Ice Bears Trip: Day 7

Friday 6/27


This morning began with a chat about the ship’s bell with Piers.  It can be used for communication in case the electronics onboard fail.  And its gorgeous blue-green patina shows that it’s made of copper; this made me think about doing a photographic element scavenger hunt with my chemistry students.


We hopped off the ship at Seelisberg on Freemansundet in Barentsoya, and this time I chose to do a slower-paced hike with my naturalist mentor, Sue Perin.  Sue helped me to take some temperature measurements of air/soil/plants/water at different points on the hike.  She also knew all about the tiny plants that populate Svalbard, and I was able to capture some macro shots of their gorgeous flowers. In this shot, I also managed to catch a pollinator: tiny flies are among the very few insects in Svalbard.


We discovered some recent polar bear tracks in the mud, alongside tracks of geese and reindeer.  Lots of bones, too: reindeer, bird, and even a polar bear skull.


After lunch and a bit of travel, we came across another polar bear onshore, far from the ideal ice bear environment that we were in on Wednesday.  The amazing Explorer staff managed to get all 140+ guests out onto zodiacs in short order and scoot us in a bit closer to land in the shallow bay.  The bear didn’t look very healthy and didn’t stick around long.  We crossed our fingers and hoped that he would find his way back to the ice.


Today’s talks included Magnus on the history of polar exploration, Kenneth on his year spent as a hunter/trapper on Svalbard, and David on the National Geographic Pristine Seas Project.  It was a treat to hear about such diverse, fascinating topics from this group of experts in their fields.

After yet another divine dinner tonight: WHALES!  The boat was surrounded by a large group of them that included both fin and humpback whales.  They were feeding, and they were everywhere we looked, surrounded by birds hoping to catch an easy meal.  My lone previous whale watching experience involved seeing one gray whale for less than a second, so this sighting was overwhelmingly awesome.

Friday brainstorming:

  • Whales and migration
  • Polar exploration project (involve mapping and navigation)
  • Environmental temperature data near home: how does it relate to my Arctic data?
  • Chemistry: element scavenger hunt

Ice Bears Trip: Day 6

Thursday 6/26

Holly, Demetria and I had the privilege of writing today’s Daily Expedition Report and contributing our photographs to highlight events of the day.  Here is an excerpt about our wake-up call this morning:

We awoke this morning at the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet at Kapp Fanshawe, on the west side of the Hinlopen Strait near Lomfjorden. The weather was a bit colder than we had experienced so far, so we donned our warm gear and headed outside before breakfast. As the ship travelled along the cliffs, we were able to observe hundreds of thousands of birds as they nested and rested, flew all around us, dove for food, took off from the water with wings flapping furiously, and landed in the water with legs splayed wide. Our main feathered friend at the cliffs was the Brunnich’s Guillemot, a black and white auk. These birds lay their eggs directly on the cliff ledges and can dive up to 300 feet into the ocean to find food. The sights and sounds of this extremely large nesting colony were an amazing way to start our day.


Today we also enjoyed a lecture about Svalbard’s geology, glaciers, and sea ice – so much to learn!  In addition, we had a photography session with our resident amazing National Geographic photographer Susan Seubert, who gave some great tips on her workflow.

We were able to get off the boat for bit in a location that at first looked intimidating (steep hike) and a bit boring (nothing but rocks), but it ended up being one of my favorite hikes of the trip in the Arctic desert along the Palanderbukta Fjord.  After a brisk hike up a rocky hill, we began to look closely at the rocks and found fossils everywhere we looked!  We also got into a bit of a snowball fight and had a ball belly sledding down a snow bank.  At the end of the hike, we had to step over ice chunks on the beach – definitely not the norm for any of the beaches I have previously visited in June.


Later in the day we continued north along the coast of Nordaustlandet and searched for bears on the fast ice of the Wahlenberg Fjord.  We did see a couple of bears at a distance and enjoyed cruising through a new form of ice for us – pancake ice!

After dinner, we headed as far north as we could before encountering thick ice and fog – and we made it to 80.07°N!


Thursday brainstorming

  • Different types of ice – learn about and simulate them in the classroom
  • Frozen Planet, Autumn episode? Guillemots
  • Geology of Svalbard

Ice Bears Trip: Day 5

Wednesday 6/25

Into the ice!

