Day 6 |
Aug 07, 2010

Austfonna & Storoya, Svalbard

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: N80º08.289’ E028º01.159’

Weather: patchy fog with strong winds

Air Temperature: 4ºC

Sea Temperature: 1ºC

It’s days like this in Svalbard that leave me absolutely speechless!!! How can I describe our adventures in enough detail so that you, the reader, can feel the same rush and sense of overwhelming amazement at the beauty of nature? I don’t know if I will succeed, but I will try.

My day started at 6 am — on deck duty — as the ship sailed alongside the ice-cliff face of Austfonna. Austfonna, a huge ice cap that covers about 95% of the Nordaustlandet (the large island just northeast of Spitsbergen), has the largest glacier front in the northern hemisphere — more than 190km long. We had been sailing alongside since about 9pm last night and every mile of it was spectacular. In many places huge waterfalls flowed out of the glacier cliff, reflecting the sunlight so that they seemed alive with sparkles. The cliff face stretched on for miles and miles before us, and we marvelled at how straight and sharp the cliff face was. It almost looked like someone had cut it with a knife.

For me, this is an experience of a lifetime – it is so rare for a ship to be able to cruise through these waters on the northeast and northern side of Svalbard. Usually these waters are completely frozen over all year round, and very few cruise ships have ever made it here. I am so fortunate!!!

By 8am we had arrived at a small point called Isispynten. Since this is one of the few areas of exposed rock on this island, it is a known site for polar bears. Several of us Expedition Team members gathered on the Bridge with binoculars glued to our eyes to see if we could spot a bear. Of course, Chris Srigley (General Naturalist) was the first to spot one – he is ALWAYS the first to spot one! So, the scout boat headed off for a better look to see if it was worth offering a Zodiac ride – it was! Within a short while we had loaded up all our Zodiacs with guests and headed out to a small bay in the island where we had a total of 5 bears!!!

The bears were quite shy and skittish, staying quite far away on the ridges, until one young male woke up and decided he was curious about us, and walked right down to the water’s edge looking out at us. He was magnificent!!! Fortunately, he stayed there the whole time letting us have spectacular views and take hundreds of photos! Eventually, he started to wander off along the coastline, stopping only a few times to feed on dried kelp that was on the rocks. Eventually, he laid down for a nap and we decided to head back to the Prince Albert II to continue our journey north – we were heading to a small island off the northeast edge of Nordaustlandet, called Storoya.

Storoya translates into ‘Great Island’ which most historians think must have been a joke, since the island is very small! We were heading there because it is a walrus haul-out area and well-known to have polar bears lurking on land near the walrus herd.

Since we had a few hours to go before arriving, Hans Peter Reinthaler, our botanist, gave an interesting lecture entitled “Arctic Food Webs”, which was followed by a Recap & Briefing. During the briefing, I started off by telling our guests about the Arctic Tern and how this small bird migrates from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year (over its 30-year lifetime a single bird will fly over 800,000 km, which is about the same distance as from the Earth to the Moon and back!!!). Victoria Salem (historian) then talked about the history of Longyearbyen, Ny London and Ny Alesund (the small towns in Svalbard) and finally Juan explained how the driftwood we have been seeing on the beaches has floated all the way in from Siberia!

Once again, while I had been talking on stage, the bear spotters on the Bridge spotted a bear on Storoya! So, soon after Recap & Briefing, we were once again back in the Zodiacs heading off to find polar bears!

But I never expected to experience the most unbelievable afternoon of my life.

The ride over to the bay was rough and wet – I felt so badly for the guests in my Zodiac – it was like standing under a waterfall. The seas were very large with waves and swells coming from all directions, we were in heavy fog so we couldn’t even see where we were going (but of course I had my GPS and radar reflector so we were safe) and it was cold! But when we arrived to the island, the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we forgot all that – for there in front of us were 5 bears and hundreds of walrus. I didn’t know where to look – in the water all around us groups of young walrus (some calves didn’t even have tusks yet) popped up and followed us, obviously curious about who we were! They played around bobbing up and down and over each other like a group of kids in a pool. Sometimes they would pop up close to the Zodiacs and get as startled as we were, and make huge splashes as they breached sideways to get away.

We were torn as to where to look, because on land an amazing drama was unfolding. Two male polar bears were circling and attacking the walrus herd that was hauled out on the beach. They would lunge forward, then quickly retreat when one of the large male walrus would fight back by raising his tusks and lunging to meet the bear. Suddenly, at one point, there was a gap open and half the herd stampeded down to the sea to get away. The polar bears continued to circle and try to isolate any young walrus. Eventually, though, they gave up and laid down on the beach for a rest. INCREDIBLE!!! It felt like we had stepped through a TV and were suddenly inside a wildlife documentary!!

Judging from the smiles on all the guests’ faces, this is not a day that they will ever forget!!! Nor will I – that’s for sure!!!