SV Rembrandt van Rijn (Oceanwide Expeditions)
There are few superlatives in the English language to fully describe the breathtaking beauty of Greenland. This huge ice-covered island is edged with jagged mountains — the highest in the Arctic — and deep valleys down which the largest glaciers in the northern hemisphere slowly flow. As they reach Greenland’s intricate coastline, towering cliffs of ice calve into giant icebergs which dot the numerous fjords and bays — the deep blues of centuries-old ice contrasting with the clean white snow on the mountains and the dark rocky tundra at their feet. This spectacular landscape is home to an exciting variety of polar wildlife such as Arctic Fox, Long-tailed Skua, Purple Sandpiper, Grey Phalarope, Snowy Owl and Gyr Falcon. It is the underwater world, however, that draws naturalists and scientists to Disko Bay in western Greenland, for each Arctic spring this dramatic iceberg-dotted coastline not only becomes a temporary home for large numbers of Humpback Whales, but the bay’s cold nutrient-rich waters, coupled with its proximity to the ice-edge, attracts one of the animal kingdom’s true polar enigmas, the rare Bowhead Whale!
Much of Greenland is inaccessible by land, so the best way to explore this Arctic island is from the water. For this exciting wildlife and scenery cruise we have taken full charter of the 34-berth sailing schooner, the SV Rembrandt van Rijn. Free from the shackles of having to visit nonwildlife sites, our cruise will focus solely on the region’s unique natural history and dramatic landscapes, spending time in particular along the ice edge in search of Bowheads and other cetaceans. The holiday begins, however, with a flight to Copenhagen in Denmark where we spend one night. From here we fly over the spectacular coastal mountains and inland icecap of Greenland before landing at Ilulissat in west Greenland, the third largest settlement on the island. Ilulissat (Jakobshavn) sits on the shores of Disko Bay and is the departure point for our 7-night cruise.
We will keep the exact itinerary of our cruise flexible, in order to take into account the ice conditions, location of the pack-ice edge, recent wildlife sightings, and the advice of the captain and expedition crew. Before heading out towards Disko Island and the ice, however, we will take the opportunity to enjoy the breathtaking scenery that abounds in western Greenland. We will cruise amongst towering deep blue icebergs sculpted into an inexhaustible variety of shapes and sizes by wind, water and ice. We will also visit the source of these 'bergs' as we cruise towards the vast ice wall of the Equip Sermia Glacier and, subject to ice conditions, pick our way through the myriad of broken ('brash') ice that fills the Jakobshavn Icefjord, a World Heritage Site. Bearded and Ringed Seals are often seen resting on the smaller floes, whilst birds to look out for include Common Eider, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern and perhaps even a passing white-phase Gyr Falcon.
The Bowhead Whales tend to feed within a mile or so of the ice-edge. We will therefore spend the next couple of days in search of these slow-moving leviathans out in the mouth of Disko Bay, most likely immediately south of Disko Island, a favoured feeding area. The first Bowheads arrive in Disko Bay in late February and they stay until June when they head further north as they follow the retreating ice towards Baffin Bay and beyond. Whilst nothing is certain in the world of wildlifewatching, we stand a very good chance of locating one or more of these rare creatures and, once found, their slowmoving nature and tendency to feed near the water’s surface make them fairly easy to observe. Sadly, these sluggish habits also made Bowheads an easy target for the early whalers. It has recently been discovered that Bowheads are one of the longest living animals — a harpoon head dating from 1885 having been removed from an adult Alaskan Bowhead in 2007 proving that the animal was at least 130 years old. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that these amazing creatures may live for as long as 200 years!
The rich feeding grounds near the iceedge also attract plenty of Humpback Whales and a few Fin Whales, plus the occasional Hooded and Harp Seal. For the very fortunate there is even a chance of an Atlantic Walrus or a small pod of Narwhal, although the latter are very shy and only seen by the fortunate few!
We will also take time to enjoy landings on Disko Island and some of the small offshore islands such as Hunde Ejland and Kronprinsen’s Ejland where Longtailed Skuas, Snow Buntings, Northern Wheatears, Greenland White-fronted Geese and twirling Grey Phalaropes all breed.
Finally we must make our way back, past the icebergs, to Ilulissat. There we board our flight back to Iceland and, after a final night in Keflavik, we head home.