SVALBARD (SPITSBERGEN): A POLAR WILDERNESS BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Svalbard (Spitsbergen): Day 1 If the weather is good, it will be a spectacular flight to the tour start in Longyearbyen, probably via Tromsø in Arctic Norway, as one first crosses the mountains, lakes and fjords of Norway and then the even more impressive mountains of Spitsbergen, which stretch away far into the distance. Drift ice can be seen speckling the Arctic Ocean far below and will be just a foretaste of the magic to come.
Our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour begins at Longyearbyen airport in the early afternoon. While the ship is being readied, we will have the chance to explore Longyearbyen, the only place on Spitsbergen that qualifies for the term ‘town’, although it is very small. Originally established to serve the Norwegian coal mines, which still exist but are unused, the town now serves as the administrative centre for the islands and has a growing tourist business, as well as a university. The gaily painted wooden houses and the small but modern shopping centre look strangely out of place amidst the looming, snow covered fells and the waters of the Isfjorden.
We can walk out of town to admire one of the world’s most unusual and charismatic road signs – a red triangular warning sign with a Polar Bear silhouette and the wording ‘applies to all Spitsbergen!’ Although Polar Bears are usually wary of humans, there have been exceptions over the years and even hikers and kayakers here are expected to carry flares and a rifle – just in case! We should see our first Snow Buntings in the town itself, and during our birding walk we can also expect to come across cooing Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks in their beautiful summer plumage, Common Ringed Plover, Dunlin and some very tame Purple Sandpipers, while Arctic Terns will be constant companions. Glaucous Gulls are the common large gulls here, but occasionally they are joined by a vagrant Iceland Gull or one of Spitsbergen’s few resident Greater Black-backed Gulls.
The town’s husky kennels are situated nearby and we can go up and see these interesting wolf-like animals at close quarters: perhaps they will start howling in unison, making that wolf-like impression all the stronger. Sometimes an Ivory Gull or two lingers here into summer.
After we board our ship this evening and settle in to our cabins, there will be a briefing and then we will set sail towards the mouth of the magnificent Isfjorden and the open sea, accompanied by the first of many Northern Fulmars (most of the dark morph, characteristic of these high latitudes).
Svalbard (Spitsbergen): Days 2-15 Our itinerary will be determined by the present position of the heavy drift ice. The general intention is to circumnavigate Spitsbergen, as long as ice conditions permit. At this season the chances of completing a circumnavigation of Spitsbergen are about 65%. If drift ice prevents a circumnavigation we will concentrate on north Spitsbergen, the best accessible area for polar bears and most other wildlife. Every cruise in Spitsbergen is different: the locations mentioned below are some of the places that we will be hoping to visit, but there are many others which are undescribed, but equally wonderful.
To the north of the long island off northwest Spitsbergen known as Prins Karl Forland are Krossfjorden and Kongsfjorden, two spectacular fjords full of glaciers and snowy mountains.
Blomstrandhalvøya makes for a fascinating landing site in Kongsfjorden during our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour. Here a rather roguish English entrepreneur started up marble-mining operations in the early years of the 20th century, only to discover, once the ice thawed after shipping the slabs south, that the marble was cracked and so of poor quality! The owner’s hut and various rusting pieces of machinery still bear testimony to this financial disaster. Behind the shoreline the stony tundra rises towards a high, partly snow-covered range of hills.
The only accessible Long-tailed Skuas in Spitsbergen usually nests here, so we may be able to enjoy watching one of these elegant birds guarding its nest while the off-duty partner patrols past, keeping a wary eye on us. Further into the interior, Rock Ptarmigans haunt the scree slopes. At this time of year the male ptarmigan are still white, or just showing a few dark feathers, and so they are relatively easy to spot as they survey their territories from the tops of large boulders or rocky crags. The females, however, have already moulted into their amazingly cryptic summer plumage. The curious Svalbard form of the Reindeer, which has short legs that make it appear almost wild goat-like, can also be found here.
