Friday, July 13, 2007

Ny Ålesund and Kongsfjord, Svalbard. May 2000

In science, as in life, a bit of luck helps. One male seal's patrol area – a couple of hundred metres of ice edge – is a quiet part of Blomstrand. He's scarred, so we identify him; a half-moon on his back, always visible as he surfaces. Probably a shark bite. His display site is far enough from Blomstrandbreen, the local glacier, that the small bergs, calving occasionally, don't worried us. Sofie hears them through the hydrophone, our boat rocks in their wash.

Blomstrand, a little cul-de-sac bay, buds off the northern shore of Kongsfjord, a few minutes' pootle across the fjord from Ny Ålesund. A peninsula-turned-island, Blomstrandhalvøya, (formed in 1992, courtesy of Blomstrandbreen's melting) shelters the bay from chop on the fjord, so the water is as calm as we can possibly expect. And there's a cabin on the island – shelter if we need - in the remains of the mining village of Ny London. Our 14 foot Buster's a tough little boat and we have a radio, but we're only 750 miles from the North Pole, so safety needs a little thought.

Sofie's recording the sounds of male bearded seals. Their main call, a trill, starts like the whine of a midsized dog, then warbles down for about 30 seconds - the Dr Who theme music of the marine mammal world. Sitting quiet by the ice edge, engine off, the scarred male's calls drift through the alloy hull of the Buster. Sofie pulls the digital tape recorder from her survival suit (her body heat keeps the batteries warm), connects up the hydrophone, eases it into the water, starts taping. Now we sit, listening, waiting for him to reappear. Headphones on, Sofie hears the calls stop, signals to me. I hear the chuff of his breath in the air. A small round, dark head,followed by an oval of back, paralleling the ice edge. Nostrils open, nostril close, back under. An interlude of just two or three breaths, then down he goes again, his trill restarting.

And so we sit, watching the seal, then watching the surface where the seal isn't as he calls below us, takes notes when he surfaces: how many breaths he takes between dives, how far he moves. Twenty seconds or so at the surface is followed by a couple of minutes underwater.

I keep an eye out for polar bears. The boat's safer than land or sea ice, but our rifle – a stainless steel and black plastic .308, courtesy of the Polar Institute – stays unloaded in its bag. Our flare pistol is stashed in our day pack, flares scattered in with more standard items for a few hours out - chocolate, thermos of coffee, spare gloves. We see no bears round Blomstrand.

Read the next part of this post here.

Link to Ny Ålesund

1 comment:

Myke said...

Wonderful stuff. I'm quite enthralled with the sounds of bearded seals; are any of your recordings from this expedition available for download or purchase? Thanks! - MDW