From Blubber to Fur in Belsund

June 22

Our last full day on the ship, and for our morning hike we land at a beach surrounded by towering mountain peaks, with tide water glaciers filling the valleys between.  This site, Gösbergkilen, was once a popular destination for whalers, and I am in disbelief over the number of whale bones we encounter.  There are skulls from Beluga whales everywhere, along with vertebrae and ribs.  There bones are so numerous at points I feel as though I am crushing them under my feet.  We can see remnants of the ovens that were used to boil the whale blubber for oil, and the idea that we killed such a large number of whales in so short a time (about 100 years) is mind-boggling.  The worst part of it is that our need for oil from whales passed so quickly, as we moved on to exploit other resources found beneath the ground.


As we start up a soggy tundra hill, we encounter two reindeer, a male and a female, who seem to be as curious about us as we are about them.  They approach us, quite close, showing no fear as we point and take pictures.  They seem to be posing, mountains and glaciers in the background, as the feed next to each other at the top of a scenic hill.  We find left-over antlers from previous seasons, and discuss what a tremendous demand the yearly growing of antlers puts on the reindeer’s body.  They actually have to leach the calcium from their own rib cage to grow their antlers each fall, and the size of their antlers will affect how successful they are at mating.   Even the females here have antlers, needed for protection from aggressive males during mating season.

Svalbard Reindeer Couple

Soon, our radio is buzzing with news from another group – they have spotted an Arctic fox, and it is not far from us.  We quietly turn around, and slowly approach what appears to be a group of rocks.  Suddenly, one of the rocks moves.  The fox, halfway between its winter and summer coats, is a mix of white and grey, and is perfectly camouflaged with the surrounding rocks.  I expected it to be bigger, but it is dainty, about the size of a house cat.  If it is afraid, it does not show, and the fox calmly looks at our group, stands, and stretches out on its front legs, its tail in the air, just like a dog waking from an afternoon nap.  It lays back down, rolls around in the dirt, and then slowly stands and walks away, back towards the beach.  The fox here feed mainly on bird eggs, but also scavenge polar bear left-overs.  Knowing that they will have a tough winter, they are famous hoarders, and thousands of bird eggs every year are taken and buried by the foxes on this archipelago.  The arctic fox has the warmest fur of any mammal on Earth, even warmer than a polar bear, and studies have shown that even in extremely cold winter temperatures the fox almost never gets cold enough to start shivering.

Arctic Fox

On our way back to the boat, despite the fact that we are on an uninhabited island, we find plastic trash on the beaches.  It is hard sometimes to imagine how our plastic trash ends up in the ocean in such large amounts, but seeing it here, at such a high latitude, in an area most people on Earth will never visit, really helps me to understand how our environmental footprint is larger than we can possibly imagine.  There is not any place on Earth that we, as a human population, have not impacted.

Russebukta, Edgeoya

After dinner, our captain navigates our ship straight out to sea, to a deep continental drop-off where coastal upwelling occurs, a place where whales go to feed.  In the distance, we start to see whale spouts, and soon everyone leaves dinner to put on their gear and head outside.  The first pod of whales we encounter are fin whales, which we recognize for their large size, small dorsal fin, and behavior of never showing their fluke (tail fin) when they dive.  Spout after spout, they surround our boat, too busy with feeding to take much notice of our presence.  Then, we see that amongst the fin whales are humpbacks, their distinctive fluke, ridged and white, on display as they dive down to feed in these highly productive summer waters.  I head up to the bridge with the captain and staff to continue watching these whales from the warmth of the ship, when everyone excitedly grabs binoculars, pointing and whispering about a whale they see in the distance.  Despite their low numbers, we have spotted a rare blue whale, a whale not even seen in Arctic waters until the past five or six years, a population that is hopefully starting to make a slow recovery after being brutally demolished during the worst of our whaling history.  The idea that these whales also live off the coast of California makes this a special sighting for me, and it is amazing to think that they can survive in two vastly different environments.  The blue whale is the largest mammal on the planet, actually the largest animal to ever exist on our planet, and we wait to see if it will fluke while diving, its tail fin being an astonishing fifteen feet across.  Sure enough, after a few dives, it lifts its fluke slowly into the air before making a deep dive, everyone in awe of the size of this animal.  What a fantastic way to end our last night on the National Geographic Explorer.

Humpback Fluke

This entry was published on June 22, 2013 at 4:33 am. It’s filed under National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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