Across the fjord is the scientific research base of Ny Ålesund, the most northerly settlement on Earth. Once the site of a coal mine, Ny Ålesund was the jumping off point, or arrival point, for a series of polar expeditions by air, including Amundsen’s almost-successful flight of 1910, Byrd’s successful flight and Amundsen and Nobile’s successful airship voyage on the Norge in 1926, and finally Nobile’s doomed voyage on the airship Italia in 1928. The tall anchor mast for the airships stands to this day.
During our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour, we may also land at the Tinayrebreen, one of the huge glaciers in Krossfjorden, where the rocky slopes hold Rock Ptarmigan and nesting Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, as well as Arctic Skuas (or Parasitic Jaegers). Arctic plants are numerous and diverse, with Purple Saxifrage, Arctic Bell Heather, Moss Campion and several species of arctic buttercups amongst others. Spitsbergen’s only widespread ‘tree’, the mat-like Polar Willow, is everywhere. As we walk on the ridge here we will be able to look down on the surface of the glacier, seeing the dirty marks where rocks and debris lie on the surface. From time to time a large chunk of ice from the glacier front calves into the bay, floating away as a small iceberg.
At the 14th of July glacier (named by a French expedition) near the junction of the fjords we will take to our zodiacs to explore the seabird cliffs where huge numbers of Brünnich’s Guillemots (or Thick-billed Murres) and Atlantic Puffins nest, occasionally joined by a lone pair of Razorbills at the northern extremity of their distribution. Later we will use the zodiacs to explore the face of the glacier, admiring the extraordinary pattern of cracks, crevices and recesses in the ice and of course the deep blue colour of the dense glacier ice. We should come across one or more weirdly sculpted blue icebergs in the bay, getting up close to take yet more photographs and see the almost unbelievable colours and ice carvings.
At the northwest corner of Spitsbergen are the small islands of Amsterdamøya, Danskøya, Fuglesongen with its enormous Little Auk (or Dovekie) colony and Ytre Norskøya.
Amsterdamøya was the site of the most famous Dutch (and Danish) whaling settlement of the 17th century, Smeerenburg (‘Blubbertown’). Some of the blubber ovens and the bases of the whalers’ huts still remain, as do some of the graves of those who died here (including, notably, a party of seven who were left to overwinter but died of scurvy). Situated on a bleak spit dominated by a nearby mountain, one can imagine all the activity here at the time when Bowhead (or Greenland Right) Whales were being captured and butchered all through the summer months, but it must have been a very hard life indeed. For those who enjoy birds as well as history there are Red-throated Divers (or Red-throated Loons), beautifully-plumaged Ruddy Turnstones and the occasional Great Skua.
Across the narrow sound is Danskøya and a landing at Virgohamna gives an interesting insight into the expedition period of Spitsbergen’s history. Here are the remains of the hanger that housed Andrée’s balloon prior to his ill-fated attempt on the pole in 1897 (the balloon came down after only three days, due to excessive icing, and the three crew members walked over the ice to Kvitøya in far northeast Spitsbergen but died there, their fate remaining a mystery until their bodies, log and film were discovered in 1930!). There are also the much larger remains of the hanger dating from Wellman’s airship attempts of 1906-1909.
