An Attenborough moment
Monday 2nd September 2013, 4:00PM BST.
There are stresses and rewards in predicting where to find world-class wildlife. And Tim Earl knows he’s got it right when he leads a tour to Arctic Norway to witness whales eating entire shoals of fish in one gulp…
WE HAD barely entered the North Sea when I was summoned to the bridge to see the captain.
I was serving as naturalist lecturer on the cruise ship Minerva and we were heading towards Svalbard for a wildlife adventure just 600 miles from the North Pole.
‘Where are we going to see whales?’ Captain Alex Dudov asked. It was a major question and I hesitated for a moment.
‘There a few places I know of,’ I replied, ‘a couple between Tromsø and Spitzbergen, one off the Lofoten Islands.’
‘What about walruses?’
Planning for one of the most wildlife-orientated cruises Swan Hellenic offers was under way. We spent a couple of hours poring over charts and looking at options.
Walruses were right out: all the islands I knew where they haul ashore were too far from our itinerary.
Polar bears were going to be difficult too. They are largely found on the cold eastern side of the archipelago and we were scheduled to visit sites to the west.
I suggested a night trip into the pack-ice between Svalbard and Greenland as an option.
‘If we could have a midnight sun party in the pack-ice that would be a memorable event,’ I said, recalling a woman who had phoned three months earlier.
‘If I book up on this cruise, what are my chances of seeing the aurora borealis?’ she had asked.
I was forced to explain that we would not see darkness north of the Arctic Circle so the phenomenon was impossible. The midnight sun, dipping towards the horizon and then rising again without setting was a certainty, however, and I would ask the captain if we could have mulled wine and nibbles between midnight and 1am.
He agreed to my request and that was popped into the itinerary.
A couple of minke whales were spotted between the Thames estuary and southern Norway so the cruise got off to a good start.
We stopped at several small Norwegian ports on our way north for hikes on pristine mountains, through mixed woodland which has never seen the damage caused by grazing sheep and cattle.
Predicting plant sightings was easier for botanical lecturer Liz Charter. She took us to Tromsø Botanic Gardens, the most northerly in the world. These were a botanical bonanza celebrating summer, with beds and borders bursting with blooms.
She showed us Meconopsis, spectacular blue poppies brought from the Himalayas, their vivid colours vibrant, petals laced by tiny raindrops.
My first whale hotspot was south of Bear Island where the seabed rises from two miles deep into a few hundred feet of water. Here, deep currents of cold water come bursting to the surface and there is a blooming of life.
Humpbacked whales congregate at the spot to feast on krill and small fish, using a communal form of feeding.
Passengers were told to be on the lookout and I was posted on the bridge with Liz, whose eyes are sharper than mine.
It was she who saw the first blow. Far ahead a white puff sprang up from the sea. We were in business.
Capt. Dudov altered course and lowered the speed. I made an announcement on the deck-Tannoy and 12,000 tons of ship started a whale-watching excursion with 300 people staring out to sea.
Nobody was disappointed. We found the humpback whale and then more, until finally a school of at least nine was reached.
Three surfaced close to the bows and a great ‘ohhh!’ sounded around the decks above us. They stayed beneath the surface and turned towards us, huge white fins showing pale blue under the waves.
Dipping like synchronised swimmers, the three whales slipped in front of our bows to surface on Minerva’s port side.
More was to come. I realised that the commotion half a mile ahead was humpback whales congregating.
They disappeared and all we could see were bubbles coming to the surface.
‘They are bubble-netting,’ I announced. The whales had dived to about 100ft deep and released strings of bubbles in a great ring.
As they rose to the surface the bubbles scared shoals of little fish that gathered in a great ball surrounded by bubbles.
Under them, three or four whales started to rise to the surface. As they reached the fish-ball they opened their jaws wide and engulfed the shoal before breaking the surface in front of us.
Water and small fish spilled from their mouths. Kittiwakes and beautiful ‘blue’ fulmars dipped into the sea picking up the wreckage.
It was an Attenborough moment.
He and the BBC create people’s wildlife dreams with their superb documentaries. I make those dreams come true with moments like this. We were all slightly stunned by the encounter.
Sailing on, Capt. Dudov put me on the spot again.
‘Which side of Bear Island should I go?’
Never having been there, I looked at the charts and spotted sheer 1,000ft cliffs which could hold seabird colonies.
‘We should go up the east coast,’ I said.
Again my hunch paid off. There were thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots, little auks, puffins, common and black guillemots breeding on the island and the ship was soon surrounded by birds, on the water or flying towards the cliffs, many carrying fish in their beaks.
Skuas are ‘cleptoparasites’, which means that they make their parasitic living by stealing fish from other birds, but they were surprisingly few in number considering the teeming masses here.
We did see a few long-tailed and pomerine skuas, however.
Our last predicted site was on the way back from Svalbard, when we diverted to a deep trench where sperm whales live year-round.
The area is so good that a couple of companies do whale-watching trips from Andenes at the northern part of the Lofoten Islands.
We had spotted a couple of whales before finding two boats waiting for one to surface.
Both had showed their ‘flukes’ before disappearing.
Sperm whales hunt deep below the surface, up to two miles down, feeding on huge squid and fish. On their return they rest for a while and can be easily approached.
The rule is that when the tail is seen above the surface the animal is diving, and a further wait for it to reappear is required.
Our sightings were satisfactory and we left them to it.
The pressure was off me (at least until the next cruise) and we returned to the UK with happy people.
We had missed a polar bear by 10 minutes (one was seen swimming across Magdalenafjord by a ship following us) but an Arctic fox had been particularly obliging, Svalbard’s race of small reindeer were common, the birds were spectacular, and so were the many tiny plants and trees that make up the Arctic’s tundra habitat.