Glimpses from the ice

To: <>
Subject: Glimpses from the ice
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 15 Sep 2005 15:55:37 +0200


        Once more I had the opportunity to participate as one of the leaders in 
a student course in Arctic Benthic Marine Biology, given by the University 
Centre of Spitsbergen (UNIS) at Longyearbyen, the capital of the Svalbard 
archipelago, situated at 78*N on the Isfjord , on the west coast of 
Spitsbergen, the largest island of the archipelago. Longyearbyen used to be a 
company town, owned by the coal mining company, but although coal mining still 
is a dominant way of life here, tourism, science and some other occupations 
have become gradually more and more important. There are almost 2000 people 
living permanently here (and a similar number in the Russian mining town of 
Barentsburg, not too far away), and in summer a substantial number of tourists 
and students can be added to this total.

        When I arrived, on 24 August, it was still autumn, with little snow on 
the surrounding hills (apart from the large gletscher at the head of the valley 
in which the town nestles), and the last flowers (Papaver, Cerastium, 
Saxifraga) could still be found, while the cotton balls of the beautifully 
snowy white Cotton Grass Eriophorum scheuzeri dominated many wet fields. Very 
few birds here now: where in summer the joyful song of Snow Buntings is 
everywhere, and Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls often crown the light masts, I 
now could usually walk the 20 minutes from my lodgings to UNIS without seeing a 
single bird, although around UNIS the cries of Arctic Terns along the shore 
often could be heard, and the odd Kittiwake and Fulmar cruised along the 
shore-line. A few times I saw one of the fat large Svalbard race of the 
Ptarmigan, and occasionally one of the equally fat and short-legged Svalbard 
Reindeer grazed in the middle of town; clearly no hunting season to be afraid 
of as yet.

        After a few days we started our cruise, which is part of the course, on 
board of our research vessel Jan Mayen, with 17 students from 6 countries and a 
number of experts in the various evertebrate groups as leaders. We circled this 
time Svalbard counterclockwise, thus starting work in the comparatively warmer 
areas west of Hornsund and near the South Cape; here Atlantic water exerts a 
lot of influence, and some southern species may be expected. It was also here, 
and only here, that Great Black-backed Gulls joined the throng of Fulmars, 
Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls, that always accompanies the ship (with the 
Glaucous Gulls disappearing gradually when we went further away from the shore).

        We rounded Sørkapp, the southermost point of Svalbard, and its 
counterpart to the famous North Cape in northernmost Norway, and for a few days 
collected in the enormous Storfjord, where whales (Minke Whales and Humpbacks) 
and small pods of White-nosed Dolphins were occasionally sighted and where 
lines of Brunnichs Guillemots (Thick-billed Murres, if you prefer) flew close 
along the surface. At one of the few places where we went ashore, Cape Lee 
south on Edge-island, we met a team of Polish geologists camping there, as well 
as a sleeping Polar Bear a ways off, and a number of Walruses loafing in the 
intertidal. Far north in the Storfjord, where the treacherous Heløy Sound with 
its swift currents divides Barents island from  mainland Spitebergen, there 
were large flocks of Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns, the latter now and then 
harassed by Pomarine Skuas (Jaegers). Here I also saw a flock of Long-tailed 
Ducks and the only Sabine's Gull of the trip. Two days of work in the deeper 
offshore waters of the straits around Kong Karls Land (the major denning area 
of polar Bears here, and therefore strictly protected and inaccessible also for 
us) fortunately happened in quiet foggy weather (seasickness is no fun at all), 
and we were also lucky when we passed through Hinloopen Strait and worked in 
the northern waters around 80*N, where we were lucky enough to be able to take 
a few deep hauls at depths of 800 and 1200 m, in what basically is already the 
deep Arctic Basin, often inaccessible because of the pack ice. These last years 
the pack ice has been further north though, allowing us access to these deeper 

        This timne we also steamed further north, into the pack ice, as we 
wanted to collect also of the so-called ice faune, that lives on the underside 
of the ice floes, and in which amphipods once more are dominant (At the end of 
the cruise we had identified ca 420 species of marine animals, of which no 
fewer than 140 were amphipods!! So my pet animals really are important here!)  
Looking out of my window that morning the first thing I saw was an immaculately 
white Ivory Gull pacing our ship, and as we penetrated further into the ice 
others joined it, so that in the end we had at least 6 Ivory Gulls (One an 
immature with a black face, which the crew thought was a different species 
altogether), together with the ever present Kittiwakes and Fulmars. In the 
leads between the ice floes there were small flocks of Little Auks (Dovekies) 
which the people on Spitsbergen call 'Tromsøværinger* (=Tromsø people); I asked 
why this might be, and they explained to me that these birds are always very 
nicely clad, talked all the time, but never said anything worthwhile!! Very 
flattering, I'm sure! (And no doubt the background is that most of the 
bureaucrats that the miners on Svalbard suffer, used to come from Tromsø).

        We anchored to one of the larger ice floes, and while two students 
stood polar bear guard with guns and the divers collected the ice fauna from 
under the ice, the other students went out on the ice floe and frolicked, 
enjoying the idea of standing on top of 1000 m of water. In fact, in spite of 
the water holding minus temperatures, the brisk wind and an air temperature of 
minus 9*C, several of the students dared a (necessarily very brief) plunge into 
the icy waters, jumping from the ice floe. Not me, though!! Just when everybody 
had got back on board again, a polar bear actually came to visit, and was very 
heavily photographed, digital cameras now being normal student equipment.

        The last few days the weather changed, and we had high winds, almost 
blizzards, and cold weather, and on arrival back in Longyearbyen last Sunday 
the scene had changed completely, all the hills around glistened white, while 
in town the streets were icy and slippery, and surprisingly some Snow Buntings 
now were again present, prior to their migration south. I also saw a few Purple 
Sandpipers, and flocks of Barnacle Geese flew south, overhead. Soon only the 
Ptarmigan will be left, although also the Fulmars leave late and return very 

        In Tromsø, on my return there yesterday, it was not all that much 
warmer, maybe 4-5*C, there was some sleet among the rain showers, and the snow 
had crept down along the hillsides to maybe 200m. So soon it is time also here 
to change to winter wheels on our cars (with studded tires) and prepare for 
winter. Also here migration southwards is in full swing among the passerine 
birds, and the terns seem to have disappeared already.

        Not too many birds in this story, but maybe still an interesting 
glimpse into an area and season which is unfamiliar to most of you.

Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
9037 Tromsø, Norway

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