August 11, 2014 – Alkefjellet and Wahlbergøya
Posted on August 15th, 2014
While we enjoyed our breakfast and coffee, ‘Le Boreal’ made its final approach to the infamous bird cliffs of Alkefjellet, our destination for a morning Zodiac cruise. The cliffs are extraordinary, not only for their height —some 330 feet tall! — but also in the individual columns dissected from the cliff by erosion. Defined by numerous cracks and crevices, the cliffs provide the perfect place for Brünnich guillemots and, to a lesser degree, black guillemots to congregate. The area was incredibly active, with thousands of breeding pairs and their chicks on the narrow ledges of the cliffs while others flew back and forth to 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. Many of us also watched glaucous gulls and an Arctic fox as they hunted guillemot chicks down on the lower slopes. Sometimes hard to discern from the adults, the chicks could still be identified by their distinctive call as they searched for their fathers. When the time is right, Brünnich guillemots will also also follow their fathers to begin their sea migration south.
The weather was overcast and drizzly, but the sea was calm and we were all able to witness this fantastic spectacle at The noise, sights and smells of the bird-cliffs will stay with many of us for some time (especially the large number of us with white stains on our parkas).
By early afternoon, ‘Le Boreal’ reached Wahlbergøya, where we hoped to observe walrus at one of their favorite summer haul-outs. An island located in the center of the southern entrance to Hinlopenstretet, Wahlbergøya is named after the Swedish botanist Peter Fredrik Wahlberg (1800-1877), who lived at a time when Sweden dominated scientific activity and exploration on Svalbard.
Led by Aaron Russ, our A&K Expedition Team set out before us and landed on a kelp-strewn beach. They then set up a perimeter and a line of red flags to ensure that we did not disturb the walrus, who were gathered in a small herd. The walrus were rather comical to watch, with one large individual finding it easier just to roll to the beach. Some of the walrus were particularly curious and came along shore to have a good look at us before going off to feed in the shallows.
While groups of us ventured out on the Zodiacs to see the walrus, those of us on board headed to the theater for an enrichment lecture. Geologist Jason Hicks talked with us about “Forming an Ocean: The Birth of the Atlantic” — a fantastic summary of millions of years of geological history in all of 45 minutes!
With time to swap walrus stories and refresh before dinner, we then met with the Expedition Team for a brief recap and an update on our plans for the following day. Our ornithologist, Patricia Silva, gave us some more detailed information on the guillemots we saw in the morning and Jason briefly explained the geological history of Svalbard —this time in just 5 minutes!