Spitzbergen, 2006

In August 2006 I spent 72 hours cruising the north westcoast of Spitsbergen, primarily to try to see Walruses, which had eluded me on Baffin Island 2 months earlier.

Spitsbergen is remarkably cheap to get to from Europe: you can take a twice daily discount flight from Tromso in Norway to Longyearbyen, a pleasant enough, functional little place that serves as Spitsbergen’s capital. From there a variety of cruises and trips leave throughout the year.

I’d never been on a cruise before. And now I am back I don’t relish the thought of going on one ever again. Having to shuffle everywhere en masse, listening to complaints about the rough seas (flat calm) and the other nationalities on board is not my idea of a wilderness experience. Take more than 20 steps away from the crowd and one of the armed polar bear guards barks instructions to come back. It brought home to me how lucky I was to have had a wild arctic experience on Baffin.

That said, the scenery was superb and I saw the animals I wanted to see. The ship was one of the smaller ones that plies the waters off the Svalbard archipelago. There were only 100 people on board, even if that was 99 too many. Some of the cruise ships carry 2000 passengers.

Arctic Foxes are quite easy to see on Spitsbergen. There are several living in Longyearbyen for example. We were quite lucky to see one of the ‘blue’ morph animals (about 3% of the population remain a blue black year round) at the Magdalenafjord in the mid morning. Two more were very approachable at the scientific community of Ny Alesund, where they den under one of the houses.

Blue phase Arctic Fox, Vulpes lagopus

Caribou (Reindeer), a small Svalbard subspecies (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus), are around in good numbers but probably easiest to see in Longyearbyen where they aren’t hunted.

Polar Bears were surprisingly common. We saw four in three days (and a trip the week before had seen 12). All four animals   – a mother with cubs at Raudfjorden, and another resting on a rock near the Monaco Glacier – were at a considerable distance, unlike those I had seen on Baffin. The Raudfjorden site, which is a narrow peninsula, is a hot spot for bears.

Distant Polar Bear, Ursus maritimus

Seals were quite a lot harder to spot than I’d imagined. I saw three or four swimming each day in the fjords, though the only species I identified definitely were Bearded Seals. There wasn’t much ice around, and had we spent time in the zodiacs close to the calving glaciers I suspect we’d have seen more seals: both Bearded and Ringed Seals which are quite common. Harp Seals turn up once in a while. Hooded Seals seem very rare, at least on the west coast.

Arctic Fox, Vulpes lagopus, Ny Alesund

Moffen Island, just over the 80 degree parallel is the place to see Walruses. At least 50 were hauled out on the low beach.  We could only approach to within 300 metres as the island was off limits because Sabine’s Gulls were breeding there.

Monaco Glacier

Walruses are excellent animals. Well worth the trip. The cruise information suggested ice conditions could make the trip to Moffen difficult. But this is very unusual and I was told only one trip in about 4 years hasn’t made it past the 80th parallel, though getting close to Moffen might be a problem because of ice at the very beginning of the season.

Walrus, Odobenus rosmarus, Moffen Island

On the way back south (just north of Barentsberg) we sailed past a small pod of Humback Whales. Two Fin Whales surfaced near the boat a little later. Minkes and Belugas are reputedly quite common off the west coast but other cetaceans, including White-beaked Dolphins are lesss often reported.

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Jon Hall

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