Sunday, February 12, 2012


Every year, Shearwater Journeys' pelagic trip in early August to the Farallon Islands sells out early. Heading under the Golden Gate Bridge to these protected offshore islands, home to the largest breeding seabird colony in the United States, south of Alaska, we aim to see the islands icon species, the TUFTED PUFFIN. We have a 100% success rate for finding these amazing alcids which nest in holes and crevices on the cliff facings. Last year's trip added two "bonus birds"— a BROWN BOOBY and LAYSAN ALBATROSS. This year, in addition to the AUGUST 5 trip, we've added a second trip on SEPTEMBER 30th. Although this will be the post-breeding season, we hope to encounter a GREAT WHITE SHARK, as this is the time of year when they show up.

We'll have lunch near the residents' homes. These breeding islands are strictly protected, and we cannot land.
Like the KILLER WHALE, which we have often observed on these trips (August 8, 2010), the GREAT WHITE SHARK is a top predator. I urge you to read Peter Pyle's account of the "History of PRBO Research on White Sharks." We'll have to have some luck to see a White Shark, but it could happen. Late September and October is the best time of year to hope for a sighting.

If time and weather conditions allow, we'll head beyond the islands to the edge of the continental shelf, where we hope to find jaegers, Sabine's Gull, Arctic Tern and Black-footed Albatross. A Laysan Albatross flew up our stern on the 2011 trip to the delight of all! Images, above, Parasitic Jaeger and below, Laysan Albatross, copyright, Tony Brake.
This year's trip details are below. Sign up early to avoid disappointment!
August 5 Leaders: Debi Shearwater & Jennifer Green. SOLD OUT. WAIT LIST ONLY.
September 30 Leaders: Peter Pyle, Russ Bradley, Annie Schmidt, Debi Shearwater
Fee: $157 per person. This trip is SOLD OUT. WAIT LIST ONLY.
Departure: 7:30 a.m. from Clipper Yacht Harbor (map); 310 Harbor Drive, Sausalito
Vessel: Outer Limits, a very stable catamaran (Google map here).
Return: Approximately 3-4:30 p.m.
Parking fee: $2 per person. Do not park in front of the Fish Restaurant.
Check in: Please check in with Debi at 7:15 a.m. and pay the parking fee to her at the dock. Allow at least 10 minutes to park and check in.
Dress warmly & bring lunch & drinks. Take a seasick pill. This is a non-smoking trip.
Puffins & White Sharks Forever,
Debi Shearwater


Greetings, Seabirders,
The year 2011 was a fabulous one for seabirding with Shearwater Journeys. The single most spectacular highlight of the fall season was two sightings of the mega-rarity, GREAT-WINGED PETREL on August 26, Monterey and September 17, Half Moon Bay trips. LAYSAN ALBATROSS was recorded from every port on nine different trips. Rare in California, a GREAT SHEARWATER was observed on July 30 off Half Moon Bay. Of course, the regular fall migrants were recorded throughout the fall season. Some 1,135 birders participated in 36 day long trips with Shearwater Journeys in 2011. We continue to operate the most comprehensive selection of seabirding trips on the west coast of North America. Whether you are new to seabirding, or a repeat enthusiast, a photographer or sea salt, we hope that you will discover the joy of soaring albatrosses and gliding shearwaters on a trip with our friendly and knowledgable leaders. Black-footed Albatross image, above, copyright, Abe Borker.
PORTS: Trips are offered from Monterey Bay, Half Moon Bay, Sausalito, Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg. New this year, are photographer's trips from Bodega Bay.
EXPEDITION VOYAGES: Please join Debi on a voyage to SCOTLAND BY SEA: Hebrides and St. Kilda at the special rate, below. If POLAR BEARS and thousands of DOVKIES are on your "bucket list," please join Debi on her special charter to SVALBARD'S HIGH ARCTIC. Each of these voyages is limited to 12 guests.



Jul. 28, Sat. Half Moon Bay: Cook’s Petrel Express $186

Jul. 29, Sun. Half Moon Bay: Cook’s Petrel Express $186

Aug. 3, Fri. Monterey Bay: Albatrosses & Early Fall Seabirds $154

Aug. 5, Sun. Farallon Islands: Tufted Puffins & Breeding Seabirds $157

Aug. 10, Fri. Monterey Bay: Albatrosses & Early Fall Seabirds $154

Aug. 12, Sun. Half Moon Bay: Cook’s Petrel Express $186

Aug. 17, Fri. Monterey Bay: Albatrosses & Early Fall Seabirds $154

Aug. 19-20 Half Moon Bay: Overnight Deepwater TBA

Aug. 22, Wed. Bodega Canyon & Cordell Bank $198

Aug. 22, Wed. Bodega Bay: Photographer’s Pelagic $210

Aug. 24, Fri. Fort Bragg: Hawaiian Petrel Search & Offshore $198

Aug. 25, Sat. Fort Bragg: Hawaiian Petrel Search & Offshore $198

Aug. 27, Mon. Half Moon Bay: Hawaiian Petrel Search & Offshore $186

Sep. 7, Fri. Monterey Bay: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Sep. 8, Sat. Albacore Grounds: Offshore Monterey $192

