Birds, Bears, and Blubber

During the night our ship ventured further north through the pack ice of the Hinlopen Strait and brushed 80˚ North, only a few hundred miles from the North Pole. As we worked our way back we stopped at an impressive colony of thick billed murre along one point of the island Nordaustlandet. Here we saw countless breeding pairs flitting back and forth between the sheer cliff face and the sea. As we’ve learned, whenever you have birds in great numbers you’re also likely to find arctic fox. Sure enough, before too long we saw a spry fox leaping from snow to ice effortlessly, looking for an easy snack. In the process of jumping around the ice, however, the fox managed to bother a glaucous gully, one of the largest gulls, and certainly a bird you would not want to mess with.

These thick-billed murres nest on these cliffs in astonishing numbers protecting their light blue eggs.

These thick-billed murres nest on these cliffs in astonishing numbers protecting their light blue eggs.

This arctic fox was very agile both on snow and pack ice, in addition to evading the harassment of a glaucous gull.

This arctic fox was very agile both on snow and pack ice, in addition to evading the harassment of a glaucous gull.

As we continued to venture further away from the pack ice of the north we made one last stop to look for the ice bear, or as the Norwegians call them isbjørn. Sure enough, thanks to our captains keen eyes, we saw spot of cream against a white landscape and we approached quietly. This bear was a solitary male, and at first seemed quite uninterested, but eventually perked up and came right up and came incredibly close to the ship.

Observing the ice bear.

Observing the ice bear.

This curious bears has huge paws that allow it to move deftly across snow and ice, while also giving it a powerful tool for swimming and killing seal.

This curious bears has huge paws that allow it to move deftly across snow and ice, while also giving it a powerful tool for swimming and killing seal.

A curious bear approaches the ship.

A curious bear approaches the ship.

Lifting his enormous paw, the polar bear moves near our ship, sniffing the air as he moves.

Lifting his enormous paw, the polar bear moves near our ship, sniffing the air as he moves.

After a while the solitary male lumbers off, away from the ship, and back this his walking hibernation.

After a while the solitary male lumbers off, away from the ship, and back this his walking hibernation.

Bear on pack ice.

Bear on pack ice.

Farewell pack ice.

Farewell pack ice.

After having such a close encounter with a polar bear I felt thoroughly warm and tingly. This is, after all, the worlds largest land predator. Perhaps inspired by this the ship ventured on to see another large animal of the Arctic: the walrus. Next stop: Torellnest.

Walrus hauled out onto the beach with our ship in the background.

Walrus hauled out onto the beach with our ship in the background.

The walrus seal, second largest to the elephant seal, with males reaching upwards of 900 kg (or 2000 lbs) really brings home the message of “In the Arctic, blubber is beautiful.” These massive animals have a thick layer of blubber surrounded by an equally impressive layer of thick skin. Match this with impressive tusks and large seemingly blood-shot eyes and you have an organism that few would wish to contend with. The walrus uses its tusk to fight over females in addition to helping them out of the water and onto a chunk of ice. Walrus also have a bushy set of whiskers which they can use to feel to ocean floor with incredible detail in search of their favorite food mussels.

Curious walrus examine the humans onshore.

Curious walrus examine the humans onshore.

Ice boulders on the beach.

Ice boulders on the beach.

Walking across the beach.

Walking across the beach.

Fellow travelers climb a rocky hill to get a better view of the terrain. It's important in these settings to stick together as polar bears are always a potential threat.

Fellow travelers climb a rocky hill to get a better view of the terrain. It’s important in these settings to stick together as polar bears are always a potential threat.

One of our naturalists, Magnus, with his rifle. Bears are a very real danger in Svalbard and it is a requirement for guides to be armed.

One of our naturalists, Magnus, with his rifle. Bears are a very real danger in Svalbard and it is a requirement for guides to be armed.

Making time for snow angels.

Making time for snow angels.

Even in the harshest climates, plants seem to hang on.

Even in the harshest climates, plants seem to hang on.

 

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