Bird Holidays at the NORTH  POLE !!!!

a photo essay

Is there nowhere that Bird Holidays cannot get to?

 

Phil, one of our principal leaders, has just returned from the North Pole. He was invited by Poseidon Arctic Voyages, to become member of the expedition staff aboard the Russian Nuclear Icebreaker i/b Yamal. The vessel took passengers to see a total eclipse of the sun as well as standing on top of the world.

Besides assisting with logistical tasks that included helicopter landings on Franz Joseph Land, Phil was on-board naturalist. His task was to give lectures and to help with bird and Polar Bear sightings . In just one day, he located 11 Polar Bears. This included one that later slept outside his cabin window! His best find however, was a Sabine's Gull actually at the North Pole itself. This was complemented by many Ivory and Ross's Gulls, and a superb flock of 27 Long-tailed Skuas, much further south. If you are interested in visiting the North Pole, please contact our office as this special trip does not feature in our brochure. If Polar Bears excite you, we will be repeating our popular search for bears and walrus in Spitsbergen in 2010; so ensure your name is down for this tour.

As a guide, prices for 2009 start at 15,990 Euros for a standard Cabin leaving from Helsinki & returning there. This tour is not in our 2009 brochure, but we are offering a discount for those that book early.

info@birdholidays.co.uk

Click here to see our SPITSBERGEN photo page.

Phil stood at the North Pole, beside the hull of the Yamal, locked into the ice.

 

Phil flew to Moscow and booked into a 5-star hotel overlooking Red Square. The night was so warm and clear, that he took advantage and walked around the Kremlin into the small hours.

The following day, he flew to Murmansk on a specially arranged charter flight with all the other passengers and expedition staff.

Yamal was docked next to Russia's newest aircraft carrier. By early evening, Yamal was passing an impressive array of Russian Naval ships and submarines.

 

Yamal reached Franz Joseph Land very quickly. It is an awesome ship with immense power.

 

After all the obligatory safety drills, we took our first helicopter ride of the trip, landing on Bell Island, Franz Joseph Land.

 

 

 

A pair of Arctic Skuas nested on the island. This is the pale morph bird that was partnered to a dark chocolate-coloured individual. The first of three species of skua we would see on this trip.

 

 

More than 90% of Franz Joseph Land is covered in ice, but the weather was perfect and not as cold as one would imagine. We were stood on the last bit of open land before the pole. From now on our favourite colour would be white!

 

Expedition staff would fly out first and establish the safest landing site. They would check for Polar Bears as a priority and our three Spetsnaz-trained guards. Having served in Chechnya as members of the Russian special forces, they were equipped to deal with any threat from bears intent on terrorising us!

The Polar bear threat is very real, but we were in safe hands and able to wander freely within the area overlooked by our guardians.

Being a veteran Polar Bear spotter, Phil located the first bear lying flat on the frozen sea in the British Channel. Although very distant, the creamy dot became more bear-like as we approached and any doubters of his spotting ability were silenced as it got up and walked away.

Each Polar Bear behaves as an individual and this one was not very sociable. It walked slowly away as we approached  so we decided not to chase him. It is important not to pursue bears and stress them as they can overheat and die!

It can be difficult for some animals to find food and losing valuable body fat can mean life or death in this environment. Just looking at the number of Ringed Seals present, Phil new, that he would be able to find some more obliging individuals later. So he remained watchful.

 

Our compass pointed northwards and we set off for the North Pole.

 

 

 

Yamal cut through the ice like a knife through butter.

Being nuclear powered, she can reach the North Pole from Murmansk in 3-4 days. To put this in perspective, an American or Canadian Icebreaker takes 1 month to reach the North Pole from North America!!!!!

 

Most Icebreakers or ice strengthened ships ride up onto the ice & the weight of the ship presses down on the ice to break it.

The powerful Yamal pushes through the ice; 3m thick!

When things get tough, she sends jets of heated bubbles out below the water from the hull. As the bubbles rise, they lift the ice, weakening it as she pushes.

In summer the ice at the North pole is about 3m thick, in winter it obviously gets much thicker.

