Tag Archives: Northern Fulmar

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 and the faithful fulmars

It’s just the two of us now that we said our final heart wrenching goodbyes to our smallest crew member. Shy is now happily making his home among his litter mates at the Greendog kennel, and by all accounts he is having a great time and fitting in well. I hope his time with us helped him to turn into the playful and inquisitive puppy that he became in the weeks we had him aboard.

As for the two of us – we have now bid our final farewell to Svalbard and all the friendly and helpful people that helped us on our way. 24hrs ago we saw the mountains of this arctic outpost dissolve into a mist, and our own horizon shrink into a small section of frothing white waves and blustery wind within a big misty ocean. In a way it is a little lonely out here away from everything but it’s great to be on the move again and there are always the fulmars circling the boat to keep us company on the long watches. It will take us over a week to cross the North Atlantic so it will be some time until we can post images again, but keep posted for text updates …and wish us fair winds!

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Aquatic adventures

A pint of beer and an enormous serving of ribs is just the thing to relax after a busy few days of Arctic diving. Swimming five transects of 50 meters may not sound like hard work but when you throw in freezing water, leaking dry-suits, biting winds and dense forests of seaweed the business is definitely hard work! Just imagine yourself at 15 meters underwater … the chill begins to seep in through the suit after 10 minutes and the water seeps in much faster through the tear on my suit. Imagine yourself floating over a canopy of waving fronds of algae, each frond reaching two meters in length and entwined in a dense forest with the other fond that carpet the sea floor to a depth of two meters. Below this jungle is the sea floor that you need to swim along happily counting every single fish and moving crustacean or snail or anything else of interest really. So of course you dive headfirst into the waving mass of brown algae, tie off your transect line, untangle your camera, untangle your legs, untangle your camera again, try and find where your dive computer is, untangle your dive computer … and off you go … nose down, legs up and furiously scribbling notes with a pencil that insists on making an escape to some desk where people use such tools more sensibly.

It is probably a rather comic site for the fulmars and other birds watching curiously from the surface. I can picture them gazing down at the wildly flailing fins protruding from the jungle of kelp while bubbles burst to the surface in panicked gasps. The dark depths of the kelp forest would briefly be illuminated by a burst of flash followed in rapid succession by several others while the aquatic photographer attempts to photograph a tiny fish flitting through the fronds. “Queer creatures these humans” they must mutter to themselves!

Actually, apart from the various challenges of diving here in Svalbard, the past few days have been really fun, and we feel privileged to see a side of Svalbard hidden from many. The tough moments are more than balanced by the moments of sheer serenity when you float weightlessly over the surface gazing at seascapes rarely glimpsed. It is not like diving in the tropics here – the diversity is actually pretty low – but the closer you look the more you see. Soon what appears as a barren seafloor is bustling with life. Anemones wave in the current alongside colourful sponges, and the rocks crawl with hermit crabs, spider crabs and the occasional small fish. Overhead flocks of birds look on with interest and the occasional seal dashes past with barely a glimpse at these strange intruders into their domain. Well worth a slight chill and the condemnation of the anxiously waiting dog who views the whole game with disdain.

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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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Towards the ice

This morning I awoke early to feel the swell of the Drake Passage tossing my body around the bed and various loose items around my cabin. I must be on my way to Antarctica!

After a quick tidy up of my various scattered belongings however, I took the time to take in the splendour of being on the southern seas – rolling waves crested by white caps, wind-whipped foam lining the deep blue water … and of course the birds. While sailing all summer up the Norwegian coast in our own little yacht accompanied by northern fulmars, puffins, guillemots, gannets, razorbills and various gulls it’s easy to forget just how numerous the sea birds of the Southern Ocean are.

In Norwegian waters there is generally one or two birds in sight of the ship … Strolling on the pitching deck this morning I was greeted by clouds of seabirds trailing after the ship like a wheeling cloud of moths over a flame. Wandering albatross, giant petrels, pintados, storm petrels, southern fulmars, black-browed albatross and more all formed a soaring entourage to herald our passage towards the southern continent. In an ocean that stretched around the globe it’s hard to feel alone.

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Hvale – Beauty and the Beef

Lofoten now lies in our wake with the jagged peaks silhouetted against the horizon – as we sail north we are born upon the last warm tendrils of the gulf steam along the steep drop from shallow shelf water  to the deep abyssal plain. This is the realm of whales, and in the Bleik Trench sperm whales gather each summer to feed upon the huge squid in the deep water. So of course we gathered there as well to see the whales! Unfortunately the first day of searching came up a complete zero, and the closest we came to seeing a whale was the many advertisements for “Hvalbif” (whale beef) in the restaurants of Andenes where we stayed for the night. And it seemed like this was going to be repeated the next day after eight hours of sailing along the shelf waters with nothing to keep us company but the many fulmars circling about the boat.

Until suddenly the call came: “Hvale!!!!”….

It was a single sperm whale logging on the surface but it was enough to make the hours worthwhile. The huge beast was rather indifferent about the appearance of Widdershins with its goggling crew and happily rolled about in the ocean swell before dipping towards the depths, raising its tail heading off to seek squid.

As the day was already growing long and we had many miles to sail we decided to call it quits and headed for sheltered waters and the inshore route to Tromsø. We are currently sipping hot chocolate amongst the hordes of tourists rugged up in several jumpers, patented Norwegian “tourist” beanies and hiking shoes …. Meanwhile the locals are strolling around in (very) short skirts, sandals and skimpy tops (ouch … I was doing research for the blog Léonie). I guess 10 degrees is the height of sultry summer weather here-abouts.

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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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