Sep. 9, Sun. Half Moon Bay: Storm-Petrels & Fall Seabirds $186

Sep. 10, Mon. Half Moon Bay: Storm-Petrels & Fall Seabirds $186

Sep. 11, Tue. Monterey Bay: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Sep. 12, Wed. Monterey Bay: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Sep. 13, Thu. Monterey Seavalley: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Sep. 14, Fri. Monterey Bay: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Sep. 15, Sat. Monterey Seavalley: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Sep. 16, Sun. Monterey Bay: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Sep. 21, Fri. Bodega Canyon & Cordell Bank $198

Sep. 21, Fri. Bodega Bay: Photographer’s Pelagic $210

Sep. 22, Sat. Half Moon Bay: Storm-Petrels & Fall Seabirds $186

Sep. 23, Sun. Half Moon Bay: Storm-Petrels & Fall Seabirds $186

Sep. 24, Mon. Half Moon Bay: Storm-Petrels & Fall Seabirds $186

Sep. 27, Thu. Bodega Canyon & Cordell Bank $198

Sep. 27, Thu. Bodega Bay: Photographer’s Pelagic $210

Sep. 28, Fri. Monterey Bay: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Sep. 30, Sun. Farallon Islands: Post-Breeding & Possible Great Whites $157

Oct. 1, Mon. Half Moon Bay: Storm-Petrels & Fall Seabirds $186

Oct. 6, Sat. Monterey Bay: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Oct. 7, Sun. Half Moon Bay: Storm-Petrels & Fall Seabirds $186

Oct. 14, Sun. Monterey Bay: Fall Seabird Classic $154

Oct. 26, Fri. Bodega Canyon & Cordell Bank $198

Oct. 26, Fri. Bodega Bay: Photographer’s Pelagic $210

Oct. 28, Sun. Half Moon Bay: Late Fall & Winter Seabirds $186

Nov. 11-12 Half Moon Bay Overnight Deepwater TBA

Nov. 20, Tue. Half Moon Bay: Late Fall & Winter Seabirds $186

Dec. 2 - 3 Half Moon Bay Overnight Deepwater TBA




RESERVATIONS: Payment, in full by check or money order is required at the time of booking. Please include the full name, address, phone/email of each person in your party, as required by the USCG. Fuel surcharges, if any, are not included and are paid at the dockside. Send your reservation to Debi Shearwater, POB 190, Hollister, CA 95024; 831.637.8527;
DISCOUNT: Send your payment by April 10th, and enjoy a $15 per person, per reservation discount. Please deduct the discount before sending your check, it cannot be refunded after the booking is received. Discounted trips are non-refundable.
WEB SITE: Please see our web site: for more information. To view the schedule in a calendar format, click here. Past trip reports and more information is available on the web site. More information will be available on this blog. Keep checking in on that.
Looking forward to our 36th year of seabirding with you!
Shearwaters Forever,
Debi Shearwater
Banded Black-footed Albatross, copyright, Abe Borker


Howdy, Adventurers,
As an addition to Shearwater Journeys' charter voyages to Svalbard, we are offering a guided, pre-trip birding tour based in the nearby Oslo area. The tour will be headquartered at the Thorbjornrud Hotel, below. This will alleviate packing and unpacking every night. Thorbjornrud Hotel is located in beautiful surroundings only 30 meters from Lake Randsfjorden. The lake is rich in fish and some of the best fishing spots are close to the hotel. Down at the lake you will find a sauna, a brew and a stable fishing boat. I believe that this is primarily a fishing lodge. Wireless connection is available at the hotel. However such a place could offer excellent birding, even on the grounds. Lunch will be take-away, every day. This tour will focus on birds that we will not see on the Svalbard voyage. We will visit a variety of habitats from wetlands to high mountains.
Day 1: Arrive Oslo, overnight at hotel near Gardermoen Airport. (It is optional for you to arrive earlier, if you choose to do some excellent sightseeing in Oslo, which will not be included in the tour). Transport from airport to hotel not included. A shuttle from the airport to hotel is available for a fee. This hotel night is included in the tour. Meals not included. Note: Plan to leave one of your packed bags at "left luggage," carrying only one bag during this tour. You will need your boots. Note: flights to Oslo are overnight. You will depart the USA the day prior.
Day 2: Early morning pickup at the airport hotel by our guide after breakfast and transfer to Thornbjornrud Hotel, about 60 km north of Oslo. We'll bird the fresh water lake in search of such species as grebes, geese, ducks, gulls and warblers. Perfect for photographers. (Night at hotel, B, L, D; transportation; guide services included).
Day 3: Early morning start, going to the high mountains of Valdres. Here we can find birds such as Rough-legged Buzzard, Gyr Falcon, Dotterell, Temmick's Stint, Long-tailed Jaeger, Willow and Rock Ptarmigan, Lapland Longspur, Wheatear, Redpoll, Brambling, Bluethroat, Meadow Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Willow Warbler, Raven, Red-necked Phalarope, etc. Wild reindeer roam the mountains as well as fantastic scenery. (Night at hotel; B, L, D; transportation and guide services included).
Day 4: We shall visit two very large wetland sites close to our hotel. The Nordre Oyeren Nature Reserve and Dokkedelta. Both are RAMSAR Sites. Here, we shall focus on finding waders, wildfowl and passerines. (Night at hotel; B, L, D; transportation and guide services included).
Day 5: Early morning start, heading for the deep pine forests close to the Swedish border in the easternmost part of Norway, hoping to see a variety of woodpeckers, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Crane, Redstart, Common and Honey Buzzards, Rosefinch, Ortolan Bunting, Wood Lark, Pied Flycatcher and six species of tits, four species of thrushes, Nuthatch, etc. (Night at hotel; B, L, D; transportation and guide services included).
Day 6: We shall spend the day birding the coastal habitats near Oslo-fjord, looking for such birds as Cormorant, Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, gulls and terns, Oystercatcher, warblers and nightingales. Our tour concludes just prior to dinner (not included) in Oslo, at the same airport hotel as Day 1. (Overnight at the airport hotel included in the tour. B,L). Retrieve your "left luggage" this day.
Day 7: Flights to Longyearbyen, arriving most likely in the late afternoon. B (Flight; airport transport; L/D not included). Nights in Longyearbyen can be booked separately through Debi.
Day 8: Birding and exploring on your own at Longyearbyen. Easy to do. Nights in Longyearbyen booked separately with Debi.
Day 9: Birding and exploring Longyearbyen until embarkation on M/S Stockholm to begin a journey around Svalbard. Ten nights and eleven days on board the ship.

