Ice Bears Trip: Day 3

Monday 6/23

Our first full day onboard!

our first hike at the bird cliffs

Despite the late bedtime, I woke up at 5:30am and jumped out of bed – not wanting to miss a thing. Former Grosvenor Fellows had wisely advised us to try to be on the bridge by 6:00 to enjoy the early morning and learn what the day would most likely hold.  I quickly discovered that we all needed to be flexible and to be willing to adjust to changing weather and wildlife conditions – I imagine that changing plans on the fly can be very stressful for the staff, but they handled it all with grace and a smile.  (As a bonus: the kitchen brought fresh warm pastries to the bridge at 6:30am!)

IMG_4699 early morning on the bridge

While I was hanging out observing, Piers Alvarez-Munoz, the Chief Mate, kindly offered to teach me a few things about the ship.  He explained that the ship is a mobile weather station, and showed me the detailed data that is submitted about weather conditions.  Information is also recorded in the ship’s logbook at the end of every 6 hour watch, and I had the chance to view and photograph the ship’s logbook to show my classes later.  Piers and I also talked about how water salinity affects the load that the ship is allowed to carry – more salt means a more dense sea that is able to support a heavier ship.  The salinity of the water during our trip varied quite a bit, mainly due to our proximity to glaciers (which melt to produce fresh water) at different times.

After breakfast, we had a safety briefing on polar bears and were informed that we always had to stay with our group when hiking ashore.  A take home quote from the briefing: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Except bears.  Bears will kill you.”  Polar bears can potentially be found ANYWHERE on Svalbard, and while humans are not their first choice for a meal, if they are hungry they are extremely dangerous.  A patrol was sent out in advance of each of our excursions, and each guide carried a radio, a flare gun, and a rifle.

Our first onshore hike was in Hornsund (the fjord I had seen from the plane) at the Gnålodden bird cliffs.  “Gnål” translates to either nagging, whining, or singing – and boy did we learn why!  We were surrounded by thousands of  squawking nesting seabirds, with black-legged kittiwakes being most abundant.  While we were hiking, we learned about two predators of the kittiwake: the glaucous gull and the arctic fox.  We witnessed both of these predators in action: a gull catching and eating a kittiwake, and a fox lurking below the cliffs.  We also saw snow buntings (the only songbirds in Svalbard), Arctic terns, common Eiders, and barnacle geese.  A highlight of our hike was witnessing a territorial argument between glaucous gulls and barnacle geese.

IMG_1739 Gnålodden bird cliffs

IMG_1874 glaucous gull vs. barnacle goose

We saw lots of lichens, plants and beautiful flowers (which prompted me to track down a copy of Svalbard: A Guide to Plants in the High Arctic when I returned to the ship).  The greens, purples, oranges and reds were a stunning contrast to the blue, white and gray landscape.  There are over 160 species of plants on Svalbard, the tallest of which measures a whopping six inches.  Despite the very harsh Arctic climate, these plants have found ways to thrive by huddling together and staying low to the ground for warmth.  Check out the mounds of purple sagifraxe below – we saw this plant everywhere.

IMG_1845 purple sagifraxe

At the end of our hike, we had the opportunity to visit an old whaler’s grave and a trapper’s hut that was last used in 1971.  It was fascinating to learn about the intrepid folks who used to live in this remote location.

IMG_1929 mountains of hornsund

Monday brainstorming:

  • Can we simulate a glacier in the classroom?
  • Life as a trapper/hunter in the Arctic
  • Arctic Food Web


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