The Arctic is a very special environment which we had visited a few times before e.g. Point Barrow, Alaska, but we had never spent more than a couple of days at a time on visits and we had never seen Polar Bear, so a cruise round the Svalbard archipelago seemed the best option to achieve this goal. We booked the trip with a company called Discover the World (www.discover-the-world.co.uk), although they were agents for a company called G-Adventures who actually own and run the ship. A cruise round Svalbard is not a cheap option and the total cost for each of us was £4292, not including flights, hotel accommodation in Oslo and Longyearbyen and sundry expenses such as tips. The ship MS Expedition takes around 100 passengers and was small enough to allow all round viewing with decks at an ideal height for photography, but was surprisingly stable in a F7. The cabins, food and helpfulness of the Filipino crew couldn’t be faulted. Visiting the Arctic as a tourist is bound to have an environmental impact so I was interested in asking about the G-Adventures environmental policy. The fish, I was told, is certified sustainable ‘where possible’. The company has an associated charity that supports environmental projects such as removal of plastic waste from the marine environment. The Philippine crew raise money for a project to protect the Great Philippine Eagle, something I was very happy to donate to. All of the crew were extremely safety conscious and great care was taken to avoid any potentially disastrous encounters on land between Humans and Polar Bears. This cruise was not a birding trip in any sense, so although the guides are very good at finding Polar Bears (I am ashamed to admit I only found one Polar Bear for myself), you will have to find all the birds yourself. I had noticed that virtually all trip reports from birding tour groups visit Svalbard in late June to July so I wondered how successful the trip would be in August, particularly as I had a horrible suspicion we might be looking for wildlife on our own for much of the time. However the trip exceeded my expectations and would compare very well with any other trip report I have seen posted. A selection of pictures from the trip can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/neiljulianthomas/sets/
5th August. A juvenile Peregrine called noisily from a gasometer at Purple Parking Heathrow.
6th August. Flying from Oslo, Norway was shrouded in cloud, but as we flew over the Arctic Ocean there was a dramatic clearing to give views of Spitzbergen, with many spectacular glaciers weaving their way amongst barren hills and snowfields. Before making our way to the ship we had a couple of hours in Longyearbyen, which we spent with a walk along the shoreline as far as the dog kennels and the Polar Bear warning sign. I was delighted to meet up with David Acfield from Essex in the town – there was one other birder on the ship, and his presence really enhanced our enjoyment of the trip. Hulking adult Glaucous Gulls drifted along the shoreline, to be furiously mobbed by the many Arctic Terns that were nesting in the area. Birds fishing in roadside pools gave superb photo opportunities. Juvenile Arctic Skuas loafed in this area, with creches of Eider duck offshore. Waders were represented by a few Dunlin and Purple Sandpipers, the latter engagingly tame. An area of saline meadow was being grazed by about 150 Barnacle Geese, many with goslings that looked to being close to the point of flying. Several examples of the only passerine to regularly occur in Svalbard, the Snow Bunting were seen, but all were distant. Two additional gull species were seen, a Greater Black-back, and an argentatus Herring Gull.
We sailed at 6.00 and as we headed out into Adventfjorden examples of the more numerous breeding seabirds were soon encountered with Black Guillemots generally close to the shoreline. and further offshore lines of Little Auks, and the one possible new species from this trip, the Brunnich's Guillemot. Several hundred of both species were seen, with Puffins rather less numerous. Kittiwakes were very common, with the most obvious birds being the abundant Fulmars, which were in a variety of colour morphs that could be viewed as they cruised past at eye level. Bonxie was another additional species. Belugas had been seen in the morning in Adventfijord, but I failed to connect, but as we headed further out the tall blows of two Fin Whales betrayed their presence, and a much smaller rorqual, with a low inconspicuous blow was a Minke Whale.
7th. August. After observing the midnight sun I was out on deck at 5:30. The day started overcast, becoming sunny with patchy cloud and light N winds, the temp varying between 2 and 8C. Shortly after resuming observations a pod of dolphins were seen rolling. With a very large strongly falcate dorsal fin, and a pale area posterior to the fin I was confident these were White-beaked. We cruised up the west coast of Spitzbergen as far as Magdalenefjord. For most of the journey the sea was alive with Little Auks and Brunnich’s Guillemots, many of the latter being males with an accompanying chick, and fewer but still numbering hundreds of Puffin and Black Guillemots. There were also a few (c6) Arctic Skua, one Bonxie and many Kittiwake and Fulmars. Some 5 seals were seen, all small and resembling Common Seal, but I was assured they were likely all to be ringed seals. However examination of photos confirmed the reason why they resembled Common.Seals is because that is what they were. D had views of a Minke Whale, which I contrived to miss. Glaciers ran down to the sheltered bay at Magdalenefjord so the sea was dotted with ice floes. We walked around the tombola with a graveyard, and the remains of blubber tubs, where whale oil was used to fuel fires to render down yet more blubber. Truly nothing was wasted, except the whale.
