Red throated diver in Svalbard |© David Rippon

Svalbard: Land of the Midnight Sun and Graffiti Art Polar Bears

Natural World Safaris

David Rippon

17 Oct 2019

NWS client David experiences the magic of Svalbard aboard the M/V Kinfish

Would we be lucky enough to see a real polar bear? Maybe even a walrus? Possibly - but on our first excursion there was “only” the red-throated diver. Not just one, but four, and an extra one posing on a nest. The excitement of the long-tailed ducks seen earlier was quickly forgotten as we sailed north along the west coast of Svalbard amongst glaciers, icebergs and beluga whales. Zodiac trips amongst icebergs led to seeing a flock of eiders – “Where are the king eiders?” we asked our guide, and immediately two appeared in front of us.

Red throated diver in Svalbard |© David Rippon

The entertainment continued with a skua corralling a group of pink-footed geese. Going for a walk on the tundra we almost trod on a purple sandpiper sitting on its nest. Back to the Kinfish and “thar she blows” went the cry, first minke and then blue whales – and the first polar bear sighting – although some distance away.

Skua in Svalbard |© David Rippon

On a really cold day with leaden skies and the occasional bit of snow we had the first good polar bear sighting: two bears and one kill. The younger bear was trying to sneak a bite to eat and the older bear was guarding its kill.

Polar bears and a kill in Svalbard |© David Rippon

Next, around the northern tip of Svalbard to the pack ice, crossing over eighty degrees north on the way. The warm-weather gear came in handy as the temperature rose to around 15 °C; unfortunately, global warming is really happening in the Arctic. We anchored in a sea of pack ice in a completely empty and still environment – or was it empty? What is that cream-coloured blob moving on the pack ice... The next seven hours were spent sunbathing 100 metres away from a very hot polar bear. Nice for us but not so nice for the bear. However, a great photographic opportunity (although examining and processing 1,500 photographs is a tad challenging).

Polar bear in Svalbard |© David Rippon

Sadly, it was then time to turn around and start the journey back, visiting towering sea cliffs full of guillemots, kittiwakes and other seabirds along the way. We were watching Arctic foxes living and scavenging around the colonies and birds fighting over precarious nesting sites, but would we ever see a walrus? A brief excitement – “Look, sleeping on that sandbar” and “What was that splash?” No good photo opportunities though.

Guillemots in Svalbard |© David Rippon

Finding time for a leisurely lunch was sometimes difficult – a shout of “bear” has everyone dashing to the bridge leaving the excellent food cooling on the tables. “Where is the bear - aren’t we a long way from land?” “Swimming” was the answer and we followed it for some time. Swimming was something that some of the guests did themselves on a later day. However, without the fur it can get a bit chilly in the water – this is definitely not the Mediterranean.

Walrus in Svalbard |© David Rippon

En route back to Longyearbyen now and we visit a popular resting place for walruses. A group on a sandbank in plain view. Off we go in the zodiacs to explore. A guide shouts – a walrus over there. We don’t want to get too close, but the walrus has a different idea and seems to think that the zodiacs are a rather strange sort of walrus that he wants to meet. Faced with a walrus the size of a small car and with metre-long sharp tusks within touching distance was an amazing (if slightly worrying) photographic opportunity. Our guide reassures us – don’t worry – the zodiac’s buoyancy is provided by six separate compartments and it will float if three of them are punctured. Thankfully the truth of this statement was not tested.

Walrus and boat in Svalbard |© David Rippon

We take the zodiacs to have hot chocolate next to a glacier and spot the blue morph Arctic fox. Nearly back to Longyearbyen now with a final stop for a walk amongst reindeer, Arctic skuas and a final excellent sighting of an Arctic fox. Then, our final night on board before starting the tedious business of getting back to the UK and reality.

Kate Waite, Svalbard

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View our Svalbard safaris, or talk to one of our specialists for more details on travelling to Svalbard. Please note we recommend a budget of from £7,000 / $10,000 USD per person for our style of trip to this destination.

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