Tag Archives: Kittiwake

Empty Ocean, Full Tummies

Well it’s been another two days at sea on the way from Jan Mayan to Scoresbysund in Greenland. While flocks of curious fulmars escorted us from the island, very few birds are to be seen out here in the Greenland Sea – in stark contrast to the previous offshore legs where fulmars where our constant companions along with the occasional puffin, kittywake and skua. We are also coming to grips with a new phenomenon of our arctic trip – night time! As we head further south we are starting to get twilight conditions in the early hours of the morning, a fact that certainly makes me a little nervous as I scan the horizon for ice!

So on these long, dark lonely watches without any wildlife to break the monotony you need something to lift your spirits – for us that has come to represent a warm meal at the end of a watch. It’s amazing what you can come up with in our small rolling galley provided you have a little ingenuity. We have pulled down the layers covering our noses and mouths to consume such delicacies as donuts (deep fried bagets rolled in cinnamon and sugar); wholegrain pancakes with lemon and sugar; a hearty salted pork stew flavoured with clove sauce; fresh crusty bread with blue cheese; sautéed chicken with a creamy zucchini and bacon sauce …. and my personal favourite – bacon, baked beans and eggs with toast this morning! We certainly aren’t going to waste away anytime soon!

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Two in the blue meets two blue whales

Today was a wildlife extravaganza! We began with the plan to head down to the Monacobreen Glacier to examine the crumbling glacial face there, and also hoping to spot some of the polar bears known to haunt the area. However we never made it that far because wildlife kept getting in the way! First off, we took a winding route amongst the Andøyane Islands where we quickly spotted the shaggy shape of a bear romping around the moss covered slope attended by an angry swarm of dive-bombing terns. We quickly threw out the anchor and watched cautiously from a distance as the bear ambled around the island in search of eggs before stretching out on the beach for a nap (despite the continued attack of the terns).

The bear was a female wearing a collar from the Norwegian Polar Institute who are tracking and studying the population on Svalbard. Such studies are critical as we try to determine how the bears are adapting to the rapidly changing environment of the Arctic …. While the lack of sea ice this year makes cruising in the Arctic a breeze for us, ice-dependant species like the polar bear are facing new challenges as their icy habitat diminishes.

While we watched the bear on the beach the fjord began to come to life around us. Small planktonic pteropods began to bounce around below the boat and a swarm of juvenile cod began to mill in the shallow water – soon kittiwakes were circling and we found ourselves in the midst of a feeding frenzy as birds dropped from the air on all sides only to be faced by a gang of jealous rivals each attempting to snatch the tasty morsel plucked from the depth. Offshore more birds darkened the horizon and soon we were watching minke whales lunging to the surface with water spilling out of their baleen as they gorged on the plankton below.


But the star of the day was yet to show – transfixed by the minke whales swimming barely ten meters off the bow, we almost failed to notice the towering columns of water being thrown to the heavens on the other side of the fjord. But when we did drag our eyes to the horizon we realised that we were in the presence of not just one, but two blue whales. Soon we left the minkes (one of the smallest Rorqual whales) behind for the largest animal in the world. The marbled blue surface of the blue whale back were shortly before us … the beasts were immense with the very small portion of back exposed with each blow making our yacht look like a small sailing dingy in comparison. Spending an hour with two blue whales is a privilege and a memory that will stay with us forever.

Today was outstanding – for the first time since arriving in Svalbard we were surrounded by wildlife. Too often landings up here entail less live wildlife and more focus on the history of whaling, sealing and trapping that ultimately led to the decline of so much of the polar life. Today was fantastic, but one can’t help contemplating the days when mariners had to “plow through” the throngs of whales in these waters …let’s hope with good management the whales one day return to their historic feeding grounds.

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Fowls, foul winds and frigid nights

We awoke this morning in the historic anchorage of Worsleyhamna – to the north is a spit of land that is buzzing with birds including long-tailed ducks, terns, purple sandpipers, kittiwakes and glaucous gulls. All around us are the scattered islands of Liefdefjorden, each with their own colony of nesting birds and the occasional prowling polar bear (though we have only found the skull of a young cub in this fjord so far).In the far end of the fjord is our target for the day – the spectacular Manacobreen glacier which once was so much more amazing. Today the glacial front is breaking apart and  bares only rudimentary similarities with the charted coastline that was first put to paper by the early explorers. Despite the diminished might of the ice we hope to spend the day cruising amidst the icebergs calved from the glacier and always with a sharp lookout for the numerous polar bears that we are assured call the area home.

And as for us? We are still having a fantastic time though the constant long watches and windy anchorages are starting to take their toll on our sleep. And talking of wind .. Much of it seems to be emanating from the rear end of our diminutive crew member Shy. Each night a blast of fetid air announces the urgent need for a walk on deck. Admittedly he is getting better, with fewer urgent calls of nature, however Leonie and I never escape without several rude awakenings during the night and a quick  lap of the deck while we shiver in long-johns and bare feet. Then again, the companionship of a warm sleepy head on the lap during a long watch, and the  pleasure of having a leaping dog taking such obvious joy in a walk more than  makes up for the more mundane aspects of dog ownership on a yacht. Now we  just have to teach him that no, the tiller of the yacht is NOT a chew toy ..

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Exploring Bjørnøya

Wow! What a day! We awoke in the remote anchorage of Sørhamna on the south western corner of the tiny island of Bjørnøya, in the middle of the Barents Sea. Well, actually we awoke rather late. We were exhausted after a long crossing with constant four hour watch rotations, and also suffered a fitful night’s sleep. The island is in fact known to possess no all-weather safe anchorages. The weather wasn’t exactly bad, but constant gusts of wind coming down the cliff and a rather sharp rolling swell are not conducive to a goodnights sleep, no matter how exhausted you are, especially when you feel compelled to brave the arctic winds several times just to make absolutely certain that the anchor is holding and we are not being blown to Russia.

