Striking breeding plumage makes the Black Guillemot a "must see"
What you need to know about the Black Guillemot
Our Expert Says… "Black guillemots are very relaxed and can be quite curious about Arctic explorers! They'll often come quite close to us in Zodiacs and seem to enjoy posing for photographs, making a striking image against the pristine ice."
The black guillemot is sometimes also known as the tystie. This is a medium-sized seabird, a member of the auk family, that is known for its breeding plumage - jet black all over except for a patch of bright white on the top of the wings. Their feet and legs also turn a beautiful coral-red at this time, as does the inside of their mouth, making them a striking bird to spot.
They are found throughout the high arctic and as far south as northern parts of Great Britain and New England. They seek out rocky shores where they nest in cliff crevices or under and around rocks and boulders in either small groups or as solitary pairs. The breeding season starts in late February, and the black guillemot will usually raise two clutches per season, laying 2 eggs per clutch. Chicks fledge after a month or so and then spend 2 to 2 years out at sea before returning to the same shore where they were born to breed.
They don’t travel as far from their nests to hunt as other auks do, and you will see them closer in to shore. They land on the water and then dive from a swimming position to hunt for fish and small crustaceans, using their wings to “fly” underwater as they seek out their prey.
Black guillemots are quite curious birds, and will frequently follow the Zodiacs you will use to make your way from your expedition ship to shore.
Spots where the Black Guillemot can be observed
Ahlstrandodden and Bamsebu
These two sites are at the entrance to the southern arm of Bellsund - Van Keulenfjorden. Both sites, and the area between them, are scattered with remains from the Beluga, the white whale, that was hunted for the blubber and skin. There are piles of bleached bones and upturned wooden boats that were left when the area was abandoned in the 1930’s.
Beluga can be seen along the shore here. If you are lucky to encounter them it is poignant with their bleached bones on the shore.
It is popular site for a landing and to walk across the tundra between the two sites, looking for Arctic flowers, Reindeer, Arctic Foxes, and check out some hunter’s cabins and the remains of fox traps.
Also look out for Purple Sandpipers and Red Phalaropes feeding along the shoreline.
A long narrow island of hard bedrock at the entrance to Van Mijentfjorden, the northern fjord arm of Bellsund. It is popular for a Zodiac cruise around the island and through the narrow Mariasundet, with the strong currents that attract seabirds.
There is the chance of landing to explore the geology, but with lots of scouting first to make sure there is not a hidden bear. The surrounding mountains provide some spectacular scenery and some impressive geology. But few cruise ships go further into this deep fjord, preferring to do landings in Bellsund, and to ship cruise into Hornsund.
The bird cliff here is so impressive it features in the opening credits of The Frozen Planet.
Situated in Hinlopenstretet on the NE side of Spitsbergen, the cliffs are home to around 60,000 pairs of Brünnich’s guillemots, numerous kittiwakes, and Glaucous Gulls and kittiwakes. It is not only the site and sound of the birds, but the cliffs themselves, the geology is stunning with a series of sheer ramparts, some set back (a great place for Arctic Foxes), others going straight down into the sea. It is an outstanding Zodiac cruise, and since ships can get quite close, there is often an additional ships cruise past the cliffs with different angle from the higher vantage point.
On Admiralty Inlet on the very northwest side of Baffin Island.
Named after the whaling ship, the Arctic, in 1872, it is the site of quite a large community (mainly Inuktitut) called Ikpiarjuk, and a popular location to visit for expedition cruise ships. There is a museum and Ikpiarjuk a good place to learn about the culture. The area is great to ship cruise and explore for wildlife.
Arrival at Longyearbyen
The transport hub for Svalbard with the airport. Once just a mining town, it is now involved with tourism and scientific research and has various services, accommodation, shops and cafés, and some interesting museums.
There is also the chance to check out wildlife within town, including Snow Buntings and even reindeer, and to walk along the road through the mudflats to the dog kennels, dodging the Arctic Terns on route. There is an Eider colony next to the kennels and Barnacle Geese and other birds on the mudflats. If you are very lucky, you might see an Ivory Gull near the kennels.
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter. Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port.
Austfonna and Bråsvellbreen
The ice cliff here is so impressive it features in the opening credits of The Frozen Planet. It is where the massive ice cap of Austfonna, covering 58% of Nordaustlandet, meets the sea, and the third largest ice cap in the World.