The island of Fuglesongen is a bleak, snow-streaked mountain rising from the sea at the most northwesterly point of the Spitsbergen archipelago. Here the many boulder slopes provide countless crevices for nesting Little Auks (or Dovekies) and once we have made our way slowly along the foreshore from the landing place we will be able to work our way cautiously to the edge of just one section of this enormous colony (tens of thousands strong!). At this time of year it is still early in the breeding cycle and huge numbers of birds are visiting their burrows to lay eggs and gathering to socialize. As we gaze across the slopes we will be able to see thousands of little white and black birds clustered on the boulders and by carefully creeping up on these splendid little alcids we should be able to get stunning views from very close range. Flocks of birds are constantly coming and going at the colony and just hearing the maniacal cackling of the birds is something special in itself. Every so often a Glaucous Gull (or more rarely a Great Skua) patrols the slopes, creating a frenzy of activity as many thousands of birds take to the air with a deafening roar, the flocks curving across the sky like winter flocks of Common Starlings before gradually settling again. As these fast-flying flocks sweep low over one’s head the sound of their wings and their loud cries fill the air. Indeed, the whole experience here is absolutely awe-inspiring for anyone who loves birds, and is of course unique to the High Arctic. A very different experience all round from seeing a solitary Little Auk in winter bobbing distantly on the water off some headland, or whirring past at extreme range!
Not far away from Fuglesangen is Ytre Norskøya, site of another whaling settlement and complete with the remains of blubber ovens and many graves of whalers who never made it home from this wild place at the ‘edge of the world’.)
Further east are spectacular Woodfjorden and Liefdefjorden. Here we may go ashore at Reinsdyrflya, a huge plain that holds, as its Norwegian name implies, a large population of the short-legged Spitsbergen race of the Reindeer. This is a great area for Polar Bears, which in this area survive the lean summer months by hunting seals on the remaining ice in the more protected bays. We have an excellent chance of seeing several while in this area and we will be hoping that one or two will allow a close approach by zodiac or by the ship. Seeing one of these huge beasts close up as it walks along the shoreline or across the ice is an awesome experience: those cold black eyes, the inquisitive facial expression and the fearless behaviour suggest bear thoughts along the line ‘is this food I see approaching?’! Alternatively, we might come across one swimming between the islands or areas of fjord ice. If we are lucky we will also encounter Northern Minke Whale in this area.
We may also visit some small islands where Red (or Grey) Phalaropes nest in some numbers, enjoying some fantastic, close-up views of these beautifully-plumaged and very confiding little birds as they swim along in the shallows right in front of us, stopping frequently to pick insects from the water’s surface. We will soon learn to distinguish the deep red females from the more pastel-shaded males. Pink-footed and Pale-bellied Brent Geese nest in the area too, as do Long-tailed Ducks, Common Eiders, the beautiful King Eider, Purple Sandpipers, Great Skua and Arctic Skua (or Parasitic Jaeger). Ivory Gulls are regular here and probably breed in the stark mountains nearby. Watching one flying over the equally white ice, with the blue-black and white peaks behind, is a highly evocative Arctic experience. Further from the sea, at the head of Liefdefjorden, is the huge Monacobreen (Monaco Glacier). If ice conditions permit, we will sail through the broken floes until we are quite close to the spectacular front of this immense glacier and its smaller but equally impressive neighbour the Idabreen. Wild, snow-covered peaks line the glaciers and the fjord sides, adding to the majesty of this extraordinary place.
On our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tours we also visit Moffen, a low-lying island with a shallow lagoon off the north coast of Spitsbergen. This is a favoured haul-out area for male Walruses and we are likely to observe several groups resting on the beach, perhaps amounting to 100 or more. The island is also one of the few places in Spitsbergen where the small but beautiful Sabine’s Gull nests, and we should see a number flying around the island. Moffen is situated at over 80°N and so seems almost within striking distance of the pole!
In this far northern region of Svalbard we can even entertain thoughts of another of those special birds of the Arctic, Ross’s Gull, although, as this elegant little gull mainly frequents the icy waters far to the east of Spitsbergen (as a non-breeding visitor) and so is only seen on about one ‘round Spitsbergen’ cruise in ten or less, you should not get your hopes up too much!
