Cruising the Pack Ice...
In the bridge, expedition leader Bud and first officer Piers studied the most recent ice charts in order to plan our day. Naturalists and crew scanned the horizon with their binoculars. Yes, today will be spent cruising in and along the pack ice looking for wildlife and taking in the icy scenery.
Before lunch, there was also a presentation on Svalbard's natural and cultural history by naturalist Carl Erik Kilander. His presentation outlined the human uses of Svalbard in the 1600-1800's and their impacts on the wildlife: from the Dutch whalers who decimated populations of the blue and bowhead whales to the Russian hunters that would spend all winter hunting and trapping polar bear, arctic fox, birds, and reindeer. He spoke about the rise of coal mining and founding of Longyearbyen, and the fact that mining is currently being phased out and replaced by tourism and scientific research.
98% of Svalbard is wilderness, making it one of the world's last great wild places, and 65% of it is completely protected. Conservation of wildlife and habitat has allowed the Arctic animals of Svalbard to thrive in recent years. However, Svalbard's ecosystems are still vulnerable to more long-range threats like global climate change, radioactivity and other pollutants, and resource depletion and mismanagement in the Barents Sea. Carl Erik's talk was not only concerned with the history but also with future of this region he loves so much.
Seals, Seals, Seals!
It was a great day for pinnipeds (seals)! The two seals that make up the bulk of a polar bear's diet are ringed seals (Pusa hispida hispida) and bearded seals (Erignathus barbarous), and we were fortunate enough to see both species today. The ringed seal gets its name from the spots that mottle their light brown coats. And the bearded seal is named for its long, white whiskers used to feel for prey on the muddy sea bottom (this feeding behavior also gives its face a characteristic coppery hue). Both seals have thick layers of blubber to insulate themselves from the cold and thick nails on their flippers to grip the ice when resting. They are streamlined, fast swimmers and can usually evade polar bears when underwater. On the ice, however, they are vulnerable to attack.
The photos below represent two different survival strategies of the seals that naturalist Michael Nolan shared with me.
The smaller ringed seals are generally found in the center of large ice floes, next to their breathing holes. For a polar bear to attack, it would have to pull itself up on the far edge of a floe and run across the ice. The ringed seal would hear the bear and be able to quickly slip down the hole and swim away. The only danger would be when the seal returns to its hole, perhaps after hunting some fish, and can be surprised by a waiting bear. It is said that polar bears can even smell which breathing holes are most frequented.
The larger bearded seals most often hang out on the edges of smaller ice floes, looking downward to keep watch for predators. They keep to the edge so they can quickly roll into the water if there is any sign of a bear. Once in the water, the bearded seal can swim away, provided the seal has reacted quickly enough. The relationship between seals and polar bears is, as Michael told me, a dance over time of each species trying to outwit the other.
Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) are seals that do not often fall prey to polar bears, for males and females have ivory tusks with which to defend themselves! Our excellent spotters saw a walrus on a far off floe, and we cruised closer to get a good look. These large seals can weigh up to two tons! We got close enough to see the vibrissae (whiskers) lining its snout. The whiskers are used to search out invertebrates like clams and sea cucumbers from the muddy sea bottom. Sometimes walrus haul out on land and pile in large groups in order to retain heat and protect their young from the ice bears. But this walrus was all alone on a small ice floe.
Ice Caps and Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Hats
This afternoon, the ship made its way to Austfonna, a formidable tidewater glacier that is actually the third largest ice cap in the world by area (after ones in Antarctica and Greenland). The total area is over 3000 square miles! The sheer face above water is incredible, but most of the ice is underwater. We learn that it is about 1800 feet thick in places, though on average about 900 feet thick. As we approached the face of the massive ice cap, Ellen, Aimee, and I were humbled by its beauty. The air was incredibly fresh and we swore we could hear the ice pop and tremble. On the ice face, the creamy white glazed over the vibrant blues like a confection. The slideshow below has some great shots of the Austfonna ice cap...and us Grosvenor Teacher Fellows rockin' our GTF hats!
Enjoy this slideshow of Austfonna portraits of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellows taken by the amazing Sisse Brimberg, and graciously provided to me for use on my blog.
