cetacean encounters, often against stunning snowy mountain backdrops, including Fin, Humpack and Blue Whales, as well as the fast-swimming Beluga
  • Seeing the rare Bowhead (or Greenland) Whale in Franz Josef Land and hoping for a Narwhal!
  • Cute Arctic Foxes and the endearing, goggle-eyed Svalbard form of the Reindeer
  • Towering bird cliffs teeming with tens of thousands of Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots)
  • Beautiful, tame Arctic Shorebirds including stunning Red Phalaropes and Purple Sandpipers
  • Four species of skua: Great Skua plus Parasitic, Long-tailed and (with luck) Pomarine Jaegers
  • Nesting Barnacle, Pink-footed and Pale-bellied Brent Geese. See where our winter visitors spend the summer in the High Arctic!
  • Stately drake King Eiders among vast numbers of Common Eiders
  • The lovely carpet of miniature Arctic flora, including a plethora of saxifrages, Svalbard Poppy, Boreal Jacob’s Ladder, Polar Campion (or Nodding Lychnis), Woolly Lousewort and more
  • Endless, jaw-dropping scenery, including blue icebergs and calving glaciers
  • The thrill of reaching almost 82 degrees latitude (ice conditions permitting!), when there will not be many people further north in the world than you!
  • Discovering the fascinating history of Arctic exploration and whaling (happily long since discontinued!) at a number of historical sites in Svalbard
  • Outstanding photographic opportunities for both Arctic wildlife and landscapes

OUTLINE ITINERARY

  • Day 1: Afternoon tour start and embarkation on Hondius and departure. Sailing up northwest coast of Spitsbergen.
  • Days 2-3: Following the Polar ice 'front' eastwards towards Franz Josef Land. Polar Bears and a good chance of Ross's Gull at this time of year.
  • Days 4-9: Exploring Franz Josef Land.
  • Day 10: Visit ultra-remote Phippsoya in the Sjuøyane (or Seven Islands) north of Nordauslandet in Northeast Svalbard.
  • Day 11: Exploring amazing Krossfjorden in Northwest Svalbard with its awesome mountains and glaciers.
  • Day 12: Morning disembarkation and transfer to Longyearbyen airport, where our expedition ends.
  • LONGYEARBYEN & ISFJORDEN PRE-TOUR EXTENSION
  • Day 1: Tour start at Longyearbyen airport. Later start exploring Longyearbyen area.
  • Day 2: Exploring Longyearbyen region including Isfjorden coast and Adventdalen.
  • Day 3: Further exploration of the Longyearbyen region.

To see a larger map, click on the square-like ‘enlarge’ icon in the upper right of the map box.

To see (or hide) the ‘map legend’, click on the icon with an arrow in the upper left of the map box.

To change to a satellite view, which is great for seeing the physical terrain (and for seeing really fine details by repetitive use of the + button), click on the square ‘map view’ icon in the lower left corner of the ‘map legend’.

PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals on board and entrance fees.

Deposit: 20% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)

 

2022: For Longyearbyen/Longyearbyen arrangements:

Specially discounted prices available for a limited period only! Roughly 15% off the usual rates!

£4460, $6160, €5140 in a Quadruple Porthole Cabin with 2 upper and 2 lower berths, portholes and private bathroom

£5430, $7500, €6250 in a Triple Porthole Cabin with 1 upper and 2 lower berths, portholes and private bathroom

£6390, $8820, €7350 in a Twin Porthole Cabin with 2 single beds, portholes and private bathroom

£6870, $9490, €7910 in a Twin Window Cabin with 2 single beds, window and private bathroom

£7390, $10200, €8500 in a Twin Deluxe Cabin with 2 single beds, window and private bathroom

£8270, $11420, €9520 in a Superior Cabin with 1 double bed, window and private bathroom

£8860, $12240, €10200 in a Junior Suite with 1 double bed, window and private bathroom

£10200, $14070, €11730 in a Grand Suite with 1 double bed, double window, balcony and private bathroom

 

Photographs of Hondius and her different types of cabin are available here: https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/the-arctic/cruises/hds10-22-

 

Longyearbyen & Isfjorden Pre-Tour Extension: £650, $900, €750.