Yamal leaves a channel of broken ice behind her, through which she returned to speed things up. Yamal was built as a working ship to keep vessels moving in the Russian arctic. She does this in winter, when the ships follow closely behind her. In summer, she is sometimes chartered to take passengers to the North Pole.

The cabins are spacious and equipped with en-suite facilities but running a floating nuclear power station is not cheap!

The view from Phil's bedroom window was incredible & the ride was not bumpy or noisy at all. It was very soothing to watch the ice pass by.

 

 

 

The North Pole  !!!

 

Yes this is it, a landscape of solid ice, flat with a few pressure ridges that are up to 3m high.

 

The bow of Yamal.

 

 

 

The Captain positioned the bow of the ship exactly on the pole as I photographed the GPS to prove it. Phil was honoured to be elected ship's photographer for this special event as the ice is permanently moving. This means that the bow may be on the pole for just a few seconds before Yamal drifts on.

In this case, she behaved admirably, sitting there for some time as everyone recorded the event. After spending the morning at  the pole, the GPS showed that we had drifted 8km away.

We lowered the gangway and disembarked to stand on the ice after everything was made safe - yes there are Polar Bears here too!!

 

Three weeks later, when Yamal returned, there was no safe ice to land on at the pole. Global warming makes this more likely in coming years.

 

At the top of the world, Yamal was locked into the ice and we disembarked to celebrate.

A flag pole was placed on the ice at the North Pole & we all walked around it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bar-B-Q was enjoyed beside the ship & a little vodka was welcome as it was a bit nippy. That said, several people opted to take the plunge and swim in the broken ice at the rear of the ship.

 

 

Being a birder, Phil went for a walk. His ambition was to find a bird at the pole.

The crew had seen Polar Bears and even an Arctic Fox at the North Pole before, so Phil expected that the only bird species he could hope to see would be an Ivory Gull. This bird follows Polar Bears in the hope of picking scraps from left over meals.

He was shocked to see a Fulmar fly around, possibly attracted by the smell of our food, but then a breeding-plumaged Sabine's Gull circled him calling. It then headed towards Yamal.

In the picture below, you can see a mark at the top of the photograph, only just left of the top of the mast. This is the first Sabine's Gull to be recorded at the North Pole - unless you know otherwise?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving the pole, we could trace our steps among the broken ice, but it would not be long before it was solid again.

 

 

It is normal for there to be many areas of open sea between patches of ice. At times the pole can be ice-free!

As one moves further south, these pools hold increasing numbers of birds. Usually Kittiwakes and Ivory Gulls, there may also be Brünnich's and Black Guillemots,  Little Auks or Arctic Terns. We were fortunate to be in Russian waters, as we located a few rosy-looking Ross's Gulls.

 

Phil located a brown lump on the ice in the distance. He contacted Viktor, expedition leader and they decided to approach. It was a small group of Walrus. An old bull stared at the big red ship was we approached. Remaining silent, they would stay put if we were careful.

 

 

There was one small calf, but most were sleepy adults.

 

 

 

In the water beside them was a larger feeding party. These were mostly females or young animals with just one or two males guarding them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fog closed in as we tried to find a good location to observe the total eclipse of the sun.

 

We were fortunate to be able to see the eclipse through the cloud without using special filtered sunglasses.

 

At the point of totality, it fell dark and cool with an eerie atmosphere. This was something very special.

 

 

Phil had pointed out many Polar Bear tracks as Yamal bashed through the ice. On one occasion, he saw a seal carcass where a bear had been feeding. Nearby a group of Ivory Gulls remained almost invisible in the snow.

 

 

Sure enough, Phil located his third bear of the trip, this one behaved very differently.

It approached the ship without any fear.

 

Quite a small individual, it was probably about 3-4 years old and had never seen a human before.

The reflection in the ice was a photographer's dream.

 

The bear stood below the bow sniffing and looking at its many parka-clad admirers. As if looking at the menu, it eyed us up one-by-one; we smelt good.

 

 

 

We were close to Franz Joseph Land, and as numbers of Bearded, Ringed and Harp Seals increased, so did the Polar Bears.