The ice cliff is about 180km long, apart from few rocky out¬crops, and roughly 24m high, with a series of waterfalls along the length when it is warmer. The ice cliff is routinely referred to as Bråsvellbreen, but it is the huge glacier streaming out of Austfonna. It often surges forward and is known as the Sudden Swell Glacier. The section at the southern end of Hinlopenstretet is the most accessible, often as a combined ship cruise and a Zodiac cruise, and it is simply breath taking, a bit like the ice wall in the Game of Thrones!
There is also the chance to check out wildlife on the ice floes and the bergy bits.
In northwest Greenland in Melville Bay, the ice sheet comes right down to the coast, separating the very northwest part of Greenland from the rest of western Greenland.
Cape York is one of the first locations on this northwest coast that has tundra and lakes to explore. The mountains and icebergs match this remote location that, in many ways, has far more of a link with the Canadian Arctic, rather than Greenland.
It is one of the most important locations in NW Greenland for breeding seabirds and it can be good for marine mammals. Including traditional hunting ground, whalers and explorers have also visited the area, and the family of Admiral Robert Peary's family placed a monument in honour of his explorations on the cape.
Nice area to explore the tundra and enjoy the magnificent views.
Between Ellesmere Island and Devon Island at the entrance to Jones Sound.
It is part of the Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area and Cambridge Point, with spectacular cliffs that are an important location for breeding seabirds including black guillemot, black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull, northern fulmar, and thick-billed murre. Offshore waters are also good for marine mammals.
The outer bay can be a very good area for whale watching and an area where Blue Whale can be seen for cruise ships departing or arriving at the mouth of the fjord.
Isfjorden is the largest fjord system in Svalbard with spectacular geology, such as the Devonian sediments along Dicksonfjord and Ekmanfjordat. Most cruise ships sail out the first evening, a chance to enjoy the scenery, to explore the rest of Svalbard, before coming back to consider landings and explore parts of Isfjorden on the last full day.
Disembark in Longyearbyen
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter.
Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port. One of the most prominent buildings in town is the UNIS center, where several Norwegian universities have joined forces to operate and offer the northernmost higher education to both Norwegian and international students. Adjacent to UNIS, and well worth a visit, is the Svalbard Museum, covering the natural history and exploitation of Svalbard. Remnants of the former mining activity can be seen all around Longyearbyen and even in town.
A range of wildlife can be seen around the town and the mudflats on the road to the dog kennels. There is an Eider colony here and Ivory Gulls can sometimes be seen. If you can dodge the diving Arctic terns, the mudflats attract birds like Barnacle Geese, and a range of waterbirds and shorebirds that are scarce in other parts of Svalbard.
At the very northern end of Baffin Bay and the very northwest of Greenland, Etah looks across the Nares Strait to Ellesmere Island, the area usually frozen from October to July.
The area was the crossing point to Greenland for cultures 4,400 and 2,700 years ago, the Thule culture migrants less than a thousand years ago, and the point of the last migration of the Inuit from Baffin Island reached the coast of Greenland in 1865 Etah was also a starting point for various expeditions attempting to get to the North Pole.
Today the channel, when frozen, continues to be a crossing point for wildlife from Canada to Greenland, even Wolverine get across. Etah used to be the most-northerly populated settlement in the world, but it was abandoned (Inuit moving south to Pituffik) due to the harsh conditions.
Exploring the pack ice
The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge. In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
The 14th of July bay and glacier, named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
It is one of the highlights in Krossfjorden, often combining a landing with a Zodiac cruise. Cruising along the impressive glacier front, there are regular calvings with bergs in the bay that attracts birds like kittiwakes. And nearby there are bird cliffs with a colony of Thick-billed Murres (Brünnich’s Guillemot) that also includes Atlantic Puffins. Options for landing (being careful of potential Tsunami waves from calvings) include one of the best spots in the whole of Svalbard for flowers, and even the chance to walk on the side of the glacier.
The views of NW Spitsbergen, the land of the pointed peaks, is impressive from this area, once it is free of ice. Fuglesongen means ‘bird song’ and thousands of Little Auks breed here, flying around in huge ‘wheels’ of birds and sounding like little trolls!
