Friday, 29 July 2011

Attacking Arctic Terns

Arctic Tern,  Gravneset Spitsbergen

As we stepped on the beach of Gravneset, deep in Magdalene Fjord it was easy to see why this was one of the most visited sites in Svalbard. The beach was soft sand in some areas and cobblestone in others.  Beautiful jagged mountains rose steeply all around the bay.  Each mountain seemed to support one or more glaciers.  It was impressive scenery
Polar Swim in Gravneset  Spitsbergen
We set out to explore the historic whaling site in language groups.  Each group was accompanied by two members of the Expedition Team that were equipped with radios, flare guns and high-powered rifles.  The rifles were a constant reminder that this is very much the home of Polar Bears.  While we all hoped to see an Ice Bear, the biggest threat at this site today were the protective Arctic Terns nesting on the beach.  Chattering, clicking birds swooped down at our heads in an effort to drive us away from their nests and chicks.  Our leaders instructed us to simply raise a gloved hand over our head.  The birds would attack the highest point.  Their beaks weren’t much of a threat to a gloved hand.
The view from a hilltop near Virgohamna
Gravneset had been used by whalers for over 200 years.  Over that long period of time many whalers died and were buried on a small hill in the centre of the beach.  It was a somber reminder of the tough life they must have endured.
An hour was ample time to explore the area, stretch the legs and get a great breath of fresh air.  Some of the hardier (?) souls braved the frigid water and went for a Polar Dip.  Br-r-r!
Later in the day, at 16:30 we landed on a remote rocky beach opposite to the historic site of Virgohamna.  We were organized into language groups once again and then set off across the island towards Virgohamna.  We were soon at the top of a modest hill where we enjoyed a fantastic view of the old whaling station and the famous site where the Swedish Engineer, Salomon August Andrée launched his hot air balloon in 1897 in a tragic attempt to reach the north pole.  We then headed a little closer to Virgohamna where, in the distance, we could see not only historic rubble left from the whalers and the aviators, but at least nine Harbor Seals that were hauled out on the opposite shore.
All-in-all we spent about two hours exploring the area.
Today had been a fantastic introduction to Spitsbergen!