Day 3 |
Jul 05, 2011

Bjørnøya, Svalbard

By Kara Weller, Biologist

Co-ordinates: 74° 21’ N, 19° 15’ E
Weather: partly cloudy
Air Temperature: 4° C
Humidity: 83%
Pressure: 1011 hPa
Wind: 30 km / h

Bjørnøya, or Bear Island as it translates to, is a steep island that is the southernmost part of Svalbard and lies halfway between the North Cape of Norway and the southern end of the island of Spitsbergen. It is a dramatic first look at the landscapes of Svalbard, and early this morning its steep cliffs came into view.

Home to thousands and thousands of seabirds, our goal this morning was to launch the Zodiacs and take a cruise around the base of the cliffs that provide nesting habitat to so much bird life. Under overcast skies, gusty winds and waters somewhat churned up from the strong currents in the area, we started off shortly after breakfast with our cruises.

The majority of birds we observed were only from a few different species. Black-legged kittiwakes were the most numerous. These elegant small gulls sat on grassy nests tucked neatly onto small ledges on the rock face. One of the most numerous and widespread gulls across the Arctic, the tips of their wings look as if they have been dipped into black ink.

Guillemots, both common and Brunnich’s were also present in the thousands. These small seabirds look very much like penguins, especially when they are sitting on rocky ledges with their black heads and backs and white fronts. These remarkable birds lay their single eggs right onto the rocky ledge, and so can nest close to other birds, sometimes lined up with others so tightly on a ledge they seem packed together like sardines. Their eggs are pear-shaped for the practical reason that if kicked accidentally the egg will roll in a tight circle, rather than rolling in a straight line, and hence, perhaps off the edge of the cliff.

Yet another species was the glaucous gull, the biggest of all the gulls and pale grey in color. As there are no raptors in Svalbard, these gulls take their place as one of the top predators and will snatch eggs and chicks from other seabirds if given the chance. Some big fluffy chicks of these gulls were observed walking along a rocky slope.

The cliffs of Bjørnøya, made of sandstone, have eroded and formed several caves and tunnels in places. The Zodiacs were able to maneuver in and out of them and not just give us great views of many birds, but an exciting ride as well. A shipwreck from two years ago tucked into a rocky bay added a dramatic effect.

All too soon our time was up and we returned to the ship for lunch and an afternoon at sea full of great lectures. Many birds stayed with us as we made our way north, especially the northern fulmars (a chunky yet elegant seabird related to the albatross) that glided around the ship, coming close enough that a person at the railing could nearly reach out and touch one. Regardless of the increasing seas and the mist and rain, they swooped and dove around and around us for hours.