Expedition Cruise


Our expedition (map provided by Grands Espaces).  Red: outward journey; blue: journey back.

 Svalbard: a few details

Most people are familiar with the name Spitzbergen but have no idea about the whereabouts of Svalbard and yet Spitzbergen is only the main island of the Svalbard archipelago, which also comprises the isles of Nordaustlandet, Barentsøya, Edgeøya and Prins Karl Forland.  They lie in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, way up north, as far as 81 degrees North Latitude. Politically, Norway has ruled over Svalbard since the Svalbard Treaty was signed in 1920 but a few Russians live there, exploiting coal mines, and there are also people from other nationalities there, especially in scientific bases.  This is a very special place and not only in politics.  In summer, there is no night and you can gaze at the splendid scenery 24 hours a day: mostly snow-covered mountain peaks overlooking deep valleys but also stupendous glaciers.  They sometimes break like thunder into the sea while you navigate between the huge blocks of ice to find whales, seals and walruses.  On dry land, the Arctic Fox lives along with the Reindeer.  The Polar Bear can be found almost anywhere, whether in the tundra or at sea.  The archipelago totals about 2300 inhabitants, 2000 of whom live in Longyearbyen, the capital city.  This rather plain town looks like an industrial estate and it won't take you long to see all of it.

In summer, the temperature may reach 10°C, rarely higher and at sea, it is usually much lower so you've got to wear proper garments.  As the terrain is hilly and wet, you need sturdy shoes and rubber-boots as well.  You can't drive for long distances outside Longyearbyen and you will have to carry a gun with you because hungry Polar Bears are very dangerous.  Because the ice-cap melts away very quickly, their hunting area is reduced dramatically and so they may come quite close to the city.  This is why the kindergarten is surrounded with wire-netting. 


On the ice-pack (Photo Marie-Claire Peltier)

Bearing this in mind, the members of our group, the Migrating Birds, had decided not to organize this trip on their own.  We chose to go there with an experimented travel agency, i.e. Grands Espaces, whose head manager in France is Christian Kempf, a well-known ornithologist in the our area.  This journey cost us an arm and a leg but we could never have seen so many sites and animals in such good conditions if we had hired a sailing-boat or contented ourselves with hiring a car to drive in the vicinity of Longyearbyen.  Special thanks to the people mentioned below, thanks to whom we have discovered this terrific country:  

 Grands Espaces Guides:

Christian Kempf (Team Manager)
Frédéric Bouvet
Marc Hébert
Bernard Lefauconnier
Marie Pellé
Raymond Perrin
Axel Soumier

With the help of, Adam Rheborg, a Swedish guide.

Grands Espaces staff:

Elisabeth Rossone Coelho
Tiphaine Weinzaepflen
Alexandre Seydoux

If you just want to see my fauna checklist, please click here.

7 August 2012

We took off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on board an SAS plane heading for Oslo.  The quality of service offered was poor abut that was not very important because we were very happy to be with our friends and keen to to see the Far North.  We landed at  Gartenmoen airport late in the afternoon and were accommodated in the Best Western hotel outside the Norwegian capital city but close to the airport.  As this was only a stop-over, we didn't mind and made the most of the comfort we could find in this establishment.  The only bird I saw there was a Lesser-Black-backed Gull when I went out of the hotel.

8 August 2012

We had a solid breakfast and boarded a plane which took us to Tromsø.  Svalbard being a free zone, we had to leave the plane and go through the customs to board the same plane again and land in Longyearbyen.  As we had a window seat we could have a breath-taking view of the snow-covered mountains and were surprised to see so many glaciers, some of them dropping right into the ocean.


