25 Polar Bear Sightings From the MS Malmo in Svalbard

Jens Abild

17 Sep 2015

Day 1

Departing August 10th, 2015, a big blue and white bus showed up in the afternoon in front of our hotel. The expedition leader and the guide met up with us and helped with the luggage and as soon as the bus was loaded we set course for the bay and an unforgettable adventure. 

When we arrived at the boat we shortly met some of the crew members before we were shown to our cabins. After we had settled in and looked around what would be our home for the next 11 days, we received a safety brief and an introduction to the boat.

After a short hour we left the bay, and as we stood on the back deck we could gaze out on the majestic Isfjorden, and in the background seeing Longyearbyen disappear in the distance. 

It was a sunny day with a calm sea and beautiful scenery. The feeling of adventure started to boil inside of us.

The boat held a straight course, following the shore of Isfjorden and heading towards Poolepynten, located in Prins Karls Forland, just a little west to the main island Spitsbergen.

On the crossing out of the entrance to Isfjorden we meet some small swells, but even though small, they introduced us to the impressive forces of the ocean, and reminded us of how small we are. 

As we sailed into the Forlandsundet, and became protected by the island to the west of us, the ocean calmed down and smooth sailing lay ahead of us.

The sunrays danced on the water surface, and everything around us was bathed in a golden light. Magical was the scenery, with big glacier fronts that could be spotted in the distance, snow still laying on all the mountain tops and birds gliding gracefully around us. And after a few hours we arrived to Poolepynten where we were told there could be walruses laying on the beach. Unfortunately we could only observe one lonely walrus swimming in the sea. Sometimes coming close to the shore, clearly looking for others, but as soon as it realized there was no one there it turned around and dived down to the depth and swam away.

A little disappointed that we did not get to see any animal life, we were comforted with the reality that we still had 10 days ahead of us where anything could happen. Exhausted by all the excitement of everything new and strange we retired to our cabins. Meanwhile the boat set course for Hamburg Bay at the north-west corner of Spitsbergen Island. And as our eyes closed the excitement was still beating hard in our hearts and we were ready to meet the wild Arctic nature of Svalbard.

Day 2

The next day we were welcomed by fantastic weather. A strong sun and an almost clear sky wished us a good morning. Breakfast was ready when we woke up, and we all gathered on the back deck. There we sat and enjoyed a nice Swedish breakfast, with a view towards the historical Hamburg Bay that was bathing in sunlight.

When most of us had finished eating, the expedition leader Jens, went through the plan for the day and told some stories about the area, and the incredible history from the whaling period up to more modern trapper history. Shortly after we went down to our cabins to dress up for our first Zodiac trip and our first landing.

The crew were fast at unloading the boats from the deck and within a few minutes we were in the zodiacs and on our way to land.

As we first came into the bay we saw 2-3 seals popping up from underneath the water surface. Looking rather curious as to what was coming to visit them. The ocean inside the bay was calm and clear as a mirror. We drifted around a little before we headed over to the north side of the bay to leave one of the zodiacs. The plan was to take the other boat over to the south side and walk back to the first one. And as we were heading over to the other side, a gentle little Arctic fox came walking over the hillside. It came all the way down to where we had landed and took a smell of the rope that held the boat secured to the shore. We watched in silence, and enjoyed its presence until it gracefully walked away from us.

Still amazed by the short visit from the Arctic fox we arrived at the south side of the bay. Here we went ashore, and as the guide Audun gave us a brief introduction to the rifle and polar bear safety we were disturbed by more curious ringed seals. For a long time they swam close around the boat and watched us with interest, wondering who was visiting them on such a beautiful day.

After the disturbance Audun could continue his instruction on the polar bear safety. When he finished his instructing, we began walking towards the coastline to look at some cultural heritage left by the whalers and trappers.

The first thing we came upon was an old hut used by the German trappers. And all though it was completely destroyed by the effect of time and the harsh weather, we could still imagine how it once stood on the hillside looking out towards the endless sea and back on the glacier front. The glacier itself would have been at least twice as big and impressive as it is today.

In the middle of the remains of the hut lies the old oven, made of cast iron, rusty and unusable, but still beautiful. Around the ruin lies pieces of a walrus skull and a vertebra. Oh, if only bones could speak, imagine the stories they could tell us.

We looked towards the west and saw rocks piled on top of each other. This was only a modern sea mark, but the object which was located behind it was of much more interest. It was an ossuary. An old whaler’s grave from the 1600s. You got that feeling that you were not alone. Maybe it was one of the whaler’s spirits who stayed and watched over the place.