Gratuities for the expedition staff and crew are not included in the tour price. The level of gratuities is entirely a matter of personal discretion. The expedition staff and crew work very long hours to make such cruises a success, including a great deal of night sailing, and most passengers give gratuities of around €200-250 at the conclusion of the cruise.

For those taking the Longyearbyen & Isfjorden Pre-Tour Extension, kindly note that meals are not included.

Single Cabin Supplement: Single occupancy of twin-berth cabins can be obtained in return for a 70% supplement on top of the twin-share cabin price.

Please note that if you are willing to share, but no cabin-mate (of the same sex) is available, you will not have to pay the single occupancy supplement. Note that Oceanwide Expeditions will usually allocate you a cabinmate (of the same sex) from outside our group if none is available from within our group.

Single Room Supplement for the Longyearbyen & Isfjorden Pre-Tour Extension: £240, $340, €280.

This tour is priced in Euros. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

SVALBARD & FRANZ JOSEF LAND BIRDING & WILDLIFE TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 1  If the weather is good, you will enjoy a spectacular flight to Longyearbyen, probably via Tromsø in Arctic Norway. First, one crosses the mountains, lakes and fjords of Norway and then the even more impressive mountains of Spitsbergen, which stretch away far into the distance. Drift ice can be seen speckling the Arctic Ocean far below but it will be just a foretaste of the magic to come.

Our Svalbard & Franz Josef Land birding & wildlife expedition begins at Longyearbyen port on the island of Spitsbergen in the early afternoon.

After we board our ship this afternoon and settle into our cabins, there will be a briefing and then we will set sail at approximately 1600 (4 pm) towards the mouth of the magnificently scenic Isfjorden and the open sea, accompanied by many Northern Fulmars (most of the dark morph, characteristic of these high latitudes). Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots), Little Auks (or Dovekies), Atlantic Puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls will also be seen from the ship.

After we reach the ocean we turn northwards and pass by the long narrow island known as Prins Karl Forland en-route to the northwestern corner of Spitsbergen, where we turn northeastward and head ‘into the unknown’.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Days 2-3  By the morning of Day 2 we should have reached the polar sea ice to the north of Svalbard. The plan is to follow the ‘ice front’ eastwards until we near Franz Josef Land.

Being amongst the sea ice is one of the joys of a polar voyage. The ice floes often lie jumbled at random across the surface of the sea, sometimes widely spaced, with just small pieces of ice in between, and sometimes crammed together. Our skilful captain, an expert in polar navigation, will take our ice-hardened ship safely through this stark landscape.

Travelling to the ice is a true highlight of any Arctic journey, and as we gaze out across floes of every shape and size, ranging from brilliant white to an incredibly deep blue, we will be reminded that it is truly good to be alive when one can experience such extraordinary wonders!

It is not just the ice that is fascinating, but the wildlife that survives and prospers here. Bearded Seals, Ringed Seals and Harp Seals (the latter more likely as we get nearer to Franz Josef Land) haul themselves up on the floes and can often be approached closely by the ship. Here, we have a good chance of coming across a Polar Bear trying its luck with seals. Watching Polar Bears on the sea ice is surely the ‘icing on the cake’ as the saying goes!

Seeing one of these huge beasts as it walks fearlessly across the ice or swims between the floes is an awesome experience and as Polar Bears are ever-inquisitive, they often approach ships closely.

The ice also attracts many birds. Black-legged Kittiwakes dip down to feed on small Arctic Cod and shrimps and Little Auks (or Dovekies), Brünnich’s Guillemots (or Thick-billed Murres) and smart Black Guillemots fish in the leads or haul themselves up onto the ice floes. Non-breeding Pomarine Jaegers (or Pomarine Skuas) with spectacular ‘spoon-ended’ tail projections sometimes harry the kittiwakes in the hope they will disgorge their last meal. Here also, while amongst the ice, we should encounter the superb Ivory Gull. The greatest prize, however, is the wonderful Ross’s Gull, a species that occurs regularly in these waters in late July and August. Even so, they are widely dispersed over a large area, so cannot be guaranteed.

