Day 4 |
Jul 15, 2008

Diskobukta, Svalbard

By Claudia Holgate, Environmental Lecturer

Co-ordinates: 77o55’44’’N 21 o 18’ 30’’ E

Weather: Cold with overcast skies, light breeze with small amounts of blue sky peeping through

Temperature: 34,7 o F/1.5 o C

07h00 “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking” came the smooth dulcet tones of the ship’s Master over the intercom. “We have Walrus on an ice floe outside and I recommend that you go outside and have a look. Just put on your dressing gown and tiptoe outside; we don’t want to disturb anyone, particularly the Walruses”. We dressed hastily and warmly, as the suite’s TV informed us that it was only 1.5 degrees Celsius outside and went charging outside (quietly, of course). The sight that met us was incredible. The sea was calm, and even though it was a bit overcast, the visibility was excellent. There, just as the Capitan had promised, was a group of about 10 Walruses lounging on an ice floe, watching the world, and the Prince Albert II go by. What a treat! The Walruses were not disturbed by our presence, even though we were fairly close to them; they just watched while we all took photos or watched these ungainly creatures enjoying the calm weather. Not long after we had moved past this group, we came upon a second group of Walruses, most of them lying on the floe, but a few felt a little more energetic and were swimming gracefully in the water next to the ice floe. Our first Walruses of the trip, what a way to start the day!

Our landing for today is Diskobukta, which is a difficult landing as it is in incredibly shallow waters and one can only attempt a landing just before or just after high tide. In order to ascertain how deep the water was, the scout boat went ahead of the ship with an echo depth meter. The Zodiac inched forward, taking depth readings every few metres ahead of the ship. “10.8m, 10.2m, 9.7m” read out Conrad, our Expedition Leader, over the radio to the bridge, each reading getting shallower and shallower. Eventually, at about 9m the Captain stopped the ship and let down the anchor. Even though we were still a long distance from shore, the ship couldn’t risk getting any closer, so the Zodiacs would have to travel a little further to get the guests on land. The sea was very calm and there was quite a bit of sea ice that at one point blocked the path of the Zodiac and we had to pretend we were an ice breaker and painstakingly push the ice floe to one side to get through, which Conrad managed with supreme skill.

On shore, there were two dilapidated huts with numerous whale bones left from previous whaling operations. Geir and Jan, our bear guides, went ahead and secured the area. They found Polar Bear footprints along the base of the mountain about 500m from shore, but the assured us that these prints were a few days old and that we needn’t be too concerned. On the one side of the mountain was a canyon with very steep walls where water has eroded through the stable black shales. From the shore we could see a swirling mass of white birds within the canyon and at the entrance were two reindeer grazing peacefully on the small patch of vegetation at the base of the mountain. As we came closer to the canyon, all our senses were assaulted with the noisy energy of hundreds of thousands of nesting Black Legged Kittiwakes. It was a sight to behold. The noise was loud and constant, making it difficult to communicate with our radios, the smell was a wonderful rich smell of feathers, birds and guano and the sight in front of us was amazing. There were Kittiwakes on every available ledge, cheek by jowl. Above us was a swarm of birds, calling, chasing each other, fighting and feeding chicks. Of course, in the Arctic, this is the prime feeding ground for the Arctic fox, who preys on both the adult birds and the chicks. Once in the canyon we counted nine artic fox, which made a dash for it the minute they sensed out presence.

15 minutes later, the guests were on the way to shore by Zodiac, ready to experience this natural wonder. Once on shore, small groups of ten people at any one time went into the narrow canyon and sat quietly watching the avian soap opera happening around them. As everyone was so quiet, the foxes became more comfortable with our presence and came out to hunt. Suddenly, a fox darted from the side of the canyon and grabbed an adult Kittiwake from the ground and went tearing out of the canyon and up the mountain with his prey, where he could feast in peace. A little later, a second fox managed to grab a chick from one of the nests on the lower reaches of the rocks, bagging himself a tender breakfast morsel. Soon the foxes were brave enough to come and go from the canyon without worrying about us and all the guests had the opportunity to have a close encounter of a wild kind, watching the foxes going about their daily business. After three hours on shore we reluctantly had to make our way back to the ship so that we could head off to our next planned landing, Kapp Lee.

