Not your average Christmas reindeer

Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) are endemic to Svalbard and are the smallest subspecies of reindeer – about half the weight of other reindeers. They sure do look small with their short legs and pot bellies.

You polar bear? No? That’s all right then. (Svalbard reindeer; photo by Bruce Moore)

We saw several small family groups feeding on the short vegetation in the tundra (actually, there’s no other sort). The closer ones weren’t at all afraid and, after looking at us, put their heads down to feed again. They must eat as much as possible during the short summer, stockpiling fat to see them through the winter. Their strong hooves scrape snow off buried vegetation, but if ice forms over it they can find it difficult to break through. Starvation is the main threat since polar bears prefer to eat ringed seals, but since polar bears eat pretty much what they can catch, eating of reindeer is known to happen.

The reindeers feed on all types of vegetation, generally in small herds

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Back in the day, they, like so many other animals, were overhunted and practically extinct by 1925, but with protection numbers have increased. The current total population size is not known, but estimated by the Norwegian Polar Institute to be 400-1,200 over  the period 1979 to 2013 in the valley that runs past Longyearbyen, the main city. (To clarify, this means annual surveys were done and the numbers found varied year by year, the minimum being 400 and the maximum 1,200. There will be many more in the whole archipelago. The archipelago is difficult to survey and the Russian areas aren’t always surveyed either. Breeding depends on the harshness or otherwise of the seasons, which vary hugely in the Arctic year by year.) A small number are still shot (with permits) each year, providing some Longyearbyen restaurants with game and some hunters with income.

Bones take a long time to break down in the Arctic cold

My foot gives scale

Expected lifespan is about 10 years. Males grow their antlers from April to July (Northern Hemisphere spring and summer), losing them at the beginning of winter after the mating season. But females grow their antlers beginning in June and keep them for a year, including over the winter.  So the Santa’s reindeers have got to be females. Hey Rudolph, is some re-naming required?

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The world’s northernmost museum

I’ve mentioned before that I’m fond of museums. Having worked in a museum early in my career (a natural history one), and now volunteering in one (a historical one), I know how much effort goes into them. I couldn’t resist going to the one in Svalbard. There’s a mining museum in Ny-Ålesund, which strictly speaking takes the title of world’s northernmost museum (at 78.92 degrees latitude), but Svalbard’s is the northernmost general museum (in Longyearbyen, 78.22 degrees latitude).

It’s modern style and well set-out, and looks like it’s had lots of money thrown at it. It covers natural history, mining history, and sealing/whaling history. That last is the main reason people first came to Svalbard after it was discovered in 1596 by the Dutch explorer William Barentz – there’s no sign of indigenous people there. Archaeology in Svalbard consists mainly of hunters’ huts and coal mining machinery. The coal mines are being phased out, with only one mine working at the moment. There’s even a failed marble quarry. Here’s an article on industrial archaeology in the polar regions if you want to get into the nitty-gritty.


I was pleased to see exhibits on underwater life in addition to the larger, more well-known animals. In summer, upwelling currents bring tonnes of phytoplankton and zooplankton to the upper levels of the sea, creating a bonanza of food for animals who must stuff themselves silly to either survive the winter on site or migrate south. I was hoping to get a book on underwater life in the fjords, but had to wait until the Bergen aquarium to find one in English. There is a lot more life on the cold sea bottom that I imagined.

Translation: hard bottom fauna

Translation: pair of ice amphipods

I like these 18th century illustrations.

Coal mining was extremely hard work, horizontally in narrow channels carved by the miners themselves. Miners had to climb up the steep mountain slopes to enter the mine, then work long hours in poor conditions.

Artwork tribute to miners on the main street of Longyearbyen

‘Sykehus’ (sign on the left of the statue) means ‘hospital’

There’s only one working mine now, and the old mines have been left as they are. They’ll probably be preserved indefinitely in the cold climate where things take a long time to rot down (if they ever do). Imagine walking up to this one every day for long hours of back-breaking labour in all seasons (including -40 degrees C and blizzards).

Bronze tribute to miners in the main street of Longyearbyen



Modern coalmining here is now much safer and better paid – see this article (note that it is a 2007  article, but gives an idea of modern conditions).

The photo below shows a disused mine and the graveyard below it. The white crosses mark the graves, including those of several miners (numbers vary depending on which website but seven seems to be in the majority) who died in the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. The graveyard stopped being used in the 1950s. Bodies don’t tend to stay buried in the ground (buildings also rise up, due to the melting and re-freezing of the permafrost, unless they have special footings), and don’t decompose due to the extremely cold temperatures. In 1998, researchers exhumed some corpses to see if there was any Spanish flu virus still alive. I haven’t been able to find anything definitive on whether they found the virus. One website says traces of the virus were found in one body. Another says only skeletons were found (despite many websites saying bodies froze in the permafrost and so would be preserved). Dead bodies, and dying people, are now flown to the mainland for burial there. There’s been talk of moving the cemetery due to avalanche risk.