So far from everywhere (Photo Danielle Joannès)

Once in Longyearbyen, 1309 km away from the North Pole, we took a bus and drove into the Adventdalen Valley and from the heights around the city we could see the skips hanging on the cables which were used to transport coal to feed the power station.  I also saw a Snow Bunting, a Purple Sandpiper, several hundred Barnacle Geese, approximately ten Pink-footed Geese and 4 Svalbard Reindeer, which are shorter than those you can find in Lapland for instance. At the seaside, a Glaucous Gull, Arctic Terns, a Black Guillemot and 3 Arctic Skuas.  We then boarded the Ocean Nova and took part in the safety drill on the top-deck where we froze to death and from then on knew we should wear proper garments in Svalbard.   The ship weighed anchor late in the evening and set course westwards to leave the Isfjord before heading north along Prins Karl Forland.  From the deck I saw an Atlantic Puffin, many Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes, a few Brünnich's Guillemots and 3 Little Auks.  In the evening we had an excellent meal but some of us refused to take it because there was a heavy swell and they were sea-sick.  

Black Guillemot

Juvenile Black Guillemot (Photo Danielle Joannès)

9 August 2012

The boat pitched and rolled during the night, although this might not be the appropriate term as the day lasts for 24 hours at this time of the year.  At 5 a.m., we were woken up by the noise of the dropping anchor.  Through the window, we had a good view to the 14th July Glacier at the mouth of the   Krossfjord. After breakfast, I took a stroll on the decks and could see various birds.  The Northern Fulmar, gliding from side to side on its stiff wings was the commonest species.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar (Photo Danielle Joannès)

There were also Glaucous Gulls, more and more Black-legged Kittiwakes and a Great Skua looking for a prey.  We navigated among the ice blocks in our rubber boats and saw about thirty Barnacle Geese, 7 Pink-legged Geese, a few Atlantic Puffins, and 2 Reindeer.  It was cold but we had so many warm clothes on that when we climbed up the lateral moraine we felt too hot. Bernard Lefauconnier, our glaciologist, gave us some explanations about how those moraines were formed and showed us small rivulets (which he called glacial rills) which ran deep down into the heart of the glacier.  From time to time we heard the thunder of huge blocks of ice falling into the ocean and creating a heavy wave.

14th July glacier 

14th of July Glacier (Photo Danielle Joannès)

We then navigated in the Krossfjord before dropping anchor right in front of the Lilliehook Glacier. The Zodiac inflatable boats were put at sea and we had to find our way between the huge blocks of ice floating on the cold water.  You would have expected see white ice only but as a matter of fact, some of these blocks were deep blue and shaped like wild animals.  As they melt away they very often look like swans. 

Lilliehook Glacier

Lilliehook Glacier (Photo Danielle Joannès)

This outing which lasted for more than 2 hours gave the opportunity to see the mythical Ivory Gull, numerous Little Auks and again 2 Great Skuas and a huge  Bearded Seal.  It was lying on an ice floe and didn't mind us taking very good pictures.

Bearded Seal

Bearded Seal (Photo Danielle Joannès)

We set off again, along the western coast of the archipelago, heading northwards and we stayed up till midnight to enjoy the view provided by the famous Magdalenefjorden surrounded with black and white mountain peaks. We counted up to at least eleven glaciers and then our attention was drawn by a white wooden cross on the bank of the fjord.  This cross was erected right where a man had been killed by a Polar Bear a few years before.  Our guides did not carry guns just to show off. 

10 August 2012

The sea was smooth and there was no wind at all but the drizzle was a threat to our optical equipment.  We climbed into the Zodiacs and navigated between the small islands of Andeøyane at the mouth of the Liefdefjord.


Andeøyane (Photo Danielle Joannès)

We spotted many birds among which 3 Arctic Skuas, Common Eider, about twenty Long-tailed Ducks and a Red-throated Loon.  We then left our boats and took a walk in the tundra.  We quickly visited a ruined wooden shack there which had been given the grand name of "Villa Oxford" and then went on along the Reindeer Peninsula but failed to see this mammal.  There were crawling plants all around us among which we recognized saxifrage and Arctic Poppy.  Not far from a small marshy area we found Long-tailed Ducks again, 6 Red-throated Loons and an Ivory Gull.

