Day 3 |
Jul 08, 2013

Andøyane Islands and Monacobreen

By Rich Pagen, Conservation Biologist and Ornithologist

Co-ordinates: N 79º32'02", E 12º24’26"
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: 4ºC
Pressure: 999 hPa
Wind: 2 knots

During the early morning hours, the Silver Explorer entered Woodfjorden in the north of the island of Spitsbergen, and proceeded south with a range of impressive mountains looming just to the east. The Expedition Staff was up early scanning for polar bears along the shoreline, as some bears abandon the diminishing summer sea ice to spend the season roaming the island of Svalbard itself. Without sea ice and the seals that live there, the bears on land in summer have to be quite opportunistic to get enough food to eat. One option is bird eggs and chicks, and a small archipelago at the entrance to Liefdefjorden called Andøyane is often a place they go to do just that.

We arrived at Andøyane during breakfast, and some of the staff hopped into a zodiac to do some up close scouting of the islands, to see what kind of wildlife was around. Soon I had a zodiac full of guests eager to see what kinds of secrets were lurking around this low-lying cluster of islands. The name of the archipelago (Andøyane) translates as the “duck islands”, and this name seemed quite appropriate, as we found small groups of eiders and long-tailed ducks in the small, sheltered coves. The male eiders, in their striking black-and-white plumage, stood out like beacons on the shoreline, while the cryptically-colored females were much harder to pick out.

The stars of the show were certainly the Arctic terns, which were nesting in loose colonies on some of these tundra islands. Perhaps the distance from shore meant less likelihood of a visit by an Arctic fox, but whatever the reason was, the terns were everywhere. Some hovered magically in place over the water, waiting for the perfect moment to plunge down and snatch a small fish from the water’s surface. Others busily mobbed any glaucous gulls or skuas that came anywhere near their nest. It was amazing to see how aggressive they could be to a predator many times their size.

Back onboard, I shared stories of the morning over lunch, and then went out on deck to watch our approach into the far end of Liefdefjorden, where a spectacular glacier poured down the valley and ended abruptly at the sea. This glacier, called Monacobreen, has a nearly 5-kilometer-long front, where the age-old ice breaks off and calves into the bay.

Under partly cloudy skies, I pulled away from the gangway with a group of guests in my zodiac and set out to explore the bay, both for wildlife and to admire the incredible icebergs scattered about. Groups of northern fulmar sat together in the water bathing and napping, while glaucous gulls perched on nearby icebergs. Arctic skuas chased down kittiwakes in an attempt to get them to regurgitate their last meal. This behaviour, called kleptoparasitism, is a substantial part of how these fast-flying birds make a living in this harsh environment.

Once closer to the glacial front, I sat quietly with my group hoping that the timing would be right and that the glacier would calve right there in front of us. Luck was in our favor, and within minutes, a section of the nearly 30-meter-high wall of ice broke apart and collapsed into the bay. Now unstable, more chunks calved off the wall, including some that broke off below the water line and shot up out of the sea while water careened off. It was an incredible show, and soon small bits of brash ice and huge blue icebergs littered the back end of the bay.

Once the last zodiacs were lifted back onto the ship, I quickly changed and headed up to the Lecture Hall for our first Recap session, which began with Kara giving our plans for tomorrow. I went off to dinner in anticipation of our arrival tomorrow morning in the sea ice well north of Svalbard.