Day 4 |
Jul 26, 2011

Burgerbukta and Gashamna, Hornsund

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: 77° 01' N 15° 52' E
Weather: Bright sunshine and very little wind
Air Temperature: 7ºC

The predictions of an overcast, cold day of zero degrees was, thankfully, totally inaccurate!

We woke early in the morning to bright sunshine, calm seas and no wind! Several of the Expedition Team members were up on the Bridge by 6:45am to look out for Polar Bears as the ship sailed into Hornsund – the southernmost fjord in Svalbard.

In all the years that I have been coming here, this is one of only a few where the skies were so clear that we could see the amazing rugged peaks of the surrounding mountains. They are usually shrouded in low-lying mist, but today we could see them all – even the majestic Hornsundtind, peaking at 1,431 meters above sea level.

It was beautiful! Breathtaking! The snow patches on the sides of the slopes glistened white, and the flat calm waters of the bay sparkled blue. Hundreds of black and white guillemots were flying past us on their way from their nesting cliffs or to sea to go fishing for the day. Even small Little Auks kept popping up out of the sea (where they were diving to capture small crustaceans called copepods) and watching the ship as it sailed past.

Once we arrived at Burgerbukta and the Captain anchored the ship, all the Zodiac drivers clambered down the pilot ladder and got into Zodiacs to get ready for our morning Zodiac tour, which was starting at 8:30am. By 9am all the boats were on their way into the fjord and heading for the glacier at the far end. During the tour we explored some wonderful large icebergs and cruised the length of the glacier face – hoping to see some calving, but unfortunately there was not much action this morning.

By the time the tours were over, a fog bank had rolled in (and I mean literally rolled over the mountains and into the fjord). This, combined with the fact that another ship had reported two polar bears in the vicinity of the landing site we were planning on visiting next, led Robin West, our Expedition Leader, to make the decision to cancel the landing at Gnalodden, opting instead to sail across the other side of Hornsund to a site called Gashamna.

Gashamna is a relatively large and open bay. It is a site with a long and important history. There are remains of several historic events, including a whaling station from the late 1600s and early 1700s, huts where Russian and Norwegian trappers used to overwinter and a hut from one of the first great international research expeditions in the Arctic.

The shore activities this afternoon were guided history and natural history walks to the building ruins as well as up into the tundra.

The natural environment offers a huge selection of things to see, including brightly coloured small tundra flowers, stone circles, stone runes and other exquisite examples of patterned ground.

I was shuttling guests to and from the ship all afternoon, and once I dropped off my last passenger at the beach, I headed west to scout the shoreside for potential polar bears that might have been lurking out of sight of the Bear Guides that we had on shore at the landing site.

Luckily, we did not find any bears, but what we did find was very exciting! One of our Bear Guides radioed in that there was a pod of beluga whales swimming close to shore between the landing site and the ship. So we headed into the shore, picked up those people who wanted to go out to see the whales, and headed out to follow the pod. We had some fantastic sightings of the whales - about 10 of them. They swam fairly close to the Zodiacs – so close in fact that we could hear the rush of air as they took each breath.

Belugas are fairly small, as far as whales go. (About 5m and weighing about 1.5 tons.) They are born a dark grey colour and slowly lighten with age, starting to turn colour at about 6 years old. They reach a pure white by the time they reach maturity at about 13 years old. They do not have a dorsal fin, so when they come to the surface they can easily be mistaken for a drifting, bobbing iceberg.

This sighting was really a highlight of the trip so far, and the kids in my boat were particularly excited to see their first beluga, or white whale. It was a fantastic ending to a beautiful day. Hopefully the weather will remain sunny and warm (well…relatively warm by Arctic standards) for tomorrow’s visits to Ny Alesund (one of the world’s most northerly year-round inhabited towns) in the morning and the 14th of July glacier in the afternoon.