 

Spotting another partly eaten seal, several cream-coloured dots scattered over the ice, Phil suggested that this would be a good place to spend the night.

The more nervous bears had moved off as they heard Yamal cracking through the ice. By staying all night, without moving, the bears would get used to this red 'ice-berg' and approach again.

 

The first was a mother and two cubs. Because the bigger bears had moved off, she felt safe as they would try to kill any vulnerable youngsters.

 

They chewed on the bones for a couple of hours, surrounded by Ivory Gulls.

 

More adult bears returned to the scene and one approached Yamal to investigate the smell coming from the galley as dinner was served.

 

 

 

He curious and circled the ship. Eventually he lay down outside Phil's cabin and went to sleep!

 

 

The next morning we left the ice to approach Champ Island.

 

We landed by helicopter after admiring the massive glacier nearby.

 

The group assembled until the guards took up positions on the peaks.

 

The landscape is amazing and the high cliffs are home to Brünnich's Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Little Auks. Below the cliffs, Phil watched an arctic Fox, while the sea behind him held a few Eider Duck.

 

 

 

The geology here is incredible with thousands of perfectly spherical rocks littered below the glacier snout.

These range from boulders bigger than a man (above), to the size of marbles (below).

 

Champ Island 'marbles' next to a Bearded Seal skull and Svalbard Poppy.

 

The tundra holds an array of wonderful flowers, mosses and lichens.

 

 

 

 

This Purple Sandpiper was one of several that we saw among the tundra bogs.

 

An Arctic Skua hassled a female Eider Duck, hoping she would lead him to any unattended eggs or young. The Eider had neither, they had possibly been taken earlier in the year by the many Glaucous Gulls that patrolled the area.

 

 

An adult Glaucous Gull dives at any passengers that approach its chicks. The gull is ably equipped to deal with the most persistent of photographers. After a few fly-bys, if one does not take a hint, it will either hit you with its feet, scream in your ear or vomit over you - be warned!

 

Full of mischief, a young Glaucous Gull tugged at mum's tail. In a few weeks it will be pulling feathers from the carcass of a Puffin it has just killed - not so cute after all ?

 

Leaving Champ Island, we approached Rubini Rock; a massive auk colony.

 

 

 

The peak was shrouded in cloud as Little Auks swirled around it.

Lower down Brünnich's Guillemots and Kittiwakes filled all available ledges.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing to the other side of the fjord, we reached Tikhaya. An abandoned Russian Research Station.

 

 

 

The use of a helicopter is a luxury I could get used to but several scientists and explorers had perished here. The crosses brought home how harsh life could be here if one was not travelling tourist class.

 

 

Despite the amount of rubbish that polar researchers used to leave behind, there is always beauty in the Arctic. The mosses are reclaiming the land from their invaders.

 

 

Our trip back to Murmansk was not to be dull. Lots of Fin Whales at sea while Long-tailed Skuas followed us back to port (above).

A few Pomarine Skuas (below) joined them to pursue Kittiwakes. It appears that this year, they had chosen not to breed due to a lack of Lemmings on their breeding grounds. The Arctic Skuas remained on Franz Joseph Land to look after their youngsters.

 

 

 

Our last view of Yamal in Franz Joseph land.

 

A rainy day in Moscow's Red Square before we headed to the airport.

 

Visiting the North Pole is not easy or cheap, but Bird Holidays would be very glad to help you achieve your ambition.

Our staff have undertaken research in the Arctic as well as operating regularly as naturalist guides on ships travelling to both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Please contact our office where we can advise you about cost and the logistics of how to get the best out of your polar cruise.

info@birdholidays.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Phil would like to thank Expedition staff and friends, Alexey Mironov and Poseidon Voyages, Viktor Boyarsky, Marie Villar, Christine Reinke-Kunze,  Petra Glardon, Paul Money & Alexander Khropov for one of the greatest experiences of his life. 

To learn all about the eclipse visit Paul Money's Astrospace website go to http://www.astrospace.co.uk

To book a tour to the North Pole E-mail info@birdholidays.co.uk

 

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