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Beyond Bear Island

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

We launched Ocean Wildlife Encounters (OWE) in the midst of the pandemic, so establishing a track record on cruise liners has been a challenge. Thankfully we’ve been back aboard various cruise vessels in recent months, both as individual speakers and as OWE, but it was great to finally get a major team aboard MV Balmoral for the Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines adventure to ‘Rugged and Remote Spitsbergen’. Our team comprised of Emma Neave-Webb (Strandings Coordinator for the International Whaling Commission & Co-founder of OMMRI), Russell Neave (Cetacean & Seabird Research Surveyor and widely acknowledged, really nice chap), David Chilcott (AKA Dolphin Dave – Wildlife Cruise Speaker and Wildlife Photographer), and Jeff Clarke (Ecologist, Wildlife Cruise Speaker and Wildlife Photographer).

OWE team from left: Emma Neave-Webb, Russell Neave, David Chilcott, Jeff Clarke © OWE

Being able to put a team aboard makes such a difference to the potential for detecting marine related wildlife, be it whales, birds, sharks and more besides, especially when you will have 24hr daylight for the majority of the journey. On this trip we were additionally blessed with many passengers who were equally passionate about the natural world and many of them proved to be adept spotters and photographers into the bargain.

OWE team and passengers at the bow of MV Balmoral © OWE

During the trip the team delivered a wide range of well-received talks, but it was the wildlife we were showing to the passengers that will stick in their minds most vividly. Throughout our two-week journey we had some incredible sights often with a spectacularly scenic backdrop.

A packed audience in the Neptune Lounge for Emma's talk on the geology of Svalbard © OWE

We also witnessed the devastating impact that Avian Flu is having on our seabird populations. The North Sea in particular, was awash with dead and dying seabirds, primarily Gannets. This strain of Avian Flu had incubated in South-east Asian poultry farms, before escaping into wild bird populations. Its initial devastating impacts were seen in wildfowl populations, including those of the Svalbard Barnacle Geese that winter on the Solway, but now our seabird cities across Scotland and Eastern England are being ravaged by it. It will take many years for populations to recover and there may well be local extinctions of some species.

This Gannet was a likely victim of Avian Flu that is sweeping through seabird colonies © OWE/Jeff Clarke

It was a relief to see some gannets like this immature bird were still alive © OWE/Jeff Clarke

For the most part the spotting conditions varied from good to ideal, with just a couple of days of rougher conditions and two days blighted by thick fog. Mostly we were in blazing sunshine, light winds and slight seas. This makes the team more confident that our sightings are accurate and that overall, we missed very little that was there to be found.

We’ll start with the cetaceans. In total we recorded eight different species with a minimum of 874 individual animals observed. The distribution of locations is shown in the graphic below.

The breakdown of sightings is as follows:


Total no. of individuals

Minke Whale 74+

Humpback Whale 217+

Fin Whale 54+

Sperm Whale 16+

Killer Whale/Orca 64+

Long-finned Pilot Whale 91+

White-beaked Dolphin 139+

Harbour Porpoise 162+

Whale sp. 26+

Dolphin sp. 31+

This map includes data entry from more than 200 sightings during the cruise © OWE

We would have hoped for a couple of additional species, but local sources confirmed that in 2022 the large whales were unusually late and had still not arrived in numbers in and around Spitsbergen at the time of our visit (end of June-beginning of July). Also, the fog banks coincided with the deep-water areas where we may have found a beaked whale species or two.

We encountered small numbers of sharks, four were identified as Basking Shark, two others remained unidentified but were most likely also 'baskers'. Amazingly one of the 'baskers' was caught breaching at extreme range by one of the keen photographers, thereby confirming its identity.

A very distant basking shark off north Norway © OWE/Jeff Clarke

There was a real paucity of seals observed on this trip, Atlantic Grey Seals were readily found in the North Sea, but they were virtually absent along the Norwegian coast and only small numbers of Harp Seal were recorded between Bear Island and Spitsbergen.

