Sunday 26 August 2012

Walking with Walrus

We must have done something right - another bright sunny morning. This morning we take a leap into the rather recent history of Svalbard by going to Kinnvika at the western coast of Nordaustlandet.

Imagine a time when the whole scientific world agrees upon the necessity of preserving vast areas of this planet, of spending big money on something that has no immediate output like oil or gold or rare earth minerals. The yield was knowledge, understanding, protection. What seems like an impossible thing to happen nowadays was clearly the issue in the year 1957 when the first International Polar Year was held. Driven by the understanding that some of the key functions that control Earth's climate are hidden in the Arctic and Antarctic huge efforts were made toward a better grasp on these matters. And so they build the biggest station in the Arctic, with 11 buildings, a balloon shed and even a sauna. All this is situated in the vast beauty of the plains of Nordaustlandet, second largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. So a more than beautiful morning walk/hike builds the chilly overture of a day that turns out to be the longest of the trip.

A few hours later we sail by a famous rock cliff, Alkefjellet, a 100m sheer basalt cliff, the structure of which gives perfect shelter to a multitude of seabirds. The most abundant "tenant" in this natural apartment building, however, the Brunich's Guillemot has left already, leaving the space for ten thousands of Kittywakes and Glaucous gulls.

The skies are getting grey as we pull deeper into the Strait of Hinlopen, clouds are rolling low, promising rain. But the light! Photographers are awed by the spectacular contrasts between ice, brownish mountains and the black volcanic rocks that are pretty common here.
Winds are picking up, too, but fortunately our next landing site offers a little shelter.

Torellneset, a gravel spit that extends a few hundred meters into the strait and is a welcome haul-out for walruses. And indeed, already from the distance we can spot quite a few. And here is the difference to places like Moffen - now we can walk up to these strange creatures, be on the same piece of ground. Everybody is excited enough to totally ignore the few unavoidable splashes in the boat, and with great care we approach until we are a solid 35 meters away. It's the time to watch them struggling with the length of their tusks, smell their putrid odour, listen to their weird sounds. And take millions of pictures, of course.
Suddenly movement in the water not far from us: Another group of walruses has decided to observe the observers. And as we assemble cautiously close to the beach we learn how curious these heavy aliens are: One by one they pop their heads out of the water to look at us. Every now and then they even dare to come ashore to get a better glimpse. Who's the attraction now? Them or us?

For quite a while they stay with us, follow us even as we walk along the shoreline. It's like having an escort from a different planet. What an encounter!!
As if the day wasn't long and beautiful enough we reach Bråsvellbreen at night, the longest glacier front in Svalbard, 192 kilometres of sheer ice. The evening light is something between eerie and charming, a perfect end for a perfect day.