Life on the (Ice) Edge

Liz Stagg

06 Aug 2019

NWS client Liz embarks on her second journey to Arctic Svalbard

Spitsbergen – it’s a name which captured my imagination years ago but which existed only in my mind until 2016, when I chose to join a small ship and explore this archipelago. I really didn’t know what to expect back then, but I caught the bug. Nowadays I love the Polar Regions – the vast spaces, the dimensions which defy your perceptions, the wildlife which takes your breath away and the camaraderie of a small ship.

Many of my friends think I’m crazy – you can’t lounge in the sun, swim in an azure pool or acquire a tan to impress those back home. Yes it’s cold (-13 °C), you have to wear thermal long johns, several layers and look like a Michelin man, but do I care? What matters to me is being in such wild, vast and empty places and experiencing those extraordinary encounters with the wildlife.

After joining the M/V Kinfish we left Longyearbyen blanketed in snow, exploring Billefjorden, Dicksonfjorden and Ekmanfjorden before heading south out of Isfjorden and into Bellsund, Van Mijenfjorden and Hornsund. In Van Keulenfjorden we had a walk ashore and saw three old boats, which had once been used to trap beluga whales in the bay, in a remarkable state of preservation. We did a beach clean, gathering up armfuls of plastic rubbish washed up on the shore. It’s shocking what you find washed up on the shore – several toothbrushes, fishing floats, plastic twine and netting, containers and bottle caps. It provided a stark reminder of the need for us all to respect our oceans and honour our place in our environment.

I spent many hours on the bow of our little ship, the wind in my face, looking out for seals sleeping on the fast ice which might attract the apex predator of the Arctic: the polar bear. Whenever I got cold I’d go up to the bridge and watch from there. In the evening, after dinner and our photo critique session with Steve Winter – our National Geographic photographer – I would head up to the bridge for an hour of quiet contemplation. During the months of the midnight sun, the golden light occurs in the wee small hours, but one has to sleep sometime!

Our guides, Alex and Lauren, seized every opportunity to get out on the zodiacs for a wet landing ashore or to cruise amongst the ‘bergy bits. Up on the bridge someone was always looking out for something which looked different – a creamy bundle, asleep on the sea ice.

During our landings ashore or from the bow we were lucky with our wildlife encounters. We watched…

  • …as an Arctic fox, losing its winter coat, foraged for any leftovers.
  • …as walrus popped up through the surf, inquisitive about a bunch of humans on the shore.
  • …as three glaucous gulls stood motionless out on the fast ice in the bay at Poolepynten, next to a walrus haul-out. The sleeping, somewhat irritable pile of blubber had ceased to grab my attention. Instead I watched a couple of them as they swam and fed in the shallows. I saw the three gulls as an artist sees a landscape and took some photos.
  • …as the shiny, arched backs of as many as 40 beluga whales surfaced, with the whales breathing and diving as they fed at the ice edge. The beluga were unperturbed by our presence, even after we had walked ashore and were able to get a bit closer – but not too close – to the ice edge.
  • …as two reindeer realised a polar bear had got out of the water and walked towards them. They headed higher up the hillside.
  • …as a polar bear woke from his seemingly endless slumber and walked past the ship, anchored to the fast ice. We had watched and waited for several hours for him to waken, so much so that Lauren referred to him as our ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Curiosity got the better of him and he turned to walk towards us, right under the bow. My long lens was too long but I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I was peering over the bow of the Kinfish, looking into the eyes of a beautiful, young male polar bear. My heart missed several beats! He had not yet fought for a female, his nose bore no scars and I could see the curiosity in his eyes. What a moment.

When he walked in a wide semi-circle around the ropes securing the ship, I moved to the stern and clambered into a zodiac on the stern deck to watch more. He decided he was hungry and dived into the sea to catch the seal which had been resting on the ice. As a young bear he wasn’t quite sure how to get his kill up onto the ice, so he decided to act like a sea otter instead, lying on his back with his head and his front paws up, and the seal on his tummy. Eventually he hauled himself up and tossed the seal around like a plaything. (I did think about entitling this blog ‘Sleeping Beauty on Ice’ but decided that sounded too much like a pantomime.)

The following morning we were woken at 4am with a call: a different bear, a collared female, was swimming towards a large bearded seal hauled out on an ice floe. The seal saw her coming and dived into the water to escape. The seal then taunted the bear, swam underneath her and popped up behind her as if to say, “I’m behind you, catch me if you can!”

Our route then took us north through the shallow sound between Prins Karls Forland and Oscar II Land. At its shallowest point it is only three metres deep so larger vessels have to go to the west, unable to navigate the sound. The M/V Kinfish has a shallow enough draft that she is able to go through, albeit carefully – very carefully – at high tide, with just a metre of water below her.

We went even further north, beyond the archipelago, heading for the pack ice. The weather had other ideas; strong winds, a small ship and pack ice in the same place constitute a recipe for disaster, so overnight our crew decided to take shelter in Smeerenbergfjorden. Thankfully after a couple of days exploring and going into Fugelfjorden, where some of us climbed the mast, the winds lessened. We headed out to reach the pack ice where we were able to get into zodiacs and step out onto the ice. It’s a strange feeling to step onto the frozen sea of the pack ice, keeping at least your body’s own length away from the jagged, yawning fissures which stretch out towards the horizon.

At Kongsbreen Glacier we did a zodiac cruise, taking in the swirls and folds of turquoise ice as we sat together, mesmerised by the landscape, in complete silence until Alex played a hauntingly beautiful song. Now, as I listen to it again, I am transported back to that heavenly moment and I wish I were back there. As we continued to scout along the ice edge Lauren spotted a flock of eider ducks which included a number of king eiders – the ones with an orange bump on their beak.

As we headed back south, through Forlandsundet, we heard the cry of “whale!” It was a blue whale, the largest animal in the world. She didn’t hang around for long and nor could we; we had to make the shallows in time for high tide.

Our last landing at Alkhornet gave us a chance to walk below the bird cliffs, with kittiwakes and little auks circling above us. We watched as an Arctic fox family with four kits played with the remains of a kill, greeted Mum, and looked at us with curiosity. Dad went off to try and catch another goose to feed his kits but he failed. To save his embarrassment he rolled around in the snow.

None of wanted to return to Longyearbyen or to go back to our real lives. It was a wonderful trip, made very special by our exceptional guides Alex and Lauren, our superb Nat Geo photographers Steve and Nick, our fabulous crew Bo, Mimmi, Daniel, Rasmus, Hanna, Josef and Harold, and a very fun, friendly group aboard the Kinfish.

I have a feeling I’ll be back for more.

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