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21 June 2019

Longyearbyen, Svalbard and Cruise.

Arrived safely, although I thought I might get some issues with the train strike, but thankfully it was a different line. I started Wednesday on the train from Dawlish then getting the fast train to Paddington from Exeter which only stopped at Reading, it was a much better journey than I expected, while the train was busy it wasn't crowded. Then getting the Heathrow Express straight to Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

Stayed overnight at the massive Premier Inn which was very cosmopolitan with all the air crew, at breakfast they were talking about all the far away places they were going, must be a great job!

Got a taxi to Terminal 2 to catch the plane flown by SAS to Oslo which was packed with construction and other workers on their way home from working in the UK for the week, a very happy affair! A short wait at Oslo then another SAS plane to Longyearbyen. Arrived 2 Am with the sun shinning over the snow covered mountains, stunning views from the plane. Getting excited!!

On the way back from the airport on the bus my first Artic Fox, not the White but its summer colours of Grey and White, still looked stunning!

Stayed first night at Mary-Anns Polarrigg in Longyearbyen which looked like a frontier hide out, but very comfortable. The staff here were just great and very helpful getting me settled and telling me the places to go around town. While having breakfast saw Snow Buntings and Artic Skua within 25 ft. Typically no camera

Friday and I have moved to the very swanky "Radisson Blu" waiting for the rest of the group to arrive to get on the boat tomorrow. Its a bit up market to what I am used too, especially the food, it tasted great but way too frilly for me, give me steak anytime! But again here the staff were really great and helpful.

Enjoyed walking around Longyearbyen, the town is a mixture of Scandinavian type housing and the rectangular industrial type buildings, lots of colour, 100s of Snow mobiles and Snow ploughs parked up read for the winter months. Did some tourist stuff and visit to some great museums. Longyearbyen has a rich history and very much linked to Mining, Whaling and Polar Expeditions which can be seen all over town.

Amazed to see so much stuff around the buildings, especially Reindeer! Also saw over my time around Longyearbyen plenty of Eider both adults and chicks, Artic Tern, Gaucious Gull, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Purple Sandpiper, Snow Buntings, Barnical and Pink-Legged Goose Long-tailed Ducks and Black Guillemot. I also saw a pair of Artic Skua chase off 4 Reindeer from close to their nest, a sight to see, I did try to get some pics but will have to wait to see what they look like on the computer. Easily overlooked was the Artic Flowers which were dotted around the place. Some of the views from Longyearbyen are just stunning. It being high summer there is plenty of snow free areas, you couldn't get boats here without the inlets and coastal areas being free of ice and snow. It is very warm in the sun, but you go in the shade and you defiantly realise you are in the artic circle.

Was interesting seeing guides walking around with rifles, apparently you are not allowed to leave the town without one. There are signs at the town boundaries warning about Bears and not to proceed. There are some great activities here such as Dog sledding, Rib safaris and use of Electric bikes for use on the 25 kg of trails that are around. Wish I had given myself more time before the cruise, good excuse to come back.

Saturday embarked for the cruise on the "Sea Spirit", which is a Russian owned boat with 72 crew, 13 Expedition staff and about 100 passengers. The boat is 297 ft long and 50 ft wide, quiet a cosy boat really. I am sharing a room with two other guys, both turned out to be great fun which helped in a small room.

One from China and another from Italy, there was at least 15 nationalities on board, I thought I was the only Brit on board but it turned out there was 9 of us, we just seem to be the quiet ones taking it all in!

The crew were great and always on call, the food was just never ending and will have to go on a serious diet when I get back!

We were kitted out with a Parka which we could take home afterwards and some great boots which sadly we had to leave behind. Done a escape drill which was a laugh but serious at the same time!

We also talked about the activities, landings and use of the Zodiacs. I thought this was very well managed and organised.

Before the guests left the ship a scouting party would check the shore for bears and the guides would set up a perimeter, they were armed with a Flare Gun and a Rifle which would be a very last resort, if a Polar bear turned up hopefully the use of a Flare would frighten it off. Very strict on Life Jackets, no more than 10 to a boat with a driver and procedures for getting on and off the boat.

I noticed that always walking Poles, First Aid and safety equipment was always ready at the landing site before the guests arrived, clearly well thought out and practiced.