In total we recorded 105 species of bird during the trip, some 47 species of which were seen from the ship itself, with the remainder observed during shore excursions. Notably on this journey we were able to see the full suite of European breeding auk species.

Even though it wasn’t the migration period, a couple of land birds did take temporary refuge on the vessel while we were at sea, the first being a Collared Dove that took up brief residence on the outward crossing of the North Sea, and a White Wagtail, that stopped momentarily on Balmoral’s bow, off north Norway. We also had one Common Swift flyover whilst cruising the northern North Sea.

Collered Dove stowaway aboard MV Balmoral in North Sea 23rd June 2022 © OWE/David Chilcott

A Silver Y moth that appeared as we approached the Arctic circle was not unexpected but a Camberwell Beauty butterfly, that flew over the observers at the bow the following day, was a surprise.

One of the features of the trip were the ‘fish boils’ at the surface. On flat calm sea days these would decorate the seascape like sultanas in a fruit scone.

Stunning sea and skyscape after midnight with fish boils at surface © OWE/David Chilcott

These are just the bald statistics of the journey and don’t convey some of the truly memorable moments enjoyed by the team and passengers alike.

Any person who managed to be on deck the evening we left Honningsvåg, setting out for Spitsbergen, would have been thrilled with the spectacle that unfolded. Even before we reached North Cape the ocean appeared to be venting steam from all points, like a monstrous machine in a Metropolis, as whale after whale surfaced and exhaled. The majority were Humpback Whales. Some slapped their pectoral fins against the placid ocean, the odd animal breached and some indulged in bubble-net lunge-feeding, including a few close to the ship itself. As the humpies thinned out further from the coast their place was taken by Fin Whales, mostly in pairs and trios. Their tall columnar blows visible for miles.

Humpback Whale group blowing as we passed North Cape © OWE/David Chilcott

Humpback Whale slapping its pectoral fin off North Cape © OWE/David Chilcott

Humpback bubble-net lunge feeding off North Cape © OWE/Emma Neave-Webb

Humpback fluking off North Cape © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Fin Whale off North Cape © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Fin Whale 'sounding' off North Cape © OWE/David Chilcott

Many of the passengers would be forgiven for thinking we were making up the Minke Whale sightings, they are not nicknamed 'slinky minke' for nothing. Their blows are often invisible and they spend only a brief moment at the surface. Thankfully the odd individual did show well enough for the watchers to get a stellar view and none more so than the animal that powered spectacularly across the bow of Balmoral in lunge-feeding mode, whilst we were still in the North Sea.

Minke Whale powers past Balmoral's bow in the North Sea © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Minke in more typical 'slinky minke' mode off North Norway © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Undoubtedly one of the features of this particular trip were the number of encounters we enjoyed with the apex predator of the ocean. We had to wait until the 27th June for our first contact, but it was worth the wait, we picked up our first pod as we approached the Lofoten Islands. The Killer Whale/Orca here are North Atlantic Ecotype 1, specialising in Herring. Good teamwork between OWE and the Navigational Bridge meant that later in the day, as we approached Andenes, the Captain of Balmoral was able to bring us a little closer to shore and this provided superb views of several Killer Whale/Orca pods as we slowly and respectfully transected the area. By the end of the day, we had recorded a minimum of 27 Killer Whale/Orca.

Orca/Killer Whale female off north Norway © OWE/David Chilcott

Orca/Killer Whale bull off Andenes © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Orca/Killer Whale pod off north Norway © OWE/David Chilcott

Our next sighting would be on the journey south from Spitsbergen, we had moderately distant views of a pod of distinctly larger animals. The pod of 8-10 individuals, included three large bulls, one of which had a dorsal shaped like the ‘Shard’ and another like a tall scimitar. We haven’t been able to match these animals in a catalogue yet, but the bulls looked huge compared to the ones along the Norwegian coast and it makes you wonder if they were mammal specialists of a different ecotype. Indeed, since then, the first ever known matches between Icelandic and Norwegian Killer Whales has been made for animals observed earlier this year near Rorvik, Norway.