Ivory Gull

Ivory Gull (Photo Danielle Joannès)

Back on the Ocean Nova, we sailed on towards the end of Liefdefjord and disembarked to walk to the foot of the Erik Glacier.  We walked very carefully on the frontal moraine because the ground was slippery.  We saw a few typical birds of those northern regions but we still hadn't seen a Polar Bear so we went on board again, feeling somewhat frustrated.  In the evening, we took the Zodiacs out again to navigate along the front of the sumptuous Monaco Glacier.   There, we found hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes feeding on plankton pushed up to the surface by an upswell due to the rivers flowing under the glacier.  The site was breath-taking and to celebrate, we were treated to a glass of vodka and found the ice cubes just around the rubber boats. 

Monaco Glacier

Monaco Glacier (Photo Danielle Joannès)

While the ship was moving northwards, only a few of us were lucky enough to see a Minke Whale but everybody saw the hundreds of Little Auks, Brünnich's Guillemots and Northern Fulmars. We reached Moffen Island shortly before midnight but in spite of that untimely hour we were all on the upper deck to see a group of Walruses on the beach.  You may think these animals are dangerous but they are, on the contrary, very peaceful and rather inquisitive.  They came near the boat and from the size of their tusks, we could see that most of them were adult males.  Although they look like ugly heaps when they are on the ground, they are almost nimble when at sea. 

11 August 2012

The weather was misty, the temperature 2°C and the wind was blowing while I was scanning the ice-pack looking for birds and bears.  We were in the Arctic Ocean, latitude 81°14' north, 8°17' longitude east and as it was cold I sometimes took shelter in the observation lounge to have a look at this magnificent scenery.  As the ice-pack recedes further north because of global warming, we had to sail pretty far north to find some dislocated ice where we would have a better chance to see the Polar Bear but there sometimes proved difficult.  We took the Zodiacs to sea and moved on in the brash, seeing many birds and also about ten Harp Seals bobbing up and down in the icy water.  There were more and more Ivory Gulls.  Colliding ice sheets create hummocks behind which bears like to hide so we kept our eyes peeled.


Navigating in the brash (Photo Danielle Joannès)

Sitting in our Zodiac, we caught a glimpse of a nice blue spot in the distance and using my binoculars I saw this was ice.  In front of this blue spot, a huge ivory shape.  Just like Marie Pellé, I thought this might be a Polar Bear but the Zodiac pitched and rolled and I was not sure.  After a few minutes,  the staff in the wheelhouse confirmed it and we slowly approached the huge animal which was sleeping in a small hole in the ice.  It looked like a male and he may have dug this hole himself.  After some time, he woke up very slowly, majestically stretched his legs and about half-an-hour later he walked off, his fore-paws turned inside.  Hardly were we back on the boat when Christian Kempf announced on the loudspeaker that one, then two other bears had been spotted a few hundred meters from the boat.  They came nearer and we then found out that it was a female bear, followed by her cub.  This young animal was very inquisitive and fascinated by the ship.  We took splendid photos for almost an hour before the female went away, followed by her kid, which she suckled a few moments later.

Polar Bear

Polar bear with her cub (Photo Danielle Joannès)

As birdwatching was concerned, there were still as many Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes but also a few Ivory Gulls and 4 Long-tailed Skuas.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwakes (Photo Danielle Joannès)

And the day was not over yet.  At around 11 p.m., we came across 2 Blue Whales, one of which was followed by her calf.   We observed them for a long time admiring the big spout they emitted, their huge size and the fantastic way they raised their tail fluke out of the water when they dived. Later on, a Fin Whale was observed aft, at a great distance.  We were 950 km from the North Pole and veered south for one day. 

12 August 2012

When we were woken up by the noise of the dropping anchor, we were right in front of Charles XII Island, shaped like a pyramid.  Through the window of our cabin we saw that the sky was grey but the sea was calm.  After breakfast, we embarked in the Zodiacs and went round the island, wearing warm garments.  Very soon we spotted a Polar Bear lying in the snow, then another popped its head up behind a rock.  We found seven of them, all lying on the ground, apparently waiting for the ice to be thick enough to go seal-hunting again.  We also made excellent observations of about 100 Walruses.  Most of them were males and we didn't need to go after them to have a closer view because they came within a few meters of our boats.  I had been told that these animals could be dangerous and attack small boats but I saw this was totally wrong, except if we had assaulted them of course.  They are inquisitive, very calm and this is probably why they are so easy to kill .  We saw them swim around the boats, draw themselves up in the water exhibiting their huge tusks,  dive and blow noisily through their nostrils when they came up again, growl and grunt.  What a show!  We also saw birds: a few Glaucous Gulls, a Great Skua, 2 Common Eiders with their chicks, a Black-legged Kittiwake colony and a Purple Sandpiper