The Zodiacs were an important tool for the ship to get guests and crew on and off the ship, there was 12 of them and stored on the back of the boat, the ships crew were very slick in their job and seemed always to be call and have the Zodiacs in the water ASAP. The boats themselves felt very safe to be in but sat on one for over a hour on a tour gave you a soar backside, this was often compensated by seeing great wildlife or stunning scenery!

There was also a group of Kayaks, 8 guests and 2 Guides who tried to go out every day but because of the weather this didn't always happen, one trip they had Beluga Whales surface next to them which must have been such a fantastic experience

Doing this type of trip in such a wild place as Svalbard you are going to be at the mercy of the elements, Christian the Expedition Leader spoke to the group about the ice sheet which had moved south so we had to change direction from the original plan as the boat was not a Ice Breaker and couldn't touch the ice sheet, so a move south and look at the East coast first to see what we could find. Plenty of other stuff to see and already the boat is surrounded with Fulmars, tried to take some pictures of this fast moving bird was fun as normal. Have been experimenting with the settings all day and hope I have it sorted as there is a lot of white here!

Sunday went south along the west coast of Svalbard and around the southern point and up a stretch of water called "Storfjorden" to Kapp Lee, which is a old whaling station used by several groups, but especially the "Pomors" who were people who lived on the coast of the White Sea in Northern Russia and remains of Walrus are everywhere. Although these animals were almost driven to extinction they have made a come back and we had the privilege of seeing about 40 Atlantic Walrus on the beach, and another 2 swimming just amazing! They are the smallest of the 3 species of Walrus in the Artic Circle, the other two are Pacific and the Leptov which is on the Russian northern coast, to be honest these Walrus look big enough for me! They can get up to 11.5ft and weigh up to 1.5 Tonnes.

It was great to get off the boat, there was concern as it had been foggy all day and visibility was poor but after a safety briefing we went out on the Zodiacs which was fun. Getting on and off the beach was easier than I thought it would be. While here we also saw Reindeer, Artic Skua and Artic Tern, Kittiwake, Fulmar and Black Guillemot

When we got back we got a great talk from Christian the team leader on the European Walrus-fascinating stuff!

Overnight the boat sailed northwards to the ice sheet so we could see the "Negribreen" Glacier, first thing the fog cleared but later on it came back but patchy and we were still able to get on the Zodiacs and explore this area.

Saw some stunning blue Ice Burgs which are the ones that have come from the Glacier and some flat white ones which are Sea Ice. Also while we were there a "Calving" took place, don't ask me why its called this but its where a large lump of ice falls off the Glacier wall and forms an Ice Burg. Amazing thing to witness!

The Glacier itself is "Surging" which means its traveling a lot faster than normal, it was really atmospheric traveling through the ice. There was a large area of "Brash" ice which is the smaller stuff in amongst the larger Burgs, made a big bang when they hit the bottom of the boat.

Before dinner we had 3 great talks about, "Polar Psycholog"y "Perma Frost! and "Plate tectonics and the origins of the North Atlantic ridge" from three different guides. All these talks are about trying to help you understand the Artic, I got a lot from these and worth going to.

After dinner had a look out on the water from the boat while we were still and saw a Great Skua and a small flock of King Eider, shame they were a distance as the quality of the pic was poor as the camera kept focusing on the water and not the birds.

Tuesday after sailing overnight back south past the sourthern tip again and up the west coast to "Hornsund", the sourthern most Fjord in Spitzbergen, its almost 30Km long and 10 KM wide. Off the boat went for a walk around the shore at "Gnalodden". Plenty of birds flying around with Puffin, Guillemots, Little Auk, Kittiwake, Artic Skua, Artic Tern, Barnacle geese and some impressive Glaucous Gulls, plenty of stunning Artic Flowers and a old trappers hut from the early 1900`s plus as always some stunning views!

In the afternoon we sailed further up the Hornsund and parked up to the Glacier "Samarinbrean". The group split in two, one went for a hike above the Fjord looking down on us in the boats, I joined a group having a look around on the Zodiacs, the Glacier looked stunning and there was several "Calvings" small but impressive ones! The noise was impressive as well and something I wasn't expecting. Plenty of Fulmar, Kittiwakes and Black Guillemots on the water but best of all was 6-7 Beluga Whales which swam around the Zodiacs, we only saw humps unlike those above us who got some great views, but such a impressive sight especially the white one, the rest were more of a grey colour, what a privilege that was! I've been in a boat before around Whales and Dolphins and it never ceases to excite me.

