The rarely visited atoll of Niau was our destination for the day. Windy conditions made for a slight change of plans, but it certainly did not stop us. An alternate landing was found, and soon enough we boarded Best Available Transport to enjoy the island. After a warm welcome in the village, we divided up for a few different excursions around the island. We focused on different aspects of island life before returning to the center of town for some incredible food and cold coconuts. After lunch, we enjoyed the crystal-clear waters of the reef on the leeward side of Niau. The coral was super healthy with many interesting growth forms. We spotted a great diversity of colorful fish. Some of my favorites included flame angels, white-spotted surgeonfish, and achilles tangs. A few sharks cruised by, and we even observed an eagle ray or two. A gorgeous sunset signaled that it was time to get out of the water and set sail towards Makatea. Photo caption and photographer: Atoll fruit dove, a beautiful bird endemic to the Tuamotus. Photo by Mike Greenfelder
The morning began with Zodiacs to shore in the town of Rotoava. Options for exploration included a photo walk, a natural history walk, birding, cultural exploration, and general exploration. Reef and nurse sharks were seen from the wharf, and white terns, greater crested terns, and gray-backed terns were spotted soaring and diving into the waters of the pristine lagoon. Some guests decided to explore the atoll by bike, while others walked through town and perused the local pearl shops. Lunch was served on National Geographic Orion while the ship relocated to the Toau Atoll.
We woke a little later than usual aboard National Geographic Endurance this morning. After last night’s entertainment, bedtime was interrupted by blue whales crossing our passage. Five-meter-tall blows were seen on the horizon…first one animal, then two, then three blows in a group on one side of the ship. Then calls came for a solo blue whale on the other side of the ship. As the whales came closer, we could appreciate the true size of the largest mammals on Earth. Truly magnificent. Unfortunately, the four humpback whales were largely overlooked, with cameras focused on the tall blows and long, mottled backs of the blue whales. Still, there were cheers as the humpbacks bared their tail fins to power down into the abundant plankton layer that fueled the circus of activity on the surface. Our final morning found us positioned in front of 14th Julibreen (14th July Glacier) in 14th July Bay. Guests were given a quick tour through the Zodiac garage and the ship’s stern before embarking on our last Zodiac tour from the back deck. Puffins have just started to arrive back in Svalbard to nest. Binoculars and zoom lenses scanned the cliffs and the waterline to spot their yellow beaks among the many guillemots and kittiwakes that were also finding overhead safety from predatory Arctic skuas (jaegers). Other highlights included an Arctic fox on the land, a harbor seal hauled out on a submerged rock, and an Arctic tern colony…unfortunately, wide open prey for the overhead skuas. We were once again stunned by our luck with the weather. Clear blue skies and sunshine made the temperature feel much warmer than the recorded 3°C. Once back on board, we headed north in Krossfjorden and crossed over the 79th parallel, the farthest point north for many on board. The afternoon was spent basking in the sunshine in front of the massive cirque of Lilliehӧӧkbreen glaciers. A wall of ice circled the ship in almost all directions. It was hard to pull ourselves inside to hear the inspirational story of how Camille Seaman became a National Geographic photographer. Our waistlines were challenged once more with an afternoon tea of pancakes served on the top deck. And the afternoon was rounded off with naturalist Kerstin Langenberger teaching guests to differentiate male from female polar bears.
It feels so good to have National Geographic Resolution back in the ice! There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe our day today. After a flat, calm crossing through the unprotected waters north of Norway, we awoke this morning to our first glimpses of the snow-topped landscape of Svalbard. The expedition team planned for a morning on the low headland of Russebukta on the western shore of Edgeøya, or “Edge Island.” Not long after the scout boat headed out to check the area for bears, there was an abrupt change of plans. A large, resting group of walruses were found tucked away in a little set of low-lying islands. Our morning was spent Zodiac cruising and admiring these grunting, snorting behemoths as they lazed about for our viewing pleasure. (Not so much for our olfactory pleasure, I might add.) King eiders were spotted, as well as nesting barnacle geese, adding two new species to our avian repertoire. Back aboard, we were treated to a delicious lunch as our ship cruised north, looking to explore our first sights of sea ice. As we plowed through the narrow channel between Edgeøya and Barents Island, the ice thickened, and we were unsure just how far we would get. I need to take a personal aside here to tell you just how impressed I was today by our bridge team and our incredible ship. With flat, calm seas and shining sun, we pushed through huge areas of “very close drift ice,” which translates to chunks of ice anywhere from car-sized to soccer-field-sized, and everything in between…all covering approximately 9/10ths of the sea’s surface. The ship maintained a respectable speed, and barely a shudder was felt as she steamed north. She truly is a fantastic ship, especially under sunny skies and in her true element – please see the photos! The energy on the bridge was contagious as all eyes were on deck to search for the kings and queens of the Arctic! Everyone was buzzing with anticipation and hope, and we were not disappointed. Our luck remained strong as a young male polar bear, the first of the trip, was spotted roaming the ice near our ship. We will go to bed tonight with exciting thoughts. What will tomorrow bring?
After a fantastic day spent being introduced to the local Polynesian culture at Anaa yesterday, today’s visit to Tahanea allowed us to explore the natural history of the Tuamotu Archipelago. Entering through one of the atoll’s passes, we spent the morning enjoying the inside of the atoll with snorkeling and nature walks. The hotel and bar team joined us on shore to offer refreshments and treats in the form of punch and ice cream! Later in the afternoon, we had the chance to snorkel along the reef outside the atoll, enjoying views of a great diversity of coral and reef fish species, with exciting occasional passes from reef sharks! To top off a wonderful day, we were graced with an excellent sunset as we got ready for cocktail hour and evening recap.