Monday 15 July 2013


Svalbard is a group of islands administered by Norway, far north of the Norwegian mainland and only 600 miles from the North Pole. I'm just back from a voyage round the main island, Spitsbergen. I was working as one of the naturalists aboard the Sergei Vavilov, a Russian ship charterered by One Ocean Expeditions. Here's an aerial view of part of Spitsbergen in mid-summer, taken from the SAS plane as I flew out. 60% of the landmass is covered in ice, with many huge glaciers. (Click on the picture for a larger image). 

We had 72 passengers on board ship, mostly from UK. Many were from a group specializing in landscape photography, Light and Land. As with my Antarctic adventures on the sister-ship the Akademik Ioffe, the Vavilov uses zodiacs to reach remote beaches where we usually made two landings each day. In this photo one zodiac is offloading passengers at the gangway at the end of a shore excursion; while another (to the left) is awaiting the crane to be lifted back aboard. 

Most visitors to Svalbard are hoping to see Polar Bears. We found five, following a great deal of searching from the ship, the zodiacs, and from shore. This young bear was well camouflaged on the snow. The pack-ice was already a few miles north of the islands - which is where the bears are most at home. Here they can continue hunting seals in the ice. The ones that stay in Svalbard over the summer (such as this one) have to make do with a meagre diet of carrion and ducks' eggs until the ice envelops the islands again in the autumn. 

Another iconic mammal in Svalbard is the Walrus. During one beautifully sunny zodiac cruise, we came across these three sleepy individuals. Formerly they were hunted ruthlessly for their tusks, meat and blubber, but numbers are now recovering. Their scientific name Odobenus means 'tooth-walker,' since their feeding method consists of trawling the muddy sediments upside-down in search of bivalve molluscs (especially clams), which they feel with their whisker-like vibrissae. With great powers of suction, the clams are transferred to the mouth. An adult male weighs on average 900 kg, making the Walrus the third largest pinniped, after the two elephant seal species. 

Svalbard has a short bird-list, but among them are some gems. Here is a female Red Phalarope - sometimes called Grey Phalarope after their much duller winter plumage. Phalaropes are waders, in the sandpiper family, which spend most of their time swimming. Often they swim in tight circles, disturbing their tiny food items (fly and midge larvae) and making them easier to catch. Phalaropes are one of the few families in which the female is brighter than the male. She initiates courtship, and as soon as the four eggs are laid, she plays no further part in the nesting process. The less brightly coloured male incubates the eggs and looks after the chicks. 

Another special Svalbird bird is the King Eider. Here, in an alternative version of the three drake Mallard which are often seen adorning sitting-room walls, are three drake King Eiders in their icy home. Common Eiders are far more numerous here, but small numbers of Kings breed too. Other Svalbard specials include Little Auks in their thousands, Brunnich's and Black Guillemots, Glaucous and Ivory Gulls, and Arctic Terns. There are thousands of Fulmars and Kittiwakes. 

The Svalbard subspecies of the Reindeer is a common sight in many places. This individual had strayed onto an area of polar desert where food was very scarce. In summer reindeer are happy eating grasses, sedges, and leaves of dwarf willow and birch. In winter, their main diet is reindeer moss, Cladonia, which is in fact a lichen. This they find by scraping away the snow. The lower photo shows an area in the polar desert where a Reindeer has died. Nutrients from its decaying corpse have fertilized the ground, allowing a growth of grasses, moss and saxifrages: and providing a little nourishment for future generations of Reindeer. These photos were taken on the barren island of Nortaustlandet. When the channel freezes over in autumn, this Reindeer will be able to cross back to the more fertile vegetation of Spitsbergen.  

Spring comes late at 78 degrees north; and the season is very short. A Svalbard poppy, about an inch high, has just come into flower. More common were purple and tufted saxifrages, and several species of Arctic buttercup. Willow and birch survive on Svalbard too, but both grow prostrate, seldom more than an inch or two high. At this latitude, if you get lost in the forest, all you have to do is stand up!