Our Olso Birding guide is a well known bird enthusiast in the Norwegian Ornithologist Association. He has been watching birds all his life. For the past few years he has recorded and released several CDs about bird sounds in both Norway and Costa Rica. He is an excellent, non-smoking, "ear" birder. He will carry a spotting scope and an inventory of bird sounds.
This tour may be modified for improvements after the 2012 tour is completed. Included in the tour rate (to be announced) will be all lodging as outlined; meals as outlined above; all transportation beginning at the Oslo hotel and ending at the Oslo hotel; services of the guide during tour dates. Not included: trip cancellation insurance, alcohol/soda pop; gratuity to guide. To participate in this tour you will need to be capable of carrying your own luggage; capable of riding in any seat in the van, as we shall rotate seats; capable of hiking over uneven terrain for up to 2 km (to potentially see such birds as Dotterel on the nest). Smoking will only be permitted outdoors, away from and downwind of the group. TOUR RATE: TO BE ANNOUNCED.
DATES FOR 2013 TOURS, depending on which voyage you book:
Depart USA on 19 June, arriving 20 June at Oslo, Norway
26 JUNE -27 JUNE, LONGYEARBYEN on your own. Book rooms through Debi, not included in Oslo Tour.
28 JUNE - 8 JULY on board M/S STOCKHOLM

Depart USA on 29 June, arriving 30 June at Oslo, Norway
6 JULY - 7 JULY, LONGYEARBYEN on your own. Book rooms through Debi, not included in Oslo Tour.
8 - 18 JULY on board M/S STOCKHOLM

PLEASE NOTE: regarding return flights to the USA— flight schedules are not currently available. If the departure flight from Longyearbyen to Oslo is late in the afternoon, you will need to overnight in Oslo in order to catch a return flight to the USA. We will not know about this until the flight schedule comes out. You can easily book this room on your own.

This tour can add to your overall birding experience in Norway and presents some good opportunities to get to know the country and its people better. The scenery should be spectacular with a variety of habitats covered. We shall do our best for photographic opportunities, as well. I hope you will join us!
Debi Shearwater