Walruses (Photo Danielle Joannès)

Back on board,  Marc Hébert held a conference about the Polar Bear while we headed for Nordauslandet and the Albertini Glacier.  The Zodiacs were put out sea once more and we navigated along the front of this glacier for about 5 km. We were greatly impressed by this huge wall of ice and thrilled whenever we heard part of it fall and thunder down into the ocean.   Our boats moved slowly between the curiously-shaped remains of  icebergs and we saw a few Ringed Seals swim at a short distance.  After dinner, we watched a short film about this beautiful part of the world we were visiting. 

Ocean Nova

The Ocean Nova in front of the Monaco Glacier (Photo Danielle Joannès)
13 August 2012

We headed north to find the ice-pack again.  The weather was misty and the temperature 2°C at its highest.  In the meantime, Alexandre Seydoux held a conference on the ice-field which we attended with great interest.  From the upper deck, I saw a few Ivory Gulls, a Pomarine Skua, Glaucous Gulls and of course, Northern FulmarsSix Harps Seals were bobbing up and down in the water, as usual.  Shortly before lunch, someone on the watch in the wheelhouse announced that a Polar Bear had been seen about 1 km away.  The boat approached slowly and we saw if for a few minutes before it went away.   A few minutes later, another bear was spotted on the ice so the Zodiacs were taken to sea after lunch.  We tried to find some ice solid enough to walk on and we wandered in the middle of hummocks, enjoying the fact that, at 81°41' north latitude, we knew there was at least 800 m water under our feet.  We took a photo of the group and then saw a bear climb up on the ice meaning to come and see us.  We returned to the boats to see it from a safer location.  It walked quietly on the floes then swam away.  When it came out of the water, its fur stuck to its skin, so it shook and rolled on the ice to expel the water.  We boarded the Ocean Nova but had to return into the Zodiacs at once because a fourth bear had been seen.


Our group on the ice-field (Photo provided by Marie-Claire Peltier)

This was one of the highlights of this expedition cruise because we saw a big bear eating a Bearded Seal on a floe.  We approached very slowly but this worried the animal which had probably eaten enough and chose to swim away and watch us from some distance.  Close by, another, smaller and hungrier bear was waiting for to eat.  Fearlessly, it swam to the floe and at once started eating ravenously.   About fifteen Ivory Gulls and two Glaucous Gulls were flitting above and sometimes landed close to the huge paws of the bear to peck at what meat they could find. We were  short for words while we watched this memorable scene and we left the place only when the bear appeared to be satiated.  At that time, only the skin of the seal was left.  We then found a third bear.  It was enormous and Christian Kempf estimated it to weigh about  500 kg.  This animal probably killed the seal and was the first to eat.  It actually had eaten so much that it had a case of "turista" which stained its backside.  Fortunately, that was washed away when it swam away. 

Polar Bear

Polar Bear and Glaucous Gull (Photo Danielle Joannès)

Polar Bear
Polar Bear and Ivory Gull

14 August 2012

The ship pitched a lot in the Barents Sea during the night but nobody was sick.  We had veered south and were then facing the huge ice barrier of  Nordauslandet extending for something like 160 km.  This is the biggest ice barrier in the northern hemisphere and we liked it all the more as the sun was shining.


In front of the ice cap (Photo Danielle Joannès)

The bridge announced 4 Humpback Whales in front of the boat.  In my binoculars, I could indeed see their humps from time to time and I also saw their V-shaped spouts.  We decided to approach them very slowly in our Zodiacs.  These huge animals were very cooperative and we always tried to guess where they would come out after they had dived.  Although this was not always easy, the birds helped us a lot because they were able to see them under the water.  Very often we were surprised by the noisy sound they emitted when they blew and we took as  many photos of these magical moments as we could. 