When we came back down to the zodiac we split into two groups; one would walk along the shore from south to north, while the other one went across with the zodiac.

We did not walk very far down the beach before we stumbled upon approximately 20 ringed seals laying on the rocks alongside the shore.

After a short detour around the seals, to not disturb their peace, we were stopped by difficult and rocky terrain. Audun came then with the boat and picked us up and we took another, closer, look at the seals that were still laying on the rocks.

We circled around a few times to get a good look at the seals before we took a new landing further north on the beach, and then we walked the remaining 500 meters to the second zodiac that we had left there earlier. While we were walking, Audun took a swim in the ocean to cool down from the warm summer day. The rest of us waited, just about taking off our jackets!

Back on the boat we got a warm lunch. Then we raised anchors and set course for the island Fuglesongen. On our way there we observed a swimming reindeer in Sørgattet, just as we passed Danskøya.

The beautiful scenery gave us a warm welcome as we sailed among Amsterdamøya and Smeerenburgfjorden. With icebergs floating around us, and slightly blue sky with wonderful light spreading over the landscape. Soon we arrived to Fuglefjorden and we got ready to board the zodiacs once more. 

Back in the zodiacs we drove further into the fjord, and was met by the incredible and majestic glacier front coming from the mountains and down into the fjord. Driving slalom among icebergs we suddenly stopped, and realized that a bearded seal was laying on one of the icebergs. Slowly and as silent as possible we drifted towards it, trying not to disturb it, and if the animal showed any sign of discomfort we would head out of there and leave it alone. But we were very careful, and the bearded seal seemed to not be bothered much by our presence.

After a few photographs we carried on into the fjord. We circled around the small islands and headed back to the boat without much more sign of animal life. Except for a short view of a walrus in the water by one of the boats.

When we came back on the boat, some of the crew were fishing. They had already caught several large cods, and the fulmar had gathered around underneath them on the water, waiting passionately for more fish to come. One of the crew members also had his birthday, and we sang the birthday song for him, and the chef baked a cake. 

Later during the evening we were served yet another fantastic meal by our talented chef, and fully satisfied we scuttled to our beds and fell asleep fast, while the boat headed towards the northern most point of Svalbard, the seven islands.

Day 3

When we woke up we found ourselves driving into the northernmost part of Svalbard. 80´50´´ north. From now on there is nothing more than ice and open water between the last island and the North Pole. 1,018km (664 statute miles) from the north pole and 1,074km away from Nordkapp (the northernmost part of mainland Norway) and 1,650km north of the polar circle.

Slowly in the distance of the horizon we could see fog coming in, and some of it was already covering the top part of Rossøya. But after breakfast we jumped into the zodiacs and the fog lifted shortly after. 

First we went around Little Table Island and found some wonderful remains of snow laying on the shore, and just on the north-east side we were met by stunning little Atlantic puffins swimming around in the ocean, which gave tremendously good photo opportunities.

For several minutes we stood still and got a good, intimate look at the puffins, and then headed over to Rossøya where we found a suitable spot for a landing.
On shore we were met by beautiful colours from flowers, moss and hundreds of birds sitting in the mountain wall. Again we split into two groups because of the harsh stony terrain and quite a tough climb to the top. Some stayed back with the boat looking at the rich plant life and the birds on the sea cliff, while the rest headed for the top.

On the top we were met by a majestic view, a mingling birdlife and we even found traces of polar bear faeces, but sadly still no live polar bear.

After a while we walked back down and met up with the rest of the group, jumped back into the zodiacs and went back to the ship. Yet another fantastic warm lunch met us in the dining room. Complements to the chef came flowing afterward as usual.

Meanwhile the boat had set course for Phipps Island and we set anchor just on the west side from it where we also discovered a large group of walrus laying on the beach.

Shortly after we had set anchor we got back into our zodiacs and did a landing around 400 meters away from the colony of walrus. For extra safety, because we had poor overview of the whole surroundings, one boat waited out on the sea, but close enough to come to aid if needed and the second boat went ashore to try to get closer to the colony. 

There had been said on the VHF earlier on that a polar bear was spotted on the same beach only the day before. And even though we were excited to see the walruses, we secretly also hoped for our first polar bear meeting.