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Howdy, Adventurers,
Shearwater Journeys has chartered the M/S Stockholm for three exclusive voyages to Svalbard's West Spitsbergen Island
8 - 18 JULY 2012- SOLD OUT
28 JUNE - 8 JULY 2013- SOLD OUT
Spitsbergen is the Crown Jewel of the High Arctic, much as South Georgia is arguably the Crown Jewel of the Sub-Antarctic. While Polar Bears are our main focus, this splendid region has much more to offer — birds and mammals, including, seals, whales, walrus, beluga, reindeer and more. Why choose a small charter expedition?
Adventurers sign on to expedition voyages for a variety of different reasons. However, folks who sign on to charter voyages tend to be "like-minded' in that they are involved with a particular voyage for a stated purpose. Shearwater Journeys' voyages' primary goal is to show you as much wildlife as is possible, both in terms of quantity, quality and variety. On ships that have "open bookings" not everyone is necessarily of the same mind. An example of this would be a waking the guests on board up at 0400 hrs. because a pod of Killer Whales has been sighted, or 26 Antarctic Petrels have been observed, circling the ship, or three Emperor Penguins off the bow of the ship! Such events have occurred on voyages I've been part of. On "open" boats, i.e., tourist booked ships, no such announcement over the ship's public address system would be made! You would be "allowed to sleep" through these extremely exciting wildlife observations! On the Shearwater Journeys' voyage, all significant wildlife observations will be announced, no matter what time of day or night. Of course, we recognize that this is your holiday. So, it is your choice to get out on deck, or roll over in your bunk. Nevertheless, we will make you aware, gently, if it is an ungodly hour, of any substantial wildlife sightings. (Image, above, copyright, Adam Rheborg).
This charter is exclusively for twelve Shearwater Journeys' clients. Although you may see some companies offering voyages "limited to 20," what they really mean is "our group is limited to 20 of the 100 or 100+ passengers, in total on board." Shearwater Journeys' charter is LIMITED TO 12 GUESTS. PERIOD. There will be no other passengers on board. This small number of passengers becomes critical during Zodiac landings and when on shore. Twelve of us can fit in one Zodiac, landing everyone at the same time, thereby offering more time on shore. Once on shore, whether with a group of 12 or 100 (even if split into to two groups of 50 each), everyone MUST stay with the leader who carries a rifle in case of Polar Bear attack. The quality of a landing with a group of 50 verses a group of 12 is very significant. I know. As staff, I've landed on Svalbard with 50 people! It is a landing. It is the Arctic. But, it can be so much more. For photographers— well, you get the picture!
Where will we go, exactly? Our voyage will begin and end in Longyearbyen, making for convenient round trip flights from Oslo and avoiding the dreaded "open jaw" ticketing issues and expenses. You should plan to arrive at Longyearbyen at least one day, and possibly two days prior to the departure date of the voyage. With airline connections often in fluctuation, and worse, luggage sometimes going missing, you'll want to be sure that both you and your luggage arrive prior to the ship's departure! In addition, the town of Longyearbyen presents some interesting options for exploration. For those of you who are experienced expedition travelers, you know the drill— for those not— our ten days and nine nights on board our cozy ship will be dedicated to exploring the Svalbard Archipelago. Pack ice will largely dictate where we go, determining our exact itinerary day by day, or even hour by hour. You can be assured that our skilled and experienced Captain and Expedition Leader will not only have a Plan A, but also, Plan, B, C, D, or more, if needed. As we are a charter, the ship is at our disposal and we will have more flexibility than open booked vessels. Ideally, I would hope to circumnavigate Spitsbergen. Only about 25% of the voyages that advertise this actually accomplish it! However, Captain Per was the first ship to succeed in this mission in the 2011 season! Expedition travel demands that each participant has a flexible and adaptable attitude.
We shall head to the pristine pack ice in search of Polar Bears, hoping to encounter them swimming, on ice, hunting and inspecting our ship! In addition to searching for bears, we'll spend our days learning and discovering about other wildlife, as well as the flora, geology and history of Spitsbergen. We are very likely to have close up encounters with grazing reindeer, walruses hauled out, Arctic foxes, bearded and harp seals, and hopefully whales. Birdlife is abundant with throngs of wheeling seabirds, including millions of Little Auks (Dovekie), Red-throated Loons, Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese, Common and King Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, Purple Sandpipers, Ivory and Glaucous Gulls, Black Guillemots, Snow Buntings and more. We shall have a remarkable amount of time available for wildlife viewing, exploring and photography in the 24 hours of daylight! (Image, above, copyright, Adam Rheborg).
I've already extolled the qualities and features of our little ship, M/V Stockholm in the previous post with images of the ship. Being an owner-operatored ship is of extreme value, as the Captain of any ship can "make or break" the voyage. Captain Per is one of, if not the best Captain in Svalbard, I've been told. (Image, above, copyright, Cherry Alexander).
RESERVATIONS: Book your cabin now! The first two voyages sold out in no time. Cabin rates range from $10,485 to 10,705 per person, depending on the size of the cabin. A deposit of $1000 per person is necessary at the time of booking to hold your berth. Rate includes: all accommodation on board the ship, beginning 4 p.m. 8 July through the night of 17 July; all meals while on board; all landing excursions by Zodiac throughout the voyage; services of the Expedition Leader and staff. Not included: flights from your home to Longyearbyen, hotel stays; transfers to/from airports; alcoholic/soft drink beverages (available on board, for a fee); customary crew gratuity; mandatory medical evacuation insurance; fuel surcharge, if any; items of a personal nature. Several of the above services will be offered for an additional fee, such as airport transfers. Details regarding recommended hotels, pre-booking for hotels at Longyearbyen, packing list, recommended reading list, etc. will be forthcoming.
OSLO BIRDING TOUR: A tour for birders and photographers will be offered in the Oslo area prior to the ship's voyage. Details regarding this tour will be forthcoming. The tour will be led by a knowledgable local birder. This tour is limited to six birders, only. (Image, below, copyright, Adam Rheborg).
It's a wild, pristine world awaiting us in Svalbard's High Arctic. Please contact Debi Shearwater at; 831.637.8527 as soon as possible to book your cabin. Please note, I'll be traveling from 20 April through 20 July, and can only be reached by email during that period. Watch this blog for reports!
Let me take you there— my way,
Debi Shearwater

