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One June 21st, otherwise known as the summer solstice, we landed in Oslo to bright sunshine- at 10pm at night. The streets were crowded with people of all ages enjoying the long summer day seemingly oblivious that it was late on a Thursday night. Thus we began another amazing polar adventure - this time to the High Arctic.
For most of our group of 20, our expedition to the land of polar bears, walruses and endless daylight began with a little time in Oslo. It gave us the opportunity to see some of the sites, get adjusted to the time zone and to have our luggage catch up to us just in case something went wrong. Oslo is the home of many museums, a for real 14th Century castle and the Nobel Peace Center. After visiting several maritime museums, including the Viking Museum with ships over 600 years old, Kon-tiki and the Fram Museum which housed the famous polar exploration ship Fram, we were ready to go even further north and forego the night sky entirely.
Our next stop was Longyearbyen which is home to 1600 of the 2600 residents of Spitsbergen. Situated just north of the 78th parallel, most of its residents work in the coal or tourist industry or attend the local university which is well known for its polar science research. While waiting to meet the boat, 11 of us decided to see more of the area by going dog sledding! Our wheeled carts pulled by 6 dogs carried two people- a driver and a passenger. We got to harness our own team, drive the carts and feed the dogs after the trip. It was a blast! Our dogs were fantastic, but the puppies were the most lovable ones. Just look at these guys! Who could resist? And the scenery wasn’t bad with reindeer instead of cows grazing on the arctic plants.
But enough time on land, as we boarded the ship for our 10 day expedition, we were all excited about the possibilities. Eight of the twenty people were already polar veterans having already visited/dove Antarctica on DUI’s 2010 Expedition on the same ship. However, all of us spent the first night and morning getting briefings on the expedition plans and polar bear safety as well as getting our gear set up and getting a thorough dive orientation from our Dive Guides led by Kelvin Murray. Between the excitement of the trip and the 24 hours of bright daylight, it was hard to get to sleep. The scenery outside was so beautiful it was hard to make yourself go to bed! The trick was forcing yourself to go to your cabin, close the thick curtains and trick your brain in to thinking it was dark outside.
Our first dive was a successful check out in which everyone got their weighting down and accustomed to diving out of the big zodiacs. For some of us, getting back in the zodiac was the biggest trick! We also got our first exposure to kelp diving Arctic style where you dive under the 5-6’ high kelp so you can see the rocks that are covered with critters. We couldn’t believe there was so much kelp! On many of our dives it blanketed the bottom making it a little more challenging to see the really cool stuff underneath.
Our next day started off with the possibility of diving on some fast ice, ice still attached to land, in Woodfjorden. However, while Kelvin was scouting the fast ice to look for the best spot for our dive, he spotted a large polar bear sleeping at our favored entry point! Shortly after, another bear strolled by! Needless to say, diving was called for polar bear activity, and we all boarded zodiacs to get our first peek of this magnificent animal. The sleeping bear had the remains of his last meal, a Bearded Seal, nearby so we stayed very quiet so as not to wake him.
Later that day after going deeper into the fjord, another sleeping polar bear, this time a mother and cub, stopped our dive plans. But it was definitely worth it to see these amazing animals up close. While we did get a dive in after dinner, the visibility was quite poor thanks to the melting glacier in the fjord. It was still lots of fun though. It was my first “night” dive in full sunlight!
As we went further north the visibility and diving opportunities improved. We saw our first walruses, a group of 3, sleeping on the beach. And those who stayed on the Plancius were treated to a rare sighting when a polar bear swam out from shore to see the ship. He gave everyone onboard a great view before deciding there was nothing to eat there and heading back to shore. Those on shore saw their first Arctic Fox and boy are they cute!
Diving around the Seven Islands north of the 80th parallel, we reached our most northern point for diving, and we were treated to very good visibility. We dove around a great iceberg which is always great, but the area around it was also a fantastic dive, with a boulder covered bottom loaded with all kinds of invertebrates. We did two dives in this area with one of them being a new dive site that will definitely make the must dive list in the future. The second part of the day was devoted to exploring the edge of the pack ice. We went past the 82nd parallel cruising past large chunks of pack ice, a few seals, and a roaming bear and before finally reaching the edge of the pack ice that stretches to and past the North Pole. It was an inspiring sight!
We saw fantastic “jellies” on most of our dives, but one in Hinlopen Strait was particularly great with huge ctenophores and great visibility! The bright sun and dark green kelp made for a very photogenic dive. We also went on land after the dive to takes pictures of a herd of walruses. They are amazingly huge! For the most part, they seemed oblivious to our presence. However, one large male entered the water and swam along the beach closer to us. He gave us a good look and then headed back to the herd, presumably to report on us to the rest of the herd. Since none of them moved, I guess we passed the test.
We followed up this experience with a dive under the fast ice, after a careful check for polar bears of course. We had a blast exploring the area, walking upside down under the ice and just playing around. We headed back to the ship where a fantastic outdoor barbeque was waiting for us. The evening was perfect with warm weather (about 46 degrees), bright sunshine, calm seas, and of course, fantastic food, camaraderie and music. None of us wanted it to end!
The next day, we visited Alkefjellet Bird Cliffs where hundreds of thousands of Guillemots make their home. The dive was great with lots of amazing crevices in the wall plus diving birds all around. A strange fog led us to explore a new site in the afternoon. We were awarded with good visibility and lots of crabs, juvenile fish and more!
The following day brought us more opportunities to explore new dive sites in calm, clear condition. The calving glaciers were beautiful and they filled the water with small icebergs. Surrounded by “bergy bits”, we had another great dive in a garden of kelp. We were also able to explore an offshore island that is usually too rough for diving. The bottom teamed with invertebrates pulling morsels from the water column including hundreds of anemones and sea cucumbers. We even had time for a little playing in the snow. It was an amazing view from the top of hill though we had to dodge the dreaded arctic terns that dive bombed us whenever we got too close to the nests.
Our final dive was at Prins Karl Foreland where we had fantastic visibility and rich marine life. We also got the chance to see a few of the northernmost colony of Common Seals, often called harbor seals in other areas, while snorkeling after the dive. All in all, a splendid way to end our expedition.
Polar Diving is addictive! Hope you will join us on a future expedition. If you would like to be kept informed of DUI Expeditions around the world, please contact DUI or check the website regularly!
20 People with 15 divers
13 dives total: 6 divers did all 13 dives
Average bottom time 47 minutes
Maximum Depth 75’
Temperature range: Water 30-40 (depending on whose gauge you believe)
Most northern point: 82 21N (or about 480 miles from Santa)
Most southern point: 78 13.9N
TRIP PHOTO GALLERY AVAILABLE HERE