Polar Bear Explorer Safari Trip Report June 2017

Kate Waite

19 Jun 2017

An extraordinary journey through the high arctic

The Arctic and Antarctica have long been a source of fascination for me. The history, the wildlife, the wilderness – my shelves warp under the weight of books about the Polar Regions. It was with a great deal of anticipation that I approached the high latitude frozen wildernesses of Svalbard in the High Arctic for our Polar Bear Explorer Safari.

Svalbard Day 1, June 3 2017

Arriving at Longyearbyen at 2.30am in softly swirling snow following a heart racing sprint through Oslo airport thanks to a delayed arrival, it was perhaps appropriate that the first thing to catch my attention was a marathon route map. The Spitsbergen marathon is an annual event, famous for being the only race with a course that is manned with polar bear guards along with the route to protect the participants. 


Being a keen runner it seemed like fate that my day in Longyearbyen coincided with the event and the little fact of not having any proper running gear with me wasn't going to put me off. 

Which is how hours after arriving I found myself running the Spitsbergen Marathon Mila, a 10km route around Longyearbyen alongside the longer full marathon. It was very much a tourist run for me, stopping to take photos on the way round, chatting to the marshals at drink stations and comparing notes with the other runners en route. While it might not appeal to everyone, for me it was the perfect way to spend the day before boarding our ship, the Malmo, late afternoon.

After getting acquainted with the other passengers and meeting our experienced expedition leaders, Ronald Visser and Frits Steenhuisen, we had only been sailing on the Malmo for just a few hours when we had our first bear sighting. Or actually our first three bear sightings. 

We had set off from Longyearbyen to check out some relatively nearby fast ice. Dotted across it were seals, flecks of black on the white landscape. The main focus of our attention however was a female polar bear with two cubs. Too far to see with the naked eye, Ronald set up a telescope to give us a better view. A reindeer on the beach near the bear family completed an Arctic wildlife hat trick all within a few hours of joining the boat. 


After moving off, about an hour later Ronald spotted a pod of Beluga whales at the bow of the ship, Moving away from us quickly. only a few passengers caught a glimpse but it was a promising start to our Arctic adventure.

Svalbard Day 2, June 4 2017

This morning was our first excursion out in the zodiacs, to investigate a nearby group of walrus. Landing along a spur of land at we walked 400m to where they lay, hauled out on the shingle beach. Approaching cautiously so as not to alarm them provided ample opportunity to stop and learn more about the geology of the region, examining rocks, finding old whale bones and ribbons of silver birch bark washed up from Siberia. 


As we got to about 30m away from the walrus we sunk to our knees and watched as they occasionally raised a webbed flipper to scratch or a tusked head to give us a quick glance before shuffling into a more comfortable position. 


Just as we were leaving a large bull swam to shore, hauling himself with much effort into the midst of the group. We retreated to leave them in peace as they snuffled and grunted with the exertion of making space for the new arrival.

 

The focus of the afternoon was caves, ice and birds. Cruising around in the zodiacs we circled bergy bits, the name given to medium blocks of floating ice. Resting upon the ice were groups of Arctic Tern, the world’s greatest migratory bird, just arrived from their long journey from Antarctica.

Svalbard Day 3, June 5 2017

"Wow, this has to be the most beautiful place I've seen", exclaimed one passenger this morning as we woke, sailing through a fjord so beautiful that words and pictures can't do it justice. The air is fresh, pure and invigorating, the sound of creaking ice is almost harmonic and the 360 degree view surrounding us has to be one of the best in the world. Hunks of drifting pack ice litter the fjord in sometimes startling shades of blue. Some bear the marks of polar bear visitors, criss-crossed tantalisingly across the top. The snow striated mountains tower above us and seemingly below too, reflected in the flat calm water. An ancient glacier ribbons its way down to the sea, its jagged face revealing yet more shades of blue. 


I truly believe there can be few places in the world more breathtaking than Svalbard in the bright sunshine this morning.

As we continued to cruise through the frozen landscape a flock of disturbed birds alerted us that we may not be alone. Swimming through the water was a large male polar bear. Totally nonchalant about our presence he climbed onto the ice nearby and cooled himself down with a snow bath, working it right into his armpits to counter the warm sun which was making it an almost balmy 4-5 degrees. We watched as he headed away from the boat, deliberating for a moment whether a nearby seal was of interest, before disappearing towards the distant mountains.

 

A bottle of bubbly was popped and we raised a glass to celebrate our polar bear encounter. As we chinked glasses a minke whale surfaced several times close to the boat and puffins flew overhead.

On a northerly heading we continued our journey into the edge of the pack ice. The varying blues of the thick ice seemed almost unnatural, as though the landscape had been edited in Photoshop. We passed walrus hauled out on the ice, lazily watching from their frozen platforms us as we continued past until we reached 80 degrees north. It was noticeably colder than earlier, the ice thick on the sea and visibility limited with a thick fog under a grey sky making our Arctic world smaller. So we decided to take a swim.

 

The polar plunge is a ritual for some travellers and viewed with horror by others; it seemed fitting to make the leap at 80 degrees.