Walruses generally feed in shallow water and we may encounter one or two hauled out on slabs of ice amongst the fjords of Spitsbergen, particularly if there is too much ice onshore for them to haul out easily on a beach. Often it is possible to take the ship close, or even get right up to one in the zodiacs. Seeing a large male Walrus at close range is truly impressive, especially when one can count every bristle on that amazing face! We may also see these bizarre creatures in the water, watching them roll around or rear their heads up to see what is happening, squinting along those huge tusks. If the ice on the beaches has melted we may be able to find a large gathering to visit onshore, looking for all the world like a heap of gigantic brown slugs as they sleep away the ‘heat’ of a summer’s day while wallowing in decomposing kelp! If a new arrival turns up there may be a brief kafuffle as the newcomer shuffles its way into the midst of the heap, causing some rearing up and tusk stabbing, not to mention some outraged bellowing!
Eventually we will reach the Hinlopen Strait, which separates the main island of Svalbard (which is called Spitsbergen) from the largely ice-covered Nordaustlandet (or Northeast Land). Here we can visit the stark, sheer and dramatic cliffs at Alkefjellet (‘Auk Fell’). Even as we approach the cliffs, which are surrounded (indeed almost overwhelmed) by a huge icefield, the sheer numbers of auks (or alcids) will have become apparent and once we embark on a zodiac cruise the noise and characteristic smell of a vast seabird colony will soon surround us. Somewhere of the order of 30,000-50,000 pairs of Brünnich’s Guillemots (or Thick-billed Murres) nest here, alongside much smaller numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes. As we sail underneath the cliffs thousands and thousands of guillemots can be seen cramming every snow-free ledge, while thousands more wheel overhead or swim on the waters below the cliffs. Pieces of drift ice provide platforms for guillemots to haul themselves out on, where they look for all the world like penguins in the Antarctic!
Being amongst the sea ice is one of the joys of a polar voyage and here in the Hinlopen the floes often lie jumbled at random across the surface of the sea, sometimes widely spaced, with just small pieces of ice in between, and sometimes crammed together. Our skilful captain, an expert in polar navigation, will take our boat safely through this stark landscape. Being amongst the ice is one of the very best times of any Spitsbergen journey, and as we gaze out across floes of every shape and size, ranging from brilliant white to an incredibly deep blue, we will be reminded that it is truly good to be alive when one can experience such extraordinary wonders! What is more, in order to experience ‘the ice’ at its most intense, we may take to our zodiacs and zigzag amongst the floes to get right up close.
It is not just the ice which is fascinating, but the wildlife that survives and prospers here. Bearded Seals haul themselves up on the floes and can often be approached closely by the ship. If the ice nearer the coast is suitable, we have a fair chance of coming across a Polar Bear trying its luck with Bearded Seals. Black-legged Kittiwakes dip down to feed on small Arctic Cod and shrimps and Little Auks (or Dovekies), Brünnich’s Guillemots (or Thick-billed Murres) and smart Black Guillemots fish in the leads or haul themselves up onto the ice floes. Non-breeding Pomarine Skuas (or Pomarine Jaegers) with spectacular ‘spoon-ended’ tail projections sometimes gather here to harry the kittiwakes in the hope they will disgorge their last meal. Here also, while amongst the ice, we have another chance to encounter the superb Ivory Gull.
Back on the western side of the strait, the island of Wilhemøya there are raised beaches littered with subfossil whale skeletons. Polar bear encounters are regular here and in the southern entrance to the Hinlopen we have a slim chance of encountering Greenland Whale.
As we head southwards we come to the wild landscapes of Barentsøya and Edgeøya (‘Edge Island, named after an English whaler), one of the most remote and rarely visited parts of Spitsbergen and another fantastic area for Polar Bear sightings. Our expedition team will be doing their best to amass an impressive total, although numbers vary greatly from year to year. If the current permits, we will sail through Heleysundet, between Barentsøya and Spitsbergen, but if not we will sail through Freemansundet, between Barentsøya and Edgeøya instead. We may head for Diskobukta on the western coast of the latter. Here we will go ashore and visit a huge Kittiwake colony which nest in a gorge. Arctic Foxes have their dens in the gorge and the delightful greyish pups can often be seen playing outside while their piebald mothers scavenge for fallen Kittiwake chicks. Even more exciting, Polar bears with cubs often come here to scavenge as well!