Once back on the ship, a delectable lunch awaited us and gave us the opportunity to talk about the day’s events so far. Could it get any better? I doubt it. Shortly after lunch, we retired to our suites or to the Sun Deck to enjoy the scenery, when an announcement came over the intercom. “We have Polar Bear at 12 o’clock to the ship”. No encouragement was required as the observation deck filled up with guests wanting to know where the Polar Bear was. After much searching through binoculars, we found a tiny light brown splodge on an ice floe many hundreds of metres ahead of us. The Capitan inched closer, really slowly, painfully slowly actually, so as not to disturb the bear. “Couldn’t we just go a little faster so that we could see the bear close up?” But no, we slunk into the bear’s vicinity at a pace a walrus on an ice floe would have been proud of. The bear sensed our presence (A 6000 ton ship can hardly creep up on a Polar Bear and not be noticed), yawned, got up from his position and moved off in the opposite direction. As he was moving off, someone pointed at another bear on an ice floe at 11 o’clock to the ship. Once again, it was a tiny speck only just visible with binoculars, and again we inched our way closer, barely making a ripple in the water. “Walrus on the port side”, came a call, and there lo and behold, was another small group of Walruses relaxing on an ice floe. Polar Bears wouldn’t normally attack a Walrus because its tusks can be used as ferocious weapons; so we didn’t hold out any hope that we would be witnessing another kill today. As we neared the second Polar Bear, he too stood up and dived (although belly flopped would be a more accurate description) into the water. We watched him swim and were curious where he would get out, when there was more pointing from the guests. There is another Polar Bear, only this one was feeding on a seal carcass and the bear we had disturbed was heading that way. We waited with baited breath as we watched the swimming bear haul himself (we believe this bear was a male) onto the ice floe, causing the bear at the carcass (we believe this bear was a female and unlikely to challenge a large male bear) to run off in the opposite direction. The male bear then calmly started feasting at the remains of the carcass. All of this is happening about 20m from the ship and there is not one sound from any of the guests as we all watch, astounded at what we are witnessing. Around the bear eating the carcass, there are a number of Glaucous Gulls waiting for their chance to have a go at the meat, but they dare not while the bear is enjoying his lunch, when a ghost-like pure white gull gingerly makes its way to the carrion and pulls off a bit of meat, right under the bears nose. “What a cheek!” But this white gull, an Ivory Gull, is a bird that many serious birders would consider a “Mega-Tick” (This is a birding term for a really rare bird that not many people see.) The Ivory Gull only occurs in the high arctic with numbers estimated at about 5000 individuals, so it is a real special for the area. The bear eventually decides he would rather eat his food in peace, so pulls the carcass over the ice, flops into the water, swims 15 metres and climbs onto another ice floe where he continues to snack on the seal remains. Once he decides there is not much left he leaves the carcass and starts to harass the female bear and starts swimming in her direction, at which point she decides that she would rather not have a confrontation and heads off in the opposite direction. While the drama is unfolding in front of our eyes, the mountains in the distance are creating an amazing optical illusion, where flat bottomed stratus clouds are obscuring the top of the mountains and the visible snow and mountain between the sea and the clouds has formed wavy vertical patterns, unlike anything I have ever seen before.

The Captain eventually decides that we have disturbed the bears enough and it is time to carry on with our journey. Unfortunately, we could not make the landing at Kapp Lee as planned as we had spent the afternoon experiencing our own wildlife documentary at close quarters. What a day, we have seen Walrus, Arctic Fox (including a successful hunt), thousands of Kittiwakes, Reindeer, Polar Bear at a kill and Ivory Gull.

How does one top a day like this, we all ask? Well to round off the day, we had another fabulous meal, followed by a delightful couple of hours in the Panorama Lounge playing “What’s That Tune?”. Talented musician, Daryl, played snatches of hits from the 60s and the audience had to guess the artist, year and song. There was much cheating, singing along and bantering from all sides, until eventually the result was declared a tie and everyone retired to their suites in high spirits well after 11pm.

We cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings…