Day 9 |
Jul 02, 2009

Bear Island, Svalbard

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: 74°21.78N 019°10.004E

Weather: Overcast with bright skies

Air Temperature: 2C

Wind: 12 knots

This is one of my most favourite places in the Svalbard – Bear Island (or Bjørnøya). This small island is located about halfway between the Norwegian mainland and Spitsbergen and is the southernmost part of Svalbard’s archipelago. It is surrounded by shallow seas that are rich in fish – nourishment for the large populations of seabirds breeding in the

Bear Island was discovered in 1596, and its history revolves mainly around hunting of walrus, polar bears, seals, whales and seabirds.

This morning’s Zodiac cruise was a highlight of the whole cruise! We gazed in awe at the thousands and thousands of seabirds nesting high on the sheer cliffs as I slowly manoeuvred the Zodiac close to the cliffs. We spotted many species of seabirds – Common guillemots, Brunnich’s guillemots, Black guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Glaucous gulls, Black-backed gulls, fulmars and Eider ducks. The most fantastic of them all were the Puffins. We actually were lucky enough to spot a pair of Puffins flying in and out of their burrow.

This seabird colony is one of the largest found in the Northern Hemisphere. The island is like a magnet to seabirds, and it is estimated that over a million seabirds gather here during the breeding season.

The reason that so many seabirds can survive here is that the waters surrounding the island are very rich in food. It is an area where the cold water from the north mixes with the warm Atlantic water, and brings nutrient-rich deep-water up to the surface, which, in turn, supports lots of marine life, such as copepods, krill and fish.

The geology of the island is equally fascinating. The contrasting layers of sedimentary rocks have been folded and bent into amazing shapes when the island was uplifted about 65 millions years ago. There were also magnificent sea caves dotting the coastline. Many of these are so large that I could take the Zodiacs into them so that we could look up at ceilings looming above. There were even a few large rock arches that I cruised under. One of them, my favourite, is more like a tunnel that you cruise into and come out on the other end into a secluded bay with towering sea cliffs and sea stacks (columns of rocks) and thousands of seabirds soaring above. Nearly every available ledge was full of roosting Kittiwakes or Guillemots.

All Zodiacs were back at the ship in time for lunch. Most of us gathered out on deck as the ship sailed away from this majestic place on its way to Tromso. Later in the afternoon, the lecture program continued with Stefan Kredel (one of the two onboard geologists) talking on the history of the theory of plate tectonics. Unfortunately, about halfway through the lecture he was interrupted by an announcement that whales had been spotted in front of the ship. The outer Observation Deck was crowded with guests trying to get a glimpse of these animals – and we weren’t disappointed. More than 6 Humpback whales were surfacing and feeding around the ship. We had fantastic views of their large black and white flukes (tails) as the repeatedly dove.

The Captain slowed the ship down to a standstill and the whales slowly approached. They were so close! We could see them underwater before they surfaced. But the best indication of where they were about to surface came from the hundreds of Kittiwake gulls that were flocking above the whales and feeding on the food that the whales left behind.

What a way to end the voyage!!!!

At 5pm, Christian Walter gave another lecture on “Voyages of Exploration” in which he brought to life the history of exploration in the area – including stories from many early explorers and their voyages.

The Expedition Team held their last Recap & Briefing session before dinner and each of the team members got up one last time to share a last tidbit of information. Finally, Conrad Combrink, our Expedition Leader, reviewed our entire voyage on a map, which made us realize exactly how far we had traveled and how much we had seen.