Day 3 |
Aug 14, 2011

 Bear Island, Svalbard Archipelago 

By Peter W. Damisch – Historian, General Naturalist, Cartographer & Polar Bear Guard


Co-ordinates: 74o 30’ N, 019o 01’ E
Weather: Brilliant sunshine all day until very late afternoon
Air Temperature: 8oC/47 oF
Pressure: 1017 HPa
Wind: 15 km / hour

Bear Island is in sunshine all day! The weather has been fantastic. Silver Explorer already had a fabulous Zodiac cruise planned for the morning. As usual in our expedition voyage we took advantage of the great weather to add an unusual landing in the afternoon.

If you ask most members of the Expedition Team, especially myself, you will discover that the Bear Island Zodiac cruise along the southern coast is one of our most favorite amongst all of the locations that we visit around the world. There is kilometer after kilometer of 30 – 50 meter high limestone sea cliffs. The relatively soft limestone breaks into a series of small ledges, which can be utilized for nesting sites. In fact one of my primary focus topics for the morning was that life exploits every available square centimeter and every possible advantage to thrive in this Arctic environment.

One result is that at the peak time of the season we can observe up to 1 million nesting birds. In addition, it isn’t just large numbers but also a wide variety of species including Kittiwakes, Glaucous Gulls and Puffins as well as Black, Bridled and Common Guillemots. It is simply spectacular to see such large numbers of birds majestically wheeling their way across the sky along these beautiful cliff faces. I always like to take a bit of time to turn off the Zodiac engine from time to time such that everyone can hear the cacophony of bird cries within this Nature Preserve.

This is also the time of the season when the chicks are just beginning to fledge out towards their first flight. In particular, the Common Guillemot chicks were taking their first flight, which typically is straight down, ending in a splash / crash into the ocean. Their mothers then remain on the nest after nurturing the prior growth of the chicks. However, the fathers quickly fly down to provide some protection and slowly but surely we could observe large rafts of birds gathering on the water in preparation for their departure from Bear Island as the Summer Season draws to a close. This unique behavior is quite rare to observe and we felt quite fortunate to be here at this time of the year.

Unfortunately for some chicks, the Glaucous Gulls also know this life cycle very well and take the opportunity to augment their predator diet. Earlier in the season we can observe similar behavior from these birds as they try to steal eggs from nests of other species.

The soft limestone also provides more than beautifully dramatic cliffs. This soft material is subject to erosion by sea waves as well as slightly acidic groundwater from snow melt or rain. The net result is a series of caves that dot the cliff faces with several right at the water’s edge. Our good weather extended from sky to relatively calm seas, which allowed us to safely enter four of these caves with our Zodiacs. One is a dead end with the other three providing a tunnel for us to travel through. There are so few places in the world where you can have the unique experience of traveling through a ‘rock cathedral’ by boat!

Continuing with the same theme of all life working to find an advantage, I was able to point out that from the beginning to the halfway point of our Zodiac cruise we could observe a substantial change in the density of vegetation on the cliffs. The difference is quite dramatic, particularly with regard to the amount of scurvy grass. The reason is that there is just a slight difference in the amount of sunlight seen at each location as we move just a few kilometers from north to south on Bear Island. It’s such a great place and I never get tired of being able to observe such a wonder of nature.

In the afternoon, we requested and obtained permission, and conducted a very rare landing on the northern coast, adjacent to the Norwegian meteorological station. A group of 12 people are the only inhabitants on the island and each group remains for a 6-month period of time before their replacements are warmly welcomed! In part based on my past experience with the station, I served initially as the ship’s representative, walking up from the landing site to greet the Assistant Station Manager and deliver a small present. Robin, our Expedition Leader, had previously asked by radio if they could use fresh vegetables or something else. Apparently their vegetable supply was quite good and instead I carried up several cases of beer!

As is often the case, we offered both a long and short hike. The former was able to traverse just over 8 kilometers of Arctic tundra, passing by lakes and small rivers within the interior of Bear Island. Less than a few hundred people per year, including research scientists have the rare opportunity to view the interior of this Norwegian Nature Preserve, which is contained, within the area covered by the Svalbard Treaty.

The shorter hike traversed a slightly more traveled trail that led to the top of cliffs that are somewhat shorter than the ones seen in the morning. Once again nesting birds are the primary attraction but with particular interest in the puffin nesting colonies. We had seen a fair number of these beautifully colored birds in the morning but much better and closer views in the afternoon. These birds have such a uniquely and brightly colored markings that I never get tired of viewing these beautiful creatures who work very hard to fly. They too are fully protected on Bear Island but still hunted in a few other locations around the world. In addition there are a series of successful attempts to reintroduce these birds to islands offshore of North America where they had been hunted to extinction during the 1800s.

Both hikes ended up at the Weather Station, which contains one of the most northerly post offices in the world. As the ship’s Historian I also had the chance to answer many questions about the background of walrus hunting, fox trappers and coal mining as well as secret radio stations during the 1940s. Fortunately our landing site also contains the oldest building on Bear Island, dating back to 1822 and interestingly enough, still in use!

Sadly, all too soon it was time to pack up our kit and slowly walk back down to the landing site. Overhead a few Arctic Terns wheeled over our heads, keeping a close eye on us as they defended their nearby nests. We could also see a series of ‘Mackerel Sky’ high clouds providing a beautifully interesting veil across the sun.

As usual, Recap & Briefing covered a wide variety of topics. Our Expedition Leader Robin West reviewed our plans for tomorrow as well as introduced the ice charts that we will be using to help plan the remainder of our voyage. Luciano then presented a great review of the scientific techniques utilized to track diving sea birds like the ones we had observed earlier in the day. Juan described the mechanism of the Arctic Circle and how the sun interacts with the Earth to create the phenomenon of 24-hour sunlight. I displayed a series of beautiful woodcut prints from the early 1600s, which showed the polar bears first seen by the Barent’s Expedition when they discovered Bear Island. Robin Aiello. completed the evening event by reviewing the humorous history of a Russian shipwreck that we had all seen earlier in the day.

It was a day full of ‘greats’: weather, birds, cliffs, geology, hiking, tundra, history and so much more!



Tag 3 | August 14, 2011 | Bäreninsel, Norwegen
von Hans-Peter Reinthaler, Biologe

Koordinaten: 74°31’ N, 19°00’ E
Wetter: sonnig
Luft Temperatur: 8° C

Gegen 08.00 Uhr erreichten wir die Bäreninsel die mystisch am Morgen im Spiel von Nebel und Sonnenlicht vor uns lag. Das Meer war ruhig und die Landschaft einfach faszinierend. Steile Klippen, 300m zum Meer abfallend, auf denen tausende von Seevögel nisten, dazwischen Buchten mit grünlich glasklarem Wasser, waren eingetaucht in flutendes Sonnenlicht und Nebelschwaden. Kalkstein aus dem Ordovizium vor ca. 500 Millionen von Jahren abgelagert auf einem Ozeanboden in der Nähe des Äquators bildet nun die Grundlage für diese Küste und für die Höhlen die immer wieder sich gegen das Meer hin öffnen. Den größten Anteil an Brutpaaren stellt die Dreizehenmöwe, sie findet sich an fast jedem freien Platz an der Klippe. Ihr größter Feind die Eismöwe nistet nicht weit davon. Die „Lieblingsspeise“ von der Eismöwe aber auch von der Mantelmöwe oder der Skua sind junge Dreizehenmöwen, die meist aus dem Nest gefallen sind und nun hilflos am Strand sitzen oder im Wasser paddeln. Oft kann man dann beobachten wie die großen Möwen über eine Dreizehenmöwe herfallen und auf sie einhacken bis zum Tod . Ein dramatisches Schauspiel vor einer dramatischen Kulisse. Neben den Möwenarten finden hier noch die Trottellumme, die Dickschnabellummne und die Gryllteiste ihren Nistplatz. Gelegentlich kann man auch Papageitaucher hier bei ihrem Brutgeschäft beobachten. Ihre Anzahl ist jedoch nicht sehr groß, da für diese Erdhöhlenbrüter, die Bodenverhältnisse auf der Insel weniger geeignet sind als auf den Inselgruppen in der Nordsee. Sieht man zum Himmel über der Bäreninsel hinauf so bekommt man den Eindruck am Fuße eines großen überdimensionalen Bienenstock zu sitzen. Abertausende Vögel kommen und gehen von oder zu den Klippen und zeigen die Wichtigkeit dieser Insel als Brutstelle im arktischen Meer.

Die Zodiaktour ging entlang der Ostküste bis zur ihrer südlichen Spitze. Zu starker Seegang wegen der Gezeiten verhinderte dann die Weiterfahrt mit den Zodiaks um sie herum. Auf dem Rückweg zum Schiff gab es dann noch ein großartiges Schauspiel auf dem Wasser, hunderte von Trottellummen hatten sich mit ihren Jungen versammelt und waren mit ihrem Geschnarre weithin über das Meer zu hören. Wir stellten den Motor ab und das Zodiak trieb im Wasser, die Lummen kamen ganz nah an das Boot heran und betrachteten uns neugierig, ein wirklich einmaliger und beeindruckender Abschluss eines Vormittags an Bord von Silver Explorer.

Am Nachmittag waren wir nur 15 nautische Meilen nördlich. Eine Anlandung an der Nordseite der Bäreninsel, wo sich die Meteorlogische Station befindet war geplant. Ganz unüblich für das Wetter in dieser Gegend hielt sich der Sonnenschein und bei 10 Grad Außentemperatur und blauen Himmel starteten wir unsere Wanderung über die Tundra der Bäreninsel. Wunderbare Vegetationsmuster verursacht durch den Permafrost und die damit verbundene Sortierung des Bodenmaterials, begleiteten uns auf der Wanderung. In einer Schleife führte uns der Weg von der Landungsstelle zum größten See auf der Insel und wieder zurück zu den Vogelfelsen, wo Papageitaucher du Eissturmvogel brüten. Unterwegs konnten wir noch Schneeammer und die Schmarotzerraubmöwe beobachten. An diesem Tag kamen unsere ornithologisch interessierten Gäste voll auf die Rechnung.

Müde von den langen Exkursionen aber vollauf zufrieden mit dem Naturschauspiel welches heute die Bäreninsel geboten hat genossen unsere Gäste das Abendessen während die Silver Explorer der Mitternachtssonne entgegen fuhr.