Day three (Wednesday, June 24) started out as a foggy day and ended as a beautiful fine day with warm sun. The temperature was a warm 5 degrees and there was very little wind. We were still at sea in the morning with our adjusted schedule. To fill in the time, we had some interesting talks from both our photographer on how to maximise the interest in our photos and from our marine biologist on polar bears.
The polar bear is at the top of the food chain and the Svalbards have the greatest density of population in the arctic. There are somewhere around 3000 polar bears here. They can reach up to 850 kg and can swim over 100kms. They live around the edges of the sea as they hunt seals. They can move further inland to build a den for giving birth to their young and raise them until they are a little over two years old. From then, they live as solitary animals.
We didn’t reach our landing site until 4.00 pm so we had a lot of spare time. We went ashore at Diskobukta on the island of Edgeoya. We navigated through a lot of floating ice on the way and saw a number of mirages. I was on the bridge for a lot of the time and I could see tall columns of ice on the horizon. As we got closer, they diminished in height to be only normal sized lumps of ice. So did the size of what originally appeared to be massive sea cliffs. This distortion in height is caused by heat rising from the water.
We stopped a long way off shore and managed to time our landing just on high tide. We had a zodiac ride of a couple of kilometres to shore. The first few hundred metres were a bit choppy, but as soon as we reached the drifting ice along the shore, the water was as smooth as ice. There were some good reflections to photograph and some interesting ice formations.
After landing, and ensuring that the area was clear of polar bears, we walked for about 600 metres to a gorge in which thousands of Kittywakes were nesting. These are a whit bird ( bit like a gull) that have a distinctive cry that sounds like ‘Kittywake’ . They were nesting in the cliffs on the gorge. We saw seven reindeer grazing on the moss and grass, but they were not interested in letting us get near them.
The ground was very spongy and in some areas, we sank a few inches with every footstep. This is because the top few inches of permafrost had melted. It was hard to walk without creating any impact – I suppose that the sponginess might also cause the ground to spring back again later. There was a lot of driftwood on the beach – large logs that had come from somewhere perhaps Siberia. There were also a number of old whalebones and further along the beach a couple of old huts. We couldn’t go near them as anything older than 1945 is protected in Svalbard.
One interesting find were pieces of whalebone that we came across well over 200 metres inland. We might have thought that they were deposited there on an exceptionally high tide, but their location, so far away from the water, was because of a different reason. When this are was covered in ice during the last ice age, the weight of the ice had caused the ground to compress and settle. When the ice melted, the weight was lifted and the land rose a little. The current shoreline is now some distance away from the earlier one.
We looked around for a couple of hours and then made our way back to the zodiacs. We had left our return just a little while too long, as the zodiacs were bottoming in the shallows. This meant that a few of us had to get out and push for 70 or 80 metres until we found deeper water. I just got a little water into my gumboots, but not very much. Some of the chunks of sea ice had also moved in the wind and in a couple of places, we had to push it away with paddles.
Eventually, we were back at the ship at 7.30 pm for a late dinner.