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


On a voyage Svalbard, pack ice and ice-filled fjords will be on tap daily. In this High Arctic realm, the Polar Bear, a top predator, reigns supreme. However, there is more in store for the Arctic adventurer. And, Shearwater Journeys' charter voyages to Svalbard aims to dish it all up! As Polar Bears loom ominously in the traveler's mind, I've devoted an entire post to them, here. This post will focus on the other mammals we may encounter. Polar Bear image, below, copyright, Debi Shearwater. The abundance of marine mammals was a principle attractant for people to this region historically. Massive harvesting of marine mammals commenced shortly after Svalbard's discovery. Various species were targeted over a period of several hundred years. Bowhead Whales and the Walrus were driven to near extinction. Populations of the Great Whales were greatly reduced. Today, Polar Bears are protected, as are most other marine mammals, although hunting does still take place. On this voyage, we hope to encounter as many species of mammals as possible. The pack ice will be our constant companion. There is nothing in the world that I love more than the sound of ice cracking as either the ship or Zodiac navigates these frigid, productive waters. Music to my ears! Look carefully— for there is a seal on the ice in the image below!
Nineteen species of marine mammals frequent Svalbard, including the Polar Bear, Walrus, five species of true seals and twelve species of cetaceans. Seal species we hope to encounter include: RINGED, BEARDED, HARBOR, HARP and HOODED. The image below, copyright Debi Shearwater, is of three HOODED SEALS at Spitsbergen. The young Hooded Seal shows a blue-black pelage which is maintained for two years. During breeding season (March), male Hooded Seals inflate a nasal sac to display to the females and other males. It is estimated that the global population of Hooded Seals is one million. The Polar Bear is a predator of Hooded Seals.
We shall make Zodiac cruises in search of marine mammals and seabirds. In the image below, someone is happy to spot a WALRUS! Image, below, copyright Vera Simonsson.
Walruses have a disjointed circumpolar distribution. Two subspecies are recognized, one in the Pacific and the other in the Atlantic. There are approximately 200,000 Pacific Walruses and some 20-30,000 Atlantic Walrus. The Svalbard population is thought to be about 2,000. Walrus is a year-round resident at Svalbard. In Svalbard, nearly all Walruses encountered are males. There are females and calves on the east side of Nordaustlandet but most of these walruses remain in the Barents Sea near Franz Josef Land. In recent years, more females have been seen in Svalbard, as they continue to repopulate their former range. Image below, copyright, Adam Rheborg.
Walruses are extremely social animals. They haul out in tight groups on land and usually travel at sea in tight groups as well. Their is significant sexual segregation outside of the breeding season. Solitary individuals can be seen on occasion on the ice or in the water. These are usually adult males. Image below, copyright, Lisa Strim.
Walrus have a narrow ecological niche that limits their distribution. They depend on: 1) the availability of large areas of shallow water with suitable bottom substrate to support a productive bivalve community, 2) the presence of reliable open water over rich feeding areas, particularly in winter when access to feeding ares is limited by ice cover, and 3) the presence of haul out areas in reasonably close proximity to feeding areas. Their main diet is bivalve mollusks, clams of various types, that they search for using their sensitive whiskers. Their ivory tusks were a valuable trade item. Walruses can live to an age of over 40 years. Image below, copyright, Morten Joergensen.
A variety of toothed whales (Odontocetes) can be found in the Svalbard region. These include: BELUGA, NORTHERN BOTTLENOSE WHALE, SPERM WHALE, KILLER WHALE, PILOT WHALE and WHITE-BEAKED DOLPHIN. NARWHAL is a very, very remote possibility.
Folks who have taken pelagic trips from California will be familiar with the Pacific White-sided Dolphin. The WHITE-BEAKED DOLPHIN, above, is a member of that same genus, Lagenorhynchus). This is the most numerous dolphin in the Barents Sea. Image above, copyright, Troels Jacobsen.
The SPERM WHALE is the largest toothed whale, up to 45 tons. Sperm Whales are very deep divers that feed primarily on squid. Female Sperm Whales are highly social and live together with other females and their young. Adult males are usually solitary. Hunting of Sperm Whales began in the early 1880's. Their population was very depleted, especially the large males. There is currently no hunting of Sperm Whales in the north Atlantic region and they are protected in Svalbard. Images of Sperm Whales, above and below, copyright, Don Doolittle.
Several species of baleen whales which we might encounter include: MINKE, HUMPBACK, BLUE, FIN, and rarely, but possibly, BOWHEAD. Minke Whale is the most likely whale we could encounter. However, an encounter with a BLUE WHALE, below, would be unforgettable. Blue Whale is the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth. Sightings in the north Atlantic region are rare, as Blue Whales were hunted to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling. They remain endangered. In fact, worldwide, Blue Whales remain a rare and endangered species. In Svalbard, they are protected. Blue Whale image below, copyright, Don Doolittle.HUMPBACK WHALES are making a very slow comeback in this region, despite suffering a 90% depletion of their population due to commercial whaling. They are one of the most easily recognized whales, especially their uniquely patterned under tail flukes. Image below, copyright, Debi Shearwater.
The only naturally occurring terrestrial mammals are the ARCTIC FOX and SVALBARD REINDEER. The Arctic Fox has a circumpolar distribution and is found in a wide variety of tundra habitats. In Svalbard, they occur from the highest mountain ridges to the coast, and even on pack ice. Arctic Foxes are especially abundant in areas where food are readily obtained, such as the west coast of Svalbard where large numbers of seabirds, eiders and geese breed. They are commonly seen around the town of Longyearbyen. So, be alert! Arctic Fox image, below, copyright, Don Doolittle.
The SVALBARD REINDEER is a small subspecies of Rangifer tarandus. Males are significantly larger than females and have larger antlers. Svalbard Reindeer are short-legged and have relatively short, round heads. They are well insulated against the cold winter. These reindeer exhibit a very sedentary behavior which reduces their energy demands. They have a well developed ability to use their own reserves, both fat and muscle tissue, when access to food is poor in winter. They are commonly seen in town at Longyearbyen. Oh, and no, that is not a reindeer, below! It is a lemming which I photographed near Hudson Bay, Churchill, Canada. It is the closest image I have of an introduced animal that is found in Svalbard— the SIBLING VOLE.
The SIBLING VOLE is a microtus that was accidentally brought to Svalbard with hay shipments that came from Russia to feed horses. Sibling Voles have been observed regularly near Longyearbyen since the 1960s. It is active throughout the winter. They have a very high reproductive rate and good dispersal abilities. The Sibling Vole in Svalbard has no natural competitors and its only predator is the Arctic Fox.

