Grey, grey, grey – that’s all it was on this summer morning off the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. Ten thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots nest on the basaltic pillars rising vertically from the waters of Hinlopenstretet between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet.
But in the early hours of the day all we could see in thick fog was the odd flock of black-and-white birds fluttering past Plancius. These birds would have been out at sea to feed and now return to the colony with food for their chicks.
Approaching the Alkefjellet cliffs
If they knew their way home, why not follow them? Equipped with GPS and compass, we approached the cliffs by zodiac. First we heard the noise from the colony – the distinct calls of guillemots, kittiwakes, Glaucous gulls. Then the cliffs gradually emerged from the mist.
With more than 100 metres in height, they are so much bigger than we could possibly have imagined. Some of the rock towers stick out like fingers. In other places Alkefjellet – the mountain of the guillemots – looks like a medieval castle. In any case, we felt to have entered a movie-like scene.
Fighting Brünnich’s guillemot at Alkefjellet
Alkefjellet may not be Spitsbergen’s biggest bird cliff, but it is certainly among the most spectacular ones while being quite easily accessible from the sea side. Slowly gliding past the steep rock walls with birds all over, we sat and watched in awe: guillemots constantly taking off from the ledges, returning to them, splashing about in the water, diving, re-emerging. Some droppings landed on our zodiac and on our guano-proof clothing; we did not mind too much as it is said to bring luck.
Two guillemots were fighting fiercely, slapping each other with their wings and trying to use their sharp beaks as weapons. They got carried away by their conflict that in the end they had drifted right alongside the zodiac. They even continued bashing at each other under water! When the fight ended after a few minutes, one of the birds was bleeding, and the other looked fairly tousled as well.
A magic Alkefjellet morning
By the time we reached the glacier at the northern end of the colony, we had seen and listened to thousands of birds, felt very tiny in our sturdy rubber boat towered by the rock (and bird) masses, found one of the greenish eggshells shattered on a ledge and observed two Arctic foxes patrolling the foot of the cliff. Across steep tundra and snow fields they went, nose down, ears playing, in search for a scent or a sound.
When we finally turned around the sun just came through, reflecting on the water while the mist was still clinging to the steep walls. It was as eerie as it could possibly get – a stunning finale to a magic Alkefjellet morning.