A few determined groups make a landing here, but it needs calm conditions, sticking out on the NW tip of Spitsbergen. But is still an impressive site to witness for ships that sail between Fuglesongen and Klovningen. There is no land to the north, towards the pole, the area often covered in the pack ice at the start of the season.
Popular landing in Hornsund with spectacular scenery including towering bird cliffs with thousands of breeding Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s Guillemots and all the noise (gnål means “nagging” in Norwegian), that attracts Arctic Foxes at the base of the cliff. Geese and reindeer also occur and it is a good location for plants.
Trappers called it Fuglefjell, the location being very popular as a base for hunting bears coming into Hornsund from the key breeding grounds around Hopen in SE Svalbard. The hunter’s cabin at the base of the cliff is famous as the place where the first female trapper stayed, Wanny Wolstead. Even today, staff need to carefully check for bears before going ashore, and sometimes a landing cannot occur if there is a bear on shore.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
Ilulissat & Disko Bay
One of the key highlights in Greenland with the chance to witness Ilulissat Kangerlua, one of the most active glaciers in the World. Either overlooking the iceberg choked fjord from a viewpoint on a short walk from town, or Zodiac cruising the outer fjord past a ‘wall’ of huge icebergs jumbled together. The walks across the tundra to the viewpoint can be a chance to see various Arctic birds whilst there is the chance to experience of life in town and the busy fishing port. There is also the chance of whale watching in Disko Bay.
Not part of Greenland, this is a volcanic Island on the mid-Atlantic Ridge that ships often visit it on route between Svalbard and Iceland as part of the cruise. However, it is a bit of detour south for ships heading across from Svalbard to the very NE of Greenland, with the chance to explore the ice edge as they approach the East Greenland current, an area where they might encounter Walrus and Polar Bears on the sea ice (both more elusive when exploring NE Greenland), and even Narwhal and Bowhead Whales on the edge of the sea ice.
For ships that do sail past or visit Jan Mayen, it is a volcanic island on the mid-Atlantic ridge, like Iceland to the SW. It is great for a range of breeding seabirds, and for whale watching.
North of the Arctic Circle and deep in the long Kangerlussuaq fjord, it was the site of a WWII airport, then for refuelling for trans-continental flights.
The airport and the fjord are used as pick-up and drop off for cruise ships exploring the remoter parts of west Greenland. There are few roads in Greenland, but a 25 km dirt road connects the town with the mighty ice cap. Nowhere else is there easier access to the Greenland ice cap. Area also good for caribou, Musk Ox (actually introduced to this part of Greenland), and to look out for White-tailed Eagles.
Karrat Fjord and Upernavik
Karrat Fjord, towards the north end of the Uummannaq Bay system, is a great fjord to explore with icebergs, rugged mountains, blue fjords, with the chance to walk on the tundra and look for wildlife. Various species can be seen but others can be elusive due to the proximity of Upernavik.
Upernavik, on the island of the same name, is a very pretty town on the slopes of the island, surrounded by magnificent scenery, at the entrance to the local fjord systems. As well as the colourful houses there is the most northerly 'open air' museum in the World. It also boasts to have the World's largest bird cliffs nearby.
There are a a few settlements further north before the ice sheet comes right down to the coast in Melville Bay between western Greenland and the very NW tip and Thule.
Kongsvegen and Kongsbreen
The inner part of Kongsfjorden is popular for ship cruising and especially Zodiac cruising with the mountain scenery, some impressive glacier fronts, and the chance to explore the ice floes looking for wildlife, and the chance of a bear.
Also keep a look out for Long tailed Jaegers, one of the few places they breed in Svlbard is on the island of Ny London in the middle of Kongsford. A number of lakes and pools in the region can attract a range of waterbirds.
The two split fjords that form the inner part of Krossfjorden are popular for ship cruising and Zodiac cruising to enjoy the scenery, the glacier fronts, and to look out for wildlife and the chance of a bear.
There are also several options for landings including Möllerhamna, with a hunter’s cabin painted orange that is known the ‘Lloyds Hotel’. Many cruise ships have visited the site for over 100 years, leaving behind mementoes like signs, graffiti (no longer allowed), and a bar. Sigenhamna is another location where there was a German weather station in World War II.
