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Peace Dove of the Arctic

Day 11 & 12 Kapp Lee and Negribreen

After a smooth over-night’s passage south, we sailed into Freemansund and beautiful Arctic light early this morning. Russet-brown slopes rising steeply from the beach with distant reindeer busy grazing on the mosses without a care of our presence. A Norwegian ‘octaganol’ hunting hut, from the 17th century, the only indication of man’s past on these shores.

Zodiacs were lowered for the short transition onto land, where a small haul-out of walrus enjoyed warmth from the morning sun. In old Norse, they were called “whale-horses”, and the whalers believed them to be a cross between oxen and whale, a very puzzling animal indeed. Females and males alike were hunted for their tusks, the ivory of Medieval Europe, and later persecuted for their oil. Their tough hide, which can be 2” thick, was in much demand during the industrial revolution when they were used to manufacture drive-belts.

The shallow waters around Svalbard host their favourite prey, clams and mussels. They locate these creatures at depths of 250 feet with their stiff, short bristles, free them by squirting out a powerful jet of water, and a lethal kiss, to suck the molluscs out with their powerful lips.

Once ashore we were told of an Arctic fox den where 3 cubs had been seen at play. I eagerly followed the ‘flagged’ trail with the majority of other guests, only to find this was not where the foxes had been seen, but what we did see was amazing. A group of 30-40 beluga had mysteriously arrived in the bay below, many with young. Retracing my steps down the slope I settled by some rocks and waited for the foxes to appear and just as the 3 cubs came into view, I was instructed to return to the zodiacs, what!!! We had barely been ashore for more than an hour. Although we were promised a visit to a site where there would be two fox dens the following day, it was still very frustrating to up and leave.

In the afternoon, we headed out on a 14-zodiac cruise to explore the Negribreen Glacier front, the largest in the Svalbard archipelago. The sea was smooth as we slowly glided through ice-filled waters. An Arctic skua violently harassed a kittiwake, forcing it to regurgitate its last meal then catching it in mid-air. Shaken, but alive and well the victim headed towards an ice-berg to recover from its ordeal. Whilst absorbing the amazing scenery of large icebergs in the brilliant sunshine, an all-white bird flew past us and landed on a nearby chunk of ice. The ivory gull (peace dove of the Arctic), a high Arctic bird confined to these latitudes all year round, high on the list of every birdwatcher, highlighted our morning. Remarkably, this little white beauty is very dependent on the ringed seal, in the winter predominantly feeding on the remains of blubber and flesh that Polar bears leave behind.

This beautiful, heavily crevassed, white, blue and green glacier front not only provided us with black-legged Kittiwakes foraging, black guillemots swimming close to the zodiacs, glaucous and more ivory gulls perched on platforms of glittering ice, but another small pod of Belugas at close range and small calving icefalls.

After another exquisite dinner, we chatted in the Polar lounge before retiring while MV “Expedition" continued south to Gnallodden during the night.

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