Tramping around Tromsø (part 2)

Our second tour for the day was hosted by Jørgen, a local guide, who took us on a walking tour. Luckily, Tromsø is fairly small (population 75,000, mostly made up of people in their 20s and 30s) and the historic part of the city is easily accessible by foot from the waterfront where we were staying. In pre-covid times, the city could get two giant cruise ships a day in summer, with up to 4,000 passengers each, so it got overwhelmed at times, with many buses clogging the streets and parking difficult at popular tourist sights. I described the crowded circumstances in Tromsø in an email to Andrew, who responded that I was ‘scavenging for food in the northern wastes, in a city overrun by short-stay raiders from a never-ending stream of longships’. Karma, eh, Vikings?

Jørgen ran through some historical and current facts about the town, including that Tromsø folks speak a slightly different dialect to the standard Oslo dialect (bokmål), and apparently northern Norwegians are seen a bit as ‘country hicks’ by southerners. Housing there is the most expensive in Norway except for a few Oslo suburbs (I wonder if Longyearbyen was included in this survey, as building there is so restricted due to permafrost issues and avalanche danger).

We started off at the statue of Roald Amundsen, perhaps the greatest polar explorer and a celebrated hero in the city although he was not born in Tromsø, but lived his later years there.

Walking us through the old town (the multistorey wooden barns of the old commerce days), Jørgen took us to the Polar Museum (Polarmuseet), dedicated to the whaling, sealing and trapping days. I loved the colours and shapes of the old wooden buildings. Luckily there are no termites in Norway.

Like many museums in Norway, it was small but densely packed with exhibits and information. The labels are in Norwegian and English.

Trapping life was hard, especially in the winter months of all-day darkness and extreme cold and storms. Trappers caught whatever they could eat and/or sell for meat or fur – reindeer, arctic foxes, polar bears, walruses, birds and seals.

It was not easy killing such large and dangerous animals as polar bears and walruses. To make it easier, a self-firing trap was used on polar bears. The bait was a piece of blubber and when the bear stuck its head inside to get it, it shot itself with the sawn-off shotgun or rifle inside. Arctic foxes were crushed to death by stones placed on top of trapdoors which the fox entered from underneath. There was no room for sentimentality in that life.

Seals were often caught by harpoon and kayak, like the one below.

Whaling ships had medicine chests like the one below.

Below is a journal from a 1962 expedition – not so historical but a delightful artefact nonetheless.

Leaving Polarmuseet, we walked past the oldest house in Tromsø, built as a customs house in 1789.

Next we were herded onto a large bus (which seemed a bit of overkill for the 14 of us) and driven over the bridge to the mainland (Tromsø is partly on an island, partly on the adjacent shore) to the Arctic ‘cathedral’, a rather modern piece of architecture (built in 1965) which our guide was at pains to point out is not officially a cathedral but merely the parish church. The traffic was ridiculously busy and we were lucky to find a park, but I guess tourist bus drivers are used to that in high season. I rather felt like a sheep being herded around.

The ‘cathedral’ stands out from afar.

I was glad to get off the bus and back to the hotel and, after a breather, Janet, Bruce and I decided we had enough energy to walk to Polaria, a polar-themed aquarium a couple of kilometres from the hotel. I always like to catch up with museums and aquariums wherever I go, having started my career in the South Australian Museum (the marine invertebrates section, then ichthyology) and now volunteering in the local historical society one. I was impressed with the exhibits at Polaria – live local fish and bearded seals, and a cinema showing films on the polar regions. Fishing is a huge industry in Norway, including (fewer and fewer) whales. The entrance had a whale sculpture of recycyled materials.

I appreciated that some of the information was a bit more technical than the usual dumbed-down stuff. I find I always want more than is provided for the kiddies or the general public, like this piece on how bearded seals feed.

And who can resist a bit of retail therapy in the aquarium shop? (Don’t worry, I only bought a book on marine invertebrates in the fjords. I managed to find one in English.)

On the way back to the hotel, we even managed to get in a bit of urban bird-watching: a (I think) western jackdaw (Coloeus monedula) …

… and a gull chick of some description.

Then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before travelling onwards to Bergen the next day.

A song of ice and flowers

(Despite the title of this piece, which seemed appropriate, I’ve not watched ‘Game of Thrones’ – I avoid violent TV, books and films. Andrew likes to point out that I enjoy ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Xena Warrior Princess’, which are both pretty violent but, hey, nobody’s perfect).