Later 31 very mad passengers did a "Polar Plunge" followed by some of the staff, where they jumped into the fjord attached to a rope, absolutely mad but fun to watch, I stayed well away on one of the higher decks so I didn't get pulled in! When everybody got warmed up we had a excellent talk on Beluga Whales.

Overnight again the boat moved to "Bellsund" which is further north and two trips organised for today, the morning found us at "Bamsebu", saw the sad sight piles of Beluga Whale bones on the beach, but it important to put these into context and history of a by gone era, also to add to the history an old trappers hut. Also found remains of a Juvenile Polar Bear, most of the remains have gone except for a very impressive paw, it might be a Juvenile but you would know it if it hit you with it! More great Tundra Flowers which I continue to me amazed by these stunning little plants and how they survive in this harsh environment, Reindeer, Artic Fox, Artic Skua, Artic Tern, Fulmar and Kittiwakes.

It was though sad to find plastic washed up on the beach as well as a Blue plastic bag, bloody stuff gets everywhere. There are constant clean ups here but most of it gets dragged up here on the Gulf Stream.

In the afternoon we went to a very impressive Little Auk colony, absolutely thousands of them, being raided on a regular occurrence by Glaucous Gulls which would try and grab a bird sat on the rocks, this would put the Auks up in clouds of noisy chatter. I have seen these birds before, a tiny thickset, short-billed Auk, but always at a distance on the east coast of England but never this close. The colony is amongst loose rocks of the mountain side, the nests are deep inside the rocks safe from predators and as I have said before 1000`s of them, smart looking bird with plenty of character.

We also saw an Arctic Fox and its Kit walking among the rocks looking for a meal, they were well camouflaged and difficult to see at times. I wasn't sure what the sex of the adult was but on one of my pics you can clearly see its a Dog Fox.

We had a great talk by the guest speaker tonight, it was Robert Calcagno who is the CEO of the Oceanic institute of Monaco talking about "Protecting the Ocean". It was a treat to spend time with Robert and his wife Beatrice around the Dinner table and on activities.

Traveled further North to "Krossfjorden" to see the "14 July Glacier" which was named by some French Explorers after Bastille Day.

At Breakfast time there was a announcement that 3 Polar Bears were swimming in front of the boat, as you can imagine this cleared the dinning room to go outside and what a fantastic sight, a mum and 2 cubs swimming across the Fjord which was about 2-3 miles. Polar Bears can swim for several hours at a time so this was a gentle paddle! The Captain stopped the boat to allow them to go unimpeded, what a sight, this was the first wild Polar Bears I've seen and a sight I will never forget!

The Bears had landed on the shore that we were supposed to land to view the Glacier, so we stayed in the Zodiacs instead and by the time we arrived the Bears were traveling up the hill and over the top out of view. We stayed in the Zodiacs and went to the face of the Glacier, there was several small "calving's" and the sounds, sights and smells I don't think I could describe here, you would need to be there to understand. Its such a spectacular glacier as all of them are, was told that there is 2100 Glaciers on Svalbard and they cover 60% of the Archipelago. We also saw a Harbour Seal, Black and Brunnicks Guillemot's, Glaucous Gulls, Kittiwakes, Eider Ducks, Artic Skuas, Artic Terns and Puffins.

In the afternoon, we went up the "Kongsfjorden" to NY-Alesund, which is also called the "Green research communit"y. Its located almost 79 degrees North and the worlds most northerly permanent settlement. Words cant explain the stunning beauty of the scenery, just amazing!

Ny-Alesund was originally a mining community established in 1916, but today its a center for international arctic scientific research and environmental monitoring. The buildings and infrastructure are owned and run by the Norwegian state but there are 12 research stations here representing 10 different countries working together.

Lots of history here with arctic explorers most notably Roald Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer of polar regions and a key figure of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

He led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage in 1906 and the first expedition to the South Pole in 1911. He led the first expedition proven to have reached the North Pole in 1926. He disappeared while taking part in a rescue mission for the airship Italia in 1928.

The remains of the tower that held a hot air balloon for arctic exploration is still here.

While on the boat I was lucky to see a Red-throated Diver fly by.

Before Dinner we had 3 great talks on Artic Terns, Puffin and the history of Explorers that went to the pole in a balloon.