The first group had a very successful landing, and came close enough for good pictures. So did the second group as we later switched positions. It was a large group of mixed walruses. In front laid a huge male with large tusks. While some of the others had to look towards us in curiosity if we were dangerous or not, the biggest male could not be bothered to even open his eyes. We gracefully walked slowly towards the group before we sat down and made ourselves as small as possible to not threaten the walruses. As we walked back we lined up on a straight line and gently walked back, so that the walruses could only see the back of our guide – thinking we were no threat being so small.

Later we did a search around some of the nearby islands, did a short landing on Martensøya, before we received the message of a possible observation of polar bear on the north-east side of Phipps Island. Unfortunately this turned to be a false observation, and we had to return to the ship without any polar bear this time. Luckily we acquired some good pictures of the walruses. Then we set course for the ice sheet in the north, and at 23.00 we arrived to the ice. We stayed there for some hours before we turned the nose south again.

Yet another day passed with a fine dinner and cosy socializing in the afternoon before we crawled happily into our beds once again.

Day 4

During the night we arrived at Duvefjorden located in the northern part of Nordaustlandet. The second largest island of Svalbard. Here we were met by a stunning view. Ice floating all around us, and fjords with ice still covering most of the water. And even though there was a heavy fog laying above us as a lid, the sun fought through and coloured the mountainside in this beautiful red, gold light overlay on the rocks and the snow.

Yet again we found our way to the zodiacs and rode around in the ice. 

Finally we spotted our first polar bear, and even better, it was a mom with a cub hunting on the ice. 

Unfortunately they were a few hundred meters away, and no good photo opportunities came along, so we kept searching for more wildlife. And shortly after we found two walruses laying on a piece of ice.

The guides stopped the engines and everything went silent. To not disturb the walruses they used the paddles to gracefully and silently glide around without interrupting their rest.

Amazed by the unbelievable experience of sharing a moment with these huge animals surrounded by ice and fog, with a hint of sunlight forcing its way through the clouds, we kept on looking for more animals nearby.

Finally we ended up in Dokkabukten. Located on the east side of Duvefjorden, just south of sœtherbukta. And there we spotted yet another mom with its cub. This time we anchored up just on the edge of the ice sheet covering the bay. Only a few hours later the mom and the cub came wandering towards the boat. Audun woke up those who had gone to sleep, and alerted those who sat in the dining room, and briefly after the mom took an interest to the boat and set course straight towards us.

Finally we got our first close up meeting with a polar bear. The mom and her cub came all the way up to the boat, and only a single meter stood left between us and Queen of the Arctic. 

For hours they both stayed around the boat, and several times they came close to look at the boat and us, and you could see the mother was constantly trying to figure out how to get on board. 

Moments later they wondered off into the cold arctic summer night, and we to our beds.

Day 5

We woke up still anchored in the ice inside Dokkabukten. After breakfast we jumped into the zodiacs and drove to the neighbour fjord Sœtherbukta where we found close drift ice just outside the ice sheet furthest inside the fjord. Here we first found two polar bears on the ice sheet, but the closest one sat on 500 meters. On our way out again we met a majestic lonesome male polar bear on the drifting ice. Once again we came near, and got some amazing pictures of a close up male with blue and white ice in the surroundings.

After that unforgettable experience we travelled around in the drift ice with a few birds and some incredible ice shaped sculptures.
Back on the boat we started sailing towards Storøya, located just north-east of Nordaustlandet. As we passed through Poortsundet we spotted a huge male bear lying next to his kill. 

With the careful skills of our Chief Officer we were able to slowly drift next to the ice where the bear sat.

Yet another fabulous opportunity fell into our laps. And the photo session was successful. Then we left the bear to itself and carried on towards our next destination.

Day 6

On this beautiful day we went in to the zodiacs surrounded by heavy fog in the horizon, and a majestic glacier showing its beauty in the sunlight. The guides had already spotted two polar bears laying on the beach, but as we came closer we found a third one, and further west we found a group of walruses stacked neatly on a small rocky island just outside the beach. 

The sun sat low in the sky, and coloured everything in a bright golden light. Walruses swam all around us in the sea, birds high in the sky and as we drove down the coast we stumbled upon a beautiful female polar bear, with a fur as white and pure as fresh snow, husky and healthy as no other bear we had seen so far. She was far the most beautiful polar bear, and as the queen she was she laid there on the rocks, scouting peacefully out towards the horizon. We drifted around her, mesmerized by her beauty that it took us a while to spot the cute little cub that laid only a few meters behind her mother. Trying to copy her every movement as well as she could. 

