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.

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.

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?

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.

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. There is a myth that polar bears outnumber people in Svalbard, but in reality there are only about 270. It was such a privilege to se one of them.

More Arctic avians

I met fellow-Aussies Bruce and Linda on the Arctic trip, and Bruce has kindly allowed me to post some of his great shots. He has a camera with a big lens (allowing for nice close-ups) and the knowledge to use it, unlike me and my little point-and-shoot (yes, I know, RTFM). (All photos copyright by Bruce Moore – thanks, Bruce!)

Atlantic puffins

Puffins resting on steep rock ledges

One of three puffin species, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) has been estimated to have 10,000 breeding pairs in the islands of Svalbard. I first saw this bird on the way to the Orkneys, north of Scotland. They nest sociably in crevices or in the spaces under convenient boulders in the Arctic where there is little soil depth (otherwise they would burrow into the ground). The chicks stay hidden and are fed fish, crustaceans and worms accumulated by the diving adults.

Glaucus gulls

Glaucus gull and chicks

Glaucus gulls (Larus hyperboreus) are omnivorous, eating molluscs, the eggs and chicks of other seabirds. They are the second-largest gulls in the world.

Black-legged kittiwakes

Kittiwakes like to hang out on icebergs

Rissa tridactyla is a colonial nester, even on glacier edges or snowbanks if there are no ice-free ledges. They build nests on very steep slopes as protection from Arctic foxes, which steal their eggs and chicks. They generally forage far out to sea, following trawlers, collecting shrimps, marine snails and terrestrial invertebrates and plants, seeds and grasses.

 

Common eiders

Male eider flying over a glaucus gull

Common eiders (Somateria mollissima) are divers – the males black-and white and the females brown. They nest on ice-free islands, pulling down from their own breasts to line the nest. They eat crustaceans and molluscs.

 

Brünnich’s guillemots

Brunnich’s guillemots crowd together on rocky cliffs

There are a few large breeding colonies of Uria lomvia on exposed cliffs, each containing perhaps over a million birds. These are the birds you might have seen on a David Attenborough program – the chicks launch themselves (with their father) from the high cliffs even though they are unable to fly. If the chick hits the ground, it struggles through the scree towards the sea, but may be taken by Arctic foxes or great skuas. If it hits or makes it to the water, it and its father will swim south to warmer climes. The father is also flightless at this time as he is moulting.

Barnacle geese

Barnacle goose

Branta leucopsis breeds exclusively in the Arctic on low-lying islands and sea-cliff edges. They graze on vegetation. This is the bird that was thought, in medieval times, to come from a barnacle. It was thus classified as a sea animal, so that it could be eaten by Catholics on Fridays (when meat was not allowed).

Northern fulmars

Northern fulmar

Svalbard has the ‘blue’ form of Fulmarus glacialis – the other form has more white. They happily follow ships in case any offerings get thrown over the side. They are not great on land but are strong fliers –  wingspan is over a metre – and they have been known to live around 30 years.

 

Arctic terns

Arctic tern

Sterna paradisaea migrates between the north and south pole areas, spending the summer months at each pole in turn. They travel 90,000 km every year for about 30 years – the biggest bird migration known. They vigorously defend their nests so expect to be dive-bombed if you go near one – but you wouldn’t, would you?

 

Great skuas

Great skua

Great skuas (Stercorarius skua) aggressively attack other birds on the wing, forcing them to regurgitate their food, which the skuas snatch for themselves. Like terns, they will aggressively defend their nest from intruders, whether human or fox or polar bear.

Little auks

Little auk

These little cuties (Alle alle) are estimated to have over 10 million breeding pairs in Svalbard. The noise and great swirling flight they create in their massive breeding colonies when an Arctic fox is about has to be seen to be believed. They are thought to be the world’s most numerous seabird. The breeding season coincides with the seasonal peak of plankton and small fish, taken at night, mostly fairly close to the colony.

