Glaciers, Whales and Polar Bears

It’s Monday, June 29.

We finished our day last night in Lillehockbreen with a visit to an enormous glacier of the same name. We cruised right up to its face after our BBQ dinner and stopped with the bow pointing to the glacier about 500 metres away from it. There was one other ship there, but we approached slowly and closer to the glacier. After we stopped, the Captain spun the ship around twice on the spot using our bow thrusters. He might not be a ‘show-off’ but he certainly likes playing with his toys. We stood by the glacier for 90 minutes and I took dozens of photos of the interesting textures in the ice. At 11.30 pm, I decided that it was time to make sure that I was in bed before it got dark. Seeing that at this time of year the sun is up for 24 hours, that’s not hard to do.

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We were awake again today at 7.00 am for breakfast at 7.30 am. There were quite a few people who would have liked a longer sleep, but there is a lot to do here and no time to spare. By 9.00 am, we were all ready at the gangway to set off in our zodiacs for our first shore landing. We followed the same procedure as always – dressing in multiple layers (four for me – thermal bottoms, long sleeved woollen T shirt, woollen jumper and polar plus jacket), waterproof pants, goretex jacket, woollen hat, gumboots and two pairs of socks. On top of this goes our life jacket  and then a backpack containing camera, tripod and other gear. We put on our gumboots in the ‘mud room’ and then wait by the gangway until it is departure time. Before leaving the ship, we turn a numbered tag, representing our bed and cabin number, from the green side to its red side (and vice-versa on our return). It is important that we wash our boots on our return to avoid spreading any potentially harmful bacteria from place to place.

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On the way to our planned shore location this morning, someone had sighted a polar bear on a nearby hill so we all headed towards it in zodiacs. As we travelled closer, it moved further away and by the time we reached the shoreline, it had moved up the hill and was probably 400 metres away. It looked as i it was wearing a collar which meant that at some time in the past someone had chased it, tranquilised it with a dart, measured its vital bits in an unsubtle way and then pulled its tongue a few times to ensure that it was still unconscious. With all this rough handling in its memory, it wasn’t surprising that it wanted to move further away from us people.

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Back on our planned shore trip we landed at Smerenberg (Blubbber Town) on Amsterdamoya Island. In the 1650’s this was the site of a major whaling location. Over 100 ships operated from here and there were about 20 permanent buildings with paved streets. Over 40 years, they completely wiped out the local population of Bowhead Whales. All that remains today is a monument and the remains of about seven blubber ovens. We found a lone walrus sleeping on the beach, but it had about as much animation as a corpse. Every now and then it wiggled its flipper or gave a little scratch just enough to show that it really was alive.

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It was quite cool today and after a couple of hours on shore, we were quite cold. The temperature this morning was four degrees but the little bit of wind was reducing this to below zero. After about two hours, we were glad to get back to the ship for lunch and to warm up.

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By the early afternoon, the ship had moved a little further along the bay to a headland where there was a colony of Little Auks.  These little black and white birds were nesting in their thousands in the rocks. We had a walk of about 300 metres from our landing site to the point where they were nesting.  We sat on the rock watching them. Little Auks are as large as pigeons with a black ‘seabird like’ beak and webbed feet. Whenever they perceive a threat, they fly off in a swarm of hundreds of birds and then return to the same rocks as before. We watched them repeat this behaviour over and over again and I was able to get some good pictures of them as they courted each other and flew around.

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On the way back to the landing spot, I found some interesting moss and other micro flora to photograph. Even the rounded granite rocks at the water’s edge that were covered in green algae made a very attractive pattern. After three hours, it as time to head back and enjoy a drink before dinner.

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