Swiss birders on the rocks | North Atlantic Odyssey 2017
Being used to cold and snow from the Swiss mountains, our team of four Swiss birders decided to book a tour with Oceanwide Expeditions in May 2017. We headed from Aberdeen, Scotland, towards the island of Spitsbergen, in the farthest north of our globe. The target species on our mind clearly was the enigmatic ivory gull as well as the polar bear. As a mountain people, of course, we were also especially curious to encounter the broad variety of marine mammals like whales, dolphins, and seals. Not being used the open ocean and the waves, we came equipped with all sorts of pills and remedies against seasickness, and were prepared to suffer a bit in order to see our targets.
Since we had already taken a flight to Aberdeen, where we would board our expedition ship Ortelius, we decided to explore the Scottish Highlands for two days beforehand. We were attracted not only by the birds but also by the famous whisky distilleries.
It did not take long to locate our local target, the Red Grouse, and soon we found ourselves celebrating with a bottle of Famous Grouse blended whisky. This lead to the idea of stocking up a bit of it for the long boat ride. Of course, to celebrate the gulls and bears, I also bought a good bottle of Aberlour single malt after tasting it directly from the distillery. So we came on board well prepared and were greeted by the friendly Filipino crew and the expedition team. Amongst them was a rather fierce and grumpy looking old Scotsman in a kilt, who soon introduced himself as Bill McSomething and proved to be full of humor.
The first surprise for me was the cabin. My last memories of an overnight boat ride was a three-day ferry cruise from Calcutta to the Andamans, where after the first night I moved my sleeping bag on deck when the AC broke down and the toilet had flooded the dormitory. I was not expecting a lot, so our neat and clean bedroom with toilet and shower was a luxury. The surprises continued at dinner. Expecting to be fed with a bowl from a pot of stew, I was amazed by the richness of the buffet. How do they stock up a ship for ten days to provide such quantities of food in such a quality?
So, well at ease, we fell asleep that night, looking forward to a comfortable adventure. But would we also see the animals we came for, or would it just be a luxurious cruise?
Our Ship “Ortelius”… somewhere under the rainbow. Crossing the Arctic Circle
The first morning saw us landing on scenic Fair Island, which brought us large amounts of colorful puffins at close range, and the impressive great skua all around us.
We then headed out to the open sea and soon met with the first fin whales, which for me were the first whales ever seen in my life. We had to have a toast on this, and opened our bottle of Famous Grouse, which obviously offended Bill, the Scotsman, in his national pride: He threatened to throw us overboard if he caught us drinking blended whisky again. From now on, the Grouse was banned in our cabin.
Day four found us crossing the Arctic Circle around 10 in the morning, which definitely marked the end of darkness for quite a while. The first sunny night had to be celebrated, and when the bar closed in the evening, we decided to turn our cabin into a party room. Word must have spread, at least to the two young Dutch birders, who found their way to the party and brought us self-made Limoncello, receiving blended whisky in return.
We managed to empty the Grouse right in time for the big targets to come, as there was only single malt left.
The bird cliffs at Jan Mayen.
Into the ice
After another landing, this time on the Island of Jan Mayen with its bird-cliffs full of little auks, the captain tried to locate polar bears. I knew ivory gulls might also not be far.
These frozen sculptures rose our hopes to see our trips prime aim…
I will never forget that encounter with both of them! It was during the daily briefing, when all the passengers were stuffed into the bar. The room was so crowded that I took seat on the floor, listening to the expedition leader, gazing out the windows into that tiny little bit of sky in my view.
And what was that?! It couldn't be! But then it appeared in the second window: our main avian target, the ivory gull!
Should I shout now, causing all the birders back in the rear corner to elbow their way through the crowd of people?
I decided not to, trusting in us finding the species again under some more favorable conditions. And they were soon to come! After dinner I came on deck and everyone had seen the gull, and they were all around. But even such of a highlight soon got topped by our meeting with the largest predator of the north: No more than one hour after entering the ice, a mother polar bear with two of her cubs were spotted, giving us brilliant views.
That clearly was a day to be closed with a 16-years-old single malt Scotch!
Our avian main target: the enigmatic Ivory Gull!
Landing on Svalbard
Having both the targets in our pocket, the trip went on even more relaxed. Reaching the Isle of Spitsbergen, we got to experience two more Zodiac trips to the coast, which added walruses and king eiders to an already brilliant list.
Long sunny nights with only slightly dimmed light provided excellent occasions to shoot pictures of the frozen landscape. Why does that one guy always spoil them by standing right in front of his own camera? At least now we were even more pleased about the Ortelius being an expedition ship taking tourists rather than a tourist ship selling an expedition. I so prefer the company of people having an eye for nature rather than just for themselves. And luckily on this tour, there was no lack of these people.
The coastal landscape of Svalbard: In the frozen land of the eternal sun.
Too soon the time was over and we had to say goodbye, leaving the ship at the harbor of Longyerbyen, where we had booked a hotel to enjoy two more nights in the eternal sun.
That cruise surely was an event to be remembered. The slow mode of traveling allowed us to experience the slight but obvious change in the fauna from day to day instead of throwing us into another world. And to our sincere delight, the mountain people turned out to be as sea-proof as old sailors: We flew back home with all our pills unused!