We had further pods totalling 27+ animals heading south-west along the Norway coast on the 4th, all of which looked like typical North Atlantic Ecotype 1 animals. Dave managed a splendid set of images of these animals and we know some of our passengers did too. In fact, Emma has since been able to positively match bull NKW-0881, from the Norwegian catalogue, using photographs taken by Gillian Findlay, one of the passengers.

Orca/Killer Whale bull NKW-0881 off north Norway © Gillian Findlay

Thankfully, as we got further north, the numbers of dead and dying Gannets we observed declined significantly. The Fulmars noticeably changed colour and after Bear Island they were dominated by the ‘blue phase’ birds or ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ as they became known. These are wonderful birds, (so long as you don’t get hold of one) and they were pretty much our constant companions throughout the cruise.

Northern Fulmar 'blue phase' off Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Spot the Northern Fulmars against the mighty Tuna Glacier, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Eagles were some of the few species of land birds viewable from the ship. It’s not unusual to spot them when navigating the fjords, including on this occasion Trollsfjord, where the resident pair of White-tailed Sea Eagles showed well, almost at midnight, as the decks were thronged with passengers. One of this pair flushed two Ring Ouzel on the cliffs, the only ones we saw the whole trip. Those who missed the eagles in the fjords got a second bite at the cherry when an immature bird flew low over the ship as we prepared to dock in Honningsvåg.

Immature White-tailed Eagle, Honningsvåg © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Around North Cape you could find huge numbers of seabirds breeding on the vertiginous cliffs and it was from here that the cast list began to change. By the time we passed Bear Island the Common Guillemot was no longer the common bird, as it had been almost completely replaced by Brunnich’s Guillemot and they were also joined by the tiny skittering form of the Little Auk, a diminutive auk that was often just a blur of black and white wings.

Brunnich's Guillemot from MV Balmoral between Bear Island and Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

The other auk to dominate in the Spitsbergen area is the Svalbard sub-species of Puffin Fratercula arctica naumanni. As Atlantic Puffins go, this is a real bruiser, it is noticeably larger than the sub-species familiar to birders in the UK.

Atlantic Puffin sub-species naumanni, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Little Auks off Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

On any cruise there are some special ports of call, and whilst we recorded numerous species of birds and mammals at these locations, I won’t include them in this blog as most passengers will not have had the opportunity to see or experience them. However, we’ll make the exception for Longyearbyen itself. Most of the guests managed to get ashore here and explore for the best part of two days and therefore had plenty of opportunity to enjoy some of the local wildlife.

Let’s start with the sparrow of Longyearbyen. The delightful Snow Bunting really is the only passerine in town. It was seemingly everywhere, and the air was filled with its delightful melodic song. The males were in their striking black and white summer plumage and there were young fledglings at random locations chipping away, demanding to be fed.

Snow Bunting fledgling calling to be fed in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Snow Bunting male collecting insects in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Snow Bunting male at North Cape © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Also within the town itself were a couple of pairs of Arctic Skua. One pair, close to the University Centre In Svalbard, was aggressively defending their nest site, set on a patch of tundra amongst the parked Skidoos. The local dog walkers, or at least their pooches, attracted particular attention.

Arctic Skua and skidoos in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Arctic Skua in attack mode in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

The tundra slopes to the east side of town were occupied by nesting Svalbard Pink-footed Geese. Most of these birds winter in Denmark, Netherlands and Belgium. The ones we see in the UK are from Iceland. This species is generally shy and vulnerable to disturbance but those in Longyearbyen seemed oblivious to the human visitors passing just metres away.

Pink-footed Goose family in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Elsewhere in Longyearbyen, particularly out towards the sled dog kennels, the Svalbard Barnacle Goose was very obvious. This beautiful goose dotted the landscape. Many pairs had goslings and despite the depredations of the local Glaucous Gulls they seemed to be having a good breeding season.

Svalbard Barnacle Goose family in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

In the same area were masses of nesting Common Eider ducks, their down piles punctuating the tundra. Dozens of birds were nesting around the sled dog kennels. Perhaps the dogs provide a useful early warning system which helps to limit the losses to the local Arctic Foxes, though we were on-hand to witness one successful raid as this canny canid stole in among the nesting birds to snaffle an unguarded egg for its breakfast.

