Svalbard: So Much More than Polar Bears!

Alaine Swis

28 Feb 2019

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“There is not a cat’s chance in hell we are going to see a polar bear, you know that, right?”

As we gazed out over the ice in Svalbard, as far as the eye could see, we smiled at each other in acknowledgement and from our very first night we agreed there was a smaller than “slim chance”, but as we have previously been lucky with wildlife encounters (right place, right time), I secretly crossed my fingers behind my back as Dave commented, “how can we be disappointed with scenery like this!”

As a couple that plans all of their holidays around wildlife, this was the ultimate bucket list adventure. We avoid touristy experiences at all costs, so 15 passengers, three guides and two National Geographic photographers, all on a small but mighty icebreaker (the M/S Freya) for eight days, sounded like our type of trip – authentic and intimate!

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After booking over a year in advance, we had plenty of time to marvel over photos of previous travellers’ encounters with the majestic “King of the Ice”. We gave up telling people we had booked “a trip of a lifetime to Svalbard”, as were always met with such confusion that we shortened it to “we are off to see polar bears!” With our minds obsessed with the world’s largest land carnivore, I hadn’t even thought about the rest of the Arctic wonders that we came to encounter, which are reason enough to book this trip:

  • For days, we were the northernmost people in the entire world!
  • We didn’t see another soul or ship until our final day – where else in the world can you say that?
  • Call me stupid, but after travelling halfway around the world to see glaciers in Alaska the previous year, glaciers weren’t on my mind for this trip, but they were absolutely phenomenal. Everywhere we looked was jaw-droppingly picture perfect! Then… to have been so privileged to witness a polar bear walk in front of a glacier (obviously hoping for an appearance on iStock!) was more than we could have wished for!
  • The reality of the quick-changing weather… from calm, sunny, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky to the harshest conditions one could be faced with – I loved witnessing the extremes.
  • The zodiac cruises up close to walruses and giant icebergs.

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  • The sound of the hundreds of thousands of guillemots fighting for the perfect cliff-side nesting spot. We witnessed Arctic foxes enjoying a meal on that very cliff, and were told stories of starving bears climbing it for a meal – something which was extremely hard to contemplate!
  • Gobsmacking scenery. At times, the water was as still as glass, which created a perfect reflection for the stunning mountain ranges. It was like a spell was cast upon us; we were mesmerised.
  • The vast, vast, vast wilderness, and in reality, we only saw a tiny part! Each scene was “same, same” but breathtakingly different. We took over 3,000 photos, none of which even begin to capture what we experienced.
  • We had a snowball fight on deck under 24-hour sunlight!
  • The tips learned from Shannon and Russ, our Nat Geo photographers, and the unforgettable stories told by our guides, David, Johan and Beau

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"I'll sleep when I'm dead!"

I have never been one to suffer from FOMO, but I was intoxicated and Svalbard was my drug. With 24-hour daylight it was hard to relax enough to sleep – knowing the boat was always on the move, my extra pair of eyes up on the bridge would increase the chance of spotting wildlife, but the fear I experienced of missing out on the scenery alone was enough to swing my legs out of bed for a 2am, 3am, 4am bridge visit! I learnt to sleep in the daytime during spells of bad weather or less stunning scenery.

Our tactic paid off, and we got to watch several “pixel bears” (teeny tiny, even with binoculars) navigate their way around the ice. We felt privileged to watch them on their lonely journey through the vast wilderness, with one goal in mind: survival. Yes, last year one trip had a bear come right up to the ship, but for me, the experience of watching the bears at a distance getting on with their daily life seemed more authentic. As I said to one passenger, “If you want a guaranteed close-up encounter, go to a zoo.”

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“It’s the first time he has slept in six days… we can’t wake him up!”

Day 6: We met the majestic isbjørn!

I’ll never forget being up on the bridge and Shannon waving up to grab our attention, signalling “bear” by a series of hand gestures… whiskers, claws, teeth (we never did play charades, but I’d want her on my team)! She had taken a picture of the scenery and zoomed in on the display at a white dot to see it was in fact a polar bear head… miraculous seeming as the amount of ice and wave break in the water! The binoculars were scouring and I shouted, “YES she is right there…”

David, our expedition leader, ordered the zodiacs down immediately and we all rushed to get ready for closer inspection. Words can’t describe how incredible it was to watch a polar bear swim, then roll around playfully in the snow to dry off, before carrying on his journey on land in search of food. Everyone was speechless and the drinks were flowing in celebration over dinner before everyone hit the sack – the guides included, having previously not slept more than a few hours a night, feeling the pressure that everyone expected to see a bear!

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Surprise surprise, I couldn’t sleep knowing the bear was in view (with binoculars) and I wasn’t alone. Russell, Dave and John were also on the bridge, when we spotted the bear on the move! Call us greedy, but we wanted more time with him! John drew the short straw to wake up Beau, who in turn went to David’s cabin, who rushed upstairs and without hesitation said, “Let’s go.” Bang, bang, bang – my fists slammed every cabin door to wake up the other passengers, “ZODIACS ON THE BEACH, GETTING BACK IN THE BEAR” (yes sleep deprivation and adrenaline were obviously mixing my words up)! So we went back out at 1am and accompanied the ice bear further along his journey.

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“I left a piece of me behind in Svalbard, and I don’t want it back”

After six months, I still haven’t fully returned to the daily grind. This really was a life-changing trip that affected me more than anything else we have ever done. It was hard to enjoy the unusually warm British summer without a daily thought back to the bears, praying they’ve made it. My heart is now filled with ice, and next time I want to say, “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” I’ll say, “It’s like finding a polar bear in the Arctic!”

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Go with NWS

I’ll finish by saying that we chose NWS due to their expert knowledge and small expedition numbers – we couldn’t have asked for better guides than David, Johan and Beau. They not only worked tirelessly to find the elusive bears, but were a fountain of knowledge – sharing stories of wonder! However, since returning I feel compelled to shout about NWS’s ethical practices – just a couple of months after our ship returned, shocking news travelled the globe telling how a polar bear was shot dead in Svalbard after another tour operator led passengers ashore right into bear territory.

I was so angry and heartbroken – such a waste of life as a result of irresponsible tourism. Having travelled there first-hand, I know this should never have happened – we aborted landings several times due to the fact our guides couldn’t guarantee it was safe. They were equally concerned about our own safety and that of the polar bear, something that is always our first priority over guaranteed sightings and unethical wildlife practises.

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Comments

Annie

13/3/2019 8:12 AM

Loved this article; I was taken to Svalbard. Still on my bucket list but likely to remain there as this is an expensive trip. At least I was able to experience a sense of it through Alaine's eyes and I shall keep hoping that one day I will get there. I had almost convinced myself that visting Iceland was 'near enough' but no, Svalbard sounds like a special place with or without the polar bears (but who wouldn't want to see a polar bear?!).

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