This island, and the associated smaller islands, is off the NW coast of Nordaustlandet. Lågøya means ‘low island’, and it is the site of a Walrus haul out and is great for bird life, with the chance of Sabine’s Gulls that are attracted to the lagoons on the island.
Part of the island is sea¬so¬nal¬ly pro¬tec-ted and off limits and landings are often thwarted by the presence of a bear, or bears. It is an area where there can be loose pack ice when the pack, further to the east, is still too compact to sail though. It means this location very popular for Zodiac cruising with the wildlife that can be encountered. There is at least one old hunter’s cabin on the island, but conditions were particularly harsh on Lågøya, some perishing on the island, making hunters reticent of over wintering here.
One of the most spectacular and most photographed fjords in Svalbard, and with all the pointed peaks it can be understood how Spitsbergen got its name. Very popular for the landing at Gravneset, with the whaler’s graveyard it is named after, with the remains of the blubber ovens from the whaling days.
The tundra is also great for plants and wildlife, from geese to Arctic Terns. Zodiac cruising is a great way to explore the rest of the fjord and to look out for wildlife that includes a huge Little Auk colony in the scree on the northern side (some quite close to the shore), and to look out for seals. As well as Ringed Seals and Bearded Seals there is a spot with Harbour Seals (the most northerly in the World?), and a site where Walrus haul on a sandy beach at the entrance of the fjord to the west of Gravneset. The Waggonwaybreen glacier has been retreating and ships can get quite close to witness carvings, a floating platform on the part of the open fjord that was covered by the glacier just a few years ago. Staff will always be on the lookout for bears that can turn up here.
Isolated fjord, is to the north of the Arctic Circle, and isolated between Scoresbysund further to the north, and the numerous fjords of the SE coast.
The ice sheet comes even closer to the coast here with the Christian IV Glacier at the head of the fjord. Often lots of ice in the fjord, and the isolated location, this has to be one of the best locations in Greenland to try and find a Polar Bear. Some visit this fjord after visiting NE Greenland and before heading to Iceland.
The cruises crossing the Denmark Strait can be great for seabirds and whale watching, including the Northern Bottle-nosed Whale in the seas associated with the continental slope.
Narsarmijit & Tasermiut Fjord
Pretty Greenland village at the southern tip of Greenland that was the easternmost of the Norse settlements during their colonization of Greenland, with remains in the area (most settlements were on the south-west coast).
The fjords are great to explore including Tasermiut Fjord with the largest hanging glacier in southern Greenland, with World challenging big walls for climbing such as Ulamertorsuaq and Nalumasortoq.
The largest glacier on Spitsbergen that flows into the NW sector of Storfjorden with the longest front to any glacier in Svalbard where it reaches the sea.
With numerous carvings it is almost impossible for a ship to get close for a ship to get close, apart from the northern end, but it makes for a stunning Zodiac cruise with the ice cliffs, the icebergs, and the brash ice. As well as looking out for wildlife the area is known for its stunningly beautiful blue icebergs.
The World’s northernmost year-round community and a site of cultural importance with layers of history. Originally it was a remote coal mining town, known as Kings Bay, until a serious accident in 1962.
The location meant King’s Bay was the starting point of various historical attempts to reach the North Pole, and the mast for Nobile’s airships can still be seen. Today it is a centre for international Arctic research, with traditional houses of when it was King’s Bay alongside modern bases for various countries. It is great to walk around the town and tourism also plays a role and ships can come alongside at the dock (one of the few docks apart from Longyearbyen and Barentsburg in Svalbard). There are shops, a museum, and the most northerly post office in the World. It is also great for birds, including Barnacle Geese (perhaps the most well studied wild geese in the World), Red-throated Loons on the lake, and the chance of an Ivory Gull by the dog kennels.
This location is on the island of Blomstrandhalvøya that is in Kongsfjorden and just across the bay from Ny Ålesund. It is the site of an ill-fated attempt to extract the marble deposits by the Northern Exploration Company and the adventurer Ernest Mansfield.
A lot of money and effort was put into the project, but it turned out the marble would shatter as it warmed up! Today there are the remains of the marble quarry and debris from the mine, including wooden huts, and various bits of machinery, including a crane and a rusting steam engine. As well as the cultural remains it is a good place for wildlife, including the elegant Long-tailed Skuas that breed here that are very rare elsewhere in Svalbard, with the Arctic Skua being far more abundant.