The Kong Ludvigøyane, a group of small islands south of Edgeøya, are a breeding site for Walruses and encounters with Polar Bears are frequent here. There are also some traces of human occupation from the Walrus and Polar Bear hunting periods of Svalbard’s history.
The stunning Hornsund is situated close to the southern tip of Spitsbergen. Landings during our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) birding & wildlife tour are often made at the little Polish research station at Isbjørnhamna, close to some impressively rugged and partly snow-covered mountains and a huge glacier that calves icebergs into the fjord. Arctic Terns nest noisily along the shore and we may see a diminutive grey-brown Arctic Fox carefully searching for eggs. Reindeer and Barnacle Geese feed on the boggy lower slopes, the latter placing their nests on cliff edges or rocky pinnacles where they are safe from foxes, or at least better able to defend themselves. The area at the foot of the mountains has been enriched by seabird droppings and as we head further inland we can enjoy the extraordinary greens, buffs and browns of the tundra mosses and the greys of the rocks, spattered with red, green and whitish lichens. Purple Saxifrage is everywhere, sometimes forming carpets of colour, and we can also expect to find many other arctic wildflowers including Mountain Avens and the delightful little Svalbard Poppy. As we reach the slopes we will find Pink-footed Geese, Arctic Skuas (or Parasitic Jaegers) and Purple Sandpipers nesting (the latter visiting the shore to feed), but the big attraction here is a spectacular Little Auk (or Dovekie) colony, perhaps numbering into the hundreds of thousands!
Later we will cruise up one of the side fjords of the Hornsund, enjoying a thrilling journey past some of the most amazing scenery on earth: great icy mountain ridges rising from the icy waters of the fjord, themselves spattered with ice floes and small icebergs, and a series of huge and awesome glaciers carving their way down broad valleys from the interior ice caps until they crack and calve as they reach the sea. Fjord ice will probably still extend far out in front of some of the glaciers and here our ship will cut its way as deep as it can as we try to get better looks at the many Ringed Seals hauled out on the ice, but close enough to their breathing holes to escape quickly if danger threatens, while we may also see some ivory-coloured Belugas, or White Whales, patrolling the ice edge. Ringed Seals are the Polar Bear’s staple diet in Spitsbergen, so we shall be keeping a close watch for these marvellous animals. They can be hard to spot, especially when swimming in the open leads in the ice, or hiding amongst the boulders and stranded ice floes on the shore, but we have a very good chance of finding one or more in the area. If we are really lucky we will have one come ambling across the ice close to the ship out of sheer curiosity. Mothers with small cubs are more wary, however, and usually head in the opposite direction.
Further north, at Ahlstrandodden in fabulous Bellsund, is an old Beluga hunting base from the 18th century. Here, on a remote shingle spit surrounded by beautiful bays and magnificent snowy peaks (the scenery just goes on and on in Spitsbergen, until it becomes hard to remember which area was the most spectacular of all!), two old wooden boats from the period have been almost miraculously preserved by Spitsbergen’s arctic climate and heaps of Beluga bones still lie nearby. Tundra pools provide nesting sites for the stunning Red (or Grey) Phalarope and the birds can often be found feeding along the shoreline. As always with phalaropes, a bit of patience should allow a very close approach, allowing the birds to show off their gorgeous summer plumage to its best advantage. This is also a good area for King Eider and we may find a collection of different plumage types ranging from females to immature males and striking adult males with their extraordinary orange bill shields.
Svalbard (Spitsbergen): Day 16 This morning we will disembark in Longyearbyen, where our Svalbard (Spitsbergen) tour ends at Longyearbyen airport. We will be sad to leave our little ship and the splendid crew and expedition staff behind after such an adventure together.