The Arctic. That word is one of the most evocative of any which describes a region on this planet. There aren’t many places where you can easily access it, and none of those are as far north as Svalbard. Our journey not only got us up to some of the farthest north tundra, but it also brought us into the Arctic sea ice itself.
It all started with a flight from Oslo, the culturally rich capital of the northern kingdom of Norway, across the ocean where the Norwegian and Barents Seas meet, to Longyearbyen, the only substantial settlement on the Svalbard Archipelago. The windswept “city,” along the southern shores of Isfjorden, was established as a coal mining settlement many moons ago, but nowadays there is only one very insignificant mine still active, and it has transformed into a tourism & research-centric town. Before we even left the airport we were already seeing exciting things, with the highlight being a couple of drake King Eiders seen from the parking lot while we were awaiting our bags (some folks even saw Svalbard Reindeer from the plane before we even touched down!). The afternoon’s weather was harsh, but we still found one of our targets in Pink-footed Goose. Then, during a delicious dinner at our posh lodge, someone looking out the window asked offhandedly “What’s that bird?”. The answer was… a Rock Ptarmigan - visible from our dinner table seats no less - what a start to the trip! The next morning we took an excursion down the shore for a couple of hours, with the highlights being some more nice views of close King Eider, Purple Sandpipers galore, Red-necked Phalarope, and more Common Eider nests per square foot than we could’ve imagined were possible prior to coming here!
With some fun birds under our belt, we boarded the m/v Hondius, a brand new ship on only its third voyage ever, with an excellent expedition staff and crew. By evening we were cruising west out of Isfjorden, seeing alcids galore, including a bunch of diminutive Dovekies and their spiffy Atlantic Puffin cousins, before we had to pry ourselves away from the decks despite the fact that the sun was still up, and would remain up for the rest of week in this realm.
The next six days involved voyaging all around the Northwestern portion of Spitsbergen, making breathtakingly scenic landings and cruising through the seemingly endless sea ice. Searching for Polar Bears was the name of the game for much of this time, but that was by no means the only thing we were on the lookout for. Our very first zodiac expedition, in the Magdalenafjorden, provided us with not just a stunning glacier view, but with a close up Walrus encounter! This was the most wanted animal for several folks on tour, and watching around thirty of these behemoths rolling around on top of each other in a pile, groaning, flippering, snorting, and occasionally tussling with one another was a truly fantastic experience!
Our first sojourn in the pack ice was something quite special. Not only did we get north of 80 degrees of latitude (for the first time in the Hondius’ young life, with some of the birders in the bow leading the way), and have a fleeting encounter with a pair of Ivory Gulls circling the ship, but we had our second Polar Bear encounter. Rewinding back a day, our first Polar Bear had been a couple of days prior, at Smeerenburgfjord, before we even got to Magdalenafjorden, and though we got some scope views of it sleeping on the ice, it seemed content to sleep out its day on the inaccessible-to-us ice, and so we let it be and went on our way. Fast forward back to the pack ice, and we eventually came across a bear that was resting on the ice. Shortly after we found it though, it got up and started moving vaguely towards the ship. However, after a few minutes we realized that it was decidedly not interested in us, and was taking advantage of a sudden onset of fog to try and sneak up on a Bearded Seal that was hauled out on the ice. After watching this Polar Bear stalk the seal for quite a while, including swimming underwater and periodically popping its head out of the water like a periscope, we bore witness to a near miss, as the seal caught sight of the Polar Bear when it was already on the same piece of ice as the seal and making its final approach from downwind. The Bearded Seal saw it about thirty meters away and dove back into its breathing hole and a last-second dash by the bear wasn’t enough to stop it. Once we were done digesting this incredible wilderness encounter, we went back to enjoying the pack ice, which gave us more walruses on ice and in the water, and some Bearded, Ringed, and Harp Seals as well. As we neared the Archipelago once more, those who were interested had the opportunity to get out and walk around on the sea ice at the mouth of Raudfjorden. There was even a seal breathing hole right outside the safe perimeter, though no heads popped out while we were in attendance.
Moving back to the south, Fourteenth of July Glacier gave us more scenic glacier viewing, a lush tapestry of tundra flowers, the locally breeding Parasitic Jaegers pestering the locally breeding Black-legged Kittiwakes (and being pestered back), Atlantic Puffins at close range, baby Barnacle Geese, Glaucous Gulls, and Snow Buntings, and even a couple of drake King Eider in a large aggregation of Common Eider. On our way back out the Krossfjorden, we had another Polar Bear sighting, this time of a bear in the water which we watched until it made its way to shore and then stalked up over a hill and out of sight. The Kongsfjorden (The King’s Fjord) was an all day exploration, which included watching a Polar Bear traipsing along the shore of Blomstrandhalvøya, flushing up a Long-tailed Jaeger in the process, and then several hours in the small research outpost of Ny Ålesund. This settlement has something on the order of twenty-one nations with a research presence, though the upkeep is the responsibility of the Norwegian government (to the tune of something like Eight Million Krone a year!). It also provided us with another flyby Ivory Gull, an entertaining museum, and good numbers of the common northern breeders right in town! On our way back out to sea we went to an area of ocean that has a raised bottom and is typically good for marine life, and we were rewarded with three exceptionally close and cooperative Blue Whales in the company of a Fin Whale. Seeing the two largest species of animal on the planet next to one another at such close range inspired a true sense of awe, and was the perfect cap to what had already been a superb day.
The next to last full day was spent back up to the north (even farther north then on our first trip to the pack ice), and another full day exploration of the truly magical pack ice. Another Polar Bear was spotted, and this time we got to spend some truly quality time with it, as it got up, stretched out, and came sauntering right up to the ship. We watched this one at our leisure before it became startled by a piece of ground up ice and wandered slowly off into the vast horizon-spanning ice-scape. This was the highlight of the tour for many folks on board, including several in our group, and it was an incredible exclamation point on what was a truly once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Our final landing was at Alkhornet, an idyllic headland in the Isfjorden, and a perfect place to wrap up our Arctic exploration. Alkhornet was as colorful as the prior day in the ice was colorless (except for whites and blues), with a lush green hillside tapering down from cliffs teeming with birdlife, Svalbard Reindeer galloping by us, and a curious Arctic Fox walking right through the group as it searched for tasty treats on the slopes. We disembarked the next morning, and began our various journeys home, though the whirlwind week we spent in this sublime region will surely live on in our memories ad infinitum. Thanks for joining me and the Kingfisher on this journey to the great white (and, it turns out, green, yellow, blue, pink and more) north. We had a blast traveling with such a cohesive, genial, and fascinating group of people, and we can’t wait to see you all again, wherever in the world that may be. Until then, live, love, and bird on.
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Totals for the tour: 29 bird taxa and 10 mammal taxa