The energy-rich waters off the coast also draw an annual infusion of seabirds. Every May and June, when the ice retreats and the tundra clears of snow, upwards of three million birds flock to Svalbard. They're vast in number but not variety. Only about 28 species are considered common or abundant, and only one—the Svalbard rock ptarmigan—has what it takes to survive on land year-round. The birds migrate up here for the safe breeding and the nonstop feasting. A quirk of geology makes the whole thing work. In places, Svalbard's coastline rises from the sea in near-vertical cliffs. They're not sheer walls like Yosemite's El Capitan, though. The cliffs contain millions of rock outcroppings wide enough to support a nest but often too precarious for predators like the arctic fox.
It's a perfect breeding setup. Pairs of fulmars, Brünnich's guillemots, and black-legged kittiwakes, sometimes intermingled on the same cliff, will claim a ledge for the season and raise their chicks on seafood caught just off the balcony, available 24 hours a day in the nightless summer. When the birds take over a cliff, the transformation can be profound. Once, while riding a former fishing trawler around an inner Spitsbergen fjord, I looked up to see a light dusting of snow on a tombstone-gray sea cliff. Glassing the scene with my binoculars, I realized I wasn't seeing snow at all. It was the blending of tens of thousands of kittiwakes nesting on cliff ledges, their white heads creating a pointillist effect from miles away.
As impressive as Svalbard's summer birds are, they're sort of nature's carpetbaggers: here for the good times, gone for the bad. Come September, most will be winging south. It's hard not to reserve your highest respect for Svalbard's year-round residents, each of which seems to employ one of two common strategies to survive the brutal Arctic winter: Keep hunting or cache extra energy.
The master practitioner of the first tactic is the polar bear, of course, which spends much of the winter hanging out around seal breathing holes, waiting for dinner to surface. The arctic fox employs a hybrid strategy. It keeps hunting in white fur camouflage but when times get tough, digs into caches of food lardered months earlier. In more temperate regions the fox's reputation for surplus killing—going postal in the chicken coop, killing far more birds than it can eat—has earned it the enmity of farmers, but up here storing those surplus kills often means the difference between life and death.
For both reindeer and rock ptarmigan, caching extra energy means one thing: fattening up. To watch a reindeer feed at midnight in Svalbard is to witness an extraordinary event. The reindeer here, like the ptarmigan, let go of the nocturnal rhythms that govern the lives of most animals. They eat and eat and eat, then rest a little, then eat some more, regardless of the time of day. The reindeer build up a layer of blubberish fat as thick as four inches. When food grows scarce in winter, the fat acts as the reindeer's energy reserve.