As we know, plants need air, light, warmth, water and nutrients to survive and reproduce. So what happens in a place where there are three months a year of total darkness, the ground is either frozen or covered with ice and snow, and the average winter temperature is −20ºC (−6ºF) (coldest recorded is −49.2°C (−56.6°F)), sometimes with massive snowstorms and gale force winds? Where snow blocks out most light, glaciers have either scraped surfaces clean or dumped poor soil that took thousands of years to arrive where plants could use it, and the soil is frozen most of the year anyway?

What’s a plant to do? Answer: Give up and die, or adapt and wait for the growing season, then go full steam ahead into growth and reproduction mode.

There are no tall trees in Svalbard and the plants that are there hug the ground, barely rising above the top of one’s toe in a walking boot. There are two willow species, which we might normally think of as big trees, but the polar and snow willows (Salix species; photos below) are only a few centimetres high although they may be a couple of hundred years old.

The permafrost thaws 50-150 cm each summer, providing a shallow region for root growth, before freezing again. The cold, lack of light and poor soil make everything grow very slowly. In summer when the snows and glaciers melt, average temperatures get up to 7°C with 24-hour sunlight. The highest temperature ever recorded was 21.3°C (70.3°F), coldest recorded was −49.2°C (−56.6°F) so there is quite a range for a plant to cope with. When I was there (June/July), the temperature was pretty much 2°C all day and night. Then the reindeer browse, trying to fatten themselves up to feed their young (if they are lactating females) and for the winter where they survive by pawing snow and ice off the underlying plants. Hundreds of geese also browse on the plants and feed their young up for the long flights south as winter approaches.

On the western side of the archipelago, the warm water current allows the climate to be less severe (sub-polar). The northern part is an Arctic desert ecoregion.

Figures vary, but according to the Norwegian Polar Institute:

As of 2015, about 178 vascular plants, 380-390 moss species, 708 lichen species and more than 750 species of fungi have been documented in Svalbard.

… Tussocks and mat-forming growth forms, hairs, umbrella-shaped flowers, elastic roots, clonal dispersal (by which the plant produces stolons or rhizomes from which genetically identical new plants develop) and nodes are commonly observed and are adaptations to an Arctic life. Most species are also perennial. This is because Arctic plants grow very slowly, and one season is often not sufficient to accumulate resources for flowering and seed production. 

We even saw a cyanobacterium and algae (see photos below). Under the scree slopes where some bird species nest in colonies of thousands, and so lots of guano has been dropped, the vegetation is quite green and lush. The flowers were a very pretty sight against the background of stones and brown soil.

On our daily trips to land, we were divided into groups with a guide (with polar-bear-scaring rifle) each. There was initially a photographers’ group, a ‘fast walkers’ group and a group for everyone else. This last group went too fast to really get a good look at plants, and we weren’t allowed to dawdle for fear of bears, so I had a quiet word with one of the guides … Jerry Coleby-Williams … TV personality … well-known in Australia … our group interested in plants so couldn’t keep up with the others …. I might have beefed it up a bit but it had the desired effect. Next day, a special ‘plant group’ was announced, and we were given our very own guide-with-rifle. Luckily, the excellent ship’s library stretched to plants, and one of the guides had a botanical field guide, so we were set.

I will briefly mention fungi, which strictly are not plants, but which everywhere support the life of plants underground. We didn’t see any mushrooms as such, but there are quite a number (click here for some photos):

A large number of mushroom species grow in Svalbard. Most are small, some are poisonous, while others are edible and tasty. Fungi have most of their biomass under ground, invisible for man, and only produce small fruiting bodies aboveground in autumn, in order to reproduce. Their activity makes nutrients available for plant roots. The vegetation in Svalbard would be really scarce without fungi and their ability to mediate nutrition to the plants. Fungi are also an important food item for reindeer and various invertebrates.

Below are Jerry’s photos and IDs for what we saw. Thanks to Jerry for permission to use his photos. Thanks also to Bruce Moore for his photo of Jerry botanising.