IMG_2606 into the ice

An early wake-up once again: this time 3:50am and I couldn’t get back to sleep.  But this turned out fine, because we were called at 4:30 to see our first polar bear in the pack ice!

IMG_2360 first glimpse of a polar bear

He was initially swimming toward the ship, but even though I was one of the first passengers to throw on a coat and head out on deck, he was swimming away from us when I arrived.  The golden early morning light was breathtaking, and he sat up on some low-lying ice and posed a bit before moving on.  What a magnificent creature.  A couple of hours later we saw another bear in the water; we hung out with this one for quite a while and watched him swim between ice sheets, occasionally stopping to look around for seals.


While moving through the ice floes later, we also came across ivory gulls, bearded seals, and another walrus.  Ivory gulls are known scavengers who will often eat the remains of a polar bear kill, so seeing them around is a good sign that bears are near.


Pack ice conditions today were perfect: flat water that was glassy and gorgeous, and a partly sunny sky.  I couldn’t get enough of the colors, shapes, and sounds of our ice journey and spent every possible moment out on deck.  Whenever we hit an ice sheet, the whole ship would shudder and shake and the sound could be loud as thunder.  At a couple of points I leaned over the bow to watch and record what happens when the ship hits ice – incredible!  The National Geographic Explorer is an Ice Class ship that is built to withstand tough sea ice conditions.  When heading through the ice, the ship’s crew weights down the rear of the ship by filling water tanks, allowing the ship to ride high in the front to help it break through the ice sheets.


In the afternoon, we heard from naturalist Magnus Forsberg about polar bears.  In his talk I learned about delayed implantation, in which the fertilized egg does not implant unless the mother’s body is healthy and can adequately support the pregnancy.  I also learned that climate change has caused polar bear and goose habitats to overlap for the first time, and that some bears have been eating geese and their eggs to supplement their diets as sea ice declines.  Here is an interesting article about polar bear survival on land.

In addition, in today’s recap we heard from other naturalists about Red Phalaropes and how they use water’s surface tension to help them eat – cool!  We learned more about walrus and seals, and saw underwater footage from our journey.  So much color under the ocean here – it reminded me the scenery underwater where I learned to SCUBA dive near Monterey, CA (with kelp and nudibranchs, sea stars and anemones).

After dinner tonight we cruised along the southern face of the Austfonna Polar Ice Cap.  This single face was 105 miles long and 100 feet high in some places.  Because this section of the ice cap was fairly stable, we were able to get quite close to it (about 20 feet away) and see glacial waterfalls and the amazing turquoise blue of the ice and the water below it.


We reached 79°N today!

Wednesday brainstorming

  • Photo of the week project.  Show a different photo from my travels and ask a question, for example:  why is this ice blue?  which of these birds is male?  what type of glacier is this?
  • how do polarizing filters for cameras work?  possibly relate to stereochemistry
  • marine animal protection
  • formation of sea ice; how does water freeze?  how is salt water different?
  • Pollution in the Arctic:

The Gulf Stream goes past Svalbard’s west coast – carrying warmer water and pollutants

Discuss food chain and concentrations of pollutants in different animals (bears, whales)

Polar/nonpolar body tissues and pollutants (fat/blubber)

  • Red phalarope takes advantage of water’s surface tension while eating.


Ice Bears Trip: Day 4

Tuesday 6/24

I woke up very early again – before 5:00.  I think the midnight sun was messing with me, as I got very little sleep all week, yet rarely felt tired.  I made it to the bridge before 6:00 and talked to Piers about a few ship-related things: navigation and charting, how fresh water is obtained onboard, and how garbage is dealt with.

After breakfast, we anchored at Ardalsnuten on the western side of Edgeoya.  Holly and I jumped at the opportunity to go kayaking on the calm, glassy blue-green water.   While we were out, we took some data on water depth versus temperature and found that deeper meant colder (at least for the 10 meters we measured).   We also saw some red phalaropes and arctic terns fly by overhead.

