Polar Bears and Wildlife of Spitsbergen - Cruise to Arctic Norway

July 10-20, 2014

polar bears in Spitsbergen © Chris OLeary
polar bears in Spitsbergen © Chris OLeary
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In July 2014, Wayne Petersen led a group of Mass Audubon travelers aboard the Polar Pioneer to Arctic Circle, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.  As true as it has been in past years, the birding and wildlife sightings were outstanding.  Wayne’s thoughts on the trip are shared here:

As I reflect on our amazing high Arctic journey, a number of recollections linger in my mind.

First and possibly the most troubling is the question of what does the future hold for such iconic Arctic wildlife species as the Polar Bear? With the increasingly melt of Arctic pack ice around the world, will these spectacular boreal predators be able to ultimately survive if annually they are forced to spend greater lengths of time away from the pack ice on barren terrestrial landscapes of high Arctic archipelagos like Svalbard? Will female Polar Bears be able to lay down sufficient late summer body fat to enable them to successfully rear and wean their cubs in the decades ahead? I encourage you to see some of the recent documentary films (e.g., Chasing Ice) focused on climate change to provide dramatic visual perspectives on this impending phenomenon. They offer a chilling (no pun intended!) view of the realities of global climate change and its possible implications for Arctic wildlife.

A related concern pertains to the status and health of the plankton and arctic fish populations which are required to sustain the massive seabird colonies at high Arctic localities such as Svalbard. The same devastating effects of global warming that are escalating the melting of polar ice are also gradually increasing ocean temperatures - a situation that can have pernicious impacts on marine plankton and fish populations. An increase in sea water temperature of only a few degrees can potentially trigger massive marine food failures, especially for such seemingly abundant species as Dovekies, Thick-billed Murres, and Atlantic Puffins. As with Polar Bears, adequate food resources are essential for the long-term survival of these massive seabird populations.

Despite these looming concerns for the future, one cannot help but reflect on the stunning beauty of Svalbard. The starkness of its barren cliff faces, rocky talus slopes, and moss covered tundra barrens; the chilling splendor of its numerous tidewater glaciers; and the constant animation of its abundant seabird populations will forever persist as unforgettable reminders of this "Land of the Midnight Sun." Looking at the shipboard navigation instruments each day, and realizing that we were at times cruising at 79 degrees North latitude, approximately 600 miles from the North Pole, was in itself amazing. To add the opportunity to travel among polar ice floes and pack ice, or to land upon islands so barren that only Arctic Terns can survive, was equally incredible. But to also be able to watch Polar Bears hunting seals on the pack ice, or to observe Walruses hauled out on ice floes beside the ship was over the top!

Like many of our traveling companions I tried to capture some photographic images of things seen and places visited; however it will not be my pictures or my field notes that that will persist the longest as reminders of our journey. Instead it will be my recollection of the sights, sounds, and smells of thousands of seabirds coming and going to nesting ledges on towering sea cliffs, a seemingly fragile Purple Saxifrage growing among the stones of an otherwise desolate landscape, and the sight of a pair of Barnacle Geese gamely defending their goslings from a marauding Arctic Fox that will stay with me forever.

Along with these images will also be the memory of new friendships made among our fellow travelers, and the camaraderie of being with old and familiar friends that will remain with me long after the gentle rocking of the Polar Pioneer has stopped, or the daily sight of Northern Fulmars floating past my porthole is replaced by the sight of cheery goldfinches at my backyard bird feeder. These Arctic memories and human associations will remain unforgettable.