Cetaceans also like the ice edge and we will be on the lookout for Fin, Northern Minke, Humpback and even Blue Whales.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 4  Today we approach the Russian civilian and military base at Nagurskoye on the Franz Josef Land island of Alexandra Land. We will see Nagurskoye from the ship, but we will not land there. After getting entry clearance from the Russian authorities, we will welcome on board four rangers from the Russian Arctic National Park.

Later in the day, we aim to make our first landing on the southern part of Arthur Island. Here and indeed anywhere in the Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land, Polar Bear sightings are likely. Global warming has already affected much of Svalbard, but here in Franz Josef Land, the density of bears remains high.

As we travel around Franz Josef Land, sea ice will probably still extend far out in front of some of the glaciers and we are likely to see many Ringed Seals hauled out on the ice, but close enough to their breathing holes to escape quickly if danger threatens.

Ringed Seals are the Polar Bear’s staple diet in this region, so we shall be keeping a close watch for these marvellous animals. They can be hard to spot, especially when swimming in the open leads in the ice, or hiding amongst the boulders and stranded ice floes on the shore, but we have a very good chance of finding some. If we are really lucky we will have one come ambling across the ice close to the ship out of sheer curiosity. Mothers with small cubs are warier, however, and often head in the opposite direction.

The other creatures that we are going to be especially on the lookout for in Franz Josef Land are Walruses and cetaceans. Walruses are much more numerous here than in Svalbard and we should see some really large gatherings of these bizarre animals with their long tusks.

Walruses generally feed in shallow water and we may well encounter numbers of them hauled out on slabs of ice amongst the many channels, particularly if there is too much ice onshore for them to haul out easily on a beach. Often it is possible to take the ship close, or even get right up to some in the zodiacs. Seeing a large male Walrus at close range is truly impressive, especially when one can count every bristle on that amazing face! We will also see these bizarre creatures in the water, watching them roll around or rear their heads up to see what is happening, squinting down those huge tusks. In Franz Josef Land we can expect to find a large gathering onshore, looking for all the world like a heap of gigantic brown slugs as they sleep away the ‘heat’ of a summer’s day while wallowing in decomposing kelp! If a new arrival turns up there may be a brief kafuffle as the newcomer shuffles its way into the midst of the heap, causing some rearing up and tusk stabbing, not to mention some outraged bellowing!

Franz Josef Land has some truly wonderful Cetaceans. Pride of place among these are the rare Bowhead or Greenland Whale and the extraordinary Narwhal. Bowhead Whales were driven to the verge of extinction by the whaling industry, but are slowly recovering and Franz Josef Land is nowadays a reliable place for sighting this massive, bulbous species. Even the Unicorn-horned Narwhal gets seen here regularly and we must hope we get lucky during our visit. Much more numerous is the ivory-coloured Beluga, or White Whale, which like the Narwhal favours areas of ice and ice edges.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 5  Our goal is to sail to Rudolf Island, the northernmost island of the Franz Josef Land archipelago. Here we hope to land near an abandoned Russian station in Teplitz Bay, seeing some reminders of the Italian and American expeditions around the turn of the 19th century. Birdlife is sparse ashore in this area, but there are breeding Purple Sandpipers and Glaucous Gulls.

We will also try to land at Cape Fligely, the northernmost piece of land in Eurasia (only extreme north Greenland and northernmost Ellesmere Island are slightly closer to the North Pole), but may also change the order of these visits. Cape Fligely is situated at almost 82°N and so seems almost within striking distance of the pole! Indeed, it is only 900 kilometres (560 miles) away from us!

We will have another opportunity to encounter the beautiful Ross’s Gull in this far northern part of Franz Josef Land.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 6  After sailing south, we will reach Apollonov Island, a large haul-out site for walruses, which we will try to visit using the ship’s zodiacs.

At Cape Norvegia on Jackson Island, our aim is to visit the site where Nansen and Johansen spent the winter after leaving the Fram in 1895. Later we will sail southeast by Ziegler Island, then continue southwards through narrow but spectacular straits.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 7  Today we land at Cape Tirol, located on the northeast coast of Wiener Neustadt Island in the Austrian Strait. The cape was named by the Austro-Hungarian Tegetthoff Expedition and was climbed by its leader, Julius von Payer, in the spring of 1874.