Breakthroughs and Reflection
This evening, we cruised by the edge of the last remaining fast ice in Bjornsundet. There were times when the Explorer had to ram drifting pack in order to push forward. It was so cool to watch from the bow as the ship broke through. Alone on deck, I looked out at the fractured surface of the sea and reflected on the ice. Birds dipped and dived in our wake, for we had uncovered food sources below. All Arctic life truly depends on the ice to survive: these birds, the seals we saw today, and the polar bear we had observed yesterday.
The high Arctic is a place of relatively simple beauty.
Of breakthroughs and reflection.
All photographs by Cristina Veresan unless otherwise indicated.
Read the Lindblad Naturalist Daily Expedition Report (DER) here.
This morning, we took a bus to the Oslo airport and boarded a flight up to Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean! I was so excited to get up to the high Arctic and embark on our voyage aboard the National Geographic Explorer. I took a bit of fine Norwegian chocolate on the plane, but I opted out of the many salty black licorice treats that are so popular there!
In fact, Longyearbyen has the northernmost airport (permanent, with regularly scheduled flights) in the world. The city boasts many "northernmost" records: post office, church, restaurant, blues festival, cinema etc...
In the winter, the region is cloaked in darkness day and night and temperatures are often below zero, but this time of year, the town is bathed in sunlight at all hours and temperatures range in the 30-50 degrees F. The climate in Svalbard is moderated by the warm North Atlantic current that continues the Gulf Stream northeast.
We visited the Svalbard Museum and got introduced to the local arctic ecology, as well as the human history of the region. Though there were no indigenous people in Svalbard. In 1596, Dutch expedition led by Wilhelm Barentsz arrived in Svalbard and named the region "Spitsbergen," a name that meant "sharp, pointed mountains." Today, Spitsbergen is the name of the largest island.
During the 400 years after its discovery, Svalbard was a whaling and hunting ground for the Dutch, English, Russian Pomors, and Norwegians. Whales, walruses, arctic fox, and polar bears were hunted in large numbers. Longyearbyen has been used as a whaling base, a mining town, a polar research outpost and, most recently, an Arctic tourism destination. The homes are almost exclusively owned by companies, which provide housing to workers and their families.
On the bus, Ellen and I sat near a Lindblad Expeditions legend, a very sweet (and sharp!) elderly woman named Grace. She has been on over 30 voyages all over the world with the company! She was familiar with the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship and after congratulating us for being there told us, "Don't pretend to know anything about polar bears. It really detracts from the experience of others." Ha! We assured her we wouldn't.
Exploring the Explorer...
Finally time to board the ship and begin exploring our new home. Our teacher cabin was quite comfortable: two attached staterooms, a single and a double, and a bathroom with walk-in shower. We began unpacking our gear and settling into our shipboard home. Karen, our naturalist mentor, gave us a tour of the ship and I quickly began to memorize the stairways.
Everyone gathered in the lounge for staff and crew introductions, as well as a mandatory lifeboat drill. We had to learn what do in case of an emergency. We had not even left port yet and Captain Oliver Kruess spotted a walrus and calf swimming near the ship. I quickly grabbed my camera and headed out on deck to check it out!
I was stunned by the silvery light as we pulled out of Longyearbyen. The pointed peaks seemed to glow in the afternoon sun. We set sail for Hornsund, the southernmost major fjord along the main island of Spitsbergen.
We were treated to some gorgeous scenery. We cruised up close to our first tidewater glacier, ones that terminate in the sea.
I can already tell that my fellow Fellows Ellen and Aimee and I are going to be lifelong friends and professional colleagues. I know we have an incredible adventure ahead of us, and I cannot think of anyone better to share it with.
We enjoyed the first of many sumptuous meals this evening. During this and other meals, us teacher fellows tried to separate and dine with different guests. What a well-travelled and interesting group!
Unfortunately, I did not get any sleep. I am not sure if I was still on Hawaii time or perhaps coursing with adrenaline, but I was up writing and wandering the ship most of the night. I saw the midnight sun, and the 1am sun, and the 2am sun, and the...well, you get the idea.
Looking forward to the journey ahead...let's explore the Land of the Ice Bears!
All photographs by Cristina Veresan unless otherwise indicated.