Common Eider female brooding in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Adult Glaucous Gull with Common Eiders in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

1st summer Glaucous Gull in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Arctic Fox on an successful egg hunt in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Russell Neave

The only other non-human mammal we encountered in Longyearbyen was the Svalbard Reindeer Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus. We’d seen many from the ship itself, but it was good to get a close-up of the ‘hobbit’ version of this holarctic deer. Svalbard Reindeer is the smallest sub-species. The individual we got closest to was in such heavy moult that it looked more like an old sofa with the stuffing spilling out of the split seams.

Svalbard Reindeer in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

There were small numbers of wading birds in and around the town, including Dunlin. According to the Polar Institute, the subspecies present here is Calidris alpina arctica or possibly C. a. schinzii. The images we obtained would seem to suggest the latter, with moderate to shortish bill and restricted black on the belly.

Dunlin of sub-species schinzii Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Probing Dunlin, sub-species schinzii in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

In the same area we found Purple Sandpiper and tundra race of Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula tundrae. Anyone visiting the Longyearbyen Miners’ Cemetery may also have seen the nesting Purple Sandpipers with their day-old chicks tripping through the tundra flowers between the memorial crosses.

Purple Sandpiper probing the mud in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Purple Sandpiper & chick in tundra flowers at Longyearbyen Miners Cemetery, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

Ringed Plover sub-species tundrae Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen © OWE/Jeff Clarke

As ever, with a blog from such an amazing trip, you want to include as much as possible, but rather than continue with a never-ending summary we’ll be publishing additional images and facts from the trip, via Twitter @OWEncounters and Facebook

Anyone who joined us on this journey is welcome to use the images as a memento, but they cannot be used for commercial purposes or publication without the permission of OWE and the photographer as copyright remains with the author.

Finally OWE would like to extend its thanks to the following organisations and individuals. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, the crew of MV Balmoral, our agents at Peel Talent, in particular Sara Andrew. Special thank you to the 'keen-eyed' Gillian Findlay for the use of her Orca/Killer Whale image, We’d also like to thank all of the cruise passengers on this trip who not only engaged so enthusiastically with us during the tour and beyond, but also provided invaluable additional eyes, helping us to spot the amazing marine nature along the way.

Midnight Sun, Arctic Norway June 2022 © OWE/Jeff Clarke

We look forward to the next opportunity to show folk just what is out there in the big blue.

Ocean Wildlife Encounters July 2022

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8 commenti

Your enthusiasm and knowledge made our Svalbard cruise. Thanks for excellent talks and your nearly constant presence on deck. You really made the trip a memorable treat. My Dad saw his first whale (and then a lot more!). Thanks for your companionship and your determination to show us the amazing natural world.

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Jeff Clarke
Jeff Clarke
23 lug 2022
Risposta a

Hi Rebecca, We are so glad that you and your Dad had a good experience with us. The hard work paid off and we can't wait to be back on the next cruise doing the same again. Hopefully we'll see you again sometime soon.

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Jacqueline Price
Jacqueline Price
17 lug 2022

It was an amazing cruise and I really enjoyed spending time with everyone on the front watching the whales and other wildlife. I really enjoyed your talks too. Thank you for everything you did, it really made the cruise special.

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John Clark
John Clark
17 lug 2022

Hi Jeff, all the OWE team. Thanks so much for everything you did on the Svalbard cruise, you were all an unexpected and brilliant addition to our cruise and our enjoyment. Oh and we certainly learned a few things from you all. Thanks also for the effort in pulling together the blog, a good read and some excellent images. Thanks again. John Clark

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Jeff Clarke
Jeff Clarke
15 lug 2022

Thanks stickywicket, it's good to know we enhanced your experience during the cruise.

Mi piace

Having the ocean wildlife folks on the cruise was my highlight - their expertise in ‘spotting’ was amazing - also great lectures.

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