Kayaking with Holly

After our paddle, we hopped on a zodiac and went ashore to stretch our legs.  We notably saw seven short, stout Svalbard reindeer grazing and lounging, and trampled over one of Svalbard’s “forests” of polar willow trees. In the photo below, those little green plants next to the hiker’s boot are willow trees.  No really, they are!  The adaptations of Arctic plants and animals are quite remarkable.

IMG_4069 the polar willow forest (and a buttercup)
IMG_1988 Svalbard Reindeer

The excitement of the afternoon began with a walrus sighting at Kapp Lee in northern Edgeoya.  I had secretly hoped we would see a walrus or two on the trip, so I bolted for the deck to take a peek.  It’s hard to locate and identify animals from a distance, even with binoculars; what I originally thought was a walrus was a pile of old snow – a bit embarrassing.  But we got closer and I saw them – three of them! – sleeping the day away.  We boarded zodiacs and headed over.

As we quietly walked along the beach, we passed an enormous collection of bones – ironically, a walrus graveyard.  Walrus were protected in Svalbard in 1952, but before that they were slaughtered mercilessly by hunters.  It was hard to see all those bones, but encouraging to find that a new generation of majestic animals had reclaimed their former home.

IMG_2044 walrus graveyard

As we watched the three walrus sweetly snooze with flippers covering their eyes, we also saw reindeer families passing by on the hill above us.  And then – we noticed another walrus out in the water!  He had followed one of the zodiacs and was very curious, swimming right up to the rubber boat before travelling along shore and joining us on the beach. He kindly snorted and snuffled and posed for photos as he swam toward us.  He was so charismatic, and our time with him was definitely a trip highlight for me.

IMG_2282 posing for his close-up

The day ended with beautiful light and the promise of ice for tomorrow.

at day's end

Tuesday brainstorming:

  • Charting and navigation (historical and today)
  • Obtaining fresh water on a ship

             reverse osmosis of seawater

             evaporation/vacuum treatment of seawater

  • Garbage onboard

             what are rules and regulations for disposal from ships? who makes them? consequences for non-compliance?

Ice Bears Trip: Day 3

Monday 6/23

Our first full day onboard!

our first hike at the bird cliffs

Despite the late bedtime, I woke up at 5:30am and jumped out of bed – not wanting to miss a thing. Former Grosvenor Fellows had wisely advised us to try to be on the bridge by 6:00 to enjoy the early morning and learn what the day would most likely hold.  I quickly discovered that we all needed to be flexible and to be willing to adjust to changing weather and wildlife conditions – I imagine that changing plans on the fly can be very stressful for the staff, but they handled it all with grace and a smile.  (As a bonus: the kitchen brought fresh warm pastries to the bridge at 6:30am!)

IMG_4699 early morning on the bridge

While I was hanging out observing, Piers Alvarez-Munoz, the Chief Mate, kindly offered to teach me a few things about the ship.  He explained that the ship is a mobile weather station, and showed me the detailed data that is submitted about weather conditions.  Information is also recorded in the ship’s logbook at the end of every 6 hour watch, and I had the chance to view and photograph the ship’s logbook to show my classes later.  Piers and I also talked about how water salinity affects the load that the ship is allowed to carry – more salt means a more dense sea that is able to support a heavier ship.  The salinity of the water during our trip varied quite a bit, mainly due to our proximity to glaciers (which melt to produce fresh water) at different times.

After breakfast, we had a safety briefing on polar bears and were informed that we always had to stay with our group when hiking ashore.  A take home quote from the briefing: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Except bears.  Bears will kill you.”  Polar bears can potentially be found ANYWHERE on Svalbard, and while humans are not their first choice for a meal, if they are hungry they are extremely dangerous.  A patrol was sent out in advance of each of our excursions, and each guide carried a radio, a flare gun, and a rifle.

Our first onshore hike was in Hornsund (the fjord I had seen from the plane) at the Gnålodden bird cliffs.  “Gnål” translates to either nagging, whining, or singing – and boy did we learn why!  We were surrounded by thousands of  squawking nesting seabirds, with black-legged kittiwakes being most abundant.  While we were hiking, we learned about two predators of the kittiwake: the glaucous gull and the arctic fox.  We witnessed both of these predators in action: a gull catching and eating a kittiwake, and a fox lurking below the cliffs.  We also saw snow buntings (the only songbirds in Svalbard), Arctic terns, common Eiders, and barnacle geese.  A highlight of our hike was witnessing a territorial argument between glaucous gulls and barnacle geese.

