Today was for the birds. Tens of thousands to be specific. Under typical northern Svalbard summer conditions (i.e., below freezing temperatures, overcast, windy, in-and-out fog), we Zodiac cruised the incredible bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. Here, up to 100,000 Brünnich's guillemots nest on the soaring, majestic cliffs, which collectively resemble scenes from a Lord of the Rings film. Females produce one egg, each with a distinct color and pattern to facilitate recognition and designed by nature to spin, rather than roll, which reduces the probability of rolling off the cliff. Eggs are usually laid directly on the cliff rather than in a prepared nest of vegetation. Most guillemot pairs were incubating an egg, evidenced by occasional thievery by ever vigilant and stealthy gulls. Foxes constantly patrol the base of some cliffs for eggs that roll from the nests above or an unwary adult. At least one fox was observed running away with a guillemot in its mouth. Air traffic was intense. Arriving and departing birds resembled a swarm of mosquitoes when viewed from afar and often glided close to our heads when departing or arriving. Before returning to the ship for lunch, we cruised past Vegafonna, a truly beautiful glacier that was also viewed by a single walrus. All in all, it was a spectacular morning!
After lunch, we sailed to Torellneset for hikes. Torellneset is located on Nordaustlandet, home of the fourth largest glacier in Europe. It is a bleak landscape: a wide and mostly flat beach composed of grape-sized pebbles, some of which were frozen in ice and some forming small, circular cones. Mostly, however, it was like walking on a vast sand beach made of pebbles instead of sand. No vegetation was present on this highly unstable substrate. Swimming walruses greeted us, and we were able to walk several hundred meters to a small haul-out of 30-35 animals. It was mesmerizing to watch the enormous animals sleeping, squabbling, scratching, and shifting position by pushing aside or simply crawling over their neighbors. The immensity of their bodies simply must be experienced in person to fully appreciate it.
After dinner, we sailed south for tomorrow’s adventures.