On Champ Island at Cape Trieste, we plan to make excursions among the enormous spherical stone formations, after which we aim to sail by the coast of Alger Island, where the American Baldwin-Ziegler Expedition had its main camp in 1901-02. This beautiful area is surrounded by mountainous islands boasting impressive glacier fronts. Yet more chances for seals and the Polar Bears that feed on them. We should also find Brent Geese, Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers (also known as Arctic and Pomarine Skuas), Arctic Terns and Snow Buntings, either here or elsewhere in the archipelago. The beautiful and sought-after Ivory Gull is widespread in the archipelago and even quite common in places. Watching one flying over the equally white ice, with snow-capped peaks behind, is a highly evocative Arctic experience.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 8  Early in the morning, we arrive at famous Rubini Rock, situated in Hooker Island’s Tikhaya Bay.

The stark, sheer and dramatic cliffs at Rubini Rock host a huge seabird colony. Even as we approach the cliffs, the sheer numbers of auks (or alcids) will have become apparent and once we embark on a zodiac cruise the noise and characteristic smell of a vast seabird colony will soon surround us. Great numbers of Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots) nest here, alongside smaller numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Little Auks and Northern Fulmars. As we sail underneath the cliffs thousands and thousands of guillemots can be seen cramming every snow-free ledge, while thousands more wheel overhead or swim on the waters below the cliffs. Pieces of drift ice provide platforms for guillemots to haul themselves out on, where they look for all the world like penguins in the Antarctic!

A number of Arctic Foxes have their dens near the colony and the delightful greyish pups may be seen playing outside while their piebald mothers scavenge for fallen seabird chicks.

We may also see Bearded Seals and Harp Seals in this scenic area, which is also a good place for finding huge Bowhead (or Greenland) Whales.

Next, we sail to Cape Flora on Northbrook Island, an important site in the history of polar exploration. More than a century ago, several expeditions had their bases here, and on the cliffs behind Cape Flora are large colonies of Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots). At this time of year, it is exciting to witness the well-grown chicks trying to glide from the ledges down to the sea for their first and only time! Sometimes they bounce on the rocks, but they are still light in weight and generally avoid injury.

At Günther Bay, we may take a zodiac cruise near an important haul-out site for walruses.

If landing at Cape Flora is difficult due to sea swell, we will try to land at Bell Island, near Eira Lodge, the base station of the 19th-century British explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 9  In the morning, we will return to Nagurskoye. Here, our four rangers from the Russian Arctic National Park will leave the ship, after which we will sail west towards northeastern Svalbard.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 10  In the northernmost area of the Svalbard archipelago, to the north of the largely ice-covered island of Nordaustlandet (or Northeast Land), lies an island group known as Sjuøyane, which translates as ‘seven islands’. Here, we plan to land on the rugged island of Phippsøya, where there should be more Walruses, as well as Brent Geese, Red Phalaropes and possibly Sabine’s Gulls.

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 11  Today we will explore Krossfjorden, a spectacular fjord in northwest Spitsbergen that is full of huge and amazingly beautiful glaciers and awesome snowy mountains.

We will land at the Tinayrebreen, one of the huge glaciers in Krossfjorden, where the rocky slopes hold Rock Ptarmigan and nesting Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, as well as Parasitic Jaegers (or Arctic Skuas). Arctic plants are numerous and diverse, with Purple Saxifrage, Arctic Bell Heather, Moss Campion and several species of arctic buttercups amongst others. Spitsbergen’s only widespread ‘tree’, the mat-like Polar Willow, is everywhere. As we walk on an adjacent ridge, we will be able to look down on the surface of the glacier, seeing the dirty marks where rocks and debris lie on the surface. From time to time a large chunk of ice from the glacier front calves into the bay, floating away as a small iceberg.

At the 14th of July glacier (named by a French expedition to Spitsbergen), we will take to our zodiacs to explore the seabird cliffs where huge numbers of  Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots) and Atlantic Puffins nest, occasionally joined by a lone pair of Razorbills at the northern extremity of their distribution.

