White Sea & Franz Josef Land Voyage 7219 Day 2

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Day 2 - August 2, 2012 - Storhoppen Islands, Norway 

By Rich Pagen, Conservation Biologist

Co-ordinates: N 71º08'38", E 25º14'19"
Weather: Mostly cloudy
Air Temperature: 9ºC
Pressure: 1004 hPa
Wind: 10 knots

I awoke to the gentle rocking of the Silver Explorer, as we made our way northeast through the fjords of northern Norway. A low grey cloud layer rested on the mountain peaks, while green tundra lined the lower areas along the coast. As I sipped my cup of coffee out on deck, an occasional northern fulmar banked past, likely on its way out to sea to search for food for its hungry chick, which was waiting eagerly back at the nest.

Following a relaxing breakfast, I spent some more time out on deck, admiring the scenery and optimistically scanning with binoculars for white-tailed eagles. These magnificent birds, with their 8-foot wingspan, are often described as “flying barn doors” due to their huge size.

The first scheduled activity of the morning was a Zodiac Briefing, given by Expedition Leader Robin West. Robin explained the ins and outs of our fleet of Zodiacs, which will certainly be the transport of choice on this expedition to the north. Following the briefing, those who didn’t have rubber boots (or wanted to see if the ship supply had a more fashionable pair) made their way to the Reception area, where the Expedition Staff helped everyone find the right pair of boots.

Before lunch, I went out on deck to watch our arrival at the Storhoppen Islands, where the spectacular scenery was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to how incredible a place this was. A nesting colony of gannets atop a rocky point absolutely glowed due to the brilliant white plumage of these magnificent seabirds. As we rounded the corner, a minke whale surfaced briefly, certainly evidence of the productive waters here on Norway’s north coast.

But the stars of the show were certainly the puffins, which rafted in unbelievable numbers on the water all around the ship. After admiring the site of what would surely prove to be a spectacular afternoon Zodiac tour, I went down to lunch to fuel up for the several hours out in the boat.

This first Zodiac tour of our expedition began at a narrow gully in the cliff face where dozens of kittiwakes were perched. These vocal gulls are unusual in that they are pelagic during the non-breeding season, ranging far out to sea in search of small fish and invertebrates to feed upon. In fact, they may not see land again until they return the following year to nest again.

Interestingly, the kittiwakes here at this colony didn’t seem to have a single chick among them, which was quite unexpected at this stage of the summer. There were well-tended nests made of moss and vegetation, but only adults seemed to be present on the ledges. As all of us on the Zodiac discussed possible reasons for this, the answer became immediately clear. A white-tailed eagle soared past the cliff, sending every single kittiwake immediately skyward, fleeing out of fear for this massive predator.

I saw over a dozen eagles over the course of our circumnavigation of the island, most of them soaring over the mountainous terrain in search of an opportunity to snatch a puffin or other seabird off the lush slopes. The puffins build their nest at the end of a burrow that they excavate into the soil, but often perch outside the burrow entrance when they come and go from relieving their partner, who is inside incubating the single egg. It’s at this time that the puffins are most at risk of falling victim to the powerful talons (claws) of the eagle. Clearly, the kittiwakes on this island must get scared off their nests many times a day, which probably is the major factor in their nesting failure here.

As we rounded the island and arrived at the colony of northern gannets, the swell of the sea was impressive. We ducked in on the leeward side of the point, and found ourselves right below the nesting gannets. A few fluffy chicks could be seen from this vantage point, and I could also see that (unfortunately) many of the gannets had used “found” items as nesting material, most notably bits of old fishing nets that they obviously had found floating at the sea surface.

Another conspicuous avian character along the coast was the shag, a small cormorant that roosted in small groups on rock outcrops just above the tide line. These fish-eaters are excellent divers, pursuing their fish prey by propelling themselves underwater with their large webbed feet.

Back on the ship, I got cleaned up and mingled in the Panorama Lounge over stories of our amazing outing in the Storhoppen Islands. The socializing then continued at a Welcome Aboard cocktail party, hosted by Captain Adam Boczek. Several of the senior officers introduced themselves, and we raised our glasses for a toast to our journey to the Russian Arctic. 

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