Welcome to Birdquest

SPITSBERGEN

Monday 10th July - Tuesday 25th July 2017

MIKE WATSON

Polar Bear in the Måkeøyane (Gull Islands) on our 2017 cruise (Mike Watson).

Polar Bear in the Måkeøyane (Gull Islands) on our 2017 cruise (Mike Watson).

In early July I got a message from our expedition leader, Arjen Drost, that our 15 days voyage in Svalbard aboard the wonderful SV Noorderlicht was going to be different this year. He was not wrong. Owing to an unusual (by recent standards) distribution of drift ice we were not able to circumnavigate the main island of Spitsbergen. However, it is an ill wind and this allowed us more time to explore the highly productive northwest of Spitsbergen, as well as to make a foray above 80 degrees and into the pack ice, which was a first for most on board. We also spent a couple of days further south in Bellsund before returning to Longyearbyen. This itinerary again delivered some impressive totals, including 12 Polar Bear sightings of 10 separate individuals, c.200 Walruses including some point blank encounters, 15 Arctic Foxes, 7 Ivory Gulls, 2-3 Sabine’s Gulls and 8 Long-tailed Jaegers (or Skuas) plus a Fin Whale, 1-2 Belugas and 11 Northern Minke Whales. The outstanding tour highlight for most was the pod of four magnificent Blue Whales feeding around SV Noorderlicht in Forlandsundet, an unforgettable experience!

However, we were also mesmerised by the glaciated landscape and the exquisite High Arctic flora. Plants included restricted range Arctic specialities such as Boreal Jacob’s Ladder, Nodding Lychnis (or Polar Campion), Whiplash or Polar Stoloniferous Saxifrage (or Spider Plant), Svalbard Poppy and Woolly Lousewort.

Polar Bear numbers were more or less the same as on our 2016 cruise despite not getting out east to the best areas but still down 50% on my 2012 voyage. This was a massive relief after learning that another vessel just recorded a blank the week before despite having some of the best Polar Bear guides in the business on board.The message remains clear, if you want to see Polar Bears in Svalbard, do not delay. The future looks quite bleak for them. Ivory Gulls depend on Polar Bear kills and follow them around so when the sea ice is far to the north, so are some of the gulls. This was probably reflected in our low total of Ivory Gulls this time, although we did not have Negribreen to boost the overall number as usual. However, they are already showing signs of decline in the reduced numbers visiting formerly regular haunts like Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund as well as being more difficult to find even in the ice this summer. If Svalbard is on your bucket list then a visit sooner rather than later is a good idea.

Blue Whale, Forlandsundet (Mike Watson).

Blue Whale, Forlandsundet (Mike Watson).