Arctic Terns were nesting on the Tombola, and the elegant transfer of fish from male to female was seen. There were also c50 Barnacle Geese and Little Auks swarmed like midges over the steep scree slopes. The highlight was a zodiac excursion to a sandy beach where some 15 Atlantic Walrus were hauled out. Truly impressive animals they were all males, although some lacked tusks. With some feeling the heat their neck skin was flushed bright pink. Although they pressed together in a tightknit group they also spent much time squabbling, snorting loudly and waving their tusks around. Another walrus swam offshore, making slow ponderous dives, and later this animal hauled its massive bulk out of the sea to join the others.
On leaving Magdalenefjord we were soon negotiating a channel between the 'mainland' of West Spitzbergen and the island of Danskoya when Alex on the bridge drew our attention to a cream coloured patch on a distant scree slope. For several minutes we inspected this patch, but by the time I went back to the cabin to fetch J and the scope we were 95% certain the patch was in fact not one but two Polar Bears - a mother and cub. Having confirmed the identification the Captain maneuvered the ship closer by degrees to within two hundred yards of the shore. One might have predicted the bears might have remained somnolent for some considerable time, but patience was rewarded as they roused themselves and wandered slowly along the shoreline, before stopping again with the cub apparently suckling before they lay down again. The only things that slightly tarnished this encounter with this utterly magnificent animal were that she was rather thin, and the animal was radio-collared.
Swimming just offshore from the bears was a second new mammal, in the shape of a Bearded seal.
8th August. Weather gave perfect conditions, the winds light to force 0, with hazy sunshine all day. We spent the day cruising slowly along the edge of the pack ice off North Spitzbergen, a strange and rather eerie landscape, with a visit to the low island of Moffen (which can only be viewed from a distance of 500m), before turning south into the Hinlopen Strait). The day provided some exciting and for me quite unexpected sightings. One hoped for species was the Ivory Gull and out of the blue one Ivory Gull drifted overhead to join another. I was inspecting my photos of the first bird, when a third flew past, just a few metres away. Two more Ivory Gulls were seen perched on Moffen with another two birds together and a single as we passed the pack ice at the entrance to the Hinlopen Strait. The rest of the bird list for the day was made up of Little Auks, Black Guillemots, Brunnich’s Guillemots, Puffin, Kittiwake, Glaucous Gulls, Fulmars, Arctic Terns, Common Eider, 2 Arctic Skuas, and Bonxies. Seals were a feature of the day, with some 50 Bearded Seals seen. These deep divers feed on molluscs, crabs and benthic fish, and obviously spend much time when not fishing resting on the ice. Two allowed a very close approach, one of these we had sailed up to as its coat, a blotched dark and pale pattern raised hopes we had found a rare Hooded Seal. Several Harp Seals were seen in the water, but very few were hauled out to reveal their distinctively marked coats. The Harp Seals would rear out of the water almost like otters or even swim on their backs before submerging. The third pinniped seen was the Ringed Seal, with some 20 examples. At the other size extreme was the Walrus, with the examples swimming, a few hauled out on the shores of Moffen, and some 15 hauled out on ice flows in twos or threes. Most if not all were males. Scanning the sea brought some reward when I saw a rorqual blow, the ship turned to view the whale. As we went past a very high rorqual blow shot up from the ice edge. To my disbelief bins revealed the slow rise a of mottled blue grey back before a tiny dorsal came into view and the Blue Whale sank from view, only to resurface a further three times before arching its back for a deep dive. We soon relocated the first whale, which was a Fin, that we viewed at close range.
We failed to relocate the first Blue Whale but an hour later as we progressed along the ice edge a second was found and we followed it through several dive sequences. The whale would blow 4-5 times with shallow dives in between. After each surfacing the colossal whelms it left on the surface left a sequence of calm patches for minutes. Not much chance of confusing this leviathan with the Minke Whale that was also seen here.
In the evening a second Minke was seen, and we came across a group of Fin Whales perhaps 5 including perhaps a mother and calf, as the large and smaller blows were seen simultaneously.
Three Polar Bears were seen, unfortunately all at considerable distance. One patrolled the shores of Moffen ignoring two Bonxies that dive bombed it repeatedly and two were seen along the Hinlopen strait , the shallow water preventing any close approach. We tracked one bear, its slow seeming amble taking it 2 km along the coast as we watched.
9th August. I went out on deck at 6.00 am to find we were approaching the basalt cliff of Alkefjellet. The spectacular cliff scenery was enhanced by ice sheets on the flat topped hills, cascading down in. hanging glaciers. The bird diversity was decidedly limited with a few Black Guillemots on the low boulders, thousands of kittiwakes and the bulk of the bird population made up of 60,000 Brunnich's Guillemots. The spectacle in terms of noise, smell and visual impact was incredible. Birds crowded onto the ledges while the sky was full of birds. Many on the water were males with chicks, and we saw several descend to the sea after having being called down by the parent. Others less fortunate were being gulped down by Glaucous Gulls. Towards the edge of the colony the cliffs did not descend vertically to the sea, but to vegetation covered slopes, and boulders, and here we saw an Arctic Fox skulking about. In a flash it ceased its apparently aimless wandering and sprinted up the slope to where a Glaucous Gull was dispatching a chick. The fox dispossessed it easily, but two other foxes, obviously out for the main chance rushed after it, and the first fox was in turn robbed of his meal.
