Day 12 - June 15, 2013 - Entering St. Jonsforden, Svalbard
By Peter W. Damisch, Historian, General Naturalist, Cartographer, Master Mariner
Today started quite early for me as I was up on the bridge well before 7:00am in order to observe the coastline of Prins Karls Forland as we approached our planned landing site for the morning. This is a quite normal procedure in Svalbard so we can check the shoreline for any possible polar bear sightings that might cause us to modify our daily program.
Unlike our great polar bear sightings yesterday, none of these great, white creatures were in sight and thus we could continue with our activities at Poolepynten. I jumped in and assisted the transportation of our first group ashore, then anchored my zodiac to guide ashore. We landed some distance away so as to not disturb these great animals. This walrus haul out location is quite well known to us based on experience, yet we were very pleasantly surprised to discover more than double the expected number of walrus all packed into a tight and very warm social grouping.
It is great to be able to observe these largest of all pinnipeds in the Northern Hemisphere. We go ashore in relatively small groups such that everyone has the opportunity to get a great encounter with these magnificent animals. In addition to the beach crowd, we had two large males lounging in the waters just offshore. Then the largest male decided he wanted to join the group. He slowly made his way up the beach then started poking some of the other walrus with his tusks such that they would open up an optimal spot for him! It was a bit rude but still an effective technique.
This haul out is located on a large island offshore from Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. The tall mountains and enormous glaciers glittering in the sun gave us all great views of our afternoon destination as we walked back to the landing site.
My lunch conversation with guests ranged from walrus biology to Icelandic volcanoes. Such lively conversation always make for a great break during the middle of the day.
Our afternoon landing was situated at St. Johnsfjorden, a long fjord surrounded by tall, snow capped mountains. It was a beautiful sight. My primary assignment for the afternoon was to serve as one of the polar bear guards. All of the shore side staff carries flare pistols for protection and several of us, such as myself, also carry high-powered rifles. Fortunately in all of our time in Svalbard over many seasons, none of us have ever had to discharge our weapon, except at the practice range.
I hiked part way up the mountain, which would serve as our primary hiking destination for the afternoon. We offered one short and one longer hike option such that every guest could select a level of activity that suited them. Almost immediately after coming ashore, we saw the first of what would be many reindeer traversing through or just above our landing site. These sure footed animals were formally hunted but now are protected throughout most of Svalbard.
After establishing the safety of my area, I was able to appreciate the stunning vistas; mountain after mountain still covered with winter snow. I could see ptarmigan and geese but only heard the purple sandpiper whose direct view seemed to elude me. In addition, several of the hiking groups stopped by my position and I was able to address some favourite topics of mine. This beautiful location is well known for its Arctic flowers and plant life. I chatted about Purple Saxifrage, Moss Campion, Dwarf Willow and Mountain Avens. Nearby there was some reindeer scat to discuss followed by a brief chat about geological frost heaving and permafrost.
All too soon it was time to start hiking down hill to see all of our guests back into the zodiacs safely, then back to the Silver Explorer where we had the chance to view the professional DVD created specifically for this voyage. It was a great overview of our time onboard and brought back many pleasant memories that spanned the range from Norwegian fjords to stupendous glaciers and multiple polar bear sightings. All in all, it was a great day!
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