Coordinates: 74˚29’ N & 19˚01’E
Weather: Overcast early, clear later, no wind, average temp 11° C, Beaufort 2 and down to 0 for most of day.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have whales” came the call from Expedition Leader Robin early this morning. Donning parkas and grabbing cameras for the decks, the cow-calf pair of humpback whales provided us with our first look at this leviathan as the two made shallow dives. We could see the long white pectoral flippers of these far-migrating whales as they passed close to us and at one point the calf rolled on its side and threw up part of its fluke. What a fantastic start to the day.
Those who remained on the Bridge watched a one-legged kittiwake struggle to land on the jack staff’s rounded-top light as others vied for the privilege. White-beaked dolphins came to the ship on a few occasions but found our speed too much for bow-riding. A tight group of Risso’s dolphins and later some long-finned pilot whales also passed close to the ship as the distant blows of humpbacks were seen on the horizon.
Kara Weller delivered an interesting lecture called “Polar Bears – Their Biology”, a talk that had to be interrupted briefly as two adult humpback whales were right next to the ship. This time the duo put on a great show of synchronized swimming and diving, with both throwing their massive flukes into the air. Robin briefed us on ARCO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) Visitor Guidelines so as to ensure that our visit to Svalbard would be as safe for us as it would be for the environment. By then the sea had become flat calm, a glassy Beaufort 0, the only motion coming from a very gentle swell. Bear Island revealed itself at 46 nautical miles as we could start to make its highest reaches through the crystalline air.
Soon after lunch we arrived to Bjorn (Bear) Island. All of the staff commented that it was remarkable to see the island in its entirety since the normal state of affairs is low clouds, lots of mist, and an inability to see the place unless right next to it. In the Zodiacs we cruised along the edge of the island and saw a spectacle of thousands upon thousands of seabirds. Looking upward to the tops of towering 400 meter-high cliffs, kittiwakes swirled, Bromwich’s and common guillemots crowded each other on ledges and glucose gulls scavenged the odd deceased bird. Guillemots were scattered like newly hatched mayflies across the sea. Bear Island is one of the most significant breeding sites for seabirds in the Barents Sea where more than a million individuals come annually from pelagic wintering areas to display, pair-up, mate, nest, brood their chicks, socialize generally and then leave in the autumn.
We also saw that geological evolution is an ongoing concern as a few landslides brought Ordovician limestone bits crashing downward. The Russian trawler that a little over a year ago had grounded and then broken in half was a reminder of the ferocity of these seas. Bear Island is the only place in winter north of the Norway mainland where a ship may find safe harbor. Guests on board learned about the various phases of human interactions with the area in Christian Walter’s “Spitsbergen/Svalbard – History and Use”. Recap was a lively time with Kara discussing humpbacks and reindeer, Stefan on geology and “global warming” – challenging its anthropogenesis – and Peter sharing the story of a 14-year old midshipman who, with an unloaded musket, encountered a polar bear, survived and later grew into the notable Lord Nelson. Robin explained our objectives for the morrow – ice cruising the eastern side of the archipelago in search of charismatic polar megafauna. Our flat seas persisted through the night – and our intro to the Arctic was stamped in our minds as most memorable.