Friday we arrived at the ice sheet at the furthest North West point of Svalbard, we were trying to get to "Smeerenbord" or "Blubber Town" were there are remains of blubber ovens and other historical items from a previous age. The weather was harsh, -1, 30 mile wind, sea ice, mist and "Katabatic wind". We were at 79.44 degrees North and about 700 miles from the North Pole and you couldn't get much more Artic than this, it was great to experience it and I don't know how the Whalers and Trappers survived up here 200 years ago without the equipment we have today?

On top of all this a call went up from the bridge that 2 Polar Bears were on the ice, although distant they were unmistakable and what a sight walking in different directions keeping away from each other. The decision was made that those that wanted to could get into the Zodiacs for a look around as long as we put the layers on, the Parker we had been given proving its worth. Several Seals were seen, Harp and Bearded Seals, sadly I was unable to get a picture. Because the Bears had moved away we were able to step onto the ice sheet which was something special. Even in these conditions we still saw Artic Terns Glaucous Gulls, Little Auks, Brunnicks Guillemots and Eider Duck.

We had a excellent talk and slide show from Christian the team leader on Polar Bears before lunch.

After lunch we tried to land at "Gravnesodden" but the weather conditions were just too dangerous to get into the Zodiacs, the wind was gusting up to 41 nots which could have turned the boats over. The scenery was stunning though and the cloud formations were spectacular, some good views of "Lenticular Clouds", Glacial Mist as well as a few Walrus, Fulmars, Little Auks, Black and Brunnick Guillemots.

Because of the windy weather we moved further South to a more sheltered spot, a small cove out of the wind, a stunning place to get off the ship for a walk, several Harbour Seals on the rocks, Little Auks, Puffin, Brunnicks Guillemot, Pink-footed Geese, Glaucous Gulls and loads of interesting plants. Just amazes me how these survive in this harsh environment.

We had talks on Sea Ice, Seals and the history around some of the explorers which was very interesting, an area I didn't know much about.

Overnight the ship sailed south and then up the channel to land at "Poolepynten which is on "Prins Karls Forland". We were going to see the Walrus that had hauled themselves up on the beach. The guides had put some flags up to give us guidance about how close to get and we just stayed silent, they seemed quite happy with us and several swam up to us to give us the once over, could watch these stunning animals all day and so comical! There was also Artic Tern nesting here which also attacked some of the guests when they went off track, cant say you weren't told! Also a few Purple Sandpipers, Kittiwakes and Fulmars. Fantastic morning!

While crossing "Forlandsundet" to our final landing at "Alkhornet" Whales were seen, at least 3 Humpbacks and at least 1 Blue Whale, the place just keeps giving, amazing sight, there's just something magical about Whales!

Once we had landed we had a good walk around, so many Arctic Flowers, I think as I took so many Flower Pictures I will have to do another post to do them justice!

Also saw Reindeer, Arctic Skua, Kittiwakes, Puffin, Brunnichs Guillemots and Glaucous Gulls.

It was good to sit down on a rock and actually tot up what I had seen this last week, my list is Polar Bears, Atlantic Walrus, Reindeer, Arctic Fox, Harbour Seal, Bearded Seal, Blue Whale, Humpback Whale, Beluga Whale, King Eider, Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Barnical Goose, Pink-footed Geese, Snow Bunting, Brunnichs Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin, Glaucous Gull, Black-headed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Purple Sandpiper, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Arctic Skua, Arctic Tern, Little Auk and numerous Plants and Lichen. Quite pleased with that!

This was our final landing and we went into Longyearbyen. On board we had a Captains Farewell Cocktail and we thanked the Officers and Expedition staff for there work, we also had a slide show of the week which was shot by Page the Resident Photographer on board. We also the opportunity at Dinner to thank all the other staff who supported the week such as Chief, Waiters and House staff, have to say they were a great bunch. They were from all over the place, I was told 17 different nationalities.

As it was my first ever cruise I have to say how much I enjoyed it, not only the Wildlife but all the staff who supported and made me feel at home, the house staff as well as the Expedition team, especially Christian and John who answered all my questions and were patient with my English sense of humour which they didn't always understand, also impressed with all the interpreters that were on call for the talks and supporting on the cruise, the guys who helped get the boats out, the list is endless.

Did enjoy meeting all the other guests and wished I got more contact numbers. Better start saving up for the next trip!

