Mesmerised by the wild beauty of Svalbard
Inevitably it was the polar bears who were the stars of the show. After all, how can an Arctic fox, no matter how cute, or a walrus - a blob of blubber grunting contentedly as it lies indolently in the sun - or even the mighty blue whale, steal the limelight from the shaggy-coated king of the Arctic. And when the bears put on a 'show' they leave you gasping with delight.
For many visitors, their only sighting of a polar bear is the stuffed one in the arrivals hall of Longyearbyen airport. This mining town, the capital of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago, is the gateway to the high Arctic. All Svalbard adventure cruises set sail from Longyearbyen, and there is a palpable air of excitment crackling in the air, as eager tourists anticipate what lies ahead.
For those who might be feeling geographically challenged, Svalbard is the big blob of land lying in isolation far north of Norway, en route to the polar icecap and the North Pole.
For our lucky group, this icy wonderland put on its most flamboyant outfit, as it set out to entertain and leave us awe-inspired. I had joined Oceanwide Expeditions’ ship Plancius, an ice-breaker carrying 116 passengers. A restful trip it was not, but who needs sleep when excitement waits behind every iceberg, with every turn of the ship’s screws. Besides, the sun never went to bed, with 24 hours of daylight. If anything worthwhile was spotted, an announcement was blared into your cabin, regardless of the hour. Quickly covering night attire with a warm jacket, we raced to the upper decks, for to miss any dramatic encounter was unthinkable.
Back to the polar bears
But, let’s get back to the polar bears. We saw them strolling about casually, or rolling in the snow. Some were mothers with playful cubs; and in one spot a bear snuggled in a snowhole which it had dug out, and was now snoozing blissfully. Now, it’s early evening, and the Plancius is sailing through ice floes - a beautiful scene of luminous light off fractured ice, with openings of frigid water. Enter three bears: a mother and her cub, probably aged about two years, and a young male who was distinctly interested in the two. In fact, he seemed to be stalking them, as they leaped from floe to floe, trying to avoid him. Finally, the fed-up mum had a go at him, and he rapidly backed off, but soon resumed circling, trying to cut them off.
Many of us were upset, sure he wanted to kill the cub, then mate with the mum. What a horrid thought! After all, polar bears are already threatened by ice melting early in the season, making hunting of seals more and more difficult. We had been told that, even though they are strong swimmers, dozens of drowned polar bears have been found at sea. The distances they have to swim in trying to get back from land to the ice pack are becoming ever greater, as the ice recedes more each year. Surely they didn’t need to kill each other to add to their woes?
We cheered up when our expedition leader, a delightful French lady, informed us the cub was already too old, and the randy male would not kill it, as with luck the female might be ready to mate soon. “Besides, he might even be killing a cub he had fathered. Remember, they do not live together as a family, so he would not know what had happened to his offspring,” she said.
As the trio made their way across the ice, the youngster was clearly tiring of this game, which might have been going on for hours before we arrived on the scene. Finally, leaping onto a small floe, it sat down, firmly planted its bum, and floated for a while. All mum's calls could not persuade it to budge, till it spotted the older male drawing closer, then it hastily leaped off the floe, scampered to join mum, and off they went again. While seeming a little less enthusiastic, the young male continued to follow at a distance. We sailed away content, but more awaited us.
Another polar bear encounter
Our next encounter was at 81 degrees north, about the closest the average tourist can get to the North Pole. The ship's captain later told us he thought this swing way up north would just be an opportunity to show us the beauty of the ice pack. Suddenly we spotted a polar bear crouched over a seal kill it had made. What happened next, gave insight into how these animals are now co-operating as life becomes ever more tough for them. Another slightly thinner bear, leaped onto the floe. Bear number one growled, but instead of fighting to retain its kill, dived into the ocean leaving the seal for the obviously hungrier animal.
Then came another eye-opener. Living in Africa, I am accustomed to predators ripping apart and devouring their prey with gusto. Not so polar bears. They eat with surprising finesse. Delicately, the one we were watching opened up the seal and lapped up the blood. No messing all over the tablecloth! Then daintily it tore off a mouthful, and began to eat slowly - almost like our mum’s told us...don’t gulp, chew every mouthful.
Yet another bear played hide and seek with us, diving into the sea or trying to conceal itself behind ridges of ice. Clearly it was not happy with our presence so, following the code all cruise ships are expected to follow - of not stressing or harassing the bears - we left it to its devices.
Whales, seals, walruses & birds!
During our seven night cruise we had good sightings of a blue whale, at some 30 metres in length and 180 tons it is the largest mammal on Earth. Speedy minke and fin whales, and schools of energetic white belugas all entertained. A bowhead whale caused one expedition guide to become wildly excited. “They have been hunted to extinction in these waters. Usually you only find them off the coast of Greenland. To find them coming back to this area is huge,” he said emotionally.
Bearded and ringed seals, and a colony of walrus, all piled on top of each other in gay abandon, at one of their popular haul-outs on land all did their bit. An Arctic fox scoured the area below a seabird colony in search of baby birds or eggs which had fallen out of the nest. Like everything in this part of the world, it had to work hard to earn its keep, climbing down from the escarpment then, precious find clutched in its mouth to feed its young, it again made the steep climb up a snowy pass.
On Alkefjellit cliffs, some 80 000 seabirds massed making a din. Guillemots, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, wheeled and dived. Throughout the journey seagulls flew alongside our ship; little aucks swam and dived in flotillas; we spotted the odd puffin and snow bunting, while on land a purple sandpiper pretended to be injured in a ploy to draw us away from its nest.
All one objective in mind - to explore one of Earth’s last wild frontiers
Making regular forays ashore on the ship's zodiacs, we walked in the almost lunar terrain. Some hardy flowers were making their appearance, while further south reindeer grazed on the tundra.
One zodiac trip took us along the face of four or five beautiful glaciers, one of which calved a berg amid a cracking noise, creating a tidal wave. As it hit the water, its pinnacle disintegrated, then much of the main berg shattered in a spray of ice, before bobbing to the surface, ready to join the array of spectacular, beautifully coloured icebergs, already floating in the pale aqua waters.
The luminous light; stark beauty of the barren land; intense silence (when you sit still and listen); unpolluted air; and the feeling of satisfaction when given an opportunity pick up abandoned nets and bits of plastic to take back to the ship added their own pleasure. While Oceanwide Expeditions organises a trip or two each year, specifically designed to link tourism with an environmental cleanup, we had about an hour to do our bit.
The expedition guides, all experts in a different field, shared their knowledge in a series of informative lectures. The cabins were compact but comfortable, meals delicious and varied, and the crew friendly and helpful.
On board the Plancius were passengers from 19 different countries, all with one objective in mind - to explore one of Earth’s last wild frontiers, to enjoy the Arctic while is still exists, marvel at its wildlife, and stand in awe of the iconic polar bears. The experts say the day is not too distant when it will all be just a memory.