cliffs and birds at Allkefjellet

First Walrus Sighting in the Arctic!

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Today on our Arctic Expedition with Quark, we started slightly earlier. Breakfast call was 7:30am. The 23 knot wind precluded us from kayaking, so we joined the zodiacs as we toured the shore of towering dolomite and limestone spires with ledges cut out for countless bird colonies at Allkefjellet.

The contrast of the white and black rock, along with the green tundra, dirty snow, and low clouds added to the dramatic setting where over 60,000 pairs of Brunnich’s guillemot breed. It’s amazing to know in September no birds will be present. It’s also amazing to think that of 10,000 species of birds around the world, only 30 species of birds breed in the Arctic and only about 100 species have been recorded.

Scientists Studying Birds in the Arctic and Antarctica

We were on the first departing zodiac today, so as we toured around the cliffs we dropped off two scientists that were on board the ship. They place cameras around the Arctic and Antarctica to monitor the birds. On this trip they were collecting data. They have about 6 cameras in the Arctic and around 100 cameras in Antarctica that snap a photo at least every hour, sometimes more.

The scientists have asked for the public’s help in their research. They have so many photos that there is a backlog. They have established a program that allows anyone to participate in their research. It is called Penguin Watch. Volunteers click on each penguin in the photo and the computer collects the data.

From the annotated photo, the computer is being trained to identify each individual penguin automatically. It is currently 95% accurate! At this time, the penguin population is in decline. By studying the penguins so closely, the goal is to find out what is causing the decline and how to reverse the trend. This BBC article explains a little more as does the science tab on the Penguin Watch page. I think it is cool they have over 36,000 volunteers!

scientists in red coats...look like tiny dots!
scientists in red coats…look like tiny dots!

Brunnich’s Guillemots

Anyway, back to the birds we were observing: the Brunnich’s guillemots. As I mentioned in a previous post, they create large nesting colonies on ledges. The more mature nest toward the middle of the colony as opposed to the sides as they are more protected from the predatory fox. The foxes weren’t out on this snowy, overcast day. Just looking at the steep terrain, one would think they couldn’t even get to the bird colonies, but apparently the agile mammals can.

Guillemots, Glaucous Gulls, and Kittiwakes

In addition to the Brunnich’s guillemots, we spotted black guillemots, glaucous gulls, geese, and nesting kittiwakes. The black guillemot is hard to see nesting as they make their home in small crevices in the rock as opposed to hanging out on the edge. We generally only see them flying or swimming. They are very recognizable with their red feet. I don’t have a good photo of one yet, but we will get more chances.

The kittiwakes look like a small version of the glaucous gull, mostly white and grey with a black tip on their wing. Unlike the guillemots, the kittiwakes gather tundra to build nests on the cliff ledges. The birds are named for their call-kit-ti-wake.

nesting kittiwakes at Allkefjellet

While several birds were nesting, it seemed like just as many were flying around. It’s amazing they don’t run into each other or that none of us got nailed with guano. The cliffs were dripping white and occasionally the stench was overpowering, but not nearly as bad as penguin colonies. The birds were very active. We watched some guillemots fighting in the water and a menacing glaucous gull enjoy its kill.

glaucous gull and kill


The afternoon outing is what I was most looking forward to today. It was our first opportunity to spot a walrus. We motored four nearly four hours to Torellneset, Nordauslandet, the second largest island in Svalbard named for the Swedish geologist Torel. Due to the heavy ice conditions, the walruses weren’t in the area.

As such, our expedition guide instructed the captain to travel across the bay to a point on Wahlbergoya. We were in luck. Walrus prefer open water with no ice, a shallow area for feeding and a forgiving surface on land so they can use their tusks to haul themselves out of the water. This peninsula was a perfect spot for them.

walrus at Wahlbergoya

Through our zoom lenses, we could see several walrus hauled out on shore from our anchored position. In addition, as we were standing out on the deck, Shannon, one of our fellow kayakers spotted a whale outside her porthole. She came up to the deck to tell us, so I commented that we should look for its spout.

David turned, pointed and said, “there it is.”

We were all excited looking into the water as this small whale slowly rose to the surface. I thought to myself, it sure is tiny. I wonder what kind it could be, when Sharon, our kayak leader, smiled and with a little chuckle said, “Guys, that’s a walrus! They have to breath too.”

Ha, well spray did come out of the water when it breathed. We decided to call it a whalerus! If walrus are in the water, kayakers aren’t allowed to paddle because they are aggressive toward boats. I’m not sure we would have kayaked anyway given the windy day. So once again, we joined the zodiacs, this time for a landing.

A Walk on Wahlbergoya

Since there wasn’t much walking room on the peninsula, they separated our groups. Some groups went to view the walrus while others took a twenty minute walk along the coastline. Our group was directed to follow the coastline. We trounced along the pebble beach while looking at driftwood, animal tracks, and a few birds including the purple sandpiper, a small shorebird that breeds in the northern tundra.

The walk wasn’t terribly exciting, but it was nice to stretch our legs, and the change in landscape was interesting. This time we looked out at what looked like a snowy desert. While I was incredibly anxious to see a walrus, I’m also glad we did the uneventful walk first as the other way around would have been anti-climatic.