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale and Black-legged Kittiwakes (Photo Danielle Joannès)

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale (Photo Martine Perine)

Then, we jumped from wave to wave at full throttle towards the ice cliff and slowed down only once we had arrived there to take our time and watch the scenery, knowing we would not see this again before long.  The water glistened under the sun, the ice was dazzling white and we were just fascinated.  The ice-cap extended as far as the eye could see and, here and there,  rivers tumbled down into the ocean from the top of the cliff.  Back on board, drinking hot chocolate, we exchanged impressions before we took the Zodiacs down again and went to the shore.  The sea was choppy and when we were doused at times we were especially glad we had bought warm and waterproof equipment.  We landed in the Bay of Vibe and set out for a ramble to a high point so as to get a better view of the ice-cap.  This was a deserted place and a stalking bear might be a serious threat, especially so as we soon split up because we did not all walk at the same speed.  Fortunately, we were accompanied by our guides carrying guns which they would use if need be.  We walked at a fast pace but finally had to turn back without having seen the ice-cap but we didn't mind as we had had the opportunity to have a nice view of a small river winding in a canyon, along sand or ice-banks. 

We had a hearty dinner before we reached Torrell Cape.  We landed in the evening and the members of our group, packed together, made a very slow approach of a colony of  about 40 Walruses.   They were almost glued together, huge and clumsy, and a few individuals did not make much of crushing down others to get a better place.  They scratched their bodies, grunted and lay down on the sand, displaying their big ivory tusks.  If most of them were brown, some of them were rosy because of the congestion due to the relative warmth and they showed no fear at all of the crowd observing them.  True enough, we were as silent as could be.  Three Purple Sandpipers were looking for food in the gravel of the beach.  In spite of the late hour, some of us decided to go for another outing in the Hinlopen Strait in the hope of observing  the local fauna.  We thus found a few Harp Seals, 7 Humpback Whales, a Pomarine Skua and 4 Brünnich's Guillemots.  It would have been sensible to go to bed but the midnight sun hovering above the sea tinged it with such beautiful colours that we just couldn't do that. 

15 August 2012

The weather was nice and we were now cruising up the Hinlopen Strait with the aime to see Alkefjellet Cliff.  The Zodiacs were taken down and we approached a wall 100 m high.  It was made of a layer of basalt squeezed between two layers of limestone.  In the course of time whole parts of the cliff disappeared and only huge black pillars were left towering above the shore.  From 2 to 300, 000 birds occupy all available places on the tiniest ledge and myriads of birds fly in and out of these cliffs.


Alkefjellet, the Alcid Cliff (Photo Danielle Joannès)

The noise made by those alcids was impressive and some birds brushed past our heads as they landed up onto the wall.  Most of them were Brünnich's Guillemots but there were also Black Guillemots, Glaucous Gulls which were ready to prey on chicks momentarily left alone by their parents trying to find something to eat.  On the water, we saw young Brünnich's Guillemots which had dived from the top of that cliff and were squeaking behind their parents.  A Great Skua was flying close by, ready to gobble up anything eatable. 

Brünnich's Guillemot
  Brünnich's Guillemots (Photo Danielle Joannès)

Suddenly, at the foot of the cliff, we saw an Arctic Fox in its white winter fur trotting in the rubble looking for chicks which had fallen from the nest.  We were lucky because it came nearer and we observed it for quite a long time.  We then moved along the cliff as far as a huge waterfall dropping into the sea and then returned to the Ocean Nova and sailed northwards to the Murchinson Fjord. 

In the afternoon, our Zodiacs took us to the island of Depotøya where we found 2 Polar Bears.  We were surprised to see that the mother and her young had stained their heads with something brown.  As a matter of fact, they had been feeding on the corpse of a Walrus and as we had disturbed them, they had decided to leave the spot.  We went to have a closer look at the carrion.  Although it didn't smell, it didn't look very appetizing. 