 

 

Purple sandpipers

Pruple sandpipers gleaning for food

I’m not sure why Calidris maritima are ‘purple’, but they acted as any wader does, rummaging for invertebrates, insects, buds and seeds along the shoreline.

Black guillemots

Black guillemot, with the distinctive red legs

Cepphus grylle is a diver, going down about nine metres to get fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The breeding colonies are minute compared to some other birds – a few birds, or a few dozen, in scree or on flat ground.

 

 

Snow buntings

The charming snow bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis is the only breeding songbird in Svalbard. It’s about the size of a sparrow and hunts for seeds and insects. 

 

 

 

Arctic sea angels

One thing I didn’t expect to see in the Arctic was marine invertebrates, but of course in the Arctic summer there is a huge upwelling of plankton via the deep ocean currents, providing literally tonnes of food for fish and baleen whales. The graphic below gives you an idea of who eats who, except it has left out Arctic foxes, which prey on birds and their eggs and scavenge what’s left of seal carcasses taken by polar bears.

Arctic food web, by Cmglee, Wikimedia Commons

 

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on a zodiac with the ship’s doctor, Nanamma, who turned out to be as keen on jellyfish and similar critters as I was. She spent some time dipping ziplock plastic bags over the side and showing us what came up. I was thrilled to see organisms I had only read about – pteropods (sea angels and sea butterflies) – and comb jellies.

Comb jelly (red, left) and sea butterfly (brown, right)

Below is a better shot of a sea butterfly, taken by NOAA.

Sea butterfly; NOAA Photo Library

Sea angels are particularly beautiful. They were bigger than I expected – about the length of my thumb.

Two sea angels (right) and a sea butterfly (bottom left)

Below is a clearer shot by NOAA.

Clione limacina; photo by NOAA

Once I got my eye in, I could easily see them in the water – all over the place! Just another fabulous day in the Arctic.

Arctic avians

I used to be more of an avian adventurer, but I don’t generally do the birding thing much anymore. Despite this, the Arctic trip added a dozen or so birds to my life list (if I were to have such a thing – but of course I do!).

The final bird list on the trip was as follows (the column headings, which can’t be seen, are dates). I didn’t see all of them,  but I’m posting pictures of those I did (all photos are my own unless mentioned in the captions). I’m not concentrating on the birds as such – after all, you can easily find much better shots than mine on the interwebs – but rather on the combination of the birds and the environment they scratch a living out of.

End-of-trip bird list

 

Birds can’t survive the Arctic winter, so migrate back and forth. The Arctic summer brings massive amounts of plankton and other underwater animals and plants, due to upwelling from ocean currents. The whole biological system relies on the summer largesse of the bottom rung of the food web.

The poster on the ship’s wall helped with ID, as did the excellent library.

Svalbard birds poster

  • The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), possibly the world’s greatest migrator, flying every year between the Arctic and Antarctica over a lifetime of 15-30 years

Arctic tern; not my photo, not sure who photographed it

  • Pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Pair of pink-footed geese in Longyearbyen

 

  • Common eider (Somateria mollissima; in the second photo, male on the far right) – yes, the ones whose bum feathers make those cosy ‘eiderdowns’ for your bed.

Eider female sitting on eggs in Longyearbyen

Flock of common eiders on a shingle beach in Svalbard; male far right

Steep slopes give eiders a certain amount of protection from predators – at least they can see a long way

  • Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) – note the surroundings in which they are feeding. This is typical of Longyearbyen and most of the Svalbard peninsula, except that Longyearbyen has lots of mine tailings and industrial structures from the old mining days. The permafrost is just below the surface and the ground unfreezes in summer to only a metre or so, supplying just enough meltwater for tiny plants to unfreeze and commence their summer lives. These are the geese that medieval folks thought came from barnacles.

