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Svalbard: "This is what we do"

August 7, 2016

We left the European continent and headed into open water for 500 miles of rolling in the North Sea. To say that time passed slowly would be an understatement. There were occasional bouts of sea bird activity, but since the entire track would be over the continental shelf, finding whales was tough and made all the more difficult in the wind-strewn sea. 

 

Despite several hours of heavy rolling, we made great time across and today we are enjoying the fruits of our bumpy crossing to do some crew-only exploration in the southern fjords of Svalbard. Having seen our first ice bergs and cruised amidst the small chunks of brash ice in the Zodiac, I now feel like I'm working for the first time in weeks. Ice has a way of activating a part of my brain that lays dormant most of the year. I'm sitting on the bridge as I write this and just had a nice moment with the Captain. I said something along the lines of "It's so nice to be back in the ice. Now I feel like I'm working." He's a bit surly and oh-so-British in his retorts and insights so we get along just fine. He looked over with a wry smile peaking through his thick black beard and you could see a light in his eyes not seen during our northward journey in the much civilized Norwegian fjords. “This. This is what we do". 

 

Having a few hours and no guests onboard yet, Captain gave the all clear for a crew hike. Having stopped earlier in the day to take target practice on a random barrel floating out at sea, all of our boxes had been checked and we were ready to hit the beach. Hiking in Svalbard is not exactly the relaxing stroll on the tundra or rocky beach you might expect. Seeing as every Svalbard polar bear is currently marooned on land without a thing to eat, patiently waiting for the winter freeze-up to bring back the sea ice they so depend on, we must always be on our toes while on land. My number one responsibility is to keep an eye out for polar bears on and around the landing site. Most of the time there are several staff members to do this, but since I'm the only staff currently onboard, it all fell on me. It's not the like place is crawling with bears, but there are enough hummocks and hills that could easily conceal several hundred pounds of starving predator. 30-06 rifle on one shoulder. Flare gun on the other. Binoculars around my neck. It makes for a lot to manage while still trying to scan for bears, lead a hike, and also try to take in the sights and sounds. And as luck would have it, there was fog. Probably the biggest deterrent to any landing is the lack of visibility. Today was just a tad on the sketchy side with less than half a mile of visibility, yet as we disembarked the Zodiac and I did my first scan of the landscape, it was evident that the fog was going to clear.

 

We quietly and carefully moved up the beach slope to get to higher ground. Although the sky was very slowly clearing, we still couldn't see the source of the incredible racket overhead. Somewhere above us were thousands of sea birds doing their loud seabird things. The onomatopoeic kittywakes, the soaring fulmars, and earth-moving puffins were all around us, but only in song. 

Bears. Gotta stay focused on bears. White rock or curled up bear? Check with binos. 

 

Oooh, puffins!

 

Bears. Where is the group? Is everyone staying together?

 

Try not to step on the flowering saxifrage. Watch your step. Keep your head up looking for bears.

 

And so it goes. Slowly we made our way up the slope as the faint outline of a giant outcropping of rock took shape above us much like the bow of a massive battleship. With the gradual clearing of the sky my stress went down a bit. Shapes could be made out more clearly and distinctly. Rock bears were merely rocks. All the while the cacophony overhead continued albeit now we could start to see the source. 

 

Black-legged kittywakes, the small noisy gull with ink-black wingtips dotted the sky by the thousands. Countless more inhabited the vertical rock face itself. White dots, parents probably accompanied by a pair of chicks, stippled the dark gray, marbled cliff while their mates came and went overhead. It seemed like every single one of them was making noise. Their calls would oscillate into and out of rhythm like a weird jazz syncopation that only really makes sense part of the time and feels totally chaotic the next. 

 

We stood near the foot of this immense colony of birds for some time, necks craned back to take in the grand scale of our scene. To the right and left the headland faded away around the corner into a mysterious fog that slowly began to encroach on our beautiful rocky prow. The birds slipped back into obscurity and the outline of rock faded into the uniform gray sky. Always aware that a bear could emerge at any moment from behind a nearby boulder or saunter over the next ridge in search of chicks to consume, I kept scanning all the while. When it was time to move on, we picked our way around the delicate moss beds and crowberry standing only a few inches high and moved down the slope. 

 

Suddenly an incredible boom like cannon fire filled our ears. The birds instantly fell silent. Although there's a nearby trappers' cabin, it looked to be closed up. I am the only person with a gun. Where did that shot come from? Are we being shot at? All of these thoughts raced through my head in an instant. Then, through the fog emerged a rain of rock and soil tumbling hundreds of feet to the slope in front of us. The rocks hadn't even reached their newest resting place before the birds began their chatter once again. On a perfectly clear day, I suspect we would have gotten much closer to the cliff face which birthed these newly rolling stones. Luckily the fog had kept us at bay. As it was, we were safely separated from the rolling stones by a very small valley, but still, the sight and sound of minerals moving that quickly within a few hundred feet of you is a startling experience. I found it exhilarating. A few of the crew, not so much. But then again, this is what I do. 

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