The trip went on and we came to the island of Krossøya.  Sticking together, we very slowly approached a colony of about 25 Walruses. Once again, we were able to have a close look at these huge animals without disturbing them.  We also saw a Purple Sandpiper, 2  Red-throated Loons, 8 Common Eiders and a few Arctic Terns which were still raising their chicks and did not hesitate to swoop on us to defend them.  Part of the group went up to the top of the island to have a better view of the wooden cross the Pomors had erected in the 18th century.  The other part stayed on the strand and watched the landscape. 

Walruses (Photo Danielle Joannès)

We returned on board for dinner then some of us accompanied Christian Kempf to check a few spots he hadn't visited yet.  We went there at full speed and then slowed down to explore a bay where we found a nice colony of Glaucous Gulls.  We also discovered a Polar Bear apparently dozing on the beach.  On our way back, we saw an Arctic and a Great Skua and then saw a Reindeer quietly grazing on the top of a steep slope.

16 August 2012

I got up at 4.30 a.m. to go to the decks and enjoy the sight of all those Northern Fulmars which had been following us since the beginning of the cruise.  We were steering north-west to come back to Spitzbergen, the main isle of this archipelago.  The black peaks were there indeed, black and covered with snow.  The Ocean Nova was then in Wijdefjord and cast anchor in front of the Midt Glacier.  We landed, not knowing yet that this was going to be the most difficult ramble of this cruise in the Far North.  Our aim was to walk to a cliff where birds were nesting but it was too late in the season and they had already left the site.  We had to find our way in the scree, then among loose rocks, on a steep slope and we had unfortunately put on our rubber boots which were totally inadequate for this type of hike.  Some older people were not in a real good shape but most of us managed to reach the top of the frontal moraine from where we had a fantastic view to the glacier and the fjord.  Going down was easier but we had to be all the more careful as the ground was slippery and we were tired.  We were exhausted but nevertheless pleased with our walk and so we took some rest in the observation lounge and listened to the conferences with attention.   Bernard Lefauconnier held a lively conference about glaciers, Frédéric Bouvet talked about pinnipeds and Christian Kempf about the history of Svalbard.  Through the windows, we saw that a few snow-flakes were falling on the icy water. 

We reached Smereenburg Fjord late in the afternoon and cast anchor in front of the glacier bearing the same name.  The Zodiacs were taken out again and we were lucky to come across a whale we had not seen yet, the famous Beluga.  Several of them swam at a short distance and we could  distinguish the whitish adults from the greyish young and note how they blew like little whales.  We followed them, stopping our engines from time to time, then came across a Bearded Seal and saw a Ringed Seal point its little snout out of the water and dive to vanish.  

Back on board, we were surprised to see the tables had not been laid in the dining-room but we soon understood why.  A barbecue had been prepared outside, on the top deck, from which we had a nice view of the glacier.  It was almost like a party and we exchanged our impressions about this cruise and already shared memories. 

A nice barbecue

17 August 2012

We were now in King's Bay and coming back to more populated areas.  The sky was overcast but it was much less cold and there was no wind.  We passed by the scientific base of Ny Ålesund and soon saw a few buildings on the coast.  Later on, we landed to visit the natural reserve of  Ossian Sars and had plenty of time to look at 4 Reindeer from a short distance.  A little minutes later, we came across a sleeping Arctic Fox.  It allowed us to get nearer, then stretched its legs, yawned and trotted away to find a new place, thus indicating us we had come too close.  As opposed to the white fox we had seen earlier, that one had a magnificent grey fur.  We walked on so as to have a look at a Black-legged Kittiwake colony.  The birds were breeding and it was easy to make out the adults from the young which were displaying a black bar on the neck and a black line across the wing.  Those of us who were not scared of heights climbed down the steep cliff to have an even closer view.  

Black-legged Kittiwake

Adult and juvenile Black-legged Kittiwakes (Photo Danielle Joannès)

When we left the place, we met yet another grey Arctic Fox.  Shamelessly, it pounced on the other fox to wake it up and play.  Apparently this was a cub and its mother.   From the top of the cliff, we had an amazing view of King's Bay in which we saw the Ocean Nova at anchor.  Inland, we saw 3 peaks called the Three Crowns standing out against the ever-grey skies.

