The aim of today was to land on two of the walrus haul outs on some of the northerly Svalbard islands using the zodiacs. After the staff landing craft had scouted the shore for Polar Bears, and with the weather looking calm and clear, we followed an earlier breakfast (6.30am) with ferries on the zodiacs to the landing beach. The smell of the Walrus was obvious before we even landed – an upwind position is more than preferable. All the animals here are apparently males who are in moult, with the females and calves elsewhere. A small group of up to 10 were loafing around on the beach near to where we waded ashore, with ~4 in the water only metres away. They seemed totally unperturbed by our presence, allowing us to stand and watch them at our leisure. We also moved around to the far side of them, finding a less obvious and somewhat larger group wallowing in a “mud bath” of black slime. Most of the animals were covered in this, and the occasional tussle broke out in the centre of the throng.
The haul out area is based on a very low and flat lying area of shingle and lagoons, so we circumnavigated the closest pool, paddling through shallow water occasionally, and so utilising the wellington boots provided by the ship. There was plenty of activity from the nesting Arctic Terns throughout, and also small numbers of Common Eider (some with ducklings) on the water and the sea. Amongst the small numbers of Purple Sandpipers were two separate Grey Phalaropes, both unfortunately in their plainer winter outfits by this time of year. A trio of Arctic Skuas earlier over the lagoons were followed later in the walk by a pair of spooned Pomarine Skuas, intent on maximum harassment of the terns. The first group of ~15 Pink-footed Geese flew in to the area and landed, but their preferred spot was some way along the lagoons.
The ship then travelled three hours to the East (and slightly further North to the northern most island group in Svalbard – Sjuøyane) to anchor beside the island of Phippsøya. The plan was to use the zodiacs again to land on the beach next to a Walrus haul out, and then to do some walking on the rocky island. The three Polar Bears located by the scouts had other ideas. Even as the anchor was dropped, one could be seen strolling along just behind the beach and away from the cluster of Walrus. This meant a change of plan, resulting in a 1½ hour zodiac ride to watch the animals rather than a landing. The 6 zodiacs approached the beach, and the two other bears could be seen on the slopes above and to the left of the Walrus, one asleep (where it stayed the entire time) and the other having a potter amongst the rocks just nearby. Once the staff were happy that the bears weren’t going to intimidate the Walrus with our presence, we took in some excellent views of them, with 50 or so in a tight huddle on the beach, and ~5 in the water. The latter occasionally looked as though they might show some interest in us and approach closer, but this didn’t materialise.
After watching them for some time, and seeing the more active bear move down the slope and out of sight behind the Walrus, we made our way along the beach for some way to view the third Polar Bear which had been relocated (this was the one first seen from the ship) at the base of the slope just behind the beach. As we viewed it from some distance, it was slowly strolling along, but by the time we arrived nearby, had decided to take a nap, splayed out on the rocks like a bear rug, only occasionally lifting its heavy head! The return to the ship to allow the second wave on the zodiacs could have had even more interest with a couple of swimming Walrus which hinted interest in close approach, but they thought the better of this and dived from sight.