Friday, 13 August 2010

Arctic Adventure - 7

Saturday 7th August 2010

My Arctic pictures are here.

At Robin's recommendation, I was up just before six and on the foredeck with most of the guides and a few passeners. All night, we'd sailed along the glacial edge and we still had some distance to go as we headed more-or-less north up the east of the Svalbard archipelago. Periodically, we passed melt water streams gushing from the ice face. At once point, we witnessed the 'calving' process, as a large chunk of the ice face broke way and crashed into the sea with a rumble, producing a small wave which propagated out from the glacial edge. The sea surface was littered with chunks of glacial ice. The largest were mini-icebergs up to maybe sixty feet across. We avoided these but the smaller pieces of ice were no problem for our ice-strengthened double-hull and, from time-to-time, a loud thump would announce a chunk being thrust aside. This was a very effective wake-up call and the number of passengers on the foredeck or the upper observation decks started to increase.

After breakfast, we had a couple of lectures in the Theatre and a briefing by Robin on our planned landing on island of Storoya, in the north-east of the Svalbard chain of islands.

As we approached Isispynten, a number of the expedition team were on the bridge with binoculars, looking for signs of wildlife. Once polar bears were spotted, the plan to make a landing had to be changed into a Zodiac trip to watch the bears from the boats.

I was in the earlier Groups this time and our driver took us to the most likely spot and we could see a polar bear, but some way off. We tried another spot with a similar result - a sighting but not too close. We did see a number of species of birds and a single seal bobbed up and disappeared (we thought it was a seal rather than a walrus, but it was hard to be sure with a brief sighting). We'd added to our tally of polar bears so we returned to the ship quite happily, allowing passengers in the other Groups to start their tour. Of course, the polar bears move around and by the time the Zodiacs had got near the shore, one bear had moved much nearer and the other Groups had very good sightings. In a very even-handed way, Robin announced to Groups 1 and 2 that since viewing conditions had improved so much since our Zodiac Tour we could, if we wished, go back on a special second trip. This offer was much appreciated and I think more or less everyone 'suited up' quickly for the extra trip. Our sighting was, as promised, much better. A polar bear was on the beach, more concerned with the food he appeared to be devouring than the little boats offshore. Then he shambled off to the rocks at the back of the beach and settled down for a snooze.

Once all the passengers were safely back on the ship and the Zodiacs had been craned aboard, we set sail north for Storoya.

After lunch, we anchored off Storoya Island. Once again, polar bears were sighted so our proposed landing was converted into a Zodiac tour to observe the bears from the sea. The weather suddenly worsened and, by the time we boarded the zodiacs, there was a fair amount of swell, it was windy, misty and raining. We had a rather lively and damp journey to the shore but as we approached the beach, conditions became much better. There were large numbers of walrus' lying in various 'haul-outs' and two polar bears were prowling near the water's edge. Perhaps more remarkable was the way the sea around the zodiacs appeared to be boiling from the splashing of dozens of walrus' divided into a number of 'convoys'. They didn't appear aggressive and were probably just curious but it's an odd feeling to have so many creatures with long, curvingttusks only a few yards away in all directions.

On the landward side of the beach on higher ground there was a massive collection of at least twenty walrus'. The larger of the two polar bears lumbered across to this 'haul-out' and started threatening the walrus' by extending his neck towards the group. Some of the larger walrus reared up and made threatening movements in response. The smaller polar bear watched this for a while and then moved to the position initially occupied by the first bear, who moved to the other side of the group of walrus' in what appeared to be a pincer movement. About seven of the walrus' decided that discretion was the better part of valour and left the group for the sea moving in their undulating rather inelegant manner down the beach. But their was still a fairly massive 'rump' of walrus' who seemed to have no intention of moving and tension seemed to mount. The larger polar bear made a number of lunges into the group but each time the walrus' reared up and made the polar bear step back hastily. The smaller polar bear just seemed to stand there, discouraging the walrus' from moving that way. Eventually, the one polar bear lumbered off across the beach and, as we moved away still accompanied by flotillas of walrus', the other polar bear was a few yards away from the walrus', in an apparent 'stand-off'. We set of back to the ship, getting fairly wet once we regained more open sea. I think the cold was forgotten by most people who were marvelling at what we'd witnessed - as Robin described it later 'like watching a National Geographic Nature documentary'.