In the afternoon we continued south along the Hinlopen Strait to an area where wide shallow beaches shelved into the sea, and obviously provided a suitable resting place for Walrus with c47 hauled out in two groups, and several others swimming off the beach. A few hundred yards from the walrus lay a resting Polar Bear. From the anchored ship c800m away I could see the bear was panting, and I suspect it was because the bear was too warm that it kept shifting position and then wandered up an ice filled gully before we got anywhere near it in the zodiacs. The bear lay down on the ice, but too far away for any acceptable photographs, so we went and observed the walrus. They are fascinating to watch, constantly interacting, as well as scratching against the ground, or just rolling over to lie on their backs. As we watched the walrus two Ivory Gulls, a Bonxie, and Arctic Skuas flew past. Two divers flew past, I would be certain they were not Red-throated, but the range was too great to be certain that the bill was not ivory, however I would be fairly sure they were Great Northerns as opposed to White-billed.
On our return to the boat the bear inevitably decided he was sufficiently chilled and strolled down the beach It seemed there was no possibility of returning to view the unfolding drama so we had to watch and take photos from the ship, which was rather frustrating. The distance between the bear and Walrus gradually closed and we waited to see how the walrus would respond as they became aware of the presence of the apex predator. They did not, in fact, respond in any detectable way, even when the bear pressed its snout up to the walrus. If I had been the bear I would have felt insulted. The bear then gave up any intention of a hunt, and lay down a few yards from the walrus. Other marine mammals seen were three ringed seals and one bearded seal.
As we resumed our progress down Hinlopen Strait two Reindeer were grazing the sparse vegetation on the beach.
10th August. Our extreme good fortune with the weather continued with light winds, cloudless skies and a temperature of 8C. We travelled east along the pack ice along the south shore of Nordaustlandet in the direction of Kong Karls Landet. The first sighting of interest in the morning was inanimate, a truly massive iceberg that may have drifted down from Jan Mayen Land. A Bearded Seal was seen on the ice as soon as I went out on deck in the morning , but this was the only one seen all day. Harp Seals on the other hand were very numerous and several hundred must have been seen during the day mostly in porpoising groups, which also bobbed up like otters, or swam on their backs. Ringed Seals were far less obtrusive but certainly 20+ were seen along the ice edge. Four Walrus were seen with two on ice flows, but as we approached the first my attention was more on the two Ivory Gulls beside it. Unfortunately the wretched animal slipped off the ice floe and the ship immediately diverted back to our original course away from the gulls. Two other Ivory Gulls were seen flying along the ice edge during the day, one drawing attention to itself by the distinctive call. Arctic terns and kittiwakes were feeding along the ice edge, and in one flock I picked out the hyper-distinctive wing pattern of Sabine’s Gull. We were obviously on a roll because a small gull was picked out flying towards us, and suspicions were confirmed as it turned sideways to show the features of an adult Ross’s Gull. Having re-familiarised myself with the features of this species it was possible to identify a more distant bird as a second Ross’s Gull.
Our hope for a close encounter with Polar Bear was then fulfilled with the discovery of a resting bear some 800m in from the ice edge. The Captain slowly maneuvered through the floes until we were about 40m from the bear, and we were able to spend the next four hours with the bear. For much of this time the bear rested, although it rolled over or looked around from time to time. It certainly became more animated when currents drifted us upwind of the bear and it could clearly smell food. Eventually the bear was roused by the rather contentious technique of nudging the ice floe it was resting on with the ship, and wandered around the floes at one point coming right up to the boat. We also saw it scratch a hollow in the sea ice, from which it then drank. The bear was a large female in superb condition with a BMI that put her right in the grossly obese category. A little later a bear appeared from nowhere and was seen moving over the ice very close to the ship. It must have been swimming as this bear soon slipped into the sea. She? was very difficult to view with the scope, then when my view was obscured we lost the bear, and amazingly, it was never seen again.
Two Long-tailed Skuas floated or hovered over the ice and a few examples of the more dashing Arctic Skuas were seen, as well as one Bonxie.
11th August. In the morning we approached the vast ice dome of Austfonna on Nordaustlandet with its 150 km ice front to the sea. With lowering clouds and drifting fog banks and the sea filled with a plethora of ice bergs of varying sizes it was a forbidding and alien environment. We then sailed east towards, the coastline very different to West Spitzbergen with its jagged peaks. Here flat topped and highly eroded hills, often separated by glaciers created a stark polar desert. We travelled through Bjornsundet. which lived up to its name, as 4 polar bears were seen, all at considerable distance. The most surprising bear was one active half way up an arid mountain. There was no visible vegetation in the area so could not imagine what it might find to eat in this area. In slightly less arid areas four reindeer were seen, with another resting on a snow patch. As we sailed away from the ice wall another Ross's Gull was seen in the distance, again an adult, as well as the expected Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Brunnich's Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Arctic Terns, Puffins, and Arctic Skuas. We had intended landing on the island of Wilhelmoya, but the presence of Polar Bears on this island made this impossible, so instead we anchored close to the coast of West Spitzbergen. As we waited for the shore excursion a line of 47 Pink-footed Geese flew past as well as Purple Sandpiper and a splendid adult Long-tailed Skua. Given we have seen three away from Ny-Alesund the idea there is only one breeding pair in Svalbard would seem questionable. The scouts viewed a lake with Pale-bellied Brent Geese and Red-throated Diver, but we were not able to view this lake from the area in which we were permitted to walk. David declined to go ashore and from the boat saw Ivory and a fourth Ross's Gull. From the evidence we have seen it would appear Ross's Gull is a regular late summer migrant to eastern Svalbard in small numbers.