Watching the Walrus

At the same time, however, I guess once the groups saw the walrus, they didn’t have to worry about another tourist scaring them off. Apparently, the walrus are more skittish on land as the polar bear will hunt them. Before we even neared the walrus, we were instructed to turn the beep off our cameras and to retrieve whatever we needed from our velcro pockets in order to keep the noise to a minimum.

With the walrus being downwind from us, we had to approach slowly in a single file line. Once we got within 50 feet (maybe farther as depth perception is extremely difficult in the expansive terrain), we had to spread out in a line along the perimeter. We quietly snapped photos and were allowed to walk slowly behind the perimeter to change positions.

The nice part about the windy day is that it did cause the walrus to be more curious. The group of lazy lumps occasionally moved, waving a flipper or lifting their head to observe the crowd. One walrus who hung out by itself continuously rubbed its belly and occasionally expended its energy to look around. In addition to seeing the walrus resting on land, we spotted 2 walrus in the water. What fun for our first time to see walrus in the wild!

Walrus Trivia

There are 20,000-30,000 Atlantic walrus in the Arctic. Far less than the 200,000-300,000 Pacific walrus. The word walrus means tooth walking seahorse which sounds about right. The blubbery animal that has an 8 inch layer of fat uses its tusks primarily to haul itself out of the water. The males also use theirs to fight. As a result, their tusks are elliptical, thick, and diverge at the end while the female’s tusks are more circular and extend straight down. The males’ tusks are three feet long and weigh over five kilos. A broken tusk doesn’t grow back.

Breeding season for the walrus is between January and March, and the females give birth to pups between April and June. After birth, the females stay with their babies while males form their herd. Today we saw all males. The crew estimated that there were thirteen in the group pressed together on the peninsula, one on its own, and a few in the water.

Walrus feed on mollusks. They prefer to hunt for their food in water 50 meters or less, and they can stay underwater for 5 minutes at a time. They have the strongest suction of any mammal, and with their concave mouth they are able to suck the bivalves out of their shell without digesting any of the shell!

Due to all their fat, walrus have a difficult time cooling so they expand their blood vessels to their skin surface. This results in pink areas on the animal. They also cool themselves through their flippers. The lone walrus that kept scratching itself with its flipper had a very pink area. The guide thought it may not have been as healthy as the others.

Last but not least, we learned about the male’s anatomy. The best description of their Oosik is through this poem Woody read us:

Ode to an Oosik

Strange things have been done in the Midnight Sun,
and the story books are full—
But the strangest tale concerns the male,
magnificent walrus bull!
I know it’s rude, quite common and crude,
Perhaps it is grossly unkind;
But with first glance at least, this bewhiskered beast,
is as ugly in front as behind.
Look once again, take a second look — then
you’ll see he’s not ugly or vile —
There’s a hint of a grin, in that blubbery chin —
and the eyes have a shy secret smile.
How can this be, this clandestine glee
that exudes from the walrus like music?
He knows, there inside, beneath blubber and hide
lies a splendid contrivance — the Oosik!
“Oosik” you say — and quite well you may,
I’ll explain if you keep it between us;
In the simplest truth, though rather uncouth
“Oosik” is, in fact, his penis!
Now the size alone of this walrus bone,
would indeed arouse envious thinking —
It is also a fact, documented and backed,
There is never a softening or shrinking!
This, then, is why the smile is so sly,
the walrus is rightfully proud.
Though the climate is frigid, the walrus is rigid,
Pray, why, is not man so endowed?
Added to this, is a smile you might miss —
Though the bull is entitled to bow —
The one to out-smile our bull by a mile
is the satisfied walrus cow!

We were then told their penis is two feet long, a bone which doesn’t shrink, and is hidden internally!


The end of the day took us to a place called Wilhemoya. The expedition leader, Woody, announced over the PA system, “We have spotted our first polar bears at 11 o’clock to the ship.” It was a mad dash out to the deck. Fortunately I had just gone downstairs to my room, so I grabbed my jacket and camera and darted up the stairs to deck five by the captain’s bridge where the scopes were aimed in the direction of the bears on the fast ice.

I scanned the horizon with my 18-270 lens for a buttery yellow color, but I couldn’t find them. The staff patiently explained that the mama and cub were in front of the blue face of the glacier and traveling from left to right. The other bear was back to the left of the iceberg. I peered and peered when finally I saw something move.

I asked, “Is it that dot?”

“Yes, they responded.”

I was actually looking for a bear shape which was not defined in my lens. I switched to the scope which expanded my dot into the size of the “0” on a keyboard. I felt obligated to snap a photo just in case they didn’t get any closer so I had proof I’d seen a polar bear. See if you can find them!

3 polar bears in the distance

Planning to stay here a while, the captain slowly pushed the ship into the ice. We could hear the ice crack as it compressed once in a while. Just next to the bow, we could see polar bear prints, so I was hopeful the bears would come closer at some point during the evening. The staff planned a bear watch and informed us that they would wake us through the PA system in the middle of night should the bears get close enough to enjoy with the naked eye. We are anxiously awaiting. ETB

polar bear prints

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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