It was hard to take the eyes of that little family, but after some time we had to move on. And even though we left physically, I believe most of us are still staying behind with the mom and her cub in our mind.

We drove back up along the beach to try and see if some of the first polar bears had awakened, but all of them were still heavily sleeping. Suddenly Jens spotted two tiny dark dots coming over the horizon. Encircled by golden light they came out of the fog on top of the glacier. With a steady and stately walk they had course straight for the beach. Unfortunately they were too far away, and we decided to drive back to the boat. But already as the first of us set foot on deck the polar bears had already gotten down from the glacier and walked off somewhere in between the beach and the glacier front. One could only dream that they would be as beautiful as the one we saw laying on the rocks near the sea.

Back on the boat we set course for Isisøyane. The fog had now completely surrounded us, and we could only see a hundred meters in front of us. But we carried on towards the glacier front, and as we sailed in it suddenly opened up in front of us, and out of the fog raised a gigantic glacier front that soured above us. The silence, the sunlight behind the mystical fog, and the blue ice. As if time stopped and the world had reduced to this lonesome, mesmerizing, mind-blowing spot in life. We stood there for a while, and the more time that went the more the fog yielded, and before we knew it the sun was out and the Isis Island could be seen.

Into the zodiacs once more we took a tour around the island and we found a big male polar bear laying on the beach.

But as it stood up and looked at us, we could see how skinny it had become over the summer. He did not think long before he started walking around us, thinking and looking for a way to get to us. The eyes were focused, and the mind set on one thing. He was far the most dangerous bear we had met thus far.

At a safe distance we watched him. The guides focused and prepared to get out of there as quickly as possible if needed. Clearly the polar bear wanted us badly, but still we felt safe under the management of the guides.

It was a sad sight as he stood there in the waterline looking out towards us. He was big, and sure enough the toughest of them all. A shadow of a former king. We left him in the water there he stood still looking. And so we were reminded of the harsh truth that is nature, but still there were no saying that he would not make it through the summer. We crossed our fingers and sent our best wishes to him as he faded away behind the fog that started to close in on us again.

Day 7

The next morning we woke up to beautiful blue sky and a calm sea. Huge icebergs were floating all around us, and we decided to get into the zodiacs and drive around to look at some of them more closely. Out there, in the middle of these majestic and tremendous traces of what used to be part of a glacier, we encountered walruses and birds living freely and peacefully.

Back on the ship we were served a nice lunch, and meanwhile we sailed towards Franzøya, where we had decided to go ashore if there were no polar bears to be sighted.

As we arrived to the island the guides found two possible sights of polar bear, and decided to do a recon around the island, and to check the plausible polar bears a little closer up. We drove around, and on the backside of the island we were met yet again by walruses swimming around.

The guides did a thorough recon of the island before we decided to go ashore. The plausible sightings were negative. On shore we found a lot of beautiful flowers, and a nice experience with two skua following us on shore. Further up in the rocks we found the remains of an old whale. And a few other places we stumbled upon some more remains.

Back again on the boat, to yet another meal, we set course towards Alkefjellet (The bird mountain). Now some of the guest happily joked that they had never eaten so often and so much, but the food was still appreciated and the chef got an applause after the meal.

As we sailed in underneath Alkefjellet the sight that met us could not have been explained beforehand. Thousands of Brünnichs guillemots all gathered up on slippery almost vertically rising mountain face. And we struck gold, because on this very day, it was time for the young ones to leave their nest. So thousands of young birds were diving off the cliffs and into the ocean to meet their fathers, who swam around calling them to them.  

In the air were another thousand birds flying around, back and forth. Some there to feast and others to help. A sight impossible to catch on film, and a feeling impossible to explain. 

On the back deck the chef had taken out his grill and for dinner we would have a barbeque. Two, three hours we laid underneath the mountain face looking at the birds, mesmerised by the controlled chaos.

Because all the young ones would leave the nest during the two days, and they all started on the same time to make it harder for predators. Dinner was served while we still laid underneath the birds, and what a meal it was. Four different types of meat, potatoes, salad, sauces and etc.

What a perfect day, and what an experience!

Leaving the birds behind us, we were told that a storm would hit us tomorrow, and it would only get worse the day after tomorrow. So to avoid the harsh sea we set course to Kongsfjorden, on the west coast of Spitsbergen Island. But ahead of the storm came a little rough sea, and for the first time during the trip the passengers could get a feeling of the worse side of a life at sea. But it was a short meeting with seasickness and rolling waves. For as we sailed into Kongsfjorden we once again met calm sea. Some rain, but at least no more waves.