The shoreline looked utterly desolate but on landing a surprising flower garden of arctic plants was found, with Svalbard Poppy. Marsh, Creeping and Purple Saxifrage providing splashes of colour amongst the rocks. There was a pair of Arctic Skuas occupying the area, who became very agitated when numbers of people strayed close to where chicks might have been located, giving distraction displays. I did tactfully explain to people that they were disturbing breeding birds and they happily moved away, but I really felt this should not have been my role. We were shown the skull of a young Polar Bear with what appeared to be teeth marks penetrating the skull, which would clearly suggest it had been killed by a larger bear - I would have thought it unlikely a scavenging bear would have bitten into the bone of the muzzle so forcefully. There was abundant sign of Ptarmigan in the area, and the habitat looked perfect, but I failed to find any.
12th August. Weather was overcast with f4-5 E winds, but improving towards late afternoon. During the day we sailed between the islands of Barentsoya and Edgeoya, then down the west side of Edgeoya to make a.landing at Diskobukta. Here a canyon had been eroded into the soft shale, creating ledges for the Black-legged Kittiwake. The first surprise was the discovery of a female Merlin on the ship. I had gone to the front of the ship at 6.00, but moved to the stern as fine drizzle hampered observations and it must have flown in shortly after as David flushed it at 6.30am. It flew round the ship to land on a chair outside the Polar Bear lounge as I was viewing a distant Polar Bear. After preening and a rest it was on its way. As we travelled through the sound 7 Pale-belied Brent Geese flew over, as well as 12 Eider, with 6 drakes on the left and 6 ducks on the right. Other birds were Black Guillemots, Arctic Skua, Arctic Tern, Fulmar, Brunnich's Guillemot and Kittiwake. David and I had both commented on the almost total absence to juvenile Kittiwakes, and speculated there had been some catastrophic breeding failure, but the simple truth was these northern birds breed much later, and in the canyon at Diskobukta the breeding season was in full swing, with both small and chicks close to fledging viewable on their nests. There are no estimates for the size of the colony, but I used to count the colonies at Splash point Seaford and Newhaven, which totaled around 1200 nests, and I could confidently state this colony would dwarf that. Unlike the depleted colonies in Scotland every available section of cliff was occupied, with a carousel of birds circling round, and a stream of birds heading out to the coast. There was an exclusion zone for 2-3m above the scree slope for the very good reason that this area was accessible to Arctic Foxes, which were remarkably confiding. There were at least 2 adults and several cubs, caching kills, going in to the burrow or just wandering about.
Leaving this site and heading SW we passed through seas that once again held 1000s of Little Auks and a rorqual was seen blowing.
13th August. Mostly overcast with f7 SE winds were not ideal for locating cetaceans in the along the edge of the continental shelf on the west of Spitzbergen. Seabirds present were numerous Little Auks, Brunich's Guillemots, Fulmars and Kittiwakes, with the odd Puffin, Arctic Tern, Bonxie and Arctic Skua. Most surprisingly a Turnstone circled the ship several times. A huge feeding flock of Kittiwakes was an obvious sign to search for cetaceans, and accordingly a pod of White-beaked Dolphin were seen here, although three subsequent groups seen were not attracting seabirds. One of these pods came in to briefly bow-ride the ship, and from above the pale saddle was visible as well as the white tip to the beak. Another group was associating with Fin Whales. Some 8 definite Fin Whales were seen, although it was very difficult to see the whale under the blow, unless it arched its back for a deep dive. Another 4 unidentified whales were seen blowing. Over the edge of the shelf, with a depth of 400m, a Sperm Whale was found blowing and logging at the surface. I managed some photos before it arched its back and showed its flukes as it made its deep dive.
We anchored up for a walk on a glacier at Hornsundet where in addition to the birds already mentioned, Pink-footed geese, Black Guillemot, Purple Sandpiper and Glaucous Gull were present.
14th August. At 7.00 am we travelled down Hornsund, the fjord surrounded by mountains with glaciers sliding into the sea and delivering a multitude of icebergs and brash ice into the sea. It is interesting to speculate why the glaciers in this fjord should be attractive to birds when many other glaciers are essentially deserted, but there must have been abundant feeding, as there were hundreds of Arctic Terns and possibly thousands of Kittiwakes in flocks along the ice wall. Such numbers of birds inevitably attract skuas and several Arctic Skuas were seen, but also two Long-tailed Skuas. They were certainly chasing the terns and kittiwakes, although with less persistence than Arctic skuas and they often ended up getting chased in turn. It proved to be a fantastic site for Ivory Gulls and perhaps 5 were present, giving classic views from just a few yards as they perched on ice bergs or bergy bits, or flying overhead, almost within touching distance at times.