Afterwards, we will use the zodiacs to explore the face of the glacier, admiring the extraordinary pattern of cracks, crevices and recesses in the ice and of course the deep blue colour of the dense glacier ice. We should come across one or more weirdly sculpted blue icebergs in the bay, getting up close to take yet more photographs and see the almost unbelievable colours and ice carvings.

To the south of Krossfjorden is the scientific research base of Ny Ålesund, the most northerly permanent settlement on Earth. Once the site of a coal mine, Ny Ålesund was the jumping-off point, or arrival point, for a series of polar expeditions by air, including Amundsen’s almost-successful flight of 1910, Byrd’s successful flight and Amundsen and Nobile’s successful airship voyage on the Norge in 1926, and finally Nobile’s doomed voyage on the airship Italia in 1928.

[Even earlier in Svalbard’s polar exploration period, Andrée made an ill-fated balloon expedition to the North Pole from the island of Danskøya in 1897 (the balloon came down after only three days, due to excessive icing, and the three crew members walked over the ice to Kvitøya in far northeast Svalbard but could get no further and died there, their fate remaining a mystery until their bodies, log and film were discovered in 1930! There were also unsuccessful airship attempts on the pole by Wellman between 1906 and 1909.]

Svalbard & Franz Josef Land: Day 12  This morning we will disembark in Longyearbyen, where our Svalbard & Franz Josef Land expedition ends after a transfer to Longyearbyen airport. We will be sad to leave our ship and its splendid crew and expedition staff behind after such an adventure together.

 

LONGYEARBYEN & ISFJORDEN PRE-TOUR EXTENSION

Longyearbyen & Isfjorden: Day 1  The extension begins late this afternoon at our hotel in Longyearbyen on the main island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard. Longyearbyen, the only place in Svalbard that qualifies for the term ‘town’, is still a very small place. Originally established to serve the Norwegian coal mines, which still exist but are unused, the town now serves as the administrative centre for the islands and has a growing tourist business, as well as a university. The gaily painted wooden houses and the small but modern shopping centre look strangely out of place amidst the looming, snow-covered fells and the waters of the Isfjorden.

Just outside the town, we can admire one of the world’s most unusual and charismatic road signs – a red triangular warning sign with a Polar Bear silhouette and the wording ‘applies to all Spitsbergen!’ Although Polar Bears are usually wary of humans, there have been exceptions over the years and even hikers and kayakers here are expected to carry flares and a rifle – just in case!

We should see Snow Buntings in the town itself and not far away we can expect to come across cooing Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks in their beautiful summer plumage, Common Ringed Plovers, Dunlins and some very tame Purple Sandpipers, while Arctic Terns will be constant companions. Glaucous Gulls are the common large gulls here, but occasionally they are joined by a vagrant Iceland Gull or one of Spitsbergen’s few resident Greater Black-backed Gulls.

The town’s husky kennels are situated nearby and we can go up and see these interesting wolf-like animals at close quarters: perhaps they will start howling in unison, making that wolf-like impression all the stronger. Sometimes an Ivory Gull or two lingers here into summer.

Longyearbyen & Isfjorden: Day 2  Further from the town, along the few roads, the tundra pools provide nesting sites for the stunning Red (or Grey) Phalarope and the birds can also be found feeding along the shoreline of Isfjorden. We should enjoy some fantastic, close-up views of these beautifully plumaged and very confiding little birds as they swim along in the shallows right in front of us, stopping frequently to pick insects from the water’s surface. We will soon learn to distinguish the deep red females from the more pastel-shaded males.

Red-throated Loons (or Red-throated Divers) and Long-tailed Ducks also nest at the pools and this is also a good area for King Eider and we may find a collection of different plumage types, hopefully including an adult male still in good plumage and showing off its extraordinary orange bill shield.

Arctic Terns nest noisily along the shorelines and around the pools and we may see diminutive grey-brown Arctic Foxes carefully searching for chicks. Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese feed on the boggy slopes, the former placing their nests on cliff edges or rocky pinnacles where they are safe from foxes, or at least better able to defend themselves. Parasitic Jaegers (or Arctic Skuas), Ruddy Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers also nest on the slopes.

The strange Svalbard ‘pygmy’ form of the Reindeer, which has short legs that make it appear almost wild goat-like, can also be found in the area and sometimes they allow a close approach.