Sadly had to leave the boat at 8.15am and after a walk around Longyearbyen caught up on some sleep at the Hotel, I was staying at "Mary-Anne's" again before my 2.25am flight to Oslo on Monday morning then on to Heathrow and home to Dawlish on the train to be home by 5pm. I was knackered by the time I got home and the journey was full of drama, Dr called to a passenger on the plain at Oslo, dont know what happened but hope all ok and at Paddington on the final train it was bedlam as they got the carriages mixed up and saved seats, I just found a seat and let them too it!



18 June 2019

Off on my Travels

Tomorrow I start on a life time dream of seeing Polar Bears in the wild. This started when as a young child my mum took me to London Zoo and I saw these wonderful creatures in a concrete bunker and promised myself to see them in the wild.

So Iam off to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle and quite excited about it, there has been a few problems with it due to boats being withdrawn and has cost me a bit more, but Iam sure its going to be worth it.

Looking forward to seeing other animals and birds such as Walrus and Ross's Gull.

I will be sharing a cabin with 2 strangers so hopefully that will work ok and the rest of the group are friendly.

Iam not sure if I will be able to update the blog but doubt I will be able to put any pics up until I get back.



14 June 2019

Swallows

By Turf Lock in the basin area there is a pontoon on the left as you look towards Exeter, this has been historically a nest site for Swallows, this year there has been 3 pairs here and have been very successful so far even though the weather has been crap.

Two nests fledged this morning with 1 set of 5 and another of 4, the 3rd nest by the sound of the noisy chicks wont be long before they join the others.

Parents finding plenty of food along the Canal bank and over the water, all the fledglings look fit and well, lets hope it continues.

Great to see so many fledglings in one place!



11 June 2019

Dawlish Swifts, Swallows and Martins.

After being inspired by my good friend Mark Glanvile who runs "Bristol Swifts" these last couple years I've been trying to find out more about the Swifts, Swallows and House Martins that nest around Dawlish. On my evening walk around the centre, unfortunately didn't see the Alpine Swift seen earlier but did see 15 Common Swifts. They seem to be nesting in three main areas and have reclaimed a historic nesting site that wasn't used last year, the number do seem to be up.

They seem to be nesting in and around Belvidere Court and the Church, The Catholic Church and a house on the Strand which was always a historic site until the owner blocked all the holes up in an attempt to stop the Feral pigeons from nesting, but tonight I witnessed a Swift entering the building. As I have already said the number seem to be up which is a surprise after last year.

While Swallows do seemed to have disappeared this year from the centre, there is evidence of them up Ashcome valley and around surrounding farms.

House Martins have found a new nesting site in the new housing development next to Sainsbury's, 20+ birds here which is a positive sign, the odd thing here is they are only nesting on houses with the white render, don't know why? I have looked at other new housing developments but this has not been copied. Possibly nesting here because of easy access to food at Dawlish Warren?



06 June 2019

Butterflies and Dragons

Was supposed to go to Dorset today ahead of the bad weather that is coming in the next couple of the days but as normal life got in the way!

So went up to Dartmoor this morning to Dunsford Meadow and along to Aish Tor, a bit cold ,windy with a bit of sun which brought out a Small bordered Fritillary at each, a few battered looking Brimstone's and a lone Red Admiral.

The back meadow at the Warren in the afternoon was quite warm and out of the wind so a few Butterflies about but no great numbers, Common Blue, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown and a Large Skipper.

Two Dragons seen with a Broad Bodied Chaser and a Hairy Hawker.

Lots of humans seen and all happy chaps, no miserable gits seen all day, got to be good!

Although some of their driving skills on Dartmoor continue to be challenging!



05 June 2019

Some great Insects

While on the hunt for Butterflies I continue to come across some great Insects, Beetles, Bees, Hoverflies, Dragons and other flying things!

Been around lots of fields, Hedges, Road Verges and Reserves. So much to see and more than 75% I have no idea what they are, but its fun scrawling through Reference books and the internet trying to find out!



03 June 2019

29 Up

While at Turf sat having some coffee and cake a Painted Lady fluttered by, I lost it for a while but found it sheltering close to a path out of the wind.

It looks a bit tatty around the edges, wonder how far its flown?



01 June 2019

Some great birds

While walking around Meadows, Dartmoor, Reserves and Hedgerows looking for Butterflies I've seen some great birds, many in full song such as the Warblers and Buntings.

Plenty of young birds about such as Long-tailed Tits and a pair of noisy Reed Buntings at Exminster. Great to see all the Swallows, House Martins and Swifts filling the sky on certain days, Lapwings at Exminster amongst many great sights we have around our county.



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