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Drifting ice north of Kong Karls Land.
Photo: Stuart Murray
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Johan Hjort Ecosystem Cruise from 71 to 79 degrees north

Hoping to catch a glimpse of Polar Beer or whales. Sometimes the survey cruise participants are treated to unique scenes from the wildlife of the cold Barents Sea. Read the cruise diary written by Sigbjørn Mehl and seabird surveyor Stuart Murray.

By Sigbjørn Mehl, head of cruise

“Johan Hjort” began the cruise off Finmark, and between Sørøya and Nordkyn we made fairly good registrations of 0-group (fry) of both cod and haddock. In addition we had some good occurrences of herring and redfish. The amount of fry increased as we moved from the coastal zone towards the most distant stations (approximately 70 nautical miles from land). The bottom fish registered in this area were mostly haddock and Norway pout.

We were supposed to continue into the Russian Zone. When it became clear that we would be denied access to the area, the cruise coordinators decided that we should cover the northern parts of the Barents Sea. The Russian science vessel “Vilnius” had made some good capelin registrations in this area. So we steamed north for two days until we met drifting ice just north of Kong Karl’s land at ca. 79 degrees north.

On the northern stations, along and just south of the ice edge, mostly krill and amphipods were found in the 0-group trawl. A small amount of fry from both sea scorpion and sea snail were also registered.
Further south we entered areas with quite good registrations of cod and also found some polar cod grazing on krill. The fish stayed in partly cold water with temperatures down to – 1.6 C.  These were mature cod (50 to 60 cm) caught both in the pelagic trawl and the bottom trawl. It is not a rare phenomenon finding so much large cod this far north, but it is unusual.


Kong Karls Land seen from the north.

Photo: Stuart Murray

Good ecosystem example

At 78 degrees north we made the first capelin registrations on the echosounder. With the short trawls we caught several tons of young capelin. It did not take long before the whole ship smelled of capelin. It was caught both adult, maturing capelin and young capelin. Like the cod and the polar cod, the capelin was grazing on krill. Unfortunately for the capelin, they were in turn eaten by the cod, a good example of a well functioning ecosystem. All that was lacking was a whale or two.    
Most of the whale observations were made in the north, many of them by the sea bird observer from Scotland. He also took the excellent photos for the diary. Two young scientists from Murmansk were in charge of the benthic organisms caught in the trawl, and in addition regular samples of sea water, phytoplankton and zooplankton were collected.  

Barents Sea days

By Stuart Murray, a seabird surveyor working for NINA. He will be on board the Johan Hjort until October.



Ivory Gull at the ice egde. 

Photo: Stuart Murray

Today we reached the highest latitude of the cruise, at 79o 19’ N, our onward route blocked by ice. The early morning fog had cleared and we were treated to a day of marvellous Arctic clarity. West over the barely moving drift ice, the glaciers and snowfields of Gustav Adolf land blinked and gleamed through low hanging clouds. For a seabird surveyor the ice edge offers possibilities that the open sea does not. While we were all wishing for a Polar Bear, I had perhaps more realistic hopes, of an encounter with a bird that there are fewer of in the world than the bear, the Ivory Gull. In that I was’nt disappointed, and was treated to close views of no less than four dazzlingly white adult birds. One obligingly flew close around the ships bridge, close enough indeed to pick out the delicate red ring drawn around the large dark eye, and the parti-coloured blue and yellow beak.

As for the Polar Bear, well the gull follows the bear and snatches what it can of its leftovers. Who knows, the bear could have been sleeping off his last seal meal on an ice flow not to far away. Next time we will get one…



Fin Whale and Northern Fulmar.

Photo: Stuart Murray

The fog lifted slowly through the morning, pushed aside by a strengthening breeze, the Barents Sea was back to its default setting. Overcast, gloomy and colourless.

There was good enough visibility to survey for seabirds, but there were few around, and at such times greater concentration is required to methodically search the waves. Often though, persistence is rewarded and it was today, when without warning a Fin Whale surfaced on the patch of sea I had my binoculars fixed on. It’s rare to do more than catch a glimpse of a dark log shape sliding between the waves, more usual just to see the blast of breath vapour with nothing attached. Today was the exception and within minutes of the first sighting we had three, four, maybe more on each side of the ship, but at 10 knots they were all too quickly behind us. I had to be content with a few hastily shot pictures to remind me of another unique encounter with the amazing wildlife of this cold sea.