IMG_1739 Gnålodden bird cliffs

IMG_1874 glaucous gull vs. barnacle goose

We saw lots of lichens, plants and beautiful flowers (which prompted me to track down a copy of Svalbard: A Guide to Plants in the High Arctic when I returned to the ship).  The greens, purples, oranges and reds were a stunning contrast to the blue, white and gray landscape.  There are over 160 species of plants on Svalbard, the tallest of which measures a whopping six inches.  Despite the very harsh Arctic climate, these plants have found ways to thrive by huddling together and staying low to the ground for warmth.  Check out the mounds of purple sagifraxe below – we saw this plant everywhere.

IMG_1845 purple sagifraxe

At the end of our hike, we had the opportunity to visit an old whaler’s grave and a trapper’s hut that was last used in 1971.  It was fascinating to learn about the intrepid folks who used to live in this remote location.

IMG_1929 mountains of hornsund

Monday brainstorming:

  • Can we simulate a glacier in the classroom?
  • Life as a trapper/hunter in the Arctic
  • Arctic Food Web

Ice Bears Trip: Day 2

Sunday 6/22

Today has been the most crazy-amazing day.  We had a wonderful breakfast at the Bristol Thon Hotel – smoked salmon, Norwegian mini omelets, fruit/veggie power juice shots, and strong coffee.  Apparently the sun did set in Oslo last night, but I slept restlessly and awoke several times to always find a little light peeking through the cracks in the curtains – a sign of how far north we were during the summer solstice.  But Oslo’s latitude of 59° N had nothing on where I was headed: Longyearbyen, 78° N and the land of the 4-month long midnight sun.

On the flight up to Svalbard, I met Judy – a former home economics teacher and bird enthusiast who has made travel a priority in her life.  She told me about her trips to China, India, Canada, and Norway (on a Hurtigruten).  Judy also had wise travel advice about food to bring on planes (hardboiled eggs and fruit) and what to watch out for in China (pretty much everything).

Speaking of airplane food, I must take a moment to give a shout-out to Scandanavian Airlines for their amazing lunch.  Smoked salmon, super creamy potato salad, brie and roquefort cheeses, fresh fruit, a warm bread roll, and a yummy strawberry yogurt parfait.  Airlines in America should take a hint…

what airplane food should be

Soon after eating, we caught our first glimpse of Svalbard and it brought tears to my eyes.  Just so beautiful, and like nothing I had ever seen before.  I found out later that our initial stunning view was of Hornsund, where glaciers merge with other glaciers and flow into a fjord surrounded by majestic patterned mountains.  I snapped a few photos out of our scratched up plane window, but it was impossible to capture the magic.

merging glaciers

Soon we landed in Longyearbyen – the biggest (and really only) city in Svalbard with a population of about 2000.  At the tiny airport we hopped on a bus to spend some time touring the city.  Our delightful tour guide was a college student from Sweden who was studying Arctic Biology the University Centre in Svalbard.  She has loved her time in Longyearbyen and strongly encouraged all of us to send our kids to study there.  Today’s itinerary in the city was pretty packed, but I had some time to wander later in the week.

old coal mine in Longyearbyen

Our first stop was the Galleri Svalbard, where we saw paintings and photographs from around the archipelago, marvelled at historical maps of the region, and watched a short film showing the seasons of Svalbard.  I was able to chat with a few locals, and without exception they told me that I needed to come back again in the winter.  While the polar night (4 months of NO sun at all) sounds a bit oppressive to me, they reassured me that it is the best time to visit in order to take advantage of the opportunities to snowmobile, dogsled, visit ice caves, see the northern lights, and enjoy the vibrant social scene in town.  Still, I think I would prefer to try the brief shoulder seasons of spring and fall, where the pink and blue light of Arctic sunrises and sunsets would be amazing to witness.

Next we visited the Svalbard Museum, which was beautiful and modern.  Here we learned a bit more about the history and wildlife of the region.  Outside the museum, a little girl was selling coal to tourists – a very enterprising young lady.  Longyearbyen has a long history of coal-mining and is still powered by coal today.

