Grey Seals are common in the waters around Hornøya. They are frequently seen in Vardø harbour too, where they feed on fish scraps discarded from the factories. A small colony of seals exists on Reinøyskjær, a rocky island off Hornøya. Young seals are born with a covering of white fur to keep them warm. They gain blubber fast by feeding on the fatty milk produced by their mothers. Eventually some will grow to become huge male seals, reaching 400kg in weight. Varanger occasionally hosts Bearded Seals and even Walruses too, both visitors from the far north. It is worth checking any seals swimming around Hornøya for these rare visitors.
The rich waters of the Barents Sea not only attract large numbers of seabirds, but also sea mammals too. Hornøya’s position, and the high vantage point afforded around the lighthouse means it is a perfect place to look out for several species of whale and dolphin that visit this area. Harbour Porpoises and White-beaked Dolphins are frequently seen. Orcas, the largest dolphins in the world, are seen annually from Hornøya so it is always worth keeping an eye out. Summer brings the rare chance of Belugas. Of the larger whales, Minke and Humpback Whales are the most regularly seen. The Humpbacks here are feeding up before their migration to the Caribbean, where they will give birth.
This unwelcome invasive species arrived in Europe from North America with fur traders. Many mink escaped the fur farms, or were released when the fur industry collapsed and swam across from Vardø to Hornøya. Mink are vicious predators, killing large numbers of birds and their chicks. Seabirds choose to breed on islands because of their lack of mammal predators so presence of mink has a detrimental effect on the seabird populations, already struggling due to the scarcity of food and the effects of climate change. Local nature wardens have been carrying out an eradication programme, hoping to rid the island of mink.
Varanger is famous for its fishing industry. Most towns and villages along its coast have working harbours and processing plants, and wooden racks full of drying fish cover the landscape. The fishlife is also what brings so many seabirds to Varanger. Capelin, Rock Gunnel and the fry (young) of Cod all make up part of the diets of the nesting seabirds. Larger fish such as Cod, Ling, Halibut, Haddock, Rosefish, and the predatory Wolffish (pictured) inhabit the waters around Hornøya, and are caught and exported across Europe. Cod fishing is extremely important to the local economy, and the Barents Sea has the world’s largest remaining population of this fish.
Red King Crab
King crabs are not native to Varanger. They were brought from the Pacific Ocean by the Russians during the 1930s and released into the Barents Sea around Murmansk. This was during the years of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, who wanted a new and valuable catch for Soviet fishermen. Since then the crabs have spread to Norway and become a worrying environmental concern. They eat almost anything they comes across and appear to have a negative impact on the local ecosystem. Thousands of tonnes of king crabs are caught every year in Varanger for their delicious, expensive meat.
Compared to the relatively barren landscape of the outer Varangerfjord, Hornøya and neighbouring Reinøya sport a lush abundance of flora, helped in part from the fertile soil produced by the guano of 80 000+ birds! Common Scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis (pictured) covers munch of the island. The plant’s english name comes the fact that before the middle of the nineteenth century, sailors would collect the plant to eat on long voyages to ward off scurvy, a disease caused by a diet low in vitamin C. Other distinctive plants on Hornøya include cloudberry, Rhodiola rosea, Mertensia maritima and Persian Hogweed (introduced to Norway, native to Iran).