Tag Archives: Guillemot


In a way our long trip from pole to pole just started today. On a sunny afternoon with light playing over the ranks of white peaks to our south and a slick open sea we gently nudged over the line marking 80°N. Considering that the reciprocal latitude in the south lies either atop the Antarctic ice sheet or beyond the Ross Ice Shelf that defied the advance of polar exploration for so long, the far north offered balmy weather. As I write we lie at anchor at the pleasant harbour of Virgohamna in Danskgattet – the starting point for several failed expeditions into the ice of the north seeking the pole; across the fjord from here is Frambukta where Amundsen anchored during his exploration of the north. So many that went before perished or were turned back by the ice that lies to the north… yet we have seen no sea ice here. Looking north from 80°N we were met by a boundless horizon that seemed to beckon us to explore just that little further towards the pole. Perhaps the same clear seas called to the early explorers but it is unlikely. The northern coast of Svalbard is experiencing extremely low sea ice this year and things here have changed since the first charts were penned. Many glaciers have retreated from the touch of the warming waters that once lapped coolly at their feet. Bays once blocked all year by fast ice now offer cosy anchorages to the many small yachts that, once rare in these forbidding waters, are now common.

For us we now begin the long journey south – first to Longyearbyen to resupply and then the long haul across the North Atlantic towards Greenland. We leave behind us a startling wilderness, albeit one that holds the scars of a long era of exploitation. In addition to the abandoned whaling stations and trappers huts that de-populated the region from much of its wildlife, the signs of modern usage are also all around us. The area buzzes with ships and frequently we stumble over accumulated litter on these remote beaches. Most worrying of all are the many discarded fishing nets that float through these waters. Silent killers, they entangle and kill birds and mammals before washing up on the beach to display the bleached bones of their grizzly cargo. Just yesterday we hauled one of these nets out of the water to find several guillemot carcasses entwined in the coarse net.

The Admiralty Pilot Guide for this area declares that:

“There were formerly large herds of reindeer, but these, along with the arctic fox and polar bear, have now been practically exterminated by trappers. Whales have left the vicinity and seals, which formerly abounded, have almost disappeared; only vast swarms of sea-fowl of various kinds remain.”

Clearly the land is starting to recover since such a bleak outlook was penned. Life is slowly returning to the north following historical exploitation – on this trip we have already met with whale and seal species that have been hard to find since the whaling fleets abandoned these waters. As we set our sails for the south we hope to focus on examples of how humans can live in balance with these wild places and how coastal communities are changing to ensure that wild-places and wild animals survive into the future. Here in Svalbard for example, most of the animals are now protected and the Governor’s Office of Svalbard is a very real presence in the region constantly checking on sailors and tourist operators to ensure that modern activities do not impact upon the natural and cultural heritage of the islands. Life in the poles is certainly precarious but it seems there is a growing commitment to retain and nurture wild places at the end of the Earth.

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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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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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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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