Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Bird Cliffs of Bear Island

Approaching Bear Island

Bear Island (Norwegian: Bjørnøya) is the southernmost island of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago and was one of my favorite locations to visit while in the arctic.  As we approached the island, we had beautiful blue skies, but this quickly changed as the sky turned to grey and we ventured out in zodiacs on choppy seas to explore the rugged coastline. 

So you may wonder why the island is called Bear Island? Bear Island was discovered by the Dutch explorers Willem Barents and Jacob van Heemskerk on June 10th, 1596.  It was aptly named after a polar bear that was seen swimming nearby.  Although polar bears are known to occasionally visit the island by way of drifting pack ice, it is better known for its incredible rock formations and bird colonies.

The polar bears and the birds are not alone. Arctic foxes roam the island, with plenty of eggs on themenu especially in summer!  Fish sustains the many birds, but also the marine life such as white-beaked dolphins, minke whales, ringed seals, harp seals, hooded seals. Walruses used to be common, but are now scarcer around the island.

Dramatic Cliffs and Colonies of Nesting Birds

During the nesting season, an estimated one million sea birds occupy the cliffs making the site one of the largest sea bird colonies in the northern hemisphere. Some of these cliffs shoot 400m up, straight out of the cold water. The most common bird on the island is the Guillemot, but it is also home to Kittiwakes and Puffins.

Trying to photograph the landscape and the birds in a bobbing zodiac was tough to say the least, the key being to just fire off a few bursts as soon as I locked focus and hope for the best.  Light was also tough, so using high ISO's was a necessity in order to maintain a high shutter speed.  Therefore birds in flight was near impossible and I had to make do with sporadic moments where groups of birds were sitting on rocks with enough separation from the background to make for a semi-decent image. Here is a short video clip giving you an idea as to the conditions!


The common guillemot is one of the most abundant seabirds in temperate and colder parts of the northern hemisphere, with very large populations in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and adjacent areas of the Arctic Ocean. In the northeast Atlantic its range extends from Portugal in the south to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the north and includes the Baltic. Bear Island (Bjørnøya) is the most important breeding area for the common guillemot in Svalbard and the entire Barents Sea.

Common Guillemots/Murres

The common guillemot is extremely gregarious and colonial breeding is the norm. The colonies can contain many tens of thousands of individuals. Common guillemots nest exclusively in steep cliffs, either on narrow ledges or platforms. Breeding success is highest where birds breed at high density or where sites are protected from predators. The Arctic fox, glaucous gull and great black-backed gull are important predators of eggs, chicks and adult birds. Some individuals, the so-called ”bridled” morph, have a white ring around the eye and a white stripe extending from the eye backwards towards the neck.

Bear Island is one of the few places in the Arctic protected as a nature reserve and the island is also listed under the Ramsar convention. The protected area extends 12 nautical miles (around 22km) out from the coast.

Zodiac approaches cargo ship "Petrozavodsk"

In 2009 the cargo ship Petrozavodsk ran aground beneath the majestic bird cliffs. Toxic chemicals and fuel was pumped from the ship, but further recovery was abandoned due to safety concerns around rockslides. It now lies abandoned, corroding under the crashing waves.  Although the sight of the ship was a colorful point of interest, it was also a reminder of how detrimental chemical spills can be, especially in such, fragile, pristine locations such as this.

Cargo Ship "Petrozavodsk"

Located 74° North in the Barents Sea, the island both experiences polar night and midnight sun, when the sun is below or above the horizon for a full 24 hours. The polar night lasts from 8 November to 3 February. Between 2 May to 11 August, the sun never sets. The island also host an exclusive nude dipping club. Among the members are several high ranking Norwegian politicians!

By © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, FAL

Today there are nine human inhabitants. The island hosts a meteorological station providing fresh weather forecasts, providing data for safe navigation. Besides the meteorologists a couple of biologists study island unique animals and the flora.

 Bear Island has an amazing diversity of life in very harsh Arctic conditions. But this ecosystem is very fragile. Oil drilling in the Arctic is dangerous. It puts wildlife under tremendous threat and the oil recovered will contribute to rising global temperatures which are already impacting millions of lives around the world. Even on Bear Island it is getting warmer, and the temperature has risen in these high latitudes more than on the globe in general.

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