Old mine and graveyard

This website says:

… after exhuming six of the seven bodies in Longyearbyen cemetery, Canadian medical archaeologists extracted their lung, liver, kidney, and brain tissue using a boring device for taking tree core samples. The genetic material of the 1918 flu, researchers found, was still there — bits of ribonucleic acid (RNA) fragmented in the bodies. Back in the laboratory, researchers cultured the bacteria clinging to lung tissue; still alive, they grew hardily when placed in nutrient broth and heated to body temperature.

So I’m a tad confused about what actually happened.

Alcohol restrictions are in force in Longyearbyen, as a left-over from the old mining days when there wasn’t much to do except drink, leading to fighting. Our German guide said much the same about winter and whiskey (he didn’t mention fighting, though). Residents are limited to a quota of either 24 beers or two litres of hard liquor a month, but wine purchase is unrestricted. There aren’t any taxes on alcohol, so it is quite cheap (especially compared to mainland Norway where I paid A$16 for a schooner of beer, normally A$5 at my local pub).

Our guide’s alcohol card


Any human artefacts (including what seems to be junk) from 1946 and before are designated cultural heritage sites and must not be disturbed. So intriguing old huts like these are definitely off limits. Look from afar but don’t touch.

It’s a shame that ugly old machinery spoils the illusion of a pristine wilderness, but removing it is probably in the ‘too hard basket’.

Industrial archaeology

I suppose one could consider it an ‘open-air museum’. There are no curators here, though.

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Arctic trip – beluga whales

I’d seen a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) only once before, and that was in the Atlanta aquarium in the United States. In the wild it’s a more holistic experience, although it’s impossible to see the whole of the animals unless they’re beached – you’re getting a sense of how they live and behave in the environment they are adapted to.

The whole group went on a zodiac cruise to see what was out there, and we were fortunate to come across four or five belugas in a pod.

The younger ones are grey, whitening with age to very white at adulthood (7-9 years old). They are not that big – like a large dolphin. The white colouration camouflages them against orcas, polar bears and people, which are the three main predators.

They are toothed whales and dive to about 20 m, although have been recorded much deeper, looking for fish, shrimp, squid, octopus, crabs, clams and suchlike.

Beluga whales, Svalbard; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

There is no dorsal fin. (Having one would be awkward when they bump up against the underside of ice.) The ‘melon’ (of fatty tissue) on the head helps with echolocation and communication, and is unusual in that it changes shape while the animal makes sounds.

Beluga whale at the Atlanta aquarium. Photo by Greg Hume, Wikimedia Commons

They shed their skin every year, in spring, rubbing themselves against gravel on the shallow bottoms of estuaries to help remove it.

I was keen to see a unicorn (yes, they do exist), but apparently narwhals are very shy of ships, so unusual to see.

Narwhal pod (Monodon monoceros); photo by Dr Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER_NOAA, Wikimedia Commons

It’s common for narwhals and belugas to hang out together, and hybrids have been seen, called, ugh, ‘narlugas’. Is ‘bewhals’ better? You be the judge.

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Arctic trip – a blue whale

It all started in the wee small hours – I won’t say ‘sunrise’ as there hadn’t been one for weeks – but Janet (my room-mate) was having a shower and I was snoozing in the bottom bunk, contemplating getting up.

A hushed whisper came over the tannoy – Dick, one of the naturalists, apologising for waking us but, if anyone was interested, THERE WAS A BLUE WHALE ON THE STARBOARD BOW! He had maintained the whisper, but my brain turned it into a shout – I leapt up, got dressed for zero degrees in record time and dashed to top deck (thus assuring my cardio exercise for the year).

One of our Gardening Australia group, Anne, had spotted it, and it was thrilling to see – the largest animal known to have lived, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). It quietly meandered near the boat for quite a while, and Bruce again took much better shots that I did.

I’m used to seeing lots of humpies (Megaptera novaeangliae) along the east coast of Australia, and they often breach. Blue whales also do, but this one was not so energetic.

Blue whale off Spitsbergen; photo by Bruce Moore

The blue whale is a baleen whale, sieving up to 6 tonnes of krill and copepods a day from the summer waters, and summer in the Arctic provides lots of prey through upwelling of currents.

