August 5, 2014 – Whalbergøya and Alkefjellet
Posted on August 8th, 2014
‘Le Boreal’ anchored off Whalbergøya overnight, and that allowed us to start our outing shortly after the first group had finished breakfast. Whalbergøya is an island located in the centre of the southern entrance to Hinlopenstretet and is named after the Swedish botanist Peter Fredrik Wahlberg (1800-1877), who lived at a time when Sweden dominated scientific activity on Svalbard. Still, our main purpose for visiting the island was to see walrus at another one of their favorite summer haul-outs.
As at Poolepynten, our A&K Expedition Team led by Aaron Russ, set out before us on a kelp-strewn beach and ensured that we did not disturb the walrus, who were gathered in two groups. Despite the reputation of walrus not being very energetic, we did see some interesting behavior. We were able to observe a cow and her calf moving from the beach into the sea, and later, a number of walrus moving into the sea to feed in the shallows. The most patient among us were rewarded with a close encounter with two young and inquisitive bulls.
Back on board, we enjoyed a special Arctic BBQ lunch, organized by our cruise director Jannie Cloete and the great catering staff from ‘Le Boreal.’ Yet again, there was a large variety of superb food available to satisfy every taste and we were treated to special glacier ice in our cocktails, collected earlier on in our cruise.
Shortly after lunch, we arrived off Alkfjellet and went out on Zodiac cruises. The geology of Alkefjellet has led to the development of around 325-foot-high cliffs and a number of individual columns dissected from the cliff by erosion. Numerous cracks and crevices provide the perfect place for both Brünnich guillemots and black guillemots. The area was awash with activity, with thousands of breeding pairs busy raising their chicks, flying to and fro between the colony and their fishing grounds.
Despite the smell of the guano, the birds were fascinating to watch, especially when some of the chicks decided to take the plunge down to the sea, which ultimately leads to the start of a sea migration South with their father — a trait unique to Brünnich guillemots. Many of us also watched a glaucous gull kill and swallow a guillemot chick whole. A number of Arctic foxes were also sighted along the cliffs, where they prey on the colony. Later, we noticed an increasing number of chicks were jumping down into the sea. All in all, Alkefjellet proved the most wildlife rich spectacle of the trip so far and the noise, sights and smells of the bird-cliffs will stay with many of us for some time (especially those in each boat left with a white stain on their parka!).
While each group was out on the Zodiacs, an enrichment lecture was given by our onboard geologist, Jason Hicks, on “Forming an Ocean: The Birth of the Atlantic.”
Before dinner, the Expedition Team gave a brief recap and informed us of the plan for the following day. As a result, many of us enjoyed dinner and then spent the evening in the observation bar, looking out for polar bears as we passed through the narrow passage of Bjørnsundet (‘Bear Sound’). Many of us retired ready for an early morning to view the passage of Freemansundet (between Barentsøya and Edgeøya), which promised to be yet another beautiful navigation.