Prince Leopold Island
This island is in a key location in Lancaster Sound at the junction of Prince Regent Inlet and Barrow Strait, off the northwest coast of Somerset Island. It has some really impressive and steep seabird cliffs that is one of the most important sites in the Canadian Arctic and a bird sanctuary.
Also good area to look for marine mammals and other Arctic wildlife.
Ship and Zodiac cruising
With the myriad of islands and channels, and the ice, there needs to be a lot of flexibility of where to explore within the Franz Joseph archipelago. But there is the chance to see a range of Arctic wildlife, such as the Polar Bear and Walrus, plus species like Bowhead Whale and Narhwal that are scarcer in Svalbard waters.
Many of the ships that head up to the north pole pass through the islands.
A series of hard granite islands that translates as seven islands, islands that are to the north of Nordaustlandet. Being the furthest north in the whole of Svalbard, the islands can remain in the pack ice for much of the year.
Walrus can be seen throughout the area, with at least one popular landing at a haul out. There are plenty of seabirds, and the chance of a bear resting somewhere on one of the islands, sometimes several bears, understandable with the location. With the myriad of islands it is very popular to explore by Zodiac and the area also has important ties to polar exploration. Many of the locations were named after the English North Pole expeditions led by Phipps (1773) and Parry (1827), including Neslonøya, after a certain young midshipman! Not that long ago the whole area could be trapped in ice throughout the year and just to the east was the area where Nobile’ airship, the Italia, crashed onto the ice, with a huge rescue effort.
Remains of a gypsum mine below spectacular and beautiful cliffs. In addition to the cultural remains, including parts of a railway and a barge, it has an interesting flora due to the ‘mild’ location, deep inside Isfjorden.
Nearby cliffs, which go right down to the sea, are eroded into impressive shapes, and can be a great place to explore offshore in a Zodiac, the chance to see various seabirds that breed on the cliffs, with kittiwakes and four auk species including Puffins. It is a popular site for a combined landing and Zodiac cruise, and a ‘sail’ past on boats out from Longyearbyen that are visiting Pyramiden.
This extensive fjord system has impressive scenery and numerous glaciers that is great to explore by ship whilst being on the watch out for bears. It is also an area with lots of history.
Smeerenburg was the base for the Dutch whalers that was known as ‘blubber town’, with the remains of the blubber ovens for those that get ashore. There is also a Walrus haul out that can be observed from the shore, or from a Zodiac if there is a bear nearby (quite often the case here in the NW). Close by is Virgohamna, the site where Andrée set off his ill-fated trip to the North Pole by balloon in 1897, and where Wellman attempted to fly to the pole in the early 1900’s. Today there are the scattered remains of the balloon shed and the aircraft hangar. Special permission is required to land but the remains can be seen from a Zodiac offshore. Smeerenberg was also the location where the Fram appeared after drifting across the Arctic Ocean, stuck in the ice for three years!
Tasiilaq & Kulusak
Tasiilaq is the largest town in south-east Greenland, close to the mouth of the rugged and long Sermilik Fjord. With the ice sheet just to the west the Sermilik glacier carves numerous icebergs. Kulusak is nearby and with an airport is popular with the short flight from Iceland.
Area good for the landscape, whale watching, the wildlife, and the flora.
Town on small island of the same name with a prominent peak at the entrance of Uummannaq Fjord.
Photogenic location for the town, the largest north of Ilulissat, with a museum and the chance to experience a Greenland community. The fjords great for the scenery and icebergs and whale watching. In the region is Qilakitsaq, where there is a site with Innuit burial remains.
This large fjord, and the associated Bockfjorden and Liefdefjorden in northern Spitsbergen, becomes accessible as the pack retreats. It is great for ship cruising, enjoying the scenery, and to look out for bears along the extensive coastline.
Flexibility is key with the chance of bears and changing weather conditions, but with plenty of choices in this large fjord complex. Zodiac cruises are popular, including Monacobreen glacier at the end of Liefdelfjorden, and the islands of Andøyane, a great area for a range of birds, including King Eider. There are also options for landings. The large and impressive wooden hut at Mushamna on the NE side of Woodfjorden. The small hunter’s cabin known as the Texas Bar in Liefdefjorden. The ‘thermal spring’ at Jotunkjeldane in Bockfjorden.