Located in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between the North Pole and Norway, the archipelago of Svalbard is one of the northernmost lands in the world. Soon after its discovery in 1596 by Dutch explorer Willem Barents, Svalbard’s natural resources began to attract all manners of explorers, hunters and scientists. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the archipelago was associated with whale hunting. A common sight then would have been a scattering of whaling stations, trapping huts, larger outposts and hundreds of blubber ovens littering the shore. Today, Svalbard’s coal mines attracts workers from many different nationalities. Despite the emphasis on resources exploitation, Svalbard remains one of our planet’s most pristine environment and home to an impressive array of fauna, including the king of the Arctic: the Polar Bear. Sadly, Svalbard is also part of a growing number of areas where drastic retreating of glaciers and dramatic shrinking of sea ice are poignant signs of a changing global climate.
In the western parts of the larger island of Spitsbergen, home to most of Svalbard’s human residents, polar bears are few. But travel to the northern fjords and to the smaller islands of Kongsøya, Edgeøya or Nordaustlandet and your chances of meeting one of the 3500 magnificent bears residing in the archipelago increase dramatically. Polar bears are solitary mammals with impressive swimming abilities. Some adult bears can spend several days in the water and swim over very long distances. In winter, pregnant females will den while others will remain active throughout the polar night. Polar bears prey on seals but they are also known to feed on eggs, sea birds, carrion, and pretty much anything which resembles food.
Scroll down for a selection of pictures taken during my last photo expedition to Svalbard.
Summer in Svalbard is synonymous with 24h day light and melting ice. In the picture above, reminiscent of the imaginary world of ‘Avatar’, lichens coat the tall cliffs of Isfjorden, one of Svalbard’s largest fjords. The archipelago’s geologic history is very rich and spans several eras, so much so that Svalbard has become a study ground for many scientific missions focusing on tectonic features, sedimentary environments through the ages and continental drift. Svalbard’s oldest glacial tills occurred 600 million years ago, when the land now known as Spitsbergen was situated close to the South Pole. Equally ancient and of immense scientific value are the red sandstones in the northern part of Spitsbergen, formed when Svalbard was close to the Equator, during the Devonian period, 350 to 400 million years ago. The relatively recent glacial erosion seen in many parts of the islands as well as the sparse vegetation expose very large bedrock sections where a recent discovery of Jurassic-era plesiosaurs (marine reptiles) and icthyosaurs (fish lizards) was made.
At the beginning of October, the sun slowly starts to set for the year. By November 11, the fabled Polar Night will have fallen on Svalbard. At the end of January, the first timid solar rays reappear and eventually cast a golden hue onto the majestic ice-covered landscapes of the archipelago.
Nordaustlandet – the second largest island of the Svalbard archipelago – is almost entirely covered by two large ice caps: Austfonna and Vestfonna; both are several hundred meters thick. On the two photographs above is Bråsvellbreen, the 30-km wide ocean-facing part of the Vestfonna. Austfonna is the world’s third largest ice cap after Greenland and Antarctica. While 2012 marked the lowest seasonal minimum ever recorded for Arctic sea ice, glaciers such as the ones on Nordaustlandet were growing at an unprecedented rate only a few decades ago. In the recent past, Austfonna advanced more than 20Km into the ocean. Today the story is very different. Frequent visitors to Svalbard will attest to the dramatic retreat of most, if not all of the archipelago’s major glaciers.
With their elongated bodies, long necks, stocky forelimbs, longer hind leg, very large paws and non-retractable claws, polar bears differ from other bears. These cold weather adaptations complement an acute sense of smell which helps them detect seals more than 30Km away.
Seals are polar bears’ staple. They love blubber so much that, at close quarters, polar bears smell very much like seals. You are what you eat, after all. One of the ironies of the melting of Arctic sea ice in the summer is that, for a while, it will become easier for polar bears to hunt: less ice means higher seal population density. As the gradual melting continues, polar bears will be faced with scarcity and will undoubtedly need to swim over increasingly longer distances to find food. Sometimes without success.
Polar bears hunt ringed seals – their main prey – by waiting near breathing holes or close to openings in the ice. Even with considerable variations in their life cycle, the presence of ice is of great importance to all seals. For some species, survival is impossible without the ice. Many species look for food near the ice edge and under it. Seals also nurse their pups on the ice. Most seals never leave the ice and keep breathing holes open all winter. Snow mounds and lairs are built to protect pups from cold temperatures and polar bears.
When hunting, polar bears may employ several tactics. Once spotted, seals are slowly and steadily stalked. At 15 to 30 m away, polar bears charge with blazing speed and grab seals with their claws or teeth before they can leave the ice.
Resting close to the edge of an ice floe – for a quick escape in case of danger – a bearded seal raises its head as we slowly sail by. When they are freshly out of the water, the whiskers on a bearded seal will curl as they dry. Many different species of seals live in the world’s polar regions, however, only six species call the Arctic home: bearded, harp, hooded, ribbon, ringed and spotted. Bearded seals often use holes in the ice to breathe and congregate along the edges of the ice.
At Poolepynten, the headland on the eastern coast of Prins Karls Forland, a long narrow island to the west of Spitsbergen, once can find a colony of walruses often visited by a range of birds such as these mallards. Walruses are arctic giants which can weigh up to 1500Kg and live up to 40 years. Their size matches their appetite. Walruses can consume over 40Kg of clams a day. With the changing Arctic climate, walruses will benefit from the melting ice for some time. As the waters warm up, the clam population will increase.
With an impressive catalog of more than 150 species, Svalbard is home to one of the largest population of birds in the North Atlantic; the majority of which are migratory. Thirty species regularly nest in the archipelago in the summer. In winter, birds congregate towards the Barents Sea or Europe.
Just after passing 82 degrees North, we reach the Eurasian Basin. Here, the Arctic Ocean is close to 6000m deep. On the surface, the melting summer drift ice is still relatively thin and easily split by the strengthened hull of the expedition vessel.
To survive the harsh Arctic climate, conserving energy is a must. Just like people, polar bears sleep seven to eight hours a day and also take naps. With 24h daylight in summer, there is little difference between night and day in the Arctic. However, as seals are more active at night, polar bears tend to sleep more during the day. In winter, they can easily sleep through snowstorms and can stay put for several days, until the weather clears.