Blue whale_2_Bruce

Photo by Bruce Moore

Blue whale_3_Bruce

Photo by Bruce Moore

Like other whales, blues were heavily hunted, almost to extinction, and the numbers haven’t increased much since then. They are estimated to live to 80-90 years of age. Females don’t start reproducing until 10-15 years old and give birth to a single calf every two or three years, so the rate of increase is slow. They are protected from hunting these days (world population estimate is 10,000), but orcas occasionally kill them and the most disturbing death rates (for all whales) are those from ship strike and plastic ingestion.

Blue whale_4_Bruce.jpg

Photo by Bruce Moore

Blue whale_5_Bruce.jpg

Photo by Bruce Moore

Here’s a handy guide for identifying levitating whales:

Whale poster.JPGBut you are more likely to see this in the distance, if the whale is even on the surface:Blue whale_6_Bruce.jpg

On one of our land excursions, we came across two vertebrae of (probably) an old kill by humans. Things take ages to break down in the Arctic due to the extreme cold and fewer breakdown bacteria.

Whale vertebrae.JPGIt was another of those ‘gosh, wow’ days in Svalbard.

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Walruses suck!

They really do! Let me explain.

I’d only seen walruses (Odobenus rosmarus, ‘odobenus’ from the Greek meaning ‘tooth-walker’; they sometimes haul themselves out of the water using their tusks) in TV documentaries, a la David Attenborough. I think Taronga Zoo in Sydney has at least one, but seeing such animals in the wild is a very, very different experience and much to be preferred if you can.

Walruses, like the polar bear, seem adorable, but this is a slightly condescending attitude we may have only if we are temporary visitors, far removed from the realities of living with them, unlike the Inuit who have relied on the North American population for food, knives and other tools, and weapons, for generations. Like with the Inuit, respect is paramount, along with the recognition that these are wild, and so potentially dangerous, animals. There are no native peoples in Svalbard, but walruses’ tough skin and ivory were sought after by Europeans there until protection in 1952. Numbers are increasing, from pretty much nothing to about 2,000 now.

Walrus haul-out, Svalbard

We saw the steam coming off the walruses before we saw the colony.


In the zodiac we sneaked up very quietly, turning off the engine and paddling the past few dozens of metres so as not to disturb them, and kept more than the minimum 30 m away. The guide asked us to speak in whispers if at all. Of course, the enormous beasts saw us and a few swam out to investigate, coming right up to the zodiacs in some cases.

They are very social and like to touch each other (thigmotactic).

Photo by Bruce Moore
Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

The red colouration is due to the expansion of capillaries on the skin, helping the walrus lose heat.

The tusks can grow up to 1 m, but can get broken off in male-male breeding battles. Females have tusks, too.

Long walrus tusks in the Oslo Natural History Museum

According to National Geographic:

Walruses use their iconic long tusks for a variety of reasons, each of which makes their lives in the Arctic a bit easier. They use them to haul their enormous bodies out of frigid waters, thus their “tooth-walking” label, and to break breathing holes into ice from below. Their tusks, which are found on both males and females, can extend to about three feet, and are, in fact, large canine teeth, which grow throughout their lives. Male walruses, or bulls, also employ their tusks aggressively to maintain territory and, during mating season, to protect their harems of females, or cows.

Walruses apparently don’t see terribly well (it wouldn’t make sense to rely on eyesight in any season except summer, and don’t need it when feeding), but can smell – to detect the approach of predators (like polar bears) and identify their young – and hear extremely well (noises up to a mile or 1.6 km away). The whiskers (vibrissae, which can grow up to a foot or 30 cm long but mostly break off in contact with the sea bottom) are very sensitive. Walruses mostly eat clams buried in mud, but also take worms, crabs and sea cucumbers on the sea floor, diving down to 10-50 metres, and have been seen to eat ducks and seals!

Now the sucky bit. They rummage around on the sea floor, using their flippers and squirting water out to clear the clams of mud. Then they literally suck the soft parts right out of their shells, leaving the empty shells behind. A 2003 paper, ‘Feeding behaviour of free-ranging walruses with notes on apparent dextrality of flipper use’, goes into quite a bit of detail, concluding, among other things, that walruses are mainly, err, right-flippered.

Walruses mouths create massive suction. Photo by Bruce Moore

The paper says:

Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) are highly specialised benthic feeders feeding almost exclusively on bivalves, making them an important component of the benthic ecosystem. It is mainly the soft parts of the bivalves that are found in walrus stomachs, with pieces of shells seen only rarely. Almost 6400 bivalve siphons have been reported in a single walrus stomach …

The walruses showed four different foraging behaviours; removing sediment by beating the right flipper, removing sediment by beating the left flipper, removing sediment by use of a water-jet from the mouth and rooting through sediment with the muzzle. There was a significant preference for using right flipper over left flipper during foraging.

