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black guillemot

Black Guillemot

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

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
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.

Our trips to spot the Black Guillemot

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