Several of you wrote to me last winter to say that you enjoyed our safari so this winter I’m taking you away again but somewhere very different from Tanzania – the archipelago of Svalbard. It is part of Norway and inside the Arctic circle so rather colder than Tanzania!
The best way to see Svalbard is by small ship which is how we did it. The smaller cruise ships are able to visit the inlets and fjiords around the islands which the larger vessels cannot access. The scenery is majestic with icebergs of all sizes, some so big that they dwarf the cruise ships. Often these large ones undergo a process known as calving when a huge slab of ice breaks off from the main iceberg and crashes into the sea sometimes creating a massive wave. Extensive glaciers stretch down to the sea and the impressive ice wall of Brasvellbreen, with frozen waterfalls, stretches for 180 kilometres, (nearly 112 miles) and is the longest glacier front in the northern hemisphere.
The birds in and around Svalbard are, of course, well adapted to icy conditions. Guillemots, Puffins, Skuas, Little auks, Arctic terns and Ivory gulls are some of the species that we saw but one that we got to know very well was the Northern or Arctic fulmar. These birds like to follow ships and we were always accompanied by some throughout the trip. It’s possible that they associate ships with food owing to commercial fishing boats discarding fish offal over the side. Although the Fulmar looks like a gull it is, in fact, a type of petrel and like other members of this family it has tubular nostrils attached to the beak. Fulmars nest on cliffs usually laying only one egg, very occasionally two, and because they nest out in the open their eggs and young are very vulnerable to predatory birds. However, any invader expecting an easy meal will get a nasty shock for fulmars store foul smelling oil in their stomachs and they will eject this on to a predator often matting the feathers so badly that the recipient is unable to fly. Because they feed on sea fish fulmars will consume a great deal of salt and the excess is collected from the bloodstream by a gland in the head, secreted into the nostrils and discarded.
Other Arctic inhabitants which have to eliminate salt from their bodies are Walruses and they do this by producing very salty urine. Walruses are pinnipeds, from the same family as seals and sea lions. They are very social animals and will haul out on the ice or a beach in large herds.
In the pinniped family only Elephant seals are heavier than Walruses and like seals and sealions Walruses have a thick layer of blubber beneath the skin which acts as very efficient insulation against the freezing conditions in which they live. They do not have external ears, just holes which, as with their nostrils, they are able to close when diving for food. Another unusual anatomical feature is their eyes. The muscles which control ocular movement are designed so that the eyes can be protruded enabling these animals to see both forwards and backwards.
Walruses feed mainly on invertebrate animals living in the seabed which they detect with their very sensitive whiskers having raked the sea floor with their tusks; the favourite food is shellfish which they are able to suck out of the shells with their powerful lips.
These animals were nearly hunted to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. The skins, blubber and tusks were highly valued and the meat was a major source of food for the indigenous people. It is still legal for some North American tribes to hunt Walruses but poaching and killing of these magnificent animals by so-called ‘sportsmen’ sadly does take place.
An interesting thing about Svalbard is that it is the home of an international food seed vault. Around the world countries have established food seed gene banks but many are in danger of being destroyed by wars or natural disasters. Indeed, this has happened in some countries, so it was felt that a back-up was needed. Norway has provided just this on Spitzbergen, the largest of the islands in the Svalbard archipelago. Situated in a disused copper mine, deep underground, is a vault containing samples of food seeds from different countries. It is hoped that in the event of a global disaster we would still be able to grow food from these seeds; the vault, it is thought, would be protected from whatever event overtook the planet because of its situation.
Arctic plants are well adapted to the low temperatures and poor soil. Plants lose moisture through their leaves and those which grow in this type of environment have evolved to have small leaves so that moisture loss is kept to a minimum; the leaves are often hairy providing protection from the cold conditions. They are also low-growing which ensures that they avoid the icy winds and, as the top soil is very shallow, the plants are not long rooted. With the short summers flowering and reproduction has to take place quickly so the plants take advantage of the long daylight hours during this period. For most of the year the environment is very hostile and some plants manage to exist by latching on to organic material and utilising the remaining nutrients; the moss in the photograph was growing on a discarded Reindeer antler.
What would a trip to the Arctic be without Polar bears! We were fortunate enough to see two – well, three if we count a dead one. One was sleeping on the hillside but the other one was very active and did all the things a bear should do. He or she (no one volunteered to examine it that closely!) swam quite close to our Zodiac and climbed out on to the ice; it then rolled in the snow to rid its coat of the salt from the sea water. The reason it chose this particular place was because it had a dead dolphin which it was obviously in the habit of visiting. The main prey for these bears are seals which they stalk on the sea ice or catch by waiting patiently, sometimes for hours, by a breathing hole. A seal may eventually come up for air and will be caught by the bear but they are not always successful so sometimes resort to scavenging. The dolphin was in an advanced state of decomposition but Polar bears don’t mind that sort of meal. Climate change is resulting in the melting of much of the sea ice and this is affecting the ability of the bears to find food but they have the ability to go without for a long time which is illustrated when nursing females remain in their dens for up to eight months during which time she will live off her own body fat.
The Polar bear is the largest land carnivore but is classed as a marine mammal and can sometimes swim for days at a time. In Svalbard interaction with humans is rare but never the less care is needed because they are unpredictable and perfectly capable of killing a person; our guides always carried guns when we were off the ship.
Sad to say, plastic has even reached this pristine place and has been found in the ice along with other pollutants.
© Sheila Sims 2018