I rather liked this 1962 nature journal detailing an expedition to one of the Svalbard fjords.

The whole skeleton gives you an idea of the size.

Walrus illustration, Longyearbyen Museum

It was yet another awesome encounter in Svalbard.

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Polar paws

There are two types of polar paws on Svalbard: those of the arctic fox and the polar bear.

I find bears interesting, possibly because we don’t have any in Australia (no, a koala is not a bear),  so I can’t get up close and personal with one to see it where it lives. Not that that’s advisable – years ago I was visiting the fabulous Yosemite National Park in the United States with an American friend, and naively expressed a wish to see a bear (along with other non-Australian animals, like deer, squirrels, beavers …).  She said, “No, you really don’t!” and proceeded to tell me why (the most compelling reason being that we didn’t want to be bear lunch and that was a distinct possibility if we saw one – or it saw us).

Eight species of bear are recognised: Asiatic bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), brown (aka grizzly) bear (Ursus arctos) and polar bear (Ursus maritimus). There’s also a grizzly/polar bear hybrid, but it’s not counted as a separate species.

I’d seen a few bears in zoos (sun, grizzly, polar), but it’s far better to see them in the wild (safely, for both bears and humans) as an animal cannot really be understood when it’s separated from its native landscape. When I at last saw a real, live polar bear in its homeland of the Arctic, this was forcefully impressed on me. Despite the harshness of its Arctic lifestyle, the polar bear looked so comfortable, so right in its place, limber and full of grace and power. This young female bear was doing what all bears do – wandering the sea ice in search of live seals, or, on land, washed-up whale coprses on the shore. (When our chance encounter with a polar bear happened, my camera decided to spit the dummy, but Bruce Moore has kindly allowed me to show his photos.)

Polar bears endlessly patrol the ice in search of food, even in the harsh conditions of very sub-zero temperatures, winter storms and 24-hour darkness.

Although they are excellent swimmers. they keep out of the water when they can, to avoid getting too cold.

Even in the harshest of winter storms, only the females with cubs will be comfy in a deep den – the others have to dig a spot to lie in and settle down to let storms rage over them, and they have to roam to find food whatever the weather. They need about one ringed seal a week to keep in condition. Mothers with cubs hibernate through winter and use their own body fat reserves so they don’t have to hunt through the four or five months of harshest part of the year. They are very hungry when they come out of the den.

Intelligent, aware and adapted to its environment …

Polar bears are actually classified as marine mammals, because they spend most of their lives in (they are very good swimmers) or on water (in its ice form).

After she missed catching the seal, she turned her attention to the big ship nearby.

Cold is not really a problem for them as they have a thick layer of blubber and black skin that absorbs the sun’s warmth. The fur, too, is specialised – it’s actually transparent so that sunlight can penetrate to the skin for warmth, and had two layers so that air is trapped for insulation. It looks white (actually a cream colour), the perfect camouflage, because of the way light is reflected off it.

Polar bears have an excellent sense of smell – they can detect prey up to a kilometre away. They can also detect a seal in the water beneath a metre of ice and compacted snow. They have a kind of home territory but don’t defend it as such – the timing and place of appearance of food is so variable that there’s no point. They mostly wander on their own but can be more sociable when there’s plenty of food about.

“Our” bear saw a seal in the distance resting on a floe, and sneaked her way via ice and water so very, very close. At the last minute she charged, but the seal was faster and dived into the water. Polar bears are good learners, so she would have stored that experience away for next time. After she got out of the water, she spent several minutes rolling on the ice to dry off her fur, so that she wouldn’t get too cold (air between the hairs is a much better insulator than water). Cuteness overload ensued!

After hanging around the ship for about half an hour, she finally decided she was on a hiding to nothing, so strolled off. It was such a privilege to have that encounter.

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Koala aloha

The local male koala has been creating quite a din over the last few nights, and we finally got a shot of him at twilight, high up a gum tree.

You can hear a recording of the call here. It’s quite disturbing if you don’t know what it is. He’s calling for a female and to tell other males this is his territory. I’ve heard reply calls in the distance.

He looks cute and cuddly until you notice the claws. They need to be sharp for shimmying up trees. Friends who are koala rescuers have particular techniques for picking a koala up and avoiding the claws and teeth – from behind in such a way that the claws and teeth can’t reach you.

Neighbours have been hearing other males about the place, and it’s good to know there’s a healthy population at least where we live. Other places are not so lucky.

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