Join me in the search for Svalbard's mammals and birds on Shearwater Journeys' charter voyage on board M/S Stockholm, July 8 - 18, 2013!

Walrus forever,
Debi Shearwater


Nothing says "High Arctic" like the sighting of a POLAR BEAR (Ursus maritimus).
Icon in an extreme environment, poster species for global warming, the Polar Bear lives in a world that straddles land and sea.
Polar Bears are primarily marine creatures, living in a world of sea and ice, depending largely on seals for their prey.
From the safety of our ship or Zodiac, we shall search for polar bears on Shearwater Journeys' three charter expeditions to Svalbard. Enjoying all the comforts of home in our cozy cabins, or venturing on deck — where, even there, we may have close encounters with the Master of the North. (On shore landings, our Expedition Leader will carefully scan for Polar Bears prior to going ashore. He will carry a rifle, just in case).
I've been told that the ship, M/S Stockholm seems to be a "polar bear attractant" — bears coming so close at times, that guests must relocate to the upper decks!
While Polar Bears are a major focus of our voyage, we'll also be searching for seabirds, whales, seals and walrus.
The images above, copyright Lisa Strim, Adam Rheborg. Image below, copyright, Morten Joergensen. Please do not use without permission.
Images, below to the end, all copyright, Debi Shearwater. These images were made in Churchill, Canada. The Polar Bear has a small, triangular head set on top of a long neck. It has a roman nose, small eyes, and short, round, furry ears.
The massive body encased in a thick layer of blubber. It has white fur throughout the year in aid of cryptic coloration - camouflage. The long guard hairs form a watertight outer coat over a soft and fluffy undercoat which traps a layer of air against the skin; this allows it to swim well without getting wet to the skin.
Its long legs are covered with dense fur and its large feet are covered with fine hair even to the toes and the soles are densely hairy.
Polar Bears are solitary by nature, although they may gather in numbers to feed on prey. They court in the spring, but after copulation in the summer, the male takes no further part in the process. Implantation is delayed, and the female takes to a den excavated in the snow in late October. One, sometimes two, helplessly weak cubs are born in the den in December. They are blind and almost naked, but their diet of rich milk — 30% butterfat — means that by the time the mother breaks free in April, the cubs have increased from birth weight of 1.5 lbs. to 25 lbs. At this time, conveniently, Ringed Seals have given birth and are at their most abundant and most vulnerable.
The mother will take care of her cubs, teaching them to hunt, for two years before she abandons them to make her own way over the ice and seas. Starvation is the commonest cause of mortality in the first couple of years after the cubs are abandoned. Females breed only once every two years.
Polar Bear hunting was banned in Svalbard in 1973 after 100 years of intensive exploitation. The population has made a significant recovery. Some Polar Bears are killed each year in Svalbard in defense of people or property. These encounters between man and bear have increased in recent years
"The polar bear is a noble-looking animal and of enormous strength, living bravely and warm against eternal ice. He is the unrivaled master of existence of this icebound solitude." — John Muir, 1881.

You are invited to join me on Shearwater Journeys' charter expedition voyage to Svalbard's High Arctic, July 8 - 18, 2013.

