June 15th – Letter from Svalbard Island #2

View from the cliffs at Diabas.

This week we have been involved in a number of courses to prepare us for the rigours that lie ahead: first aid, polar bear etiquette, shooting and caring for rifles and flare guns, repairing outboard motors, and driving zodiacs. Driving zodiacs will play a major part in the research here as we will have to get to and from Longyearbyen to the research sites by water – VERY cold water. After the classroom course on Tuesday, we set out on Wednesday for a real life test of what we’d learned: we took the boats up to the Thick-billed Murre study site at Diabas. This entailed a ride of just over 1 hour – in beautiful conditions, blue skies and no wind.

View behind the beach at Diabas.

The Diabas region is truly spectacular! A fiord surrounded by cliffs and low, snow-capped mountains. We will put up a camp on the beach but most of our work will be on the cliffs nearby. In a couple of places we can get to the large Thick-billed Murre (over here they call them Brunnich’s Guillemots) colony without having to scale vertical walls – that is, we can sample birds in about the top 10-12 feet of the top using a noose-pole or hook. (More about this later.)

The cliff edge where a lot of the Thick-billed Murre work will be done.

Camping in this wilderness should be marvellous…as long as the polar bears keep their distance. There’s a protocol around how to deal with them that usually works but at night things could break down. The camp will be surrounded by a thin trip-wire fence. The wire is connected to a series of ‘bangers’ that, when they explode, should scare the bear and will most definitely awaken and scare us. The thing is, most often this is done by an Arctic Fox or a Reindeer. However, if it’s a bear, it will only be 5-10 m from our tents so those banger had better work. The bottom line is that I will be sleeping with a high-powered rifle at my side and a flare gun that also shoots bangers.

One of the highlights of this excursion is that I saw a Razorbill and a Northern Gannet. Both of these species are common on our East Coast but are quite rare up here.

We went into a head wind and waves on the trip back, adding a half hour to the ride. It was a little hairy.

The beach at Diabas where I will be camped 5 days a week for the next 6 weeks.

We were lucky in that a group of highschool students was visiting the area and the Norwegian Polar Institute pressed them into service setting up our camp (they were going to use it for one night). Here you can see them conveying equipment up the beach.

Setting up camp.


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