Our next shore trip was at Zorgdragerfjorden on Nordaustlandet. It’s officially described as an Arctic desert, although we were told 81 species of plants can be found there. (We found none – unless you count a bit of lichen.) We divided ourselves up into smaller groups according to how energetic (or not) we wanted to be. Tony and I chose to walk to a lake, which was described as middlingly strenuous, rather than haring up a mountain; going up the mountain a fraction more slowly; or picking up rubbish from the beach. After a bit, one of the other groups radioed from halfway up their mountain to say they’d seen an arctic fox. Humph. The most exciting thing we’d seen up till then had been a brown insect. We carried on trudging through snow and ice, over pebbles, slurry and through streams. And then there was an urgent shout from João, one of our guides. ‘Everybody get behind me! Quick!’
He’d seen a bear. It was about 300 yards away, walking across the patch of snow where we’d all been standing just minutes before when we’d been looking at that less than fascinating insect. Admittedly the bear wasn’t coming towards us … but with bears you don’t take chances. João fired off a couple of warning bangers. (The rifle was for when/if things got dangerous.) The bear disappeared behind a gravel bank and we didn’t see it again.
But with bears you really don’t take chances. Everyone had to be evacuated back to the ship – even the other groups halfway up mountains or litter picking on the shore. Evacuated fast. It is difficult to hurry across snow and ice, over pebbles, slurry, through streams. Especially in Wellington boots. More than one person fell over – into a stream – but somehow we all managed to get safely back into the zodiacs and back to the ship.
A zodiac trip was planned for bright and early the following morning to a location where there are usually lots of walruses. The recce reported back that there were no walruses there – not even any mailbags – so the trip was cancelled and we headed north again. We sailed into mist, but this mist had a silver lining: a fog bow, which stayed with us throughout most of the day. (A fog bow is like a rainbow but with no colour because of the very fine water droplets.) Most of us had never seen one before.
We stopped to watch another bear feeding, sharing its meal (perhaps not entirely voluntarily) with ivory and glaucous gulls. It finally swam off at 10.30 p m leaving just a patch of blood-stained ice.
Sunday (July 10th) the intercom spluttered into life at 7.45 a m – but not with an announcement of a bear sighting. This time it was to tell us about bow whales off the starboard side. They’re quite rare: in Svalbard waters their population is somewhere between 10 to 20 – and here were three swimming alongside us. Later that day an even rarer blue whale was seen. And later still, a bear swam across our bows. Fortunately the captain saw it in time and managed to avoid it. It stayed with us for a while (safely on the ice), thoroughly investigated the ship, decided there was nothing worth eating on the hull – and swam off.
Very early the next morning we went by zodiac to the bird cliffs at Alkefjellet. At the crack of dawn (figuratively speaking in 24 hour daylight!) we had pre-departure coffee and biscuits. Paul remarked that the weather was milder – balmy, he said: we wouldn’t need to wear all our layers.
This was welcome news. Normally I’d pile on 2 pairs of socks, long johns, thermal top, long-sleeved t-shirt, fleece, lined trousers, down jacket. Over that, there’d be waterproof bib-topped trousers, waterproof jacket, scarf, silk gloves, fold-back mittens, woolly hat. And over the top of all that, I’d somehow struggle into a life jacket and wriggle my feet into lined Wellington boots. Leaving off even just one layer might mean I’d be able to locate my joints and perhaps have some small degree of flexibility. Great.
There were thousands of seabirds at Alkefjellet: perched on every available tiny ledge on the face of the cliffs; flying; skittering across the surface of the water as they took off; and there were skirmishes as Brünnich’s guillemots squabbled and sought to resolve petty differences. We were careful to keep our mouths shut when we looked up – and most of us wore our hoods up. We also kept an eye out for arctic foxes and eventually managed to pick one out running across the rocks and vegetation high on the hillside. And by that time we were cold.
It had of course been a mistake to leave off a layer. One person’s ‘balmy’ is not necessarily another’s. We were all cold (although if Paul was, he wasn’t admitting it). But just when our toes were almost ready to crumble with frost bite, ten belugas did a swim-past below the bird cliffs – and our shivering was forgotten.
That afternoon (fully layered again) we saw lots of walruses at Torrelneset. We didn’t land – it was the breeding season and we might have disturbed the colony if there were any young. In fact we stayed quite a distance away from the shore, but the walruses were of course aware of us and came galumphing down the slopes into the water and swam over to check us out in our zodiacs.
Pictures can been seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/52323463@N06/albums/72157670546875342