 

Standing on deck the air was cold and my feet were already numb as I knotted the safety rope around my waist. Standing on the platform I didn't hesitate and made the leap, sinking under the surface to fully submerge myself into the Arctic Ocean. It was a lot colder than I thought, and I hadn’t exactly been expecting it to be temperate. The few strokes to the ship felt like a longer distance than they were and as I climbed out the bitter cold air hit me. I'm glad I did it; it felt like a ritual that I had to participate in given my love of all things polar but I won't hurry to do it again.

 

With the fog closing in and the temperature dropping the evening was spent inside listening to Ronald weave polar bear facts and science together, along with old and new stories of close encounters. 

Svalbard Day 4, June 6 2017

As we cruised along the pack ice through the night the fog lifted giving way to bright sunlight and blue skies. At around 5:15am a shout went out that there was a polar bear close to the boat. Grabbing my camera and knocking on doors I headed out to the deck where a bear was casually strolling away from the ship.


 With everyone on deck in various states of dress, jackets thrown over nightwear, we watched the bear swim and climb out onto the ice, heading away with an occasional glance back towards us. 


A fantastic fifth encounter, and before breakfast we had another two opportunities with the same bear as we encountered her twice more, swimming and strolling across the ice. 

 

After breakfast we bid farewell to the pack ice to head slightly further south in search of fast ice. Exploring several fiords in search of wildlife, we spotted several minke whales and a lot of birds including puffins and snow bunting.


Later in the evening we took the zodiacs out, and landed on shore for a hike up to a lookout point. Ascending 150m over 2.7km in quite deep snow we reached the stone cairn at the top and were rewarded with an incredible 360 degree view at this ancient whaling station site.


The Malmo in the fjord below was just a tiny spec in the distance.

Svalbard Day 5, June 7 2017

After yesterday's exertion we had a quieter morning searching the nooks and crannies of the coastline for wildlife. The low grey cloud once again made our Arctic world quite small and emphasised the isolation.


Only a few bearded seals popped up their heads as we passed by, although we were distracted by beautiful other worldly ice sculptures in startling shades of blue.

 

After lunch we took the zodiacs out to get closer to some playful harbour seals nearby. Drifting past in our zodiacs with the engines off the only sound was the splash of water and the call of nearby birds. Ronald spotted a striking King Eider with his distinctive bright orange frontal shield on his bill watching us from the snowy shore nearby; a shy bird that is generally quite rare in Svalbard.
Later on we visited a walrus haul out on the beach. We smelt them as we approached, unmistakably pungent as you may imagine living on a diet based mainly on clams. A few were watching us from the water as we landed our zodiacs on the beach and made a cautious approach to the pod. A large male hauled out in front of us and made his way to the centre of the group with much grunting, snorting and the odd clash of tusks.

I found myself curiously taken by these large, inelegant (on land at least) creatures. As they settled into a mound of whiskers and wrinkles we bid them farewell and retreated back to the Malmo.

Svalbard Day 6, June 8 2017

Overnight we had a long sail overnight back to the south, rocked in our beds by gentle swell. Waking to clear skies and far-reaching views it wasn’t long before a fog descended, enveloping us in a small, white world. A fog rainbow appeared while we were having breakfast, like a ghost rainbow, a de-saturated spectre with bands of silver and grey.

 

As we searched the fjords and sailed into fast ice we scouted for wildlife, the fog lingered, enveloping us its atmospheric white blanket. As it started to lift we were treated to dramatic scenery, snow and ice covered mountains plunging to the sea.  


A pod of beluga whales swam around us, staying a while, their white backs glistening in the sun as they carved their way through the sea. 

After a traditional Thursday meal (so we are told) of pea and ham soup with warm shots of grappa we headed to shore landing at Fleur de Lyshamna.


Once again I found myself thinking that this must surely be one of the most beautiful places on earth. 


As we trekked over the hills the frozen snow crystals scattered like diamonds, clinking softly under our feet. Arctic reindeer grazed nearby, barely lifting their heads as we passed by taking in the 360 degree view of frozen mountains, glaciers and ocean. The weight of human impact in this remote location was evident by the whale bones on the beach. The site was where over 500 beluga whales were slaughtered, fortunately never turning into a large-scale industry, the remains now part of Svalbard’s cultural heritage.

 

Back on the Malmo as we left the area we passed through a fjord with bearded seals backlit by the sun drifting past on ice floes. In the brilliant sunshine it was easy to forget that it was actually midnight and we had drifted into our penultimate day of the trip.

Svalbard Day 7, June 9 2017

This morning we cruised through Hornsund fjord, the mountains mottled with dark rock and white snow, craggy glacier faces plunging into the sea and seabirds swirling above. 

 

This beautiful location didn't just deliver on scenery, before long we were stood on deck about 100m away from a polar bear with a fresh kill. As the bear feasted on blubber, ivory gulls hovered nearby waiting for an opportunity to enjoy the feast. An Arctic fox skittered past attracted by the carcass. 


