Spitsbergen and at sea 11/08/14
Le Boreal sailed all night and when we awoke this morning we were greeted by grey skies and a sullen sea. During breakfast the ship anchored and at 10 we dressed very warmly and loaded the zodiacs for an hour and a half trip to a long section of very high cliff faces rising out of the sea and the nesting grounds for thousands and thousands of guillemots, a chicken-sized black and white bird. As we approached the cliffs the air was filled with large numbers of birds swooping from the cliffs and filling the air around us as they dove into the sea to fish, taking their catch back to their chicks poised on ledges. The smell was overpowering even in the windy open ocean and we were warned not to luck up, particularly with open mouths.
Every ledge was packed with as many birds as it would hold and there were no nests in evidence, rather the birds lay their eggs, which are small and pointed, on the bare rock ledge. A mating pair produces only one egg per season because in the restricted space that they battle for and occupy that is all that they are able to incubate and again because of space restrictions they incubate the egg like a penguin, in an upright stance with the egg between their feet and covered by the feathers on the bottom of their chests. Because of the shape of the egg, pointed at both ends, it spins in a circle if it is pushed or jostled and does not roll as would a hen's egg and thus fall off the ledge.
The chicks, well before they are able to fly, throw themselves off the cliff into the water where the male spends the next two months with them, as they paddle their way south to warmer waters while the chick grows and molts into flight feathers and learns to fly. Not sure where the females are during this process but was politically correct enough not to ask the question or to make any comments.
In a patch of very steep green grass halfway up the cliff side between two towers full of bird ledges we spotted a bright white arctic fox trying to find ledges within reach where he could take the chicks and eggs. Don't know how he got there and how he planned to get out since the patch of grass was at a 65 degree angle and at the bottom end fell 25 metres into the sea and at the top end was a sheer 25 metre cliff face up to the top.
Much more successful hunters were gulls who would swoop onto a ledge and eat eggs or chicks and we saw several gulls swallowing chicks whole. We were told the survival rate in any year is about 20%.
In for lunch and after we had shed all of our layers of wet outer gear and boots and spruced ourselves the captain announced on the PA that two polar bears had been spotted and those who were interested should don their heavy weather gear for the zodiacs and muster for embarking. Grabbed cameras and binoculars re-dressed in all of our layers and headed for the zodiacs.
After a boat drive of a kilometer or so we came up to a small rocky island, its centre a small raised plateau about 5 metres above sea level and covered with grasses and mosses. 2 bears, a mother and a very large junior cub were at the centre of the island, about 100 metres from our position and appeared to be grazing. Strange behaviour but summer is not a good time for polar bears as their main food source, ringed seals, is not accessible since the bears reach them on the sea ice that forms in winter but at this time of the year the sea ice has melted at this latitude. We could only guess whether they were eating berries from low shrubs or eggs of arctic terns who nest on the ground. Too far away for good shots without a large telephoto which I did not bring on this trip due to weight restrictions.
After lunch, during which time the ship sailed into a large fjord, we boarded zodiacs for a very large peninsula, barren and treeless with a long, sandy spit of land at its end which was a haul-out for walrus and indeed when we arrived there were about 15 large males sleeping in a pile. Watched them for about an hour but little signs of movement as they slept the afternoon away and as we shivered in the howling wind with a temp below 0C.