Svalbard: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip

David and Ruth Tomlinson

04 Sep 2018

A husband and wife embark on their first ever expedition to Svalbard

We have always wanted to see polar bears and we decided that Svalbard was the best place to see them in the wild. This was to be our ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip, so we were very excited that we were able to get places on the newly renovated M/V Kinfish with Natural World Safaris.

On the first day we were collected from our Longyearbyen hotel in the afternoon by Alex, one of our expedition leaders, and taken to our ship. After quickly unpacking we were given a safety talk and drill, then we were one our way to Dickensfjord where we pushed into the ice for the night.

At breakfast our guides Alex and Lauren would brief us on the day's plan. However these plans were very fluid, changing depending on weather conditions or any wildlife sightings. We never felt like passengers but all part of a team. Our expedition guides and crew worked extremely hard to take us to quality wildlife viewing and beautiful scenery. There was an open-bridge policy and we spent a lot of time up there helping to look for wildlife using the many pairs of binoculars up there for our use.

Each day our guides took us out in the zodiacs, often twice a day. Some trips were beach landings for a walk were we saw Arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeer and walrus along with both pink-footed and barnacle geese. On one occasion we came across a barnacle goose nesting colony and saw an Arctic fox stealing their eggs, and also found a reindeer mother and calf who were not afraid of us at all; the calf even followed us, skipping about! Other trips were to closely look at some of the glaciers where we marvelled at the beautiful blues in the ice. On one occasion we witnessed a glacier calving, and on another saw a pod of beluga whales with their calves.

One night we set off at 11:30pm to visit a walrus haul-out, landing on a beach and walking to see the walrus closer but without disturbing them. By this time it was midnight, and the Arctic sun was shining brightly – what a wonderful moment, photographing walrus under the midnight sun. We also made an early-morning visit to the bird cliffs at Alkefjellet, where the weather was beautiful with clear blue skies. Here our captain demonstrated the agility of the Kinfish, taking the bow of the ship to within a few feet of the cliffs and then travelling sideways, giving us the best possible view of the thousands of guillemots and kittiwakes arriving to nest. Whilst travelling at sea we also saw a blue whale, as well as a humpback and minke whale.

As if all this wasn’t enough, we also had the most amazing polar bear viewings. After dinner on the third night Alex came down from the bridge to say that Captain Fred had seen a polar bear walking along a ridge. We all went up to the bridge to watch, when Lauren spotted another bear sleeping on a beach in the direction the first bear was heading. As the first bear (a male) reached the beach, the second bear sprang at him, and it was then obvious that she was a mother with two cubs. We saw her cubs fleeing up the mountain while she faced off against the male, before heading up the mountain herself, but not in the same direction as her cubs.

As the male went onto the beach we all quickly got ready and into the zodiacs. The bear watched our approach unfazed before returning to feed off a seal carcass, which our guides suspected the mother bear had killed. It was partly hidden in a shallow cave near the beach. We got quite close and watched him eat. Meanwhile we could see the mother bear high up the mountain looking for and then reuniting with her cubs. After feeding, the male bear then sat and cleaned his paws and face. We returned to the Kinfish and got to bed around midnight.

At 2:24am there was a knock on our cabin door. It was Alex there to say that the mother and cubs were going down to the beach. We quickly dressed and went into the zodiacs but by then they were moving up the mountain again, before she settled down to feed her tiring cubs. We travelled a little way along the shore and found the male sleeping in the snow, now cleaned up after his meal. Later in the expedition we saw more bears but they were much further away on the ice.

We were very well looked after on the Kinfish by her very friendly crew. Our chef Christer served us wonderful food, and plenty of it. On returning from zodiac trips there was a hot drink of cranberry or blueberry juice or hot chocolate to warm us up. The cabins were warm and cosy, the common lounges very comfy. We were given warm padded jackets by NWS but in addition there were snowsuits available for use if needed.

So, a once-in-a-lifetime trip? No – we are already booked on Kinfish to return to the Arctic next year! If you love wildlife and want an adventure, come and join us, we’re sure you won’t regret it.

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