Jerry botanising; photo by Bruce Moore


Joy and Ann botanising in Longyearbyen town, Spitsbergen

Alpine bistort, Persicaria vivipara, syn. Polygonum, Bistorta (Polygonaceae)

Alpine draba, Draba alpina

Alpine saxifrage, Micranthes nivalis

Arctic chickweed, Stellaria humifusa

Arctic chickweed, Stellaria humifusa

Arctic cotton grass, Eriophorum scheuzeri subsp. arcticum (in Longyearbyen town)

Arctic woodrush, Luzula nivea

Arctic woodrush, Luzula nivea


Black fleabane, Erigeron humilis

Cardamine pratensis subsp. angustifolia

Carex maritima

Cassiope tetragona

Common moss, Funaria hygrometrica

Cotton grass, Eriophorum scheuchzeri subsp. arcticum

Desiccated Arctic liverwort, Marchantiaceae, in Lilliehookbreen

Draba alpina

Draba glabella (some Arctic mouse ear)

Draba lactea (centre) – polar field horsetail, Equisetum arvense subsp. boreale

Draba oxycarpa

Draba pauciflora

Edible dulce, Palmaria palmata


Fir clubmoss, Huperzia selago

Fir clubmoss, Huperzia selago

Flattened acid kelp, Desmarestia ligulata

Foam lichen, Stereocaulon sp., Saxifraga caespitosa, moss

Foam lichen, Stereocaulon sp.

Fringed sandwort, Arenaria pseudofrigida

Glacial sedge, Carex glacialis

Glacial sedge, Carex glacialis

Greenland scurvy grass, Cochlearia groenlandica

Greenland scury-grass, Cochlearia groenlandica

Hairy lousewort, Pedicularis hirsuta

Koenigia islandica, Polygonaceae, germinating in moss

Koenigia islandica

Lapland willow grass, Draba lactea with common whitlow grass, D. alpina

Longstalk starwort, Stellaria longipes

Longstalk starwort, Stellaria longipes

Map lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum

Marine red alga, seaweed, Phycodrys rubens

Micranthes tenuis

Moss campion, Silene acaulis

Mosses with hair cap moss, Polytrichum commune (largest)

Mountain avens, Dryas octopetala

Mountain sorrel, Oxyria digyna

Northern golden saxifrage, Chrysosplenium tetrandrum

Nostoc (a cyanobacterium)

Oarweed, Laminaria digitata

Pale whitlow grass, Draba oxycarpa

Pedicularis dasyantha

Pixie cups lichen, Cladonia asahinae – Arctic through Americas to Antarctic

Polar field horsetail, Equisetum arvense subsp. boreale

Polar foxtail grass, Alopecurus ovatus, in Kongsfjordan

Polar willow, Salix polaris, in Lilliehookbreen

Polar willow, Salix polaris

Proto insectivorous – Stylidium debile

Pygmy buttercup, Ranunculus pygmaeus


Ranunculus pygmaeus

Rockweed alga, Fucus distichus

Rock tripe, Umbilicaria sp.

Ribbon kelp, Alaria marginata

Reindeer lichen, Cladonia rangifera

Rockweed algae, Fucus distichus

Saxifraga caespitosa

Sphagnum arcticum

Snow willow, Salix reticulata

Silene acaulis with rust





Short-leaved sedge, Carex fuliginosa subsp. misandra

Saxifraga with rust


Woolly lousewort, Pedicularis dasyantha

Witch’s hair alga

Svalbard poppy, Papaver dahlianum

Sunburst lichen, Xanthoria sp.

Sulphur buttercup, Ranunculus sulphureus

Parallel sedge, Carex parallella


The sound of breath freezing

The sound of breath freezing is very much outside my experience. I’ve lived most of my life on the driest continent on Earth and some parts of it are very hot, so the concept intrigues me.  I first read about it in one of the many books I’ve been devouring on the polar regions. For the breath to freeze, the air temperature has to be much lower than I’ve experienced (which was pretty much 2ºC all day and ‘night’ in the 24-hour-light Arctic summer, and minus a couple of degrees in rare frosts at home). The lowest temperature recorded in Australia (not counting our bit of Antarctica) was -23C (-9.4F) in the Snowy Mountains in 1974.

Apparently the indigenous people of Eastern Siberia have the lovely phrase, ‘the whisper of the stars‘.

When the temperature drops below the mid-minus 50s Celsius, a soft whooshing sound can sometimes be heard, like rice or grain being poured. This noise is caused by the moisture in one’s own exhaled breath turning to ice crystals in the cold dry air.

The Weather Doctor, reporting on temperatures of -64C (-83F) in Canada, gives another description:

The freezing of one’s breath produced a continuous hissing sound similar to dry blowing snow, and a tinkle when the ice crystals hit the ground.

I cannot imagine what -50C would be like, let alone -64C, but there are plenty of people who choose to live in that world.