A ringed seal was not unexpected here, but I was more surprised when a Polar Bear was found on a bergy bit. I would have thought a relatively young animal, perhaps 2-3 years old it gave superb views before it slipped into the water, this time emerging to pose in classic style on a blue iceberg.
In the afternoon we landed at a cliff site where a towering limestone pinnacle provided nesting ledges for thousands of kittiwakes, with fewer puffins on the grassy slopes. Brunnich's Guillemots also nest here, but the ledges they occupied were already deserted. The guano fertilised slopes below the pinnacle were attractive to geese, presumably providing high energy grazing to fuel migration and there were about 60 Barnacles and 10 Pinkfeet present. Along the shoreline there were several Glaucous gulls nesting on large boulders seemingly with success as broods of up to 3 chicks were on the point of flying. We saw a Glaucous Gull predate a juvenile Kittiwake, which must also face the threat of that other lurking opportunist, the Bonxie.
As we travelled out to the deep water from the evening an excursion onto deck in calm conditions, ideal for cetacean viewing revealed numbers of blowing Fin Whales and White-beaked Dolphins. Fortunately this had not gone un-noticed from the bridge, and the Captain slowed the ship so we could view the feeding whales at very close range. One swam on its side, with half the fluke visible above the seas surface, while another surfaced within 10 m of the ship on two occasions, the sound of its blow quite startling at such close range. Sadly the great display of leaping White-beaked Dolphins was in the distance. Altogether I saw about 11 Fin Whales and 3 separate pods of White-beaked Dolphins.
15th August. During the morning we headed into the great fjord of Isfjorden, intending to make a. landing under the spectacular cliffs of Alkhornet. As we approached land by far the most numerous auks were Puffins, with few Brunnich's and no Little auks. Presumably they were nesting at Alkhornet but we did not have the chance to find out as a large male Polar Bear was wandering along the shore line. We followed the bear for 3km of so, during which time he passed several flocks of Common Eiders which were decidedly nervous, and either took to the water of flew off. He also passed within a few tens of metres of Reindeer, which just eased out of his path. The Bear entered the sea twice, covering some sections by swimming. He then decided the other side of the fjord might offer more, and swam across the distance of 2km or so, hardly a testing workout for such an indefatigable swimmer.
I was amazed to hear that on the on the previous cruise only one Polar Bear was seen, and it was at this site, which meant they left it very late! Slight distraction was offered by a flock of 8 King Eider flying past. The relatively well vegetated slopes here were attractive to reindeer, with some 17 seen. In the afternoon we did manage a landing at the derelict Russian mining establishment, presently an eyesore, but which might eventually metamorphose into a historical site. The flat roof of one of the buildings did at least offer an Arctic Fox proof nesting sites for Arctic Terns and several chicks could be seen on the roof, with several juveniles flying around. They were presumably unconcerned about the large quantities of asbestos. Several Snow Buntings were flying about, and ridiculously tame Purple Sandpipers were everywhere. Other waders were Ringed Plover and Dunlin. I had searched for Ptamigan on the steep scree slopes above the settlement, only to see three in a grassy area on the low ground. UK experience had not prepared me for looking for Ptarmigan on a beach. Further on from this site was a lake and small estuary, but beyond the area we were permitted to walk, and it was only possible to identify Barnacle Geese.
16th August. We had docked the previous evening in Longyearbyen but spent the night on the ship. In the morning I looked out to see a Little Auk bobbing just outside the cabin window. Having dumped our gear in the Radisson Blu Hotel we walked along the shoreline to the lagoons next to the campsite. Along the wide bay towards it Purple Sandpipers and Snow Buntings were numerous, and there were also a few really confiding Ringed Plovers, with the result I got better photos of this species than I ever did in the UK. An adult Ivory Gull flew along the beach, but I didn't notice until it was directly overhead. It raised my hopes by settling briefly in a boatyard, but soon resumed its flight north. The pools were a nesting site for Arctic Terns, with loafing Kittiwakes being caused quite unreasonable alarm by a juvenile Glaucous Gull. The terns attracted Arctic Skuas. A Red-throated Diver flying over was new to the list, but sadly the calm waters of the fjord were not once broken by the smooth roll of the Beluga, so it looks that the species will be the only major dip of the trip. I was very pleased to find the exquisite endemic, the Svalbard poppy growing in spoil close to the hotel.
We made a visit to the Svalbard Museum, which was an interesting but chastening reminder that most human endeavours in Svalbard involved reckless and unsustainable destruction of natural resources.
In the afternoon I walked to the dog kennels. Yet another Ivory Gull flew along the coast, and I spent some time watching an Arctic Skua with its two fledged juveniles, and remarkably tame loafing Barnacle Geese by the otherwise lifeless water supply reservoir.