Arctic Fox

Arctic fox (Photo Danielle Joannès)

We then had to sail to Longyearbyen and from the deck I saw Northern Fulmars, a few Glaucous Gulls and an Atlantic Puffin.  In the afternoon, we attended conferences, among which one about the birds of this region by Axel Soumier and Christian Kempf talked about global warming and its unfortunate consequences on the very ice fields we had been walking on.  After dinner, Elisabeth Rossone Coelho and Christian Kempf formally thanked the members of the team of Grands Espaces together with the captain and his staff and everybody applauded them.  True enough, they had all done their best to make a success of this cruise.

18 August 2012

The temperature was milder and we left the boat rather quickly, regretting it was almost finished then and we took a bus which brought us to the Radisson Blue Polar Hotel where we would spend the night.   We had a whole day to visit the capital of Svalbard and this was sufficient.  An Arctic Skua, a few Arctic Terns and a Glaucous Gull flew by but we were aware of the fact we would not find any new species.  We visited the town museum which is focused on the fauna and flora of Svalbard, with a few details given on the history of this area.  The museum is rather small but very pleasant.  The Svalbard Church is nice too, even though you have to put on rubber clogs so as not to stain the floor.  Besides the place of worship there is also a comfortable meeting-room where a huge stuffed Polar Bear has pride of place.  We had soon toured the town and noted a few peculiar things.  The houses are built on wooden stilts dug deep into the permafrost, there are road-signs indicating that you may come across skidoos or bears, there are engine-warming contraptions to help you start your car when the weather is very cold and there are also signs in the shop-windows inviting you to leave your weapons with the staff because all the bears inside are already dead.  We did some shopping and soon learnt that everything is very expensive there.  We strolled along the seaside which is not fit for bathing but we were happy to see a few Purple Sandpipers and Arctic Terns and then it was time for dinner.

Our party at the Koa (Photo provided by Simone Girault)


Longyearbyen (Photo Danielle Joannès)

19 August 2012
  We had breakfast at 5.30 a.m. because our plane was leaving early in the morning.  Once at the airport, the temperature was 5°C, the sky was grey and outside, I spotted yet 10 other Barnacle Geese in flight and a Glaucous Gull.  We flew non-stop to Oslo where we had to wait for our plane to Paris for 7 hours.  At the French airport, the sky was grey too, it was darker than in Svalbard but the thermometer indicated  35°C.

List of species viewed during this journey.

There are few bird species in Svalbard at that time of the year but we had chosen this period because we knew we had more chances of going round the archipelago by its north coast which may be blocked by the ice,  even in August.   There are no House Sparrows there and no feral Rock Pigeons because they wouldn't find anything to eat in winter.  Nor corvids or birds of prey either.   

