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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.