Polar Bears Forever,
Debi Shearwater

Sunday, February 5, 2012


The abundant bird life of Svalbard has interested visitors to the archipelago since the islands islands were discovered in 1596. Despite its extreme northern location, Svalbard supports huge populations of birds, especially seabirds and geese. The number of breeding species is not so impressive but the numbers of individuals are impressive indeed. In general, the Arctic hosts a minor but unique component of the world's bird life. Many species are endemic to this region and possess unique ecological adaptations that allow them to survive in the High Arctic.
Most of the species in Svalbard are migratory, coming to the region to take advantage of the high productivity of the Greenland and Barents Seas during summer. Svalbard supports very large populations of seabirds, some of which represent significant proportions of the global population of individual species, and hence are of international importance.
Approximately 3 million pairs of seabirds breed in the Svalbard region. This large avian biomass plays an important role in transporting organic matter and nutrients from the sea to the land. In Svalbard, this is evident by the rich vegetation found below the seabird breeding colonies, which is grazed by reindeer, geese and ptarmigan.
The NORTHERN FULMAR, above and below, breeds in loose colonies on narrow ledges on steep, inaccessible cliffs. Some colonies are large and dense, while others are quite scattered. Breeding fulmars exhibit strong nest fidelity which is often visited outside the breeding period.
Fulmars are primarily pelagic. They are a long-lived species, reaching sexual maturity at about 10 years. Only a single egg is laid which is laid during the last half of May or early June. Incubation lasts 50 days. It is thought that more than half a million pairs breed at Svalbard.
PINK-FOOTED, BARNACLE and BRENT GEESE are all Svalbard breeders. They nest on flat tundra, rocks or offshore skerries. Eggs are laid between mid-May and mid-June. Incubation is about 24-27 days. The Svalbard population of light-bellied Brent Goose is the smallest discreet population of migratory goose in the world.
The LONG-TAILED DUCK is a small diving duck with variegated white, brown and black plumage. It breeds on the tundra, usually near freshwater ponds and lakes. Their nests are often placed in colonies of Arctic Terns which affords them some protection against predators such as Arctic Fox, Glaucous Gull and Arctic Skua.
The COMMON EIDER, below, is a large, heavily built diving duck with a large head, short neck and long, wedge-shaped bill. Males and females have very different plumage, females being very brown. Common Eiders are maritime ducks, which occur along coastlines all year-round. It nests on the ground, preferring flat areas. The nest is carefully lined with plant material and a layer of down. The Common Eider is the most numerous duck in Svalbard. The smaller, more compact KING EIDER also breeds in Svalbard, in much lower numbers.
The EURASIAN GREEN-WINGED TEAL is sometimes encountered. It is found in very small numbers and has bred on occasion in Svalbard.
The SVALBARD ROCK PTARMIGAN (Lagopus muta hyperborea) is a subspecies of Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), and it is larger and heavier than either the Rock Ptarmigan or Willow Ptarmigan on mainland Norway. The cocks return to the breeding grounds by mid-March, with hens arriving in early April. South-facing slopes where the snow melts first are the most favored habitats.
The Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan is the only species that remains on the islands throughout the year. A variety of shorebirds breed in Svalbard. The RINGED PLOVER can be found breeding on plains with sand or gravel or tundra, often near water. They are generally solitary breeders, easily disturbed. Eggs are laid at the end of June.
The EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVER, below, is infrequently observed and sometimes breeds in Svalbard.
A small population of 100-200 pairs of DUNLIN, above, breed at Svalbard.
Breeding phalaropes include both RED-NECKED and GRAY (Red) PHALAROPES, although the Red Phalarope is most often encountered. Gray Phalaropes prefer wet tundra for nesting. Eggs are normally laid about mid-June.
A typical tundra habitat, above, with mountains in the background. This is an extremely important habitat for many breeding birds, as well as for Arctic Fox.
ARCTIC SKUAS (Parasitic Jaeger) nest on the tundra in solitary pairs. Members of a pair may remain together for years. They often use the same nesting area, year after year. The nest is placed on the ground, often on a mound, allowing for a good view over their surroundings. Eggs are laid in mid-June.
GREAT SKUA is a large, heavily built skua. They usually breed close to the coast, often near a bird cliff or gull colony. It was first discovered breeding in Svalbard in 1976. Since then the population has grown. It is estimated some 300-500 pairs breed on Svalbard.
SABINE'S GULL, above, is one of the rarest breeding birds in Svalbard, but it probably breeds annually. The GLAUCOUS GULL is one of the largest breeding gulls in the Arctic. The GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL is a relatively new breeder in Svalbard, breeding for the first time at Spitsbergen in 1931. Its range has been expanding across all of the north Atlantic during the 20th century.
The BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE, above and below, is a medium sized gull that is easily recognized by its black wingtips, as if dipped in ink, and its tern-like flight. The Black-legged Kittiwake is the most numerous species of gull in the world and the most oceanic in its habits.
Kittiwakes build their nests on narrow ledges and rocky outcrops on cliffs from a few to hundreds of meters above the ground. The colonies are often situated in vertical rocky sea cliffs, where the nests can be built on very small projections or ledges. Both adults build the nest.
