That all changed at the Kapp Fanshawe bird cliffs.
I dare anyone to spend some time cruising right below these towering cliffs crammed with a quarter million nesting murres and not be in complete awe of bird life. That's how I spent this morning. Once we sailed out of Bear Sound and through the Hinlopen Strait, we had made our way to this amazing point of land in Eastern Spitsbergen. As we approached the cliffs, I was dwarfed by the sheer rock cliffs rising hundreds of feet from the sea lined with shoulder-to-shoulder murres. I was deafened by bird noise. Oh, and did I mention the acrid guano smell?
The air is also thick with swooping fulmars, glaucous gulls, and kittiwakes, waiting for a possible egg breakfast. The cliff's ledges are dominated by thick-billed murres, also called Brünnich's guillemots (Uria lomvia). These birds are in the Auk family (Alcidae) that also includes puffins, Great Auks (extinct), and lots of other guillemots.
The breeding habits of these birds, shared to me by Michael Nolan, are fascinating. These murres lay their eggs right on the bare rock of the cliffs. The eggs are pear-shaped so they do not roll when jostled on the narrow ledges. Once the eggs hatch, the chicks will be cared for by both parents for weeks.
"Beluga!" he yelled out and guests began pointing their cameras downward. The two white whales never surfaced but I got off a quick shot of them underwater. Once they were out of sight, Doug grabbed me and said "Good spotting!" Michael and Ellen were nearby and we broke into a rousing chorus of the Raffi song Baby Beluga! We couldn't help ourselves.
As excited as I am to observe the macro life up here in the Arctic, I am also interested in the micro life drifting undetected in these frigid waters. The base of this Arctic food chain, tiny plankton, was on my mind, and today I finally got a chance to conduct a plankton tow. The first officer Piers took me out in a Zodiac after shuttling guests, including Ellen, to shore for a hike. With us were Aimee to observe and photographer Sisse Brimberg to capture the action.
The plankton net is a funnel shaped, fine-meshed net connected to a plastic bottle. When the plankton net is towed through the water for awhile, you get a concentrated sample of plankton in the bottle.
Enjoy this slideshow of plankton tow images taken by the amazing Sisse Brimberg, and graciously provided to me for use on my blog.
Considering how much of the Earth is covered with seawater, does it surprise you that plant plankton provide us with about 60% of the oxygen we breathe?
Plant plankton (phytoplankton) use energy from the sun to photosynthesize, so they are primary producers. Tiny animal plankton (zooplankton) eat the phytoplankton and are eaten by other zooplankton. Some animal plankton (holoplankton) are plankton their whole lives such as copepods and pteropods. Other plankton (meroplankton) are only plankton when they are larvae then develop into adult forms (fish, crabs, sea anenomes, etc...).
I got to love Bud's soothing voice over the intercom for many announcements: wake-ups, meals, and (especially) wildlife spottings! Late in the afternoon, I happened to be up in the bridge when a bear sighting was confirmed, so I scrambled down to my cabin to bundle up and grab my camera. Would this bear approach the ship as closely as the last one?
He came near the ship only once before lumbering away.
I got thinking about a lecture that Magnus had given about polar bears. Polar bears diverged from brown bears in their evolution about 300,000-500,000 years ago and have adapted to their extreme conditions in both physical and metabolic characteristics. Because polar bears and brown bears can mate, there has been discussion in the scientific community about whether or not they are each different species, but recent genomic evidence confirms they are in fact unique species that have intermingled and interbred at various times. In fact, Magnus reported that due to climate change causing habitat to overlap, brown bears are again mating with polar bears in some parts of the world, and a few hybrid bears had been identified.
Read the Lindblad Naturalist Daily Expedition Report (DER) here.