June 12, 2016
The loudspeaker wake up call came at 7:30 for breakfast starting at 8. I opted for an omelet and fruit. David added some lox to the mix. There was no shortage of food at the morning buffet. The rest of the morning was filled with preparation…a kayak fitting to adjust our foot pegs, a boot fitting for our landings, and of course a briefing on all the does and dont’s in the Arctic. We now know the correct way to enter and exit the zodiac, how to clean our boots at the gangway, and the importance of staying close to one another and near the guide with the rifle in case a polar bear comes near!
Our first outing wasn’t until after lunch. I believe this was due to our delay leaving port yesterday. In order for 74 passengers to disembark the ship into zodiacs for our outings in an orderly fashion, we were split into three groups. The groups were named Amundsen, Barents, and Nansen after Arctic explorers. Each group was called to the gangway for departure and rotated order first, second, and third with each outing. The select few (only 10 spaces available) who paid extra to kayak were placed in the Barents group. This didn’t matter too often as kayakers were always allowed to depart first if we got to the gangway 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. This is likely due to the time it took to load into the zodiacs pulling the kayaks, to motor to our starting point, to individually load into our kayaks, and then to climb back into the zodiacs after our paddle to motor back to the ship.
Our first stop was at Lilliehöökfjorden, located at the northern side of Krossfjorden, a fjord that extends 14 km and terminates at Lilliehöökbreen, a glacier with a 7 km front. The glacier is named after the commander on Torrell’s Swedish Spitsbergen expedition in 1861.
Once we were all situated in the kayaks, we took a slow paddle through light brash ice by the island cliffs that were swarmed with birds. We spotted a Glaucous gull which is the second largest gull in the world. It uses its large size to intimidate nesting birds to steal their eggs. It will also eat other birds as we witnessed when we turned the corner! The light grey and white gull breeds in the Arctic regions and the Atlantic coasts of Europe. In the winter it migrates as far south as the Great Lakes in the United States.
The Barnacle goose was another common sighting on the land’s edge. The medium sized goose has a white face and black head, neck and chest. These birds also breed in the Arctic islands of the North Atlantic. There are three populations that breed and winter in different areas. Those that breed in Svalbard winter near the England/Scotland border and in the Netherlands.
In addition to the Glaucous gull and Barnacle goose, countless birds hovered overhead as they swooped in and out the cliffs. We were careful not to open our mouths when we looked up! Birds were not our only sighting. Hidden around the corner was a bright blue iceberg. As we admired its beauty, a curious harbor seal joined us. The seal swam in between and around our kayaks as it popped its head up occasionally to check us out. David was leading the pack, and the seal seemed to like to hang around him. It proved to be elusive anytime I raised the camera, and I couldn’t swing around quickly in my kayak or I may have tipped over. Fortunately, Carsten got this video while we were all looking around for it: https://youtu.be/w6j3X91lG1Y
While we were kayaking, the rest of the passengers were hiking. The expedition crew offered several hiking groups…fast, medium, slow and contemplative! We could see one group of hikers on the ridge. Their guide radioed Sharon, our kayak guide, that there were two ringed seals in the brash ice between us and the land. This section of brash ice was big and thick. All the pieces were very close together. We followed in a line so that we could make a pathway. Sharon went first. A double kayak followed and then David. The procession ended there as the person in front of me got stuck. At this point there was hardly a place to go as we were squeezed by the ice. My burning desire to see a ringed seal drove me to paddle forward and backward and to even pull myself along the ice pieces to get around my fellow stuck kayaker. I suppose I should have followed my initial thought (we’re going through that?) and the logic of the rest of the group who waited on the sidelines as Sharon and the rest of the group returned before I could reach them given the ringed seals were too far away!
