EAN: 84307018520

Date: June 22-29, 2017

Trip Report

Spitsbergen: Land of Polar Bears

North of Norway, there lies a group of islands called the Svalbard Archipelago. Our expedition planned to explore the largest of the islands, Spitsbergen, which is home to about 2500 people and 100 polar bears. We hoped to reach some of the northern most fjords where we had encountered excellent diving conditions as well as quite a few polar bears in the past.

We left from Longyearbyen which at the 78 Degree parallel is already above the Arctic Circle, and thus experiences 24 hours of daylight from the end of April to the end of August. Originally founded to support the coal mining industry, the community of about 2000 now boasts a university primarily devoted to polar research as well as a thriving tourist industry. 200,000 people per year visit this small community as it is one of the only outposts of civilization throughout Svalbard, and has become a gateway to the Arctic.

Even before boarding the Plancius from Oceanwide Expeditions, there was so much to do: kayaking, hiking, dog sledding, visiting the local museum, taking pictures of the local scenery, birds and reindeer, and of course, getting your biorhythms completely messed up by 24 hours of daylight! Yes, that takes some getting used to!

After boarding the ship, we immediately headed north and began the series of mandatory safety briefings required the various entities regulating tourism in that part of the world. Not the least of which is the polar bear briefing on what to do in the unlikely get the picture. After all the mandatory briefings, we got to do our first check out dive near the ice in Raudfjorden. Many of the divers were surprised to see kelp covering the bottom. With decent visibility, it was easy to see all of the kelp as well as the numerous invertebrates and lumpfish hiding underneath. Four of the group decided to try snorkeling around some ice and were excited to realize they could stay warm in the 36 degree water and have some fun playing on the small bergs.


One of the most amazing parts about going to the Arctic is seeing the pack ice that covers the Arctic Ocean year round. This time of year, it has usually receded to the 81st or 82nd parallel which allows us to explore the northern part of Spitsbergen as well as the edge of the ice itself. Instead, we encountered thick ice much earlier, as there had been a late freeze this spring, with the bow of Plancius pushing aside large and small flows alike as we tried to make our way north. It is an incredible site…a sea of slowly shifting ice. Home to seals, walrus, polar bears, whales and numerous bird species, the ice does not get boring.

We spent two days in the ice trying to get further north but to no avail. Our furthest position north was the 80th parallel. This meant we were unable to reach some of the best dive sites in the northern part of Spitsbergen. That is part of exploration diving- not everything goes according to plan. On the plus side, we encountered numerous bears including one that showed us how to scratch an itch on the ice.  In addition, the walrus and seals were very approachable, and seeing the massive walrus get in and out of the water was incredible.  As Plancius broke through and moved the pack ice, small Arctic cod were exposed and they were promptly feasted on by the kittiwakes, gulls and skua.

The Plancius – Oceanographic Research Vessel

We also got the opportunity to do something special; get out and stand on the pack ice. Our incredible captain had found a very piece of stable pack ice that he determined would hold the weight of the ship’s passengers. So down went the gangplank, and we all got the chance to STAND on the Arctic Ocean. Of course the divers went out in our drysuits just in case we got the chance to jump in. Unfortunately, the water around the pack ice was moving quite quickly and it was not safe to get in. But that didn’t stop us from having fun on the ice including an impromptu snowball fight! What an amazing time! Beautiful weather, ice, polar bears and so much more! The ice is mesmerizing!

Expedition Testimonial

Want to give a big thanks to Faith Ortins with DUI for making our Arctic trip one for the memory books. Faith  made us feel comfortable with dry suits even though we had never seen or used them before.  Her expert instruction allowed us to snorkel in the freezing water and enjoy playing around icebergs. This is not something we ever thought of doing.  She was arranging a dive trip along with The Wilderness Medicine Conference. Since our dive history did not include dry suit cold water diving, we were not qualified to dive this trip.  Faith made sure that we felt included in everything during the trip. She went with us on our snorkel outings to be sure all went well. She made sure we all felt that this was a team effort. Thank you Faith for this wonderful experience. We look forward to learning more about diving with dry suits, with or without the cold water !!! 

Theresa & Diane Hoffman

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