The surroundings of Isfjorden are some of the warmest parts of Svalbard during summer, because of the distance from the ocean, and the area has a rich flora by High Arctic standards. The extraordinary greens, buffs and browns of the tundra mosses contrast with the greys of the rocks, spattered with red, green and whitish lichens. Purple Saxifrage is everywhere, sometimes forming carpets of colour, and we can also expect to find many other arctic wildflowers including Mountain Avens and the delightful little Svalbard Poppy.

In more mountainous terrain, beautiful Rock Ptarmigans haunt the rocky slopes, even occurring at the edge of town. At this time of year, the ptarmigans are in their beautiful and amazingly cryptic summer plumage.

Little Auks (or Dovekies) nest in the mountains above Longyearbyen and one often sees large flocks flying to and from colonies high amongst the mountain crags. Mercifully we don’t need to scale the heights as there is a perfectly accessible colony along the coast. Here, the boulder slopes provide countless crevices for nesting Little Auks and we will be able to work our way cautiously to the edge of the colony. At this time of year, the birds are busy feeding their young. As we gaze across the slopes we will be able to see lots of little black and white birds clustered on the boulders and by carefully creeping up on these splendid little alcids we should be able to get stunning views and photographs from close range. Flocks of birds are constantly coming and going at the colony and just hearing the maniacal cackling of the birds is something special in itself.

Every so often a Glaucous Gull (or more rarely a Great Skua) patrols the colony, creating a frenzy of activity as birds take to the air. As the fast-flying flocks sweep over one’s head their loud cries fill the air. Indeed, the whole experience is awe-inspiring for anyone who loves seabirds and is of course unique to the High Arctic. A very different experience all round from seeing a solitary Little Auk in winter bobbing distantly on the water off some headland, or whirring past at extreme range!

Longyearbyen & Isfjorden: Day 3  We have a final morning to explore the Longyearbyen region before boarding our ship in the early afternoon.

Visiting Pyramiden: If you are taking the Longyearbyen & Isfjorden Pre-Tour Extension, you might also want to consider spending an extra night in Longyearbyen and taking a day trip to the near-abandoned Russian mining settlement of Pyramiden in upper Isfjorden. The excursion to Pyramiden is by boat and the cost for the 6-hour outing is around €220. So, with the extra hotel night as well, this is not an inexpensive option. However, Pyramiden is so very different from Longyearbyen and has some additional attractions, both wildlife and ‘cultural’.

Pyramiden is an abandoned Soviet coal mining settlement. Originally started by a Swedish company in 1910, it was sold to the Soviet Union in 1927 and the existing structures are crumbling reminders of the Soviet era, right down to heroic murals, a bust of Lenin, grim, mouldering apartment blocks etc. Indeed the place looks like it was abandoned in a hurry as there are so many items still left, including plates and cups, books, magazines and the like.

While it is fun to explore the settlement as it gives a glimpse into Svalbard’s coal mining past and the fact the archipelago had competing claims for sovereignty, from our perspective the very best feature of Pyramiden is its Arctic Foxes! They are positively tame here and you can get wonderfully close and take fantastic photographs! The foxes often hunt the Black-legged Kittiwakes that have formed colonies in Pyramiden, nesting on poles and other structures.

The boat trip to Pyramiden is equally exciting, with some awesome fjord, glacier and mountain scenery on both sides as the journey takes one into the upper reaches of Isfjorden. The area is good for Long-tailed Jaeger (or Long-tailed Skua) and Ivory Gull and there is even a real chance for the beautiful Sabine’s Gull at this time of year (the birds feed along the glacier fronts).

Please inform our office at the time of booking if you would like to include the extra night in Longyearbyen and the Pyramiden outing. Our leaders will be there to accompany participants.

SVALBARD (SPITSBERGEN) TOUR REPORT 2019

by Mike Watson

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SVALBARD (SPITSBERGEN) TOUR REPORT 2018

by Mike Watson

View Report

SVALBARD (SPITSBERGEN) TOUR REPORT 2017

by Mike Watson

View Report

SVALBARD (SPITSBERGEN) TOUR REPORT 2016

by Mike Watson

View Report

Other Northern Hemisphere Arctic birding tours by Birdquest include: