Day 3 |
Jul 18, 2013

Bear Island, Svalbard

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian, General Naturalist, Cartographer, Master Mariner

Co-ordinates: 74º 22' N, 019º 10' E
Weather: Partly sunny, improving through the day
Air Temperature: 4ºC
Pressure: 1015 hPa
Wind: 10 - 15 knots

If you ask any of the Expedition Team to name their top locations around the world to conduct a Zodiac cruise, Bear Island is on everyone list. It is truly spectacular and one of my world favorites.

Imagine a wildy remote Arctic Island which is visited by only a small number of people in any one year. It has no airport and is uninhabited except for 10 or so researchers and weather station personnel on the Northern Coast. However, the Silver Explorer has carefully anchored itself in a small cove on the Southeastern Coast.

Now further imagine that we launch our Zodiacs for a cruise along a rugged coastline consisting of cliffs ranging over 300 meters high in many locations. Along that superb scenery are literally one million nesting sea birds which utilize every available square centimeter to develop and nurture new life.

Our small, rugged Zodiacs allow us to closely observe how kittiwakes construct a full nest for two chicks utilizing materials such as the brown algae ‘seaweed’ growing in profusion along the rocky shore. Yet, in adjacent guillemot nests the parent birds lay their single egg along the bare rock. Of course we also marvel at how the unique shape and structure of the egg has been developed by evolution to minimize the chance of rolling over the edge.

Along the way we also observe how the limestone structure of Bear Island has been modified by multiple processes to produce a series of spectacular sea caves. Amazingly enough, with care, we transit these massive arches of rock with our Zodiacs giving us very close up views of both the geology and biology. Sea caves are somewhat rare throughout the world but it is almost unheard of to be able to travel into or through four such openings in the space of just one morning.

Just for fun we also had the chance to observe one towering waterfall cascading into the sea as well as a very unusual shipwreck dating back to only 2009. That vessel could not be salvaged and has since been broken up by wave action and provides an unusual contrast to the wild proliferation of nature.

Just when one might think it could not get any better, we had one additional, special treat. Early this year we discovered what may be possible to be the very first grouping of Northern Gannetts ever seen on Bear Island. These birds normally occur in Continental Europe and the British Isles. We have now confirmed that several pairs are breeding and it has been tremendously exciting to be in the ground floor of this previously unobserved behavior!

Spectacular. Stunning. Amazing. Words simply don’t do justice to a Bear Island Zodiac cruise and I’m always ecstatic to go time after time as the experience always changes and is always a thrill for all of the senses.

The afternoon had been scheduled for a period of time at sea while en route to the main island of Spitsbergen to the North and lectures were listed in the published schedule. However, we had a fortuitous set of circumstances; the weather forecast was good enough that we could make up the time taken up by an additional bonus landing and the Norwegian Weather and Research station gave us permission to land just outside their base.

Thus during the lunch hour, the Silver Explorer repositioned from South to North and we began operations ashore in the early afternoon. One highlight of this unexpected, extra landing including simply observing a unique site. The Norwegian Weather and Research station also serves as a radio relay station to coordinate search and rescue efforts for vessels in distress in the High Arctic.

However, almost everyone’s favorite experience was the opportunity to observe nesting Atlantic Puffins and Northern Fulmars from the top of much lower cliffs. Fortunately many of the birds are living in very close proximity and everyone was able to obtain great sightings and excellent photographs!

Many guests also took the chance to get great pictures of the oldest structure in Svalbard, dating back to the 1820’s. Fortunately it is located just a few meters from a fun tower erected by the local research personnel which contains names and distances to many cities around the world.

It was a full day at Bear Island near the top of the world and life hardly every gets better than that while expedition cruising on the Silver Explorer.