We stayed with the bear a while before moving on and celebrating our most recent sighting with coffee and cake. We hadn't even drained our cups before our next bear sighting; a mother and cubs.

 

At first they were some way away, around 2.8km, the mother sleeping with the cubs playing behind her. We watched through the telescope, glancing up to watch what were distant yellow dots to the naked eye. I should note here that the difference between good guiding and great guiding is understanding and predicting animal behaviour. Ronald and Frits both felt that the mother would wake within a few hours and possibly come closer. I don’t think any of us could have possibly hoped for what happened next though. 

We had lunch and then after a few hours, as predicted, the mother woke. She scouted along near the glacier and tried for a kill but was unsuccessful. Then, rounding up the two cubs she came to investigate.


Silence descended on the Malmo as both she and her two cubs approached the ship, coming right alongside us. 


The cubs stood on their hind legs to get a better view of the curious human creatures pointing cameras at them, before getting distracted by play, bounding along the edge of the frozen ice and ultimately falling in. Lowering my camera I just sat and watched. It was a true privilege to be in the habitat and company of these wild animals, the video above is courtesy of fellow traveller Laurence.

 

After they departed we headed back to our previous bear to see how she was progressing with her seal feast. Stomach distended the carcass was visibly diminished and we stayed a while longer to watch her devour more of the kill.

With 12 bear sightings on the trip, including such a close encounter with a mother and two cubs, spirits were high. After sailing away from the bears we took a zodiac to shore to stretch our legs and visit an old trappers hut. While wildlife has been the focus of this trip I have a long established love of the Polar Regions and their history, so was especially interested to step inside an old trappers hut. Originally built in 1911 it took its current shape in 1917 and was used until 1971.


Steeped in history, the atmosphere was eerie, heavy with untold stories. Hidden from view by clouds, the towering cliffs above were a cacophony of birds but inside the small space of the hut there was only silence.


We explored the shoreline, bursts of colour coming from purple flowers and bright yellow lichen before heading back to the Malmo alongside puffins and guillemots.

Svalbard Day 8, June 10 2017

Our final day on the ship arrived all too quickly. Today we were able to do more exploration on land, starting at a glacier face, the black and white mountains clearly reflected in the turquoise lakes near the rugged frozen face of the glacier. 

 

Back in the zodiacs we headed to a bird cliff walking over peaty terrain, fog shielding our view but adding incredible atmosphere. Our third and final walk in the afternoon was yet again different, grey rock coloured with bright lichen and small purple flowers heralding the start of spring. Curious reindeer followed us, skittishly edging forward until they were just metres away. Along the shoreline small shorebirds, red phalarope paddled around the zodiacs as we stood and absorbed the incredible Arctic wilderness one last time.


The trip hadn't finished delivering on incredible wildlife encounters yet though. 


As we sat down for our final meal, a blue whale swam alongside the Malmo where it remained for over an hour. A just metres away from the ship, the distinctive sound of its blow was a fitting serenade to the end of our Arctic adventure. 

Final Thoughts

We had some truly memorable polar bear encounters. Great guiding, a good ship and being in the right place at the right time all play their part along with a large degree of luck (after all these are wild animals and we always stress there are no guarantees when it comes to sightings). However, reflecting on my trip those encounters are such a small part of what made it so memorable.

What makes my mind wander and heart race is the pure splendour of the Arctic wilderness.

The startling blue and the sound of ice, the call of seabirds over the rhythmic whisper of the sea, the colours of flowering purple saxifrage and sunburst lichen on grey rock, and the sense of isolation and history imbued in this extraordinary place. 

I’m exceedingly fortunate to be able to consider myself well travelled and frequently get asked which is my favourite destination. It’s a question I normally can’t answer, at least until now. Svalbard.

Trip Details

Small Group Trip

Kate was travelling on our Polar Bear Explorer Safari, a small group wildlife expedition. The M/S Malmo, M/S Freya and M/S Sjoveien are small intimate ships perfect for exploring the icy shores of the Svalbard Archipelago, ensuring your proximity to wildlife-rich areas of interest. Carrying a maximum of 12-18 passengers (depending on ship and departure), they create unique and enchanting wildlife experiences with unrivalled up-close encounters with Arctic wildlife including the mighty polar bear.

Trip LogS

To download trip logs from previous departures, please click the following links:

M/S Freya Trip Log 2016 | July 5-15
M/S Freya Trip Log 2016 | August 2-12
M/S Malmo Trip Log 2016 | July 15-24

Dates and prices

View the full itinerary of our Polar Bear Explorer Safari for full details. Prices start on our 2018 departures from £6,595 per person. For a detailed itinerary and brochure about this trip please get in touch.

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Comments

serena

27/6/2017 7:36 PM

What a fantastic read! Even more so as I'm getting on my ship tomorrow. ...I can't hope to compete with so many extraordinary sightings but it does mean the wildlife is out there and with a bit of luck I may be as successful. Can't wait!

Lorna NWS

19/6/2017 8:24 PM

Fantastic blog Kate! Love the videos too. Very very jealous but thrilled you had so many great sightings!

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