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Day 6 - July 1, 2013 -  Bråsvellbreen, Wilhelmøya and Alkefjellet 

By Rich Pagen, Conservation Biologist and Ornithologist

 

Co-ordinates: N 79º17'44", E 19º21'22"
Weather: Partly cloudy
Air Temperature: 7ºC
Pressure: 1004 hPa
Wind: 10 knots


The beautiful sunny conditions we had experienced during last night’s encounter with a mother and cub polar bear continued well into the early morning hours. I awoke and pulled back the curtains to see the incredible glacial front of Bråsvellbreen stretching out before me, leading off in both directions as far as I could see. I bundled up and headed to the outer decks to take in this spectacular sight.

Nordaustland is the second largest island in Svalbard, and approximately 80% of it is covered by ice caps. The largest ice cap on the island stretches down to the south coast and terminates in a magnificent 30-m high ice cliff called Bråsvellbreen. Stretching for nearly 190 km, this is the longest glacial front in the entire Northern Hemisphere.

The ship sailed along this magnificent wall of ice for over an hour, the Captain carefully manoeuvred the Silver Explorer along the countless icebergs all around us. I snapped photos while scanning the sea for wildlife, which included a ringed seal swimming among the floating bits of ice.

The Captain then set course for a small island called Wilhelmøya, which lay just off the east coast of Spitsbergen. The last ice chart we received suggested that this area might currently host an accumulation of sea ice, which would be a great place for us to scan for wildlife. I took this opportunity to head inside to warm up with a cup of coffee, and to eat a hearty breakfast.

During the late morning, the ship arrived at Wilhelmøya, and we began our circumnavigation of the island. At first, we experienced strong headwinds so I scanned the rocky shorelines from the protection of the Observation Lounge. But soon the winds let up, and I headed out on deck, joined by countless others, all of us admiring the spectacular mountain scenery.

Small groups of Brünnich’s guillemots flew past the ship; their black backs contrasting sharply with their gleaming white undersides. Occasional northern fulmars banked just beneath the railing, taking advantage of the wind to travel long distances very efficiently. We also spotted some distant reindeer grazing out on the barren tundra.

Soon it was time for lunch, and so I headed into the restaurant, where stories of ice and mountains dominated the conversations. I then went up to the Lecture Hall to hear a presentation given by Fisheries Biologist Luke Kenny. Luke focused on the Barents Sea fishery for cod, discussing both the biology of the fish itself and a bit about the history of the fishery. He also spoke about the importance of capelin as a food source for seabirds.

By the time Luke had finished his talk, the Silver Explorer was on close approach to a bird cliff called Alkefjellet. Once there, I climbed into a zodiac and picked up my group at the gangway, and then headed over to explore the bird colony there firsthand. During the summer months, as many as 60,000 breeding pairs of Brünnich’s guillemots raise their chicks on the ledges of this 300-ft tall cliff face. Erosion has created rocky spires and pinnacles, and waterfalls poured down through cuts in the rock from the snowfields high above.

Brünnich’s guillemots have one of the highest nesting densities of any bird, huddling together on the limited flat ledges so closely that they even touch one another. Each female lays a single egg without even building a nest, and the eggs are pear-shaped so they are more likely to roll in a circle than to roll right off the ledge and into the sea below. As we floated along next to the cliff, we listened to the roar of birds around us and watched the swarms flying above us. Then, without warning, a glaucous gull snatched a guillemot out of the air and began eating it on the water right in front of us. The entire scene was incredible to witness.

Back on the Silver Explorer, I mingled in the bar before enjoying a relaxing dinner. Meanwhile, the Captain manoeuvred the ship into Lomfjord on the east side of Spitsbergen, and then into a small bay called Fåksevagen, where we would spend a quiet night at anchor.

 

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