Day 8

We woke up anchored furthest into Kongsfjorden. There was rain in the air, and heavy clouds laid as a lid on top of us. In front of us stood Ossian’s Ars, another mountain for nesting birds. This time kittiwakes.

Back into our trusted zodiacs, that by now felt like home, we cruised towards the shore, and were met by a fox that came more than close enough to great us welcome.

The sound of birds were loud, and the life harsh for the young ones who were constantly under attack by the glaucous gull.

A little further down the beach we went ashore, and started to ascend from the back, so that we could look down on the birds from the top. Already before we started the climb we were met by many new flowers, and some that we had seen before. Already had the flowers started to get the colors of the fall, but some still stood in their brightest coat.

After we had gone to the top, we drove over to the glacier front at Kongsbreen. Here we were met by an active and calving glacier. We turned off the engines, and the sounds of popping air bubbles that gets released by thousand years of capture in the ice as the ice is melting in the water, and the tremendous sound of calving ice falling into the sea. With the sound of rolling thunder as the pieces brakes of and strikes into the water creating huge waves that effects everything, we sat there in the middle of these massive forces, and we felt small compared to it all.

Back on the ship we got out the fishing rods, and started fishing. One by one we dragged up fish bigger than the first one. But the English became victorious, and the honour went to Stuart who caught the biggest fish of the day. Even though the Americans Lois and Tom, did a good effort with catching two fish on one line, and Audun who was partly to blame for Tom losing one of his biggest fish, they could not match the size. 

Time goes fast when you are having fun, and by the time all the fish were gutted and cleaned the clock was already 00.30. Time to find bed.

Day 9

We woke up to another day in Kongsfjorden, and now heading towards Ny-Ålesund. The research town that had started out as a mining town. After a huge accident in 1962, where 21 people lost their lives, the mine was closed down, and shortly after the town got reborn in the name of research. The name «New-Ålesund» is after the KingsBay Kullkompani that was founded in Ålesund, Norway. 

Today there are many different nations located in Ny-Ålesund for different purposes, but all to research something. The town is also famous for being the starting point of Roald Amundsen’s trips to the North pole. His anchor mast for the famous airship is located here. Finally we got ashore, and could take a walk around in this weird little town. The gift shop also opened for us, and we all headed over there to bring back some souvenirs.

After a short visit to the small town, we got into the boat and then into the zodiacs to visit the island of Blomstrandhalvøya, or also famously known as New-London, located almost exactly just across the fjord from Ny-Ålesund.

Here we were introduced to the remarkable story of the man known as Ernest Mansfield. In 1911-1913 Mansfield got investors to spend a lot of money on building up the mining town «London» at Blomstrandhalvøya to take out the marble he had found there. In 1913 he was fired when the NEC (Northern Exploration Company) realised that although there was indeed a lot of marble, it was of low quality. Up to 70 men worked there during the summers.

Later on, the houses still remaining has been used by trappers, and researchers. One boy was born in the Mansfield Camp house (front house on the picture below) in 1930. The mining remains as the largest project in Svalbard mining history, but also it is one of the strangest histories.

When we were done walking around looking and talking about New-London we got back into the zodiacs and headed over to the other side of the fjord, towards the airport of Ny-Ålesund. There we had spotted some polar bears earlier on, and now we wanted to take a closer look.

On the other side we were met by the view of a dead walrus lying on the beach. It was fairly eaten up, and a lot of seagulls had gathered around the carcass.

And on a cliff sticking out not far above us, a female bear and her cub laid majestically LOOKING down at us. 

After some time we also spotted another female bear with her cub lying further up in the hill side. Both female bears were tagged with collars, and therefore also more shy than the polar bears we had met during the trip.

After some minutes spent waiting for the bears to come down to the carcass again, we had to go back to the boat for dinner. We decided to wait and see if the bears came back, and than head back over to the beach. But the guides had an observing of some of the locals approaching one of the female and her cub after they came down to the carcass, and they were shy and disturbed by the present of people, so we decided to leave the area so that the polar bears could keep on without any more disturbance.

At last back on the boat, we came to realize that this was our last moment together. A long and copious trip was now coming to an end. A wonderful meal and a long night filled with social gathering and many vigorous tales followed, and gave a perfect ending to a memorable adventure.

If you're interested in joining our next Polar Bear Explorer expedition, please get in touch.

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