Ice cliff at the edge of a glacier, Svalbard. It will calve off one day with an almighty boom and wave.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Seeing so much ice and so many glaciers in Svalbard was hard to get my head around – I kept pinching myself to confirm I wasn’t dreaming. Sipping drinks in the comfortable bar of the ship, I could hear the popping of the ice cubes in the drink, taken from small floating chunks of ice  – that released air was very likely to be thousands of years old.

Of course, looking at photos is nothing like actually being there – you’re missing on out on the feel of very cold air in your nose and on your skin, the sounds (the screaming birds, the gentle hum and vibration of the ship and the waves lapping against the bow if we were moving, and the marvellous, deep silence underneath all that), movement, peripheral sights, smells (oh, how clean that air smelt!) – but the beauty cried out to be captured.

Before the trip, I thought of glaciers as pristine, white and glowing, but the reality can be very different.

The different colours indicate the contents of the ice. The brown is dirt that has been transported down with the glacier, scraped off the rock it has scoured over thousands of years. Clear ice has been compressed over thousand of years, squeezing out any air bubbles that would reflect light. White ice is the result of a top layer of snow, reflecting all colours of light so that we see white. Different shades of blue show the amount of impurities inside. Green indicates algal growth.

Close-up of Svalberg iceberg; photo by MG

As the ice melts, unique artistic forms emerge.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

There’s a bunch of descriptive words in English for different forms of ice. Here’s how Jill Fredston puts it in her book Rowing to Latitude: Journeys along the Arctic’s Edge:

Saltwater begins to freeze at just over 28ºF [-2ºC]. It progresses from a stew of individual crystals to thicker slush, to a bendable layer that, when it thickens and whitens, is called first-year ice. Any ice that survives a summer of melt, in the process becoming bluer, denser, and less salty, is known as multiyear ice. Typically, this ice thickens to ten or twelve feet. More generally, any sea ice not fixed to the land is termed pack ice.  … Pieces of pack ice, called pans or floes, move in response to wind … In contrast, glacier icebergs … are driven primarily by current.

Bergy bits are floaters smaller than icebergs, and growlers are smaller than bergy bits. The terms go on and on.

Brash ice (small pieces broken down from larger chunks) on the left. Note the clean cut-off line on the right, probably because the sea temperature is higher there.

The various forms of sea ice are important for a number of animals. Seals haul out on it to rest and warm up between feeds, and polar bears rely on them (mainly ringed seals) for food. After hibernation in winter, bear continually roam the ice in search of whatever they can find – whale carcasses, sea birds, seals hauling out, people …

The questing bear is the cream bit in the middle.

This bear went after a bearded seal, but ringed seals are much easier to catch.

Bearded seal hauled out on ice

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

I’ve been reading up on ice, the properties of ice, its nature and its relationship to living things. It’s been studied extensively for several hundred years by both explorers or scientists, as well as thousands of years by indigenous people who must know it intimately to survive. I won’t bore you with stuff you can easily look up but I’ve been struck by one thing (well, many things, but this intrigued me).

It was once thought that not much lived under the ice (except fish and the things that ate them and that they ate), but that turns out to be very wrong. As divers and ROVs go down, they are finding more and more strange and wonderful creatures, such as shown here in Antarctica.

Not only do algae live on the undersurface of ice, but also small patches of bottom life. Barry Lopez tells how this can happen in his wonderful sequel to his wonderful Arctic Dreams,  called Horizon:

… in some spots a weak bottom current might eddy around a cluster of benthic creatures, rocks, and bottom sediments and come to a complete halt in some crevice or notch. Here, a few molecules of seawater might freeze. Over time this initially smaller platelet of frozen freshwater might expand (as seawater crystallizes into platelets, it squeezes out the sea salts that keep seawater from freezing at 32ºF), creating a growing matrix of freshwater ice crystals. (The specific gravity of freshwater allows crystals of it to float in seawater.) At some point the expanding mass of freshwater ice becomes large enough to exert an upward force sufficient to uproot a section of the bottom. This scrap of the benthic community continue to float upward until it lodges on the underside of the sea ice cover.

One day I almost swam straight into a dark basalt cobble floating in the water column in front of me. I assumed it was encased in freshwater ice, but I could find no angle of observation that made this apparent. Had I not learned what can happen in these very cold waters, I would have had to conclude that here in Antarctica, dens rocks float.

We have so very much to learn.

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.

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.