Then again waking up at ten o’clock in a spectacular anchorage and scoffing a healthy serving of bacon and eggs is not so bad at all! And first order of the day was definitely to go exploring. So out comes our trusty inflatable boat “Brad” and off we zoom to explore the jagged coast of our bay; complete with caves, arches, and waterfalls plunging off the one hundred meter high cliffs only to be dashed away by the winds before ever reaching the sea. And let’s not forget the birds! Every flat(ish) space on the cliffs around us was occupied by nesting birds: fulmars (our constant companions of the crossing), guillemots (several species), kittiwakes and several other bird species all peered at us from their eyries and flocked around us as we buzzed around the bay.

Next stop was Kvalrossbukta just to the north were we are now sitting out a gale blowing down off the rocky mountains were we strolled this evening. The bay here was once the site of a fairly serious whaling operation, but the winds howling through the rigging now have done their work over the hundred odd years since occupation, and little now remains of this fleeting human presence. Much more impressive was the life all around that struggled on despite the seemingly inhospitable conditions. Flowers of several hues cling to the rocky slopes, scurvy grass adds a dash of green and the sheltered slopes spring beneath your feet as you bounce across the dry moss beds.

A fantastic day in a very remote, barren but beautiful rock that is teeming with birdlife.

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My first passage

After more than 80 hours of sailing and over 260 nautical miles we finally made it to Bjørnøya, a rugged, surreal rocky island between the European continent and Svalbard, our northernmost destination. For me this first passage was quite the experience – of course I spent the first day leaning over the railings feeding fish and looking green. Poor Patrick had to sail all by himself until my stomach and legs decided that a rolling ship is an acceptable place to be. After that routine soon settled in – either 4 hours on the watch, keeping the sails in position and the ship on course, or trying to catch some sleep despite constant healing and rocking of the ship and strange rattling and gurgling sounds all around you. But after my mind had finally settled in, I started to notice all the small wonders around me. The faithful fulmars which kept us company for the whole journey, the curious kittiwakes circling the windex and trying to land on deck, the vicious skuas pirating food from other seabirds, and of course the whales! Pchuuuuuh, big blow just 20 metres off the ship, massive black back, and then the tail of a huge male humpback whale disappearing in the abyss of the northern seas. And after what seemed forever, we finally spotted the land we’ve been striving towards: huge, vertical cliffs, rocky pillars, slopes covered in snow, and buzzing birds all around us. Bjørnøya!

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Over the past two days we explored the remote southern islands of Røst and Værøy which form the very tip of the Lofoten Island chain. These rocky outcrops are the last vestiges of land before stone gives way to water and the land slips below turgid waters if the gulf stream. Here puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes, guillemots and sea eagles flock to the nesting cliffs and buzz overhead like bush flies in the Australian outback. People are somewhat less common and the harbours here retain some of the outpost feeling of a fishing town isolated from the rest of the world with not a care except the next catch of cod. And speaking of cod … you can still smell these towns long before you are amongst the picturesque houses – cod hang in endless rows drying on the sun and assuring all approaching that cod is the heart and soul of life in Lofoten. Our first night in the islands was spent tied up a mere ten paces from thousands of cod carcasses gently swaying in the wind … Widdershins is starting to absorb the aroma ….

Right now we have moved on from the southern islands, crossing the ominous Maelstrom with the reputation of a swirling eddy of water with a penchant for dragging boats down to the watery depths. Being the brave seafarers we are, we charged past the Maelstrom a mere hairs breadth from the swirling waters of death … well we could see them anyway … or we could see where it was still … in the distance. Now we sit with the warm sun on our back relaxing with a cup of coffee and recuperating after a steep climb to a mountain overlooking the town of Reine. The view was spectacular with the crystal clear waters of Lofoten lapping against the rugged cliffs below and the jagged snow-capped peaks towering above – it is a landscape that is unique to this fantastic part of the world.

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Bountiful seas

As we head further North the degrees of latitude steadily increase and the degrees of temperature go sharply the other direction. Previously the steep slopes of the Norwegian fjords plunged to the sea with green foliage born of birches, spruce and pines; now we are seeing barren shores facing the battering of the weather and cold. But this is where things begin to get interesting….

A few days ago in an Arctic fog we were blown towards the shore of the southern-most puffin colony in Norway – the isle of Runde.  At 62°N these islands are at the same latitude of their southern counterparts the South Shetland Islands – adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula. Here in Runde it is a far cry from the glaciers and extreme conditions of Antarctica but we have still crossed a boundary on the trip North. The south-western coast of Runde in composed of plunging cliffs that hold a startling arrange of nesting sea-bird life. Previously our journey along the Norwegian coast was in the company of gulls, a smattering of terns, the occasional eider duck … suddenly we were surrounded by birds of a dazzling diversity. Gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills, shags and guillemots suddenly soared overhead. Here we climbed to the cliffs and sat and watched the puffins flap furiously through the fog towards their nests amidst the rocks, and craned our necks to see the graceful flight of the Gannets…. But it wasn’t just above that the wildlife had suddenly appeared. As we sailed on (again in mist) occasional schools of fish broke the slick surface, and eventually something bigger emerged from the depths.

With a high pitched squeak long-finned pilot whales where suddenly porpoising all around Widdershins chasing schools of mackerel. A pod of over 20 whales herded fish around us for the better part of an hour, briefly pausing to spy-hop – raising their heads out of the water to peer at these strange intruders to their watery world. Eventually we left them to their feeding, but not before securing some whale left-overs for ourselves…. Mackerel for lunch!

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