Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Greetings Birders & Adventurers,
A group of 12 keen adventurers have recently returned from Shearwater Journeys' successful charter Svalbard charter voyage, 28 June to 8 July. This is a brief report of our adventures.
As with most voyages to this region, we departed from Longyearbyen. Our blue vessel is parked, above, at the dock. She is dwarfed by the larger cruise ship! Even the most remote places on Earth are now being impacted by cruise ships. The locals told me that in one day, 4,000 passengers disembarked from one such ship in — in a town that only numbers 2,400 full time residents! Longyearbyen is located at Adventfjorden, a side arm of Isfjorden.
An image from the top deck of our ship, showing passengers loading the Zodiac. Only five steps and we're all in the Zodiac! And, with only 12 guests on board, we all fit in one Zodiac. This saves us precious time — more time on shore! Images above and below, Feodor Pitcairn, copyright.
Our little ship navigates through ice, above, or open seas below. She is so small that she can fit in places where larger ships (even if "only" 100 passengers), cannot dare venture. In addition, our captain records his own soundings for use at the time of the voyage, and on later voyages. Much of this region is uncharted. Image below, Feodor Pitcairn, copyright.
Our expedition leader, below, carries a rifle. This is required by the government of Svalbard.
Guests on shore, below. Images, above and below, Feodor Pitcairn, copyright.
Among our group of enthusiastic guests were professional photographers (National Geographic & Google), a geologist, a botanist, ranchers from California who raise grass fed beef, a biologist and retired folks. 
The supreme icon of the High Arctic, the polar bear, was naturally one of our main target species. It had been a tough season prior to our arrival in the Svalbard region. Ice was everywhere, making the polar bears quite dispersed. And, not easy to find. Some trips recorded only 1 or 2 sightings. One trip saw none. So, we felt fortunate to find 14 polar bears, the highest count on any voyage up to that point. But, this pales in comparison to the 48 bears we saw on last year's voyage. Ice was quite different last year, though. Only remnants of pack ice were around, concentrating the bears. Nevertheless, both voyages enjoyed classic polar bear studies.
We observed a total of 14 polar bears, some close, some distant, some very close! 
We watched this mother and her cub of the year (COY) for more than an hour before they both swam off to some unknown destination.
We came upon the bear, below, just as it was finishing up consuming a ringed seal. Ivory gulls were in attendance along with the ubiquitous glaucous gulls. This image begs the question, "Does a bear shit in the woods?" I guess the answer would have to be, "Not always."
Walrus, another High Arctic icon were also high on our list of most wanted marine mammals. 
 About midnight, our first night out, the captain all but put the ship's bow on the beach in order to give folks a great view of walrus! Seriously, our expedition leader said that if he had jumped off the bow, it would have been a dry landing.
One of the advantages of being on such a small ship was that the crew was always actively looking for wildlife, as well. This sometimes resulted in a 3 a.m. wake up call! Such things do not happen on 100 passenger ships. Oh, the joys!
In the end, we saw walrus many places, including one landing with nearly 400 on shores, and piled up in mud wallows inland — a bit of a surprise. 
Reindeer, the most northerly of all deer, are circumpolar on the tundra. The Svalbard reindeer is a smaller subspecies of the Siberian and Canadian reindeer. Both sexes wear antlers, the only deer to do so. We had wonderful encounters with these slow-moving grazers, including some small calves.
 Other marine mammals included views of one blue whale — great to see this species returning to this region, and two beluga whales hugging the edges of a glacier!
Seals included the bearded seal, above, ringed seals, harp seals and harbor seals, below. This is the most northerly population of harbor seals. 
Birding included a visit to the famous basalt cliff colonies of Alkefjell. 
Tens of thousands of seabirds, nest on these cliffs. Brunnich's guillemot (Thick-billed murre), black guillemot, Atlantic puffin and little auk were recorded during our voyage.
 While nearly all visitors view these spectacular cliffs from a Zodiac, our captain was able to bring the ship within a few feet of the rock wall, allowing us to capture wonderful images from eye level while standing on the steadier deck of the bow of the ship.
 Among the gulls, black-legged kittiwake, below, were well represented.
 Glaucous gulls on ice, below. Our keen expedition leader also spotted great black-backed gull, herring gull and lesser black-backed gull.
You'll have to look very closely to pick out the ivory gull feeding at the seal kill in the image, below. In all, we saw 19 ivory gulls.
Arctic skua (parasitic jaeger) was by far the most commonly sighted skua. However, we did see long-tailed skuas, pomarine skuas and a pair of nesting great skuas.
 Arctic tern, below, was observed every day of our voyage, as well as at Longyearbyen. Shorebirds included purple sandpiper, sanderling, dunlin, red phalarope, ringed plover, all at nests. The only songbird we saw was the snow bunting. 
Waterfowl was represented by red-throated diver (on nests), common diver (unusual, possibly breeding), many common eider nests, long-tailed duck, king eiders (with a flock of 14 at Longyearbyen), below. Geese included barnacle, brent and pink-footed, all on nests.
Svalbard hosts a surprising variety of plants which we delighted in finding. Moss campion, below, has flowers that face south, therefore it is often called "tundra compass." We saw other campions, buttercups, the endemic Svalbard poppy, scurvygrass, loads of purple saxifrage, cinquefoil and the gorgeous boreal Jacob's ladder. 
The landscapes were varied, sometimes foggy, icy, rainy.
Our Zodiac travels along the pack ice edge, Image by Feodor Pitcairn, copyright.
And, finally, our expedition leader took us out to 'play in the ice' one day. I've seen that twinkle in his eye before! He beached the nose of the Zodiac on a piece of two foot thick pack ice surrounded by moving bergs all around. And, we all jumped off on to the ice for some fun — uh, huh, playing with the ice!
Yes, we had our life jackets on.
Svalbard is a beautiful wilderness.
 We were the first voyage of the season to circumnavigate Spitsbergen, primarily because the ice changed enough to let us do so.
Thank you for sharing this time.
 Yours in expedition adventure,
Debi Shearwater

All images: Debi Shearwater, unless indicated otherwise. Copyright.