After our tour, we were ready to embark on our expedition aboard the National Geographic Explorer.  Holly, Demetria and I found our accommodations to be lovely, and the staff to be wonderfully friendly.  Every staff member aboard seemed to already know us at “the teachers” and address us as such; we felt very loved and appreciated.

embarking the National Geographic Explorer

As we were approaching the Explorer by bus, my new plane friend Judy spied some beluga whales in Isfjorden.  Thankfully, they hung around as we got settled – and our first excitement aboard ship was to watch an estimated 16 whales swim around us.  What a treat!  As I watched them, I was also taken in by the beautiful light and the panoramic vistas everywhere I looked – a theme throughout the trip, and something I tried to never take for granted.

stunning mountains surrounding Isfjorden


After we watched the whales, we headed deeper into Isfjorden and into Tempelfjorden to get an up-close look at our first tidewater glacier: Tunabreen.  I was surprised to see the gorgeous varied shades of blue in the ice and water – wow!  We met a flock of Northern Fulmars, many of which were hanging out and feeding right along the glacier.  We also saw kittiwakes, guillemots, and puffins.

tunabreen glacier

After a lifeboat drill and the first of our excellent gourmet dinners onboard, Holly and I decided to stay up to see the midnight sun!  We had perfect weather and couldn’t be sure that late-night clear conditions would happen again, and we were so excited about just being there that I don’t think we could have settled down to sleep earlier anyway.  The sun was very bright and still quite high in the sky at midnight.

(almost) midnight sunmidnight!  really!

Eventually we headed down to our rooms, shut our porthole covers, and got a bit of sleep to prepare for the next day’s adventures.


Day 2 brainstorming for the classroom:

  • Animal migration

             especially birds (Red Knot, which stops in New Jersey/Delaware to eat horseshoe crab eggs) and polar bears who have been tagged and followed.

  • Model the midnight sun and polar night

             have students create 3D models in the classroom to explain this

             how do these events affect animals? people?

Ice Bears Trip: Day 1

My next few posts will be entries from my trip log.  On flipping through my journal, I noticed that all my entries started with some sort of all-caps exclamation.  “OH MY GOODNESS” or “UNBELIEVABLE” or “WOW”.  It was that kind of trip.

Here’s day 1, Saturday 6/21:

OH MY GOODNESS – hi from Oslo!

So far this trip has been amazing and we haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.

On the plane from Newark to Oslo I kept watching the travel progress on my seatback screen, being so blown away that it was ME heading toward Scandanavia.  I sat next to the the drummer from the band Phosphorescent, who was headed off to a European tour.  Super nice guy – I need to check out his music.

As we flew into Oslo, the countryside reminded me of northern New England – so GREEN in summer, with lots of trees and small farms.  I had prepped myself for letting go of the color green for a while while visiting Svalbard, but I forgot about Oslo.  And actually, I was wrong about Svalbard, too.

A first look at Norway

While in Oslo, we had a short bus tour of the city and visited the Fram Museum, dedicated to Norwegian polar exploration and home of the amazing ship Fram, used on three polar expeditions to both ends of the earth.  We also wandered through the Vigeland Park, home to more than 200 stone and bronze statues created by artist Gustav Vigeland.   The statues reflect the many ages and stages, moods and motions of human life.


Throughout our trip, I had the privilege of hanging out with two other Grosvenor Teacher Fellows: Holly Doe and Demetria Scott.  As we traveled, we talked about how we could relate our experience to our students back home.  While in Oslo, we brainstormed about the following classroom ideas:

  • Designing a boat that won’t be crushed by ice, based on the Fram.

             Could this be a 3D printer project?

             How much guidance/background should be given?

             What materials should be made available?


  • Research and map the routes of early polar exploration.

             How did the early explorers map and chart?  How is it different today?

             Make a to-scale map of each expedition

             What what the goal of each trip, and why?

             What challenges were faced?  Personal stories?

             Pre-project unit on maps, location, and navigation


  • Arctic Artists project – in collaboration with Art department?

             Study the work of an artist, and construct a similar project

             Might be a great independent research project


  • Government, economics, and daily life

                  A comparative study of different Arctic countries and communities