17th August. Yet another flawless day with very light winds, and the temperature reaching 10C. Snow Buntings fed on the seeds of arctic grasses and herbs but I was then distracted by the sight of two Reindeer bulls lying down and chewing the cud on the tundra. Careful stalking brought me to within 50m, at which point they roused themselves and began feeding, and this activity brought them to within 5m! They were quite impressive animals, with massive and intricate antlers for their size, and in their prime, presumably ready for the rut that begins in September. This sub-species of the Reindeer has disproportionally short legs, presumably an adaptation to reduce heat losses, with no necessity to outrun Arctic Wolves. These stubby appendages would still allow the deer to outpace a Polar Bear with ease. They were very selective grazers - scurvy grass clumps were devoured in their entirety, whereas they just ate the seed heads of fescue.
A last ditch attempt was made to see Belugas along Adventfjord, but we could only find the expected selection of birds. I tried scanning from the airport departure lounge (actually quite a good vantage point), but then the flight was called and I accepted the fat lady had sung.
Great Sperm Whale Physeter marcocephalus. I saw this whale blowing while everyone else was occupied with Fin Whales, but fortunately it was noticed from the bridge and we approached it reasonably closely as it logged on the surface, before it arched its back and showed the flukes as it made the deep dive. All the Sperm Whales visiting Svalbard are males.
Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus. This animal was not even on my hoped for list! Having located a Fin Whale along the pack ice edge on 8th August the ship had been turned towards this whale when another surfaced behind us. The blow was very high, but I could not believe it when bins revealed a mottled blue grey back, and when the dorsal fin finally came into view it was tiny. We failed to relocate this Blue Whale after viewing the Fin Whale, but 30 min later a second Blue Whale was located and this gave the most fantastic views for the next half hour. Perhaps the most awesome feature was the gigantic whelms it sent to the surface that remained for minutes as calm patches on the surface when it dived.
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus. This species was really quite common, mostly along the deep water drop off edge in Western Spitzbergen, but several were seen elsewhere. Two were seen on 6th August in Isfjorden. On the 8th August one was seen along edge of pack ice, with perhaps 5 seen in the ‘evening’. A rorqual was seen in Storfjorden on 12th August, but the most reliable site, as expected was the deep water off West Spitzbergen. Although it was rough some 8 definite Fin Whales were seen on August 13th, with 4 unidentified rorquals, but the best views were in calm conditions on 14th August, when 14 were seen, with staggeringly close views of some – quite startling when a Fin Whale surfaces and blows 10m behind one. They were sometimes seen swimming on their sides, the tail fluke creating an almost convincing impression of an Orca.
Northern Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata. Relatively unobtrusive with its inconspicuous blow, one was seen on 6th August in Isfjorden, David saw another on 7th August, and two were seen along the edge of the pack ice on 8th August.
White-beaked Dolphin Lagenorhynchus albirostris.. This species was seen along the deep water drop off along the west coast of Spitzbergen, often in the company of Fin Whales, or under feeding flocks of Kittiwakes. A distinctive dolphin, with a huge falcate dorsal fin, and an obvious white patch behind it, groups were seen on 7th August, with 4 groups on 13th August and two on 14th August. One group came to the ship to briefly bowride, while some distant groups put on a show of leaping.
Harp Seal Pagophilus groenlandicus. This species was quite numerous along the edge of the pack ice to the north of Spitzbergen and in the Hinlopen Strait, with several on the 8th August, and several hundred on the 10th August. They were seen in social groups, porpoising almost like a cetacean school, and swimming upside down, or rearing out of the water like otters. Only two were seen hauled out on the ice.
Bearded Seal Erignathus barbatus. This very distinctive seal was seen in some numbers in the pack ice on 8th August, with c50 seen hauled out on the ice, and some of which allowed a very close approach by the ship. A single was seen in open sea north of Magdalenefjord, but only one was seen out on the ice on 10th August.
Ringed Seal Pusa hispida. A much less obtrusive species than the Harp Seal, and normally seen singly with 20+ seen on each day we spent in the pack ice, with a few examples seen on other days close to glaciers or in the open sea. Very like Common Seal in profile, but with an even more compressed snout.
Common Seal Phoca vitulina. This species is known to occur on the shores of Prins Karls Forlandet off West Spitzbergen, but five were seen in the bay at Magdalenefjord.
Atlantic Walrus Odobenus rosmarus. I had previously only seen the severed head of one unfortunate individual, and a distant swimming animal at Point Barrow, so it was excellent to get fantastic close views of this extraordinary animal. Fifteen were seen hauled out at Magdalenefjord on 7th August, with a few on Moffen (at one time the only regular haul out for Walrus), with 15 in small groups on ice floes. On the 9th August along the Hinlopen Strait 47 were seen hauled out, with others in the water. The most surprising observation was the complete lack of response to the approach of the Polar Bear. Four more were seen on 10th August, with one accompanied by two Ivory Gulls.
