We’d been on a regular schedule up to this point in the trip. The cabin speaker goes off at 7:30 with the wakeup call and announcements, breakfast, and then the first hike of the day. But to get everything in today, we needed to get going at 5:30 to see the thick-billed murre bird cliffs at Alkepjellet, then breakfast.
This wasn’t a hiking spot. The beach narrow and rocky.
Our zodiac driver admitted that she’d only landed here once, when she was traveling with her dog and it needed to get out and pee. Apparently there are cruise ship working the Svalbard waters that allow people to bring dogs onboard. These might be the smaller boats. This might be only for the guides. I didn’t get a long story. And frankly as much as I love my dogs, they’re such princesses, I don’t think they would take to the whole ship thang.
We fought the tide and the wind while hugging the cliff line. The small zodiacs bobbing madly. Without anything to brace against, any photo that turned out was an accident. You just have to set your shutter speed at 1/1000 and hope for the best. There was, of course, a fox working the bird cliff, sprinting up near verticals and jumping from rock to rock. Hmmm, no, didn’t get a picture of that. But even I couldn’t miss a sky with thousands of birds aloft.
The interesting bit about the thick-billed murre cliff (as compared to the black-legged kittiwakes we’d see previously) was that they don’t use any nesting material at all. They pick out and defend a tiny shelf of rock and lay their eggs directly on it. But the eggs are very asymmetrical, very pointed on one end, which means that the eggs roll in a circle and don’t tend to roll off.
We got back to the ship just in time as the wind picked up and the rain set in.
The mid-morning activity was a hike up the beach at Torellneset, which is a well known walrus pullout. And what surprised me is that the walrus wouldn’t climb out anywhere. There’s plenty of beaches. But they seemed to have just a couple spots where they would come together in numbers. Which makes it easy for the cruise ships because they know where the walrus are most likely to be.
At Torellneset, there was a long beach covered in loose stones about the size of my fist. We walked out and sat down in a line and the walrus swam up to us. First two of them, then 4 of them, and then a dozen. And really, I’ve seen less attractive boy bands.
Until there we were lined up along the beach and there they were lined up just in the surf in front of us. They are at this point about 3 to 4 feet from the people in the front, leaning in to smell their boots. I swear one was blowing kissing.
I hope you don’t think less of me that I was a little further back. My personal philosophy is that when one is dealing with wild 1 ton animals that I don’t need to be the edge of the herd. Yeah, the people in front got some amazing shots from below the walrus, silhouetted against the dramatic sky. But I just like my space, dude.
But it was lovely, very calm encounter. Walrus are not hunted in this part of the world like they are in the Canadian Arctic and they are less aggressive on land because they’re so clumsy out of the water. They were delightfully curious in us and were contend to just hang out. I took several hundred shots here.
And then at some point, I realized there was only about 3 of us still standing there and the guides were working at pushing us further along the beach where there was a pile of walrus sunning themselves.
The problem was that I now found myself “on the hike” with the fast walkers over a large plain of rolling, loose stone and not much to see and moving inland away from the walrus. I was told that I had no choice, get moving, and I said no. In fact, I kind of threw a bit of a tantrum. This was not the herd I came to be part of. And after my revolt, other people joined the don’t-want-to-travel-quickly-over-rough-terrain-for-the-hell-of-it group. Mike’s reaction was that, well, the guides are all young and haven’t learned the client-gets-to-be-right thang yet.
But, wait, the day isn’t over yet. After dinner, we cruised by Bråsvellbreen. Now the two largest ice shelves in the world are Antarctic (number 1 even after the Delaware sized chunk fell off) and Greenland (number 2). But number 3 is tied between Patagonia and Svalbard. We have been circumnavigating the biggest island in the Svalbard archipelago, Spitsbergen, but at this moment we are in the channel between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet (which translates to North East Land), the second largest island in the archipelago. Nordaustlandet is covered by ice, mostly 2 separate ice caps, Austfonna and Vestfonna, with Austfonna being the largest. Bråsvellbreen is the name for the glacier at the southwestern edge of the Austfonna ice shelf. If we had followed it all the way around, it would have been 90 miles.
Bråsvellbreen (which translates to “The Sudden Swell Glacier”), in particular, is noteworthy because in the 1930’s it had a huge surge where a glacier for a short period of time can start moving up to 100 times faster than normal, shuffing off icebergs and fresh water at a tremendous velocity.
We also passed by a pile of female walrus and calfs.
And can I just say that watching shifting light over amazing scenery while sitting in a comfortable lounge chair drinking an adult beverage is the bomb.