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.