Polar Bear Ursus maritimus. I did not really expect to be able to use the words 'common and seen (almost) daily' in connection with this animal, especially when I heard the previous cruise had only seen one at the last gasp, but it is certainly true Polar Bears were seen on every day on the cruise. On the 7th August a mother and cub were seen on West Spitzbergen as we negotiated the channel between here and Danskoya. Initially resting on the shore they wandered for some distance before lying down again, with cub nursing. The radio collared female was rather thin which would cause anxiety about the cubs survival prospects. On the 8th August a distant bear was seen on Moffen Island, being mobbed by two Bonxies as it wandered around. Two further bears were seen in the distance as we travelled along the Hinlopen Strait, the shallow water close inshore prohibiting any approach by the ship. On the 9th August we were viewing the Walrus haul out at when a bear sleeping on the beach was noticed. It looked to be uncomfortably warm and before we could approach it in the zodiacs it got up and wandered up an ice filled gully to lie down almost out of sight. It was only after we had returned to the ship that the bear made a repeat entrance and slowly approached the Walrus. We waited with bated breath to see how the Walrus would respond to the apex predator, and were astonished to see no apparent response at all. The bear pressed his muzzle up against the hide of several Walrus who ignored this presumption, then the bear moved a few yards from the Walrus and went to sleep. I was rather disappointed we could only photograph this encounter from 1km distance but on the 10th August we viewed a bear that offered all the photo opportunities one could wish for. This bear was a female, but unlike some of the bears marooned on land was incredibly obese, and certainly ready to face the rigours of denning. She was resting on an ice floe and we were able to work our way close to the bear. For two hours she rested, occasionally rolling over, or viewing her domain. The drifting ice had brought us closer to the bear, but I do believe the ice floe with the bear was deliberately nudged to rouse the bear, which could be regarded as contentious, on two occasions. The bear did not appear to be in any real way distressed and actually came to investigate the ship. It was an absolute privilege to view this amazing animal at such close range. Further along the ice front a second bear appeared as if by magic, and I can only assume it had been swimming before it climbed onto an ice floe because it soon slipped into the water. I tracked it for some time with the scope, but as soon as I was unsighted it could not be relocated. On 11th August four bears were seen distantly along Bjornsund, on, the most surprising being one hundreds of metres up a barren mountain, in a location I would never have scanned for Polar Bear. On 12th August one distant bear was seen, with a blank day on the 13th. (although as we walked on the glacier the Polish researchers based here fired a flare to deter a bear across the bay) but then on the 14th August we had another close encounter with a probably young bear found on a bergy bit at the glacier front at. After posing nicely here the bear then swam and climbed onto a blue iceberg for more classic photos. The final sighting was at Alkhornet on 15th August and although fairly distant the views of this huge male were as impressive as any as it stalked the shoreline or took to the water to swim across a fjord. Eider duck gave it a very wide berth, but Reindeer just eased out of his path - the way the bear dwarfed the reindeer was staggering. This was a total of 14 Polar Bears seen.
Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus. This species was extremely well camouflaged against scree slopes, but was easy to observe around seabird colonies. On the 9th August three were seen below the Brunnich’s Guillemot colony, one of which was in the particularly attractive ‘blue fox’ pelage. One dispossessed a Glaucous Gull which had seized a chick, but in turn lost out to the blue fox after a lengthy chase amongst the boulders. A family was also seen at the kittiwake colony at Diskobukta, and I was astonished how confiding these animals were, being totally preoccupied in predating and burying as many Kittiwakes as possible.
Reindeer Rangifer taranadus. Scanning with the scope from the ship gave views of a few animals daily, with more along the more vegetated west side of Spitzbergen, than on the polar desert on the east. They were always in small groups, which is typical of Reindeer here. These Reindeer are a distinct sub-species with very short legs, presumably in the absence of Arctic Wolves there are different selection pressures that result in behavioural and structural differences. However it wasn’t until the final morning that I found two to photograph near Longyearbyen. I tried a stalking approach, but they turned out to be almost embarrassingly tame.
1. Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus. Seen on the east side of Spitzbergen, at Hornsundet and around Longyearbyen, with up to 47 in skeins. The extremely rich grazing under seabird cliffs was obviously attractive to this species and Barnacle Geese.
2. Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis. The most common goose, with at least a few birds present in every sheltered bay or area of flat tundra visited. Most easily seen around the reservoir at Longyearbyen, where a few hundred remarkably tame birds were present.
3. Pale-bellied Brent Goose Branta bernicla hrota. Seven were seen in the sound between Barentsoya and Edgeoya.
4. Common Eider Duck Somateria mollissima. By far the most numerous duck and generally ubiquitous in shallow bays. Mostly a few females with creches of half grown ducklings were seen.
5. King Eider Somateria spectabalis. The only ones seen were a flock of 8 at the entrance to Isfjorden on 15th August.
6. Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta. Three confiding birds were found on grassland by the beach at the abandoned Russian mining area of Colesbukta, having failed to find them on the higher scree slopes that would have been perfect fot Ptarmigan in the UK.
7. Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata. One was seen flying along the coast at Longyearbyen campsite.
8. Great Northern Diver Gavia immer. Two large divers were seen in flight over the Hinlopen Strait on the 9th August. They were summer plumaged birds and very distant, but I think I would have still picked out an ivory bill with the scope. Both Great Northern and White-billed are rare in Svalbard, but of the two, Great Northern in the more regular.
9. Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. A very common species, and I cannot recall any time when at least a few birds were not following the ship. There was (to me) a surprising variation in hue,
10. Merlin Falco columbarius. A female landed on the ship as we travelled between Edgeoya and West Spitzbergen. It gave great views at it rested and preened, and then was off before we got near land.
11. Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula. A few birds seen along shorelines at Longyearbyen, and at Colesbukta.
12. Turnstone Arenaria interpres. Far less common than Purple Sandpiper, but a few were often mixed in with Purple Sandpiper flocks.
13. Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritime. The most common wader, and always very confiding. This species was quite widespread, with the largest numbers seen at Colesbukta and around Longyearbyen.
14. Dunlin Calidris alpina. A few birds were seen on the mudflats around Longyearbyen.
15. Great Skua Stercorarius skua. A few birds seen most days, often well out to sea, or luring around seabird colonies. Two on Moffen were presumably nesting, as they were mobbing a Polar Bear.
16. Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus. The most common skua and seen daily in small numbers. All birds seen were light phase birds. At Longyearbyen two fledged juveniles accompanied their parent. Often seen chasing Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns.
17. Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus. Two were seen along the pack ice on 10th August, another in the Hinlopen Strait on 11th August, with a further two at the glacier front at Hornsundet. These were chasing both Arctic Terns and Kittiwakes, but perhaps without the persistence and obvious purpose of Arctic Skuas, and often the skua ended up being chased by their erstwhile victims.
18. Herring Gull Larus argentatus. One was seen in Longyearbyen as we sailed.
19. Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus. One was seen off west Spitzbergen on 7th August, and a pair was seen in Isfjorden.
20. Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus. A widespread species and seen virtually daily in small numbers. At Alkefjellet they were seen predating chicks of Brunnich’s Guillemot, and elsewhere I saw one catch and swallow whole a Little Auk.
21. Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla. This was one of the most numerous birds in Svalbard, and we visited some very large nesting colonies that may have exceeded 10,000 pairs, such as at Diskobukta. We were surprised not to see any juveniles when we arrived, but had not appreciated how late birds nest here compared with the UK, and in fact the nesting colonies were clearly thriving, as evidenced by the number of nests with pairs of chicks. In contrast to the contracting colonies in the UK every available nest site appeared to be occupied.
22. Ivory Gull Pagophila eburnean. We had several excellent views of this fabulous bird. On the 8th August three were seen along the edge of the pack ice, and another two perched on Moffen Island. On the 9th August two were seen in the Hinlopen Strait, then another 4 on the 10th August, including two perched next to a Walrus, and obviously interested in its faeces. David saw two from the ship on the 11th, while we were ashore, but the best views were around the calving glacier in Hornsudet, with at least 5 present. Birds flew right over the zodiacs, or gave crippling views perched on ice floes. Finally two were seen along the shore in Longyearbyen on our return.
23. Ross’s Gull Rhodostethia rosea. This species may be more regular in August than earlier in the year, and between us we saw four, all of which were adults. Two were seen along the pack ice on 10th August, then on the 11th August in the Hinlopen I saw a third, with David finding a fourth as a reward for staying on ship while we made a shore excursion.
24. Sabine’s Gull Xema sabini. An adult was seen along the edge of the pack ice on 10th August, with gulls terns fishing over a party of Harp Seals.
25. Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea.. This lovely bird was widespread in bays and around islands, but was also seen fishing in open water amongst pack ice, certainly proving its arctic credentials. The first juveniles were seen on 14th August, but quite small chicks were seen on the roofs of buildings at Colesbukta – they would have to migrate virtually as soon as they fledge.
26. Little Auk Alle alle. This species was very numerous at sea, particularly on the west side of Spitzbergen, with thousands seen some days. Large numbers could be seen flying around scree slopes above Magdalenefjord and at Hornsundet, so the adults were presumably still feeding chicks. Trains of birds flying inland could be seen to have swollen gular pouches, as they store copepods ‘hamster fashion’.
27. Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica. Less numerous than Little Auk and Brunnich;s Guillemot, but still fairly common, with up to 100 seen from the ship on days spent at sea, although it was scarcer around pack ice areas.
28. Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle. This was the least numerous auk, but very widespread, normally relatively close to shorelines, but sometimes several km out to sea. From photos it could be seen they were feeding on capelin and polar cod.
29. Brunnich’s Guillemot Uria lomvia. I was fairly confident I would see this one new species available in Svalbard! Large numbers were seen off the west coast of Spitzbergen, and many adults on the water already had an accompanying chick. The visit to the colony at Alkefjellet was memorable, particularly as our visit coincided with the main departure of chicks from the cliffs, and the water below the cliffs was carpeted with males calling their chicks off the ledges. Much of the cliffs would allow the chick to land in water, but at the edges scree slopes meant any descending chick would have to run the gauntlet of Arctic Foxes in order to reach the sea.
30. Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis. The only passerine to regularly occur in Svalbard, this species was quite common in and around Longyearbyen, and also around the abandoned mining settlement of Colebukta. We didn’t manage to find any pristine males.