Barnacle geese in Longyearbyen

  • Glaucus gull (Larus hyperboreus), a large gull that scavenges pretty much anything

    Glaucus gull

Glaucus gulls resting on floating ice

  • Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), breeds in colonies on cliff ledges; 130,000 breeding pairs have been estimated

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown but is one of our party

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown

 

  • Brünnich’s guillemot – these birds nest in their hundreds of thousand on sheer cliffs to avoid predation by Arctic foxes and polar bears, which will eat the birds’ eggs and young if they can get at them.

    Brunnich’s guillemot on cliff ledge

  • Long-tailed skua (Stercorarius longicaudus) – these birds attack other birds that have caught their own meals, causing them to drop the food so that the skuas can make off with it.

    Long-tailed skua

 

 

 

 

Northern fulmar; photographer was one of our party

Purple sandpiper

  • Little auk (Alle alle), another bird that nests in thousands on cliffs

    Little auks; photo by Alastair Rae, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

Back on the Norwegian mainland, I saw:

  • Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) at Balestrand, the same species we get in Australia
  • Hooded crow (Corvus cornix) – an urban dweller, this one in Tromso

    Hooded crow

    All in all, a satisfying set of additions to the personal bird list.

Walruses, seals and a polar bear, oh my!

Walruses rule!

At lunchtime in the Arctic one day (oh, how I like that phrase!), I decided the trip couldn’t get any better – I’d just seen a colony of walruses and was musing on their amazingness. Little did I know what awaited in the afternoon …

Did you know that walrus colonies steam? I didn’t. From afar, as we silently approached in the zodiacs at very low speed so as not to alarm them, we could see clouds rising from the shore above the animals. It was hard to tell how many were in the herd as we could only see them on the near edge, but it might have been hundreds – and they are huge, up to 3.2 metres and 1200-1500 kg! They are thigmotactic, meaning they like to huddle together and touch each other. These were certainly very, err, thiggy – and very curious about us.

Several walruses came up very close to us. One even poked a zodiac with its tusks.

Several slid into the water, coming to investigate each boat. We stopped at the prescribed distance, but the walruses hadn’t read the guidebook so just kept coming. The big males here are red on the neck – the blood capillaries are close to the skin’s surface to lose heat. It was about 2 degrees C (in the air, and the same in the water), but they have so much blubber (as insulation from the cold) that when they haul out on land to warm up, they sometimes need to lose built-up heat. The warty lumps on the male necks are called ‘bosses’ or ‘tubercles’, and are thought to be a sign of maleness or old scars from fighting.

You can see the steam coming off their bodies

Calves are born without tusks, which become visible around the age of two. Some of these had very long tusks, which males use for fighting each other, or fighting off polar bears and orcas (whose menu they are on). They can live up to 40 years.

Walruses dive to the sea floor, using the sensitive whiskers (technically called ‘vibrissae’) to detect mussels. They jet water from their mouths and wave their flippers to uncover the bivalves on the seafloor. The special shape of the mouth allows them to create enough pressure to literally suck the molluscs out of their shells, and if you’ve ever tried to open a live bivalve you’ll know how hard that is.

Arctic terns hovered, possibly looking for fish disturbed by swimming walruses.

There’s a bear out there!

While we were having lunch, the ship continued to follow the pack ice to see what we could see. A naturalist was stationed on the bridge at all hours in case of anything interesting popping up. Sure enough, when he called over the intercom, ‘Polar bear to port!’ we all raced up to the top deck.

It was hard at first to get my eye in – a bit like trying to see a bird in a canopy through binoculars. The sheer whiteness and brightness were almost overwhelming, but I finally saw her. I’d been looking for something white, but she was cream. The hairs are actually transparent but the light reflects to get the cream or white effect. The skin is black to help absorb warmth from light.

Can you see the bear in this shot? Then imagine it about twice as far away, because I zoomed in a bit.

