The Realm of the Polar Bear

Tony Cronin

23 Aug 2017

An Arctic Adventure

When we first glimpsed at the white coral sands of the Maldives surrounded by turquoise waters, it was amid a scrum of aircraft passengers vying for whatever rounded window we could take in the beauty of it all through.

Flying above Spitsbergen under a bright blue sky, with the dazzling midnight sun casting shadows on the pointed peaks perforating the soft white cloud layer like the tips of Freddie Kruger’s claws, probably equalled it. It certainly equalled the number of passengers again vying to take in the beauty of the land of the pointed peaks.

The low cloud blanketing the archipelago was a mixed blessing. It robbed us of the opportunity to appreciate the iconic mountains and their massive buttresses in all their towering glory, but it immediately decided for us how to fill the spare day before boarding the ship: climb! Eight of us set off on a wee stroll up a dead glacier. 

Soon we needed to put on the snowshoes we had brought. Which reminded me of the things I had not brought: sun block, the correct clothing, fitness.

After a little over four hours of sweating, bursting lungs, muscles on their…um “last legs” we were in a white out of snow and cloud. “A hike” he said! “£190 I paid for this! Which way is up?” I thought. After another sweat-chilling pause for breath, we pushed on. One snowshoe placed in front of the other, floating on the deep snow.

Then the warm sun prompted me to look up and suddenly all the aches and pains emptied away. My…. good…. Lord! What a view.

Coffee was produced from a flask (urrrgh - no sugar) and as we sat together and had a “me time” moment taking in the stillness and beauty of it all, it was the tastiest coffee I have ever enjoyed.

Boarding the ship “Expedition” the next day, (I shuffled to it) other passengers were a mix of retired couples and younger lone travellers. We all wondered would we see seals, whales, polar bears, reindeer, the Arctic Fox? When will we see the puffins? Will we walk on glaciers? Who will do the polar plunge? What…no internet?!?!

Eight days without sunset, without mobile signals, without civilisation. And yet out in that wilderness of the unforgiving Arctic environment, it was the most civilised refuge on Earth as various nationalities of all ages shared expectations, emotions and experiences.We were to sail northward from our last outpost of remote civilisation toward the wilderness of the frozen polar ice cap.

At 2am in the morning standing on the deck at the bow of the ship, you can stretch your arms out like Kate Winslet. But your hair won’t billow in the breeze because there isn’t any (and mine isn’t long enough).

It seems there is nothing, yet your senses are overwhelmed. The occasional wisp of biting cold on your bare face reminds you of how unforgiving that dark water might be if you fell in. Trussed up in layers and warm arctic parka the coffee (this time with sugar) is the only thing you can taste.

The whiteness of where the clouds meet the ice-laden horizon, the darkness of the cold water, the vivid blue of ancient glacier ice the only colours. The hum of the ship as it swishes northwards through open channels the only sound. Northern fulmars and glaucous gulls skim the water, guillemots flap fervently out of the way, Arctic terns dart by. All silently until we shudder into a large ice flow and split it where all manner of squawking breaks loose as birds scrabble and bicker over any small fish darting for cover.

Ship’s PA: “Ladies and Gentlemen, our lookouts on the Bridge have spotted a pair of blue whales off our starb….” The lounge empties instantly.

The Captain slows the ship and circles the mother and calf for the twenty minutes they entertained us. Every available railing has passengers and crew leaning over for this close-up view of feeding and diving, explosive blowing of water high into the air, a glimpse of a turquoise fin through the dark Arctic water, and as an exclamation of euphoria rose up around the ship in unison…the fluke! 

Every goose-bump in my body ached. I have never heard what “sheer joy” sounded like until that moment. A very special experience.

We saw blue whales. Our first mammal, and on day 1 of the expedition! How could it get any better? We wanted more. We all wanted to see a polar bear and even though the chances were slim, we were enthusiastic and hopeful. The cloud was beginning to lift and the sun was beginning to break through as we parked up amongst the massive ice floes of the polar ice cap and drifted for the night. The next day, the expedition leader announced we were going to find a suitable place to ram the ship into the ice cap, scout the area to ensure it was safe, and transfer us onto the ice via zodiacs.

During the safety briefing in the Mud Room we were informed that we were to be landed at a point where fresh polar bear tracks were, so we now had an additional evacuation procedure drilled into us in the event of a bear making an appearance (I knew I was unfit so eyed up someone I thought would run more slowly than me. “Hello, you’re going to be my new buddy” I thought to myself).

Stepping gingerly out of the zodiac and onto the Arctic ice cap I don’t know whether I felt like an overweight version of Neil Armstrong, or a baboon. I didn’t care. I headed directly for the footprints, immediately forgetting to stick close to my “insurance bait” new pal.

With little to use as a reference, I find myself placing my hand into the print to gauge the size of the bear. Both of my hands side by side: that’s how big. Eyes are drawn along the trail stretching straight to the distant horizon. We all scan the silent wilderness ahead of us, wondering if we could see the seal the bear could smell from 2 miles away.

So that was it. A tantalising hint of polar bear. But not a hair nor claw to be seen. 

“…Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, the time is 1:40am and our lookouts on the Bridge have spotted a Polar Bear 500m ahead moving from left to right at our 1 O’ Clock position….” My head crashed against the ceiling reminding me I was on the top bunk, and bolting upright would only ever be done just once. Most of us were half-dressed but braving the chill as we strained through binoculars and long lenses for our first sight of a polar bear in its natural habitat.

I used up a 32mb memory card that bright night as my camera and beast of a lens performed like a star.

Over the next few days we had a total of seven sightings as the weather and our luck improved to the point of almost being taken for granted.

Heading south, we were to be indulged with several trips to fjords, old whaling stations, glacier fronts, towering peaks and noisy bird colonies. There was a reminder when glancing out through the windows of the ship’s warm lounge area that the cold waters outside no longer carried ice and the polar bears were indeed now behind us, fattening on seals.

But as one of the many lectures informed us, what lay ahead was a kaleidoscope of nature, of beasties, of raucous cackling birds. Thus we were well prepared on the many landings on which we were accompanied by experts in their field as they pointed out the hardy flowers now breaking out all over the spongy tundra.

This land is barren of trees. We are far above the global tree-line, where the hardiest of plants depend on the regular 6-monthly cycles of empty darkness and enriching sunlight to blanket the tundra with an array of grasses, mosses and flowers and provide a welcome bounty for the reindeer.

We paid several visits to fjords of various significance. Huge glaciers bearing their innards to the sea in a jagged towering wall of trapped boulders, immense crevasses, blue-steel ice and icy waterfalls. Anchored up in one of these fjords during the midnight sun, the only sounds that fill the air are the incessant cackling of bird cliffs, and the occasional rumbling or creaking of the enormous glacier.

Walrus. You cannot help but like them. Having feasted better than Jabba the Hutt, they loll about, break wind and make strange noises. And scratch. Then scratch some more.

It’s not possible to get near them as they have a tendency to “stampede” but watching them through the falling snow it was clear they were on their summer holidays.

And so the adventure came to an end. Svalbard: a rocky oasis in the frozen Arctic Ocean. 

Home to a hardy ecosystem of plants, animals, birds and sea life. An archipelago of frozen pointed mountains, glaciers, bird cliffs, husky rides, snow mobiles, tundra, colossal scree slopes, dark mines, ancient fossils, ice caves, pubs, ships and surrounded by an Arctic wilderness of immense beauty.


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