Our last month in Svalbard.
There are several types of seals in the waters around Svalbard and the two that we saw were the Harbour seal and the Bearded seal. The Harbours seem to like resting on or near the shore while the Beardeds that we saw were always on their own little ice floes. Marine mammals have a deep layer of fat called blubber under the skin which protects them from the cold and enables them to rest on ice and remain comfortable. Both of these seals eat a variety of marine prey which they find in relatively shallow water. Crustaceans, fish, squid and clams are taken and the Beardeds will often have a rusty colouring around the face which is caused by iron compounds from the seabed which they pick up when rooting for prey.
A bird that will scavenge seal carcasses is the Arctic skua. This is a very aggressive bird and will attack other seabirds to make them drop their food which the Skua will catch in mid air. Some feed entirely in this way while others take eggs and chicks and even adult birds, carrion, fish and more or less anything they can lay their beaks on. They spend most of their lives at sea and are great travellers.
One in Svalbard that suffers predation by the Skua is the Glaucous gull. However, this is the second largest gull in the world so the eggs and chicks, rather than the adult bird, will be taken. As this is a fierce gull it will put up a good fight to defend its nest. It is also a nest robber and will feed on eggs and chicks of other birds as well as fish that it snatches from just below the surface of the water; it is a scavenger and will eat a great variety of food.
Nothing is wasted in this harsh environment. When an animal comes to the end of its life it becomes food for others. Its carcass is stripped of every bit of flesh by first of all the top predators, Polar bears, then along comes the fox, after him the birds and when they have finished there will be life in the ground which will break down whatever remains.
The Arctic is a beautiful and fascinating place and we were told that some people become addicted and return over and over again and some end their trip by going for a polar plunge; they jump off the ship, with a safety rope attached, into the freezing water and go for a little swim! A ship’s doctor was heard to say, ‘To do that you need a strong heart and a weak mind!’ I can hear you asking the question and the answer is ‘No, I * didn’t!’
See you back in Norfolk next month.
© Sheila Sims 2018