Svalbard: "What Lay Beyond the Edge of Land"

Kate Waite

23 Oct 2019

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NWS staff Kate Waite returns to the icy mist of Svalbard aboard the M/S Freya

I love maps; they always hold such potential for adventure. In particular I love the old maps of the north drawn by Olaus Magnus. His cartographic depiction of Scandinavia was from a time where what lay beyond the edge of land was from the imagination and not Google Earth. Surely these wild seas hide fantastical monsters beneath menacing waves? Returning to Svalbard I knew we wouldn’t find monsters but hoped once more to find extraordinary beasts at the top of the world.

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We start by fleeing south, a dash against the weather keeping the wind behind us. Not that we knew it at that point, but we would eventually circumnavigate the whole archipelago. Departing Longyearbyen, the first bird we see is a puffin, which is supposedly good luck.

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It’s surprising how quickly you settle into the rhythm of life on a polar expedition. Struggling in and out of cold weather clothing as you move frequently from the warm hub of the ship to the cold outer decks and onto freezing Zodiac rides. The wind bites through layers and the icy cold of the sea sneaks up through the metal bottom of our little inflatable boat through insulated boots and multiple pairs of socks. There is no night; it is an endless day, in which time is marked only by the familiar pattern of three consecutive meals.

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Our first few days see us exploring seemingly barren tundra. The rocky scree and towering cliffs hidden by mist are actually teeming with life in this most inhospitable place – a stage of survival playing out before us. Arctic skua bear down on indignant and noisy kittiwakes as they scavenge for food. Arctic fox dart across the hillside, nimbly traversing almost sheer cliff-faces and we quickly lose count of their number. Our binoculars scour the landscape in a singular pursuit. Every pale rock is watched anxiously should it move. We are here for polar bears.

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By the end of day two we’ve spotted four, but these have been predominantly binocular bears. We fight to hold long lenses steady as our Zodiacs bounce on the waves; even on a 600mm lens these are merely record shots. The distance, low light conditions and the movement of the sea all conspire against us. We are lucky to have seen them but are left wanting more. Our chance comes the next morning as a mother and two yearling cubs are spotted on the shore but move away before we can reach them. Another bear – a distance away – brings our tally to eight but the close encounter we crave eludes us.

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We head north and soon feel the ship start to shudder as we come into thick sea ice. The sound of ice crashing against the hull becomes our soundtrack as we endlessly scour the horizon. Binoculars remain glued to our faces for hours; it’s surprising how many bears our imagination can conjure out of the gnarly ice-field surrounding us. Then our assistant expedition leader Annette says “polar bear”. This time it’s not a question, there really is one out there. We lose sight of the bear many times over the next few hours. It moves away, a small spec on the horizon. We follow, Andreas the first officer navigating through difficult conditions based on brief glimpses. “Bear at 11’o’clock”. We adjust course and lose sight of the bear. “Bear at 1.30”. We adjust again. This continues for hours as we slowly move deeper into dense ice.

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By now we are close and can see the bear with the naked eye. I watch, raising my lens as it comes towards us, and then it keeps coming. It sniffs the air and continues, prowling around the ship. The battery on one of my cameras goes flat, the lens is too long on the other. I stop and just take in the encounter, leaning over the bow of the ship to see it directly below me, staring straight into my eyes. This is an exceptional and unusual encounter. To be just metres away from such a magnificent beast in his own domain is remarkable. My heart races and I’m sure the bear can hear it beating.

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After the bear wanders off into the distance, as a group we continue to ride the wave of excitement. On this expedition we are lucky enough to be joined by Renan Ozturk; a professional climber and natural world storyteller. His documentary work for the likes of National Geographic is world class and we soak up his stories and are treated to private screenings of his work that resonate in the mind for a long time after the credits roll. Late nights ease into the early hours of the morning, punctuated with travellers’ tales, well lubricated with whisky poured over glacier ice hauled from the sea.

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The midnight sun becomes a midnight sunset as the seasons start to shift. The sea looks slick, like oil as winter ice starts to reform for the first time. A mother and cub walk alongside the ship while bowhead whales blow at the bow – the rarest of whale sightings in Svalbard. Our cetacean luck is in as we spend 30 minutes with a feeding blue whale, back-lit by the evening sun. Kittiwakes busily point to his location, a huge flock hungrily waiting for the whale as the movement of the biggest creature on earth brings smaller fish to the surface for them to feed on. I see him fluke, his huge tail rising above the waves, again and again.

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We have a similar encounter with a humpback, opening its vast jaws alongside our ship, his head surging from the water, water pouring through his baleen, before diving again, showing us the white underside of his tail. A minke whale is also spotted; this truly has been an exceptional expedition for close encounters with whales. Our luck also extends to marine mammals; a huge herd of walrus playing around the ship, swimming ever closer, while another encounter sees us lying on the beach with them.

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All too soon we depart, but this is the end of the season and we know that the seabirds and whales will soon be following us by heading south. Svalbard will again be plunged into 24-hour darkness, left for the polar bears to preside over their fragile, frozen domain.

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Talk to one of our specialists for further details on travelling to Svalbard.

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