She was meandering in a casual fashion, as isbjörnarna (plural of isbjörn, Norwegian for ‘ice bear’) are wont to do, looking totally at home and relaxed. Someone noticed a bearded seal to the right – and it was obvious the bear did, too. We watched in fascination as over the next 15 minutes or so she snuck up on the seal – lunged at the last minute – and missed! Aaargh! At this point my camera decided to malfunction, so I have to rely on my roommate’s photos. (It recovered by the next day.)

After the seal dived into the water, the bear rolled around a bit on the ice to squeeze the water out of her fur. The naturalists estimated she was healthy and 3 or 4 years old, since cubs stay with their mother for 2 years, then go out on their own, and females are thought to start breeding at about 5. They are smart and have flexible behaviour, learning all the while. The most dangerous time for them is when they leave their mother, as they have to learn ‘on the job’, so to speak.

Rolling to get rid of cold water in the fur; photo by Janet Spillman

She then noticed us and started over. She stayed for quite a while looking up at us (wistfully? hungrily?), then dived back into the water and swam off. A couple of the naturalists said they hadn’t seen that sort of behaviour before – and she would probably have walked happily up the gangplank if it’d been lowered!

Hmm, there’s a big white ship smelling of humans over there; photo by Janet Spillman

I’m just like those cute fluffy toys – won’t you come play with me?; photo by Janet Spillman

I’m mostly harmless, really I am; photo by Janet Spillman

Ah, what the heck – I give up!; photo by Janet Spillman

 

Bears chase down and feed on seals on the ice and, tragically, with the ice diminishing year by year (Svalbard is the fastest warming place on the planet), they are finding it harder and harder to find enough food. Scientists estimate that the Svalbard population will be gone in a couple of decades. It’s sad to think of the possible fate of this lovely isbjörn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Longyearbyen graffiti – the most northerly graffiti in the world?

One of the Canadian naturalist crew had a stunning necklace carved from polar bear claw and walrus bone, by Inuit craftsman Greg Morgan. Even if you can afford his carvings, you wouldn’t be allowed to import them into Australia, or even out of Canada.

Bearded seals

Another day we saw several of the polar bears’ favourite food – bearded seals. They seemed cool (literally) about us creeping past quietly while they half-dozed in the sun.

Penguins

Just kidding – we saw only one. They are Antarctic birds.

Next post will be on Arctic birds.

In the Arctic circle

After a couple of days in Oslo, we flew to Longyearbyen in Svalbard (aka Spitsbergen, the island of pointy mountains, halfway between the north of Norway and Greenland) via Tromso, but I will leave talk of Longyearbyen, Tromso, Bergen and Balestrand – the last three being towns on the Norway mainland we made a flying visit to – for another post. The plane provided tantalising glimpses of snow-covered mountains and glaciers. I’ve seen glaciers and fjords in New Zealand, but these were something else.

From Longyearbyen, we set out on the good ship Akademic Sergey Vavilov, a Russian scientific research vessel hired each year by Canadian company One Ocean Expeditions for occasional wildlife cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic. The Canadian/US/British etc. staff were all experienced naturalists/photographers/explorers and the whole operation was very organised, smooth and flexible. For instance, they were happy to incorporate plants in the landings once they found out 14 of the group were interested in them. (Russian sailors manned the functions of getting the ship around. Unfortunately I didn’t speak Russian and they didn’t speak English, and they kept to themselves pretty much anyway.)

I shared a comfortable 3rd-deck room with historian Janet – thanks for the bottom bunk, Janet! The shared bathrooms were just across the hallway, so convenient for visits at any hour of the day or day (no night at this latitude and time of year) as jetlag decreed.

The weather was perfect almost every day – bright sunshine with clear, dry air and calm seas. Hooray – I didn’t need my seasickness tablets after all. Only on a couple of days was it overcast with slight showers.

The daily routine was as follows. The proposed schedule was pinned on various walls pre-breakfast. What actually happened depended on events during the day. For instance, the day we saw the polar bear, who hung around the ship for a couple of hours watching us watching her, the afternoon schedule went out the window.