Red-throated Loon
Gavia stellata
Pretty rare. Isle of Moffen 1; Reindeer Peninsula:  2+6;  Isle of Depotøya : 2.
Northern Fulmar
Fulmarus glacialis
Common everywhere.
Pink-legged Goose Anser brachyrhynchus
About 10 in the outskirts of Longyearbyen; 7 at the 14th July Glacier.
Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis The first day, about 100 near Longyearbyen among which a leucistic individual and another with 2 chicks.  On the last day, 11 flying near the airport.  About 30 at the 14th July Glacier.
Common Eider
Somateria mollissima
In the whereabouts of the Isle of Moffen: about 10; island of Krossøya: 8.
Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis Near the Isle of Moffen : about 20; Reindeer Peninsula: 8.
Purple Sandpiper
Calidris maritima
The only wader still present at that time of the year.  Some here and there, even on small islands and even at the high latitudes of Charles XII Island.  
Great Skua
Stercorarius skua
6 birds observed in various places during this trip, even at high latitudes. 
Pomarine Skua
Stercorarius pomarinus
5 birds, 3 of which at 81°38'N.  
Arctic Skua
Stercorarius parasiticus 11 birds observed during the journey.
Long-tailed Skua
Stercorarius longicaudus 4 together at about 81°30'N.
Herring Gull Larus argentatus argentatus Not in Svalbard.  One bird seen at the stopover in Tromsø.
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus fuscus Not in Svalbard.  One bird near the hotel at Gartenmoen near Oslo.
Black legged-Kittiwake
Rissa tridactyla
Everywhere.  About 1000 at the foot of the Monaco Glacier.  A colony with juveniles in the Ossian Sars reserve.
Glaucous Gull
Larus hyperboreus
Anywhere.  One bird attacked a Little Auk. At least 50 in front of Monaco Glacier.  We also saw them near a bear eating a Bearded Seal.  About 60 below Alkefjellet cliff, among which immatures and a downy juvenile.  In the Wijdefjord area: 1 juvenile and about 60 adults.  
Ivory blanchesGull  
Pagophila eburnea
First bird observed in Magdalenefjorden.  Over 60 birds all together.  This bird is seen at high latitudes and often feeds on animals killed by Polar Bears.
Arctic Tern
Sterna paradisea
Common everywhere.  A juvenile which could hardly fly on the island of Krossøya.  
Little Auk
Alle alle
3 in the area of Longyearbyen.  Many in Magdalenefjorden.
Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica The rarest alcid at that time of the year?  About 30 of them near Monaco Glacier. 
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle Far less common than Brünnich's Guillemot.  A few juveniles. 
Brünnich's Guillemot
Uria lomvia
Everywhere.  Numerous at Alkefjellet, some of them even followed by squeaking chicks.
Common Magpie
Pica pica
Not in Svalbard.  One bird near the hotel at Gartenmoen.
Snow Bunting
Plectrophenax nivalis
The only small passerine I could find at that time of the year.  A few in the area of Longyearbyen.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwakes (Photo Simone Girault)

Other animal species:

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus): A female in its winter fur at Alkefjellet and 3 grey individuals in the reserve of Ossian Sars, among which, possibly a mother and her cub.  I noticed that they sometimes walked at an amble. 

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus): I was lucky enough to count 19 of them.  One of them was dozing in a hole it had dug in the ice at around 81°29'N.  Farther north, a female suckled her cub.   7 animals on Charles XII island, one whose sex I could not ascertain at about 81°38N, a young female at about 81°40'N; another animal at about 81°41'N and yet another further north; 3 of different sizes near a Bearded Seal one of them had killed.  The biggest weighed something like 500 kg.  On the isle of Depotøya, a mother and her young had been feeding on the corpse of a walrus, thus tainting their heads. 

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus): About 40 of them on the isle of Moffen.  Some of them approached the Ocean Nova.  About 100 around Charles XII island, apparently puzzled by our Zodiacs.  We also had a good view of about 40 at Torrel Cape.  3 individuals at sea near the isle of Depotøya.  About 25 on Krossøya and 5 in Wijdefjord.  We saw males which we could identify thanks to their huge tusks, females and younger animals.

Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus): At least 7 individuals among which a young one.  They are very tame and you can approach them easily even when they rest on a floe.

Harp Seal (Phoca groenlandica): About 20 of them during the trip.  We always observed them from afar, putting their heads high out of the water and bobbing up and down. 

Ringed Seal
(Phoca hispida):  2 in Albertini Fjord and one in Smeerenburg Fjord.  They have a nice little head.

Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas): About 25 among which a few young ones in shallow water near the Smeerenburg Glacier.  Rather tame.

Minke Whale (Balaneoptera acutorostrata): Viewed from afar.  One in the Monaco Glacier area and another further up north. 

Blue Whale ((Balaneoptera musculus): Close observation from the decks of the Ocean Nova of 3 individuals, among which a mother and her calf,  at about 81°30'N.  Powerful spout and huge tail fluke.

Fin Whale (Balaneoptera physalus):  1 at about 81°30'N, viewed from a great distance.

Hump-backed Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae):  4 together then 2 other animals in the Barents' Sea, not far from the ice cap; 7 at Torrel Cape.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus): 5 near Longyearbyen.  A few seen in other places among which 4 in the Ossian Sars reserve.  They look much stouter than those you can see in Scandinavia. 

Polar Bear

Polar Bear (Photo Simone Girault)


This is the end, my friends! (Photo Danielle Joannès)

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