The Joys of Chartering a Ship in Svalbard

David Durham

18 Mar 2019

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in 2017, nws client david and friends had the m/s freya all to themselves

Before I recount just a few highlights of our trip to Svalbard organised by Natural World Safaris, let me explain how the trip came to be. My wife and I are guardians of two teenage boys who are at school in the UK. Their parents have worked in different countries across Asia for the last 25 years as well as setting up and running Calamansi Cove Villas in Sri Lanka.

We have travelled a lot together and had often discussed the idea of a trip to see polar bears. In the autumn of 2016 I found myself, again, researching the best tour operator to do a polar bear expedition with. I had pretty much decided that my wife and I would go to Svalbard with NWS on the ship M/S Freya.

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I mentioned to the parents that we were going to do this trip in the summer of 2017. After brief consideration, given the ages of the boys (13 and 14) and the parents’ 50th birthdays both looming, they declared that it would be an appropriate and fun time for them to join us on this expedition as a family. We agreed on one of two dates and then wondered if we had other friends who might also like to join us. Amazingly, within a few weeks we had managed to garner enough interest between friends and friends of friends to be able to charter the whole ship.

We thus became a group, within which everybody knew somebody but nobody knew everybody! This made for a great dynamic group that interacted fabulously well from the offset. The group came from Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan, the Netherlands and just the two of us from the UK!

The Dutch contingent was particularly notable due to the fact that the team of guides were all Dutch. They were used to being able to have open discussions between themselves about what was happening without the knowledge of the “guests". Not with us! So, on July 10th 2017 we boarded the M/S Freya for our 10-day cruise.

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The ship’s facilities and level of comfort exceeded our expectations. Of course, July in Svalbard is 24-hour daylight which is fabulous for all-day wildlife spotting. However, there were concerns that this might make sleeping at “night” difficult! Not so. The cabins were comfortable and also well equipped with blackout blinds, which meant that sleeping was actually not a problem. Airline eye masks were not required!

All the food was really excellent and the kitchen/dining staff, who were mainly Scandinavian, were brilliant – young and fun but also professional and helpful. Alcohol was also plentiful. While we had brought our duty-free apéritifs with us, there was plenty of wine available to purchase, which we did! Mealtimes were fun and a great time to discuss what we had experienced so far and what we hoped to see. "This morning, this afternoon, this evening…"

Day 1: We had barely settled into the ship and we were to have our first “outing”. We were off to see a family of Arctic foxes with recently born cubs, the existence and whereabouts of which the guides knew from the previous trip. "The zodiacs will be leaving in 30 minutes. Bring your binoculars and cameras… this will be a wet landing" (i.e. we were going to have to wade at least a few metres in the water to get to land).

Wellington boots were really a necessity but not everyone had brought them! One or two, I think, got wet feet… but one of the girls was light enough to be “helped”/carried to shore! As instructed, within 30 minutes everybody reported to the muster station with several more layers of clothing, plus coats, hats and lifejackets. Everybody was always on time. Within a few minutes, all zodiacs were deployed and we were off. Later that day, we got into the zodiacs again to land on a beach where we spent some time with a "haul-out" of walruses.

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Our first polar bear sighting came the following day! Pretty good! It was only Day 2! It was a female gorging on an old whale carcass on the beach. So, into the zodiacs to get a closer look. She was pretty engrossed in her food which gave us the opportunity to get close enough to get a good look and take some decent photos, but not so close as to disturb her and scare her away.

Our second polar bear sighting came a couple of days later. From the ship, a female was spotted on the shoreline about to get into the water, then… behind her was her cub. Wow! Amazing! The mother jumped in, clearly with the expectation that her cub would follow. However the cub clearly had other ideas. "Action stations! Everyone to their cabins, zodiacs will depart in 10 minutes… we have a mother and cub going for a swim!”

10 minutes later and we were all aboard the zodiacs again to get a closer look. The mother did eventually coax her cub into the water. We followed them for over half an hour, always keeping a good distance away so as not to disturb or interfere with the polar bears’ activity. All sightings were well managed, giving us as good a vantage point as possible without interfering with the wildlife.

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During shore landings at least one of the guides would land first, with rifle loaded, to ensure “the coast was clear”. Polar bears are fast on their feet and often hungry. Humans are on the menu!

I think it was the night of Day 3 when one of the guides (this was actually his first trip as a guide and, I guess, was keen to impress) woke the team leader to alert him that there was a polar bear on land: “Should we wake everyone?” The team leader pulled on his coat and came to verify the sighting only to announce, somewhat despondently, that it was actually a “rock bear”. Back to bed!

We slept on oblivious. The announcement was made over breakfast that we had not been woken to see the “rock bear”. Everybody is keen to be the first to spot the next polar bear. There were many sightings of "rock bears”, and it is an easy mistake to make, as polar bears are not always clean and white but often a dirty brown “stone” colour. This guide did redeem himself a few days later by spotting a real polar bear!

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Day 5: Perfect weather, so we went north into some pack ice. Engines off and… we had a magnificent “impromptu" BBQ on the top deck: Bright blue sky, sun, not another soul to be seen for hundreds of miles... just magical!

It was deemed that, for those that were brave (or mad?) enough, today was THE day and this was THE time to do “THE POLAR PLUNGE”. First to take the plunge were some of the younger and hardier members of the crew who seemed to rather take it in their stride… Then for “anybody else?” This really is not for the “faint of heart”…

I had announced and genuinely intended to take the plunge, having some years previously been foolhardy enough to take a dip in the Antarctic/Southern Ocean. However, I had declared on my booking form that I had had heart surgery in the previous year and so over lunch several of the guides did suggest to me politely, but quite firmly, that they would really rather that I did NOT do the plunge… a great “get-out”! It was literally FREEZING COLD! Three of the four children, one of the fathers and one other woman took the icy plunge. There was a sauna on board which got quite full!

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Finally, I might mention that amongst our group there were several "business bosses". They were not used to being out of email and phone contact. One guy brought a satellite phone. This did not work!

The first 12-24 hours there was clearly some anxiety about being “out of touch”. This fact, however, became one of the best elements of the holiday for them, so much so that when the ship got back "into range", the vast majority chose to keep their mobile devices turned off until they made land (officially, according to the itinerary) the following day.

In summary, this was a great trip with great people which was very well organised, managed and guided. I am already in the process of booking another trip with NWS to the Pantanal in Brazil!

I hope you find some of these points useful/interesting, and I wish you “happy travels/bon voyage”!

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