Example of daily schedule

 

The ship’s position was displayed daily

 

 

Various posters of information on the animals, plants and ice had been stuck on the walls. The bar on the top deck had a folder of scientific articles on the effects of climate change and the natural history of animals and birds in the Arctic. There was also a Canadian Geographic issue on the finding of Franklin’s sunken ship, Erebus, in 2014,  in which the Vavilov had played a part. The other end of deck 5 had a substantial library of books on both the Arctic and Antarctic, and was the site for kayaker briefings.

Whale ID poster

 

 

Boris (the events coordinator, a Canadian despite the name) would announced events over the PA system: when the dining room was open for meals (all delicious), when we needed to gear up in the Mud Room for the zodiac cruises and landings, or if something special was seen outside (naturalist Dick and others kept an eye out from the bridge) so that we could sprint up to top (6th – oh those steep stairs!) deck with our binoculars and cameras. The trip was a ‘photography symposium’, so there were many entertaining talks  on how to get the best out of cameras, how to compose shots, etc. Watercolour artist David McEown gave workshops on sketching and painting, and there were other videos (like polar photographer Daisy Gilardini on skiing to the North Pole and Jaime Sharp on kayaking around Svalbard; check out Daisy’s website for her exceptional photographs, David’s for his watercolours, and Jaime’s for his upcoming documentary, Paddling the Cold Edge).

David capturing the sea ice on deck

Gearing up in the Mud Room; photo by Anne MacKenzie

 

Survival gear was mandatory on the zodiacs; photo by Janet Spillman

 

I’m smiling under all that; photo by Anne MacKenzie

 

 

 

Morning zodiac cruises involved getting into survival gear – our own thermals and top layers, followed by the loaned bib-and-braces, heavy-duty outer jacket and wellies. The air temperature was commonly 2-4C and water temperature 3C, but you wouldn’t want to fall in. The kayakers had special gear for their paddling.

Zodiacs were lowered and raised by crane

 

Loading people onto a zodiac using the sailor’s grip

 

Kayaks were also lowered to the sea by crane and the kayakers entered their kayak from the zodiac

 

 

 

We were ably assisted to and from – with max. OH&S – the ship into the zodiacs and taken to a spot of interest – glacier, bird colony, walrus colony or whatever was around.

Afternoons were devoted to landings. Staffers were sent out prior to ‘clear’ the landings. If they were unsuitable – e.g. there was a polar bear or the shore landing was too rough – the landing would be cancelled and a ship-board activity substituted. If the landing was approved, it was on again with the gear.

On shore landings, the 87 ‘guests’ divided themselves into teams, each of which had a wildlife expert and a wildlife expert-with-rifle. The rifle is the last option for use against polar bears. I was told that the sequence of events if a polar bear spots you and comes close is as follows: (1) talking quietly but audibly to the bear; (2) yelling at the bear; (3) firing off a flare gun; (4) shooting the rifle in the air; (5) lethally shooting the polar bear. The bear will usually take off at (2) and no one likes option (5) – it is tantamount to killing a human being and also involves a lot of paperwork and legal investigation.

Our teams were the ‘chargers’ (those who wanted to walk fast); the photographers; the birders; and the plant group (this was my chosen group as I didn’t want to go as fast as the other groups, plus I was interested in the plants). Jerry compiled a list each time, and we eventually saw nearly 20% of the known Arctic flora. This was pretty good for nine afternoons’ work.

Jerry botanising; Mark in the blue shirt has the flare gun and rifle

 

Jerry’s final cumulative plant species list; ‘new finds’ means not seen before on any of our other field trips

Jerry had several plant ID books as well as this poster to refer to

 

 

After dinner, there were ‘fireside talks’ on various aspects of where we were: its history and wildlife. It was a full schedule and I at least collapsed tired and satisfied at the end of each day.

Next time I’ll talk about the animals we saw.