In Svalbard, eggs are usually laid mid-June, although some bird may arrive as early as February. About 215 colonies are known in Svalbard.
The BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE is the most common gull on Svalbard. The breeding population is estimated to be 270,000 pairs. The European breeding population is estimated to be 1.2 million pairs and is considered to be stable.
Kittiwakes feed mainly on invertebrates and small fish up to 15-20 cm long. In Svalbard, capelin, polar cod, amphipods and euphausiids are important components of their diet.
In Svalbard, the kittiwake can be observed in all coastal waters as well as at sea, even in ice-filled waters.
The IVORY GULL is a High Arctic species that frequents ice-filled waters throughout the year. The first Ivory Gulls are usually observed around the settlements by mid-March. The birds disperse to breeding areas in May. Ivory Gulls often scavenge the remains of marine mammals killed by Polar Bears. The Ivory Gull is a rare and poorly known species. A bit of luck is needed to encounter this lovely gull. Even more luck is needed to encounter the much rarer, Ross's Gull. Ivory Gull image, below, copyright Morten Jorgensen.
ARCTIC TERNS usually arrive at their nesting grounds when snow is still on the ground, and wait for the snow to melt before laying their eggs. They nest on beaches and on the tundra near the sea. Predators entering a colony are fearlessly attacked.
Many Arctic Terns spend the winter in the pack ice of the Antarctic Ocean. It has the longest migration of any bird species, after the Sooty Shearwater.
A vertical seabird breeding cliff, below.
COMMON GUILLEMOTS (Common Murre) nest exclusively on steep cliffs, inaccessible islands or on narrow ledges and stone pillars at sea.
The COMMON GUILLEMOT is one of the most abundant seabirds in temperate and sub-Arctic areas of the northern hemisphere. Between late March and early May, they return to their breeding colonies.
On the narrowest ledges, it often occurs with Brunnich's Guillemot (Thick-billed Murre). No nest is made. Only one egg is laid. It is pear-shaped to prevent it from rolling off the ledge. If auks are disturbed by a predator, all of the birds will take flight, abandoning their eggs. This is known as a "dread flight" and many eggs or young can be lost due to this type of disturbance.
The breeding population at Bjornoya (Bear Island) was estimated to be 245,000 pairs prior to a decline in 1987. On Svalbard, only about 100-200 pairs breed.
COMMON GUILLEMOT, above and below, bridled morph.
RAZORBILL, below, is rarely observed in Svalbard, although small numbers breed on Bear Island.
BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT (Thick-billed Murre) is a stout, sturdily built auk that is slightly smaller than the Common Guillemot. In summer, the bill is gray-black with a white or blue-white line along the sides of the upper mandible. It is one of the most numerous seabirds in the northern hemisphere. The total breeding population on Svalbard is estimated to be 850,000 pairs.
The breeding biology of the Brunnich's Guillemot is similar to the Common Guillemot. They arrive at their nesting ledges in April to May. Often the ledges are still covered in snow. Egg-laying usually starts toward the end of May or early June. Females lay all eggs at the same time so that the timing of hatching and jumping off the ledges is highly synchronized. Incubation lasts for 32 days. The young jump off the nesting ledges when they are about 21 days old, usually at night, and all together. They are not fully fledged at this age, and follow their fathers for several weeks on a swimming migration to their wintering seas. Fathers molt during this period and are flightless.
The BLACK GUILLEMOT, below, is more tightly associated with inshore waters during the breeding season than any other auk. It finds most of its food in shallow waters less than 30 m deep. This species is the least sociable of the auks, and mainly nests as solitary pairs or in small colonies.
In Svalbard, the ATLANTIC PUFFIN breeds on Bjornoya and along the western coast of Spitsbergen, especially the northern part. After the Razorbill, which only nests in low numbers on Bjornoya and some few colonies on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the Atlantic Puffin is the least numerous of Svalbard's alcids.
The LITTLE AUK (Dovekie), below, is the most numerous seabird species in Svalbard. It is the smallest of the European auks. In flight, Little Auks appear swift, whirring and unstable. They are often observed flying in flocks. The most common call at the nesting site is a loud warble that continues into a shrill chattering sound, "kree ak ak ak ak." In the colonies, these sounds merge into a roaring choir that can be heard at long distances. Little Auks breed in scree and rock crevices. The largest colonies on Spitsbergen are typically located on mountain slopes covered by screes formed through frost erosion. More than one million breeding pairs are thought to occur at Svalbard.
NORTHERN WHEATEAR, below, has bred on occasion on Svalbard.
REDWING, below, has also bred on occasion.
The SNOW BUNTING, below, is the most northerly passerine in the world. It is the only passerine with a wide breeding distribution in Svalbard. Snow Buntings breed over most of the archipelago, except for some far eastern areas. Most males arrive in April. They inhabit both coastal and inland areas.
This is a brief overview of the some of the High Arctic birds of Svalbard that may be encountered on a voyage around the archipelago. Although it is a barren and inhospitable region for most of the year, summer months with unending daylight, come alive with the sounds and sights of thousands upon thousands of breeding birds. Welcome to the High Arctic summer!
All images, copyright Debi Shearwater and Don Doolittle, except as noted. Please do not use without permission.

Debi Shearwater
Shearwater Journeys
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