During this stretch (that felt like an hour), I sweated up a storm while completing my 1,000 point turn…go forward, hit a big piece of ice, back up, try to turn slightly, hit another piece of ice, move the ice slightly, paddle on more ice while being careful not to catch the paddle underneath the ice and flip, pull and push myself with my hands on the ice, and so forth. Just as I created enough space to get turned around, our zodiac support had to drive into the brash ice to create a path for the other kayakers. UGH…all the space I had just created vanished as the ice came surging toward me! When I finally reached the ice’s edge, a fellow kayaker snapped my photo. Relieved and exasperated at the same time, I exclaimed, “I don’t think I’m smiling!” While those who stood by may have been smiling more than me, in their relaxed state, they were fighting frozen hands and feet. While they took a quick warm-up paddle, the brash ice paddlers took a cool down paddle back to the zodiac before loading the Sea Adventurer. Paddle 101 Class was complete, though I’m not sure we passed!
To see where we were, click here:http://www.trimbleoutdoors.com/ViewTrip/3249379?secretLinkKey=980c0db8-6c0c-4935-ad8e-1cb0f9940e16
For our second outing, the ship moved to 14th July Glacier (Fjortende Julibukta), Krossfjorden. The 16km long glacier is named for the French National Day. Here, we took a zodiac cruise along the rising, rock cliff coastline to view birds and hopefully spot some reindeer and/or fox. As we approached the nesting colonies of Brünnich’s guillemots, the common eider lifted off the shore. The common eider, which also breeds in the Arctic builds a nest by the sea out of eiderdown plucked from the female’s breast.
The Brünnich’s guillemot (also known as the thick-billed murre) featured a white chest and black wings with two small white dots on their back. The waterbird nests in vast colonies on narrow ledges of steep cliffs. The smarter, more mature birds pick their area in the middle of the colony to stay more protected from predators like the Arctic fox. Because the Brünnich’s guillemots don’t build a nest, they only lay one long egg which is very pointed at one end to keep it from rolling off the cliff ledges. The Brünnich guillemots are not the best at flying, though they are quite good at swimming like penguins eventhough they are not from the same scientific genus. The birds have learned to fly to escape predators, but they are much safer in the sea. As such, the adults push their 3-week old chicks off the high ledges and they plummet to the sea before they can fly!
While it was exciting to see Brünnich’s guillemots (especially for the birders), it was more exciting to spot the puffins as this was the only time on the two week expedition that we would get a chance to see them. Of course everyone loved the pelagic seabirds’ colorful beaks. Generally, puffins dig holes for each single nest. In Svalbard, the northern limit for Puffins, they can’t dig holes in rocks, moving glaciers, permafrost, or sinking bog, so they find miniature caves in the cliffs for their nests. The puffins we spotted waddled around the edges of the cliffs protecting their nests and flapped their wings rapidly when they took flight to land in the sea. Puffins prefer the water and the only time they spend on land are to lay eggs and protect their newborn chicks. The rest of time, at least 7 months out of the year, they are at sea.
With all the birds, comes all the bird guano which fertilizes the Arctic tundra. This in turn attracts the Svalbard Reindeer, the smallest subspecies of the reindeer, who spend the whole summer grazing to store up fat for the harsh winters. This reindeer, which has lived for more than 5,000 years, is the northern-most living herbivore mammal in the world. Both the male and female reindeer grow antlers, though the male lose their antlers in the early winter while the females tend to retain theirs all year. We spotted a few from a distance, but not nearly as close as the ones in Longyearbyen.
The bird colonies also attract the Arctic foxes as the harsh winter weather forces them to be both scavengers and hoarders. They eat birds’ eggs and both seal and reindeer carcasses. Currently, the foxes are in the middle of changing their coats from winter white to summer brown. David and his eagle eyes spotted a fox with a mottled black and white coat near the bird cliffs. Little did we know how rare they were to see. Our zodiac driver, Woody, who was also the expedition leader, radioed the other guides. We followed the shoreline at the pace of the fox as it nimbly trotted along and up the steep cliffs. It was little and sometimes hard to see as it was well camouflaged.
In addition to the amazing wildlife sightings, we were blessed with fantastic weather (partially cloudy skies and little wind) which made for a warm, peaceful zodiac ride. After our outing, we attended tea, a debriefing, and dinner. What a nice first day! ETB