In a land of ice and bears

Blue
Blue

It’s the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, not that that matters where I find myself, on a ship, in the Arctic Ocean, around Svalbard (aka Spitsbergen). It’ll be another couple months or so before the sun sets here and it’s messing with my head. Having to put sunscreen at 2am is just not natural. But it is wonderful. After all, we would never have spotted that bear on the ice-floe at 1:30am the other day had it been dark. When was it? Yesterday? The day before? I’ve lost all sense of time. But this disorientation is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity of being in this amazing place looking for Polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.

Polar bear environment
Polar bear environment in the middle of the night

It all started in Longyearbyen, a Norwegian mining town at 78’10 North (we eventually went as far as 80’07’North), and the northernmost ‘city’ of over 1000 inhabitants in the world. Here it’s daylight for about five months of the year and dark for another five months; mean daily temperatures soar to 5’C in July and drop to -17’C in February, though that’s not accounting for the wind-chill. Not the kind of place you’d expect to find a sizable Thai population. In fact, at about 70 people, Thais form one of the biggest ethnic groups after Scandinavians in Longyearbyen.

The only reason we’ve come to Longyearbyen, however, is to board the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, and ice-ready ex-soviet research ship which now spends most of its time taking tourists around the Arctic and Antarctic. And so our adventure begins.

Vavilov
Vavilov

Over the next 10 days we explore this forgotten corner of the planet, up fjords, along ice-floes, to bird-cliffs and ice-walls and through a stark and stunning landscape of tundra, granite, snow and ice. One afternoon we approach a massive wall of Ice, the third biggest ice-sheet in the world, and Jeremy, the ship’s barman, plays the theme to Game of Thrones – it couldn’t be more apt. The sun is shining, gentle wisps of clouds are scattered in the sky, the sea is mirror-calm, everything is perfect as we board the zodiacs for a cruise in what is, possibly, the most jaw-droppingly beautiful place I have ever seen. The blue-white cliffs stretch for 120kms, whilst brash-ice and a scattering of small icebergs make up the foreground of this natural masterpiece. The hum of the zodiacs’ engines are the only sound breaking the chilly silence (elsewhere the ice crackles as ancient air-pockets pop with the ice melts, but not here). Even the sun is surrounded by a cornea – known as a sundog – to add to the serenity of this place.

Ice wall
Ice wall – very Game of Thrones
Ice melt
Ice melt

The dramatic landscape of Spitsbergen, however, is only one of the highlights; the other is the wildlife that calls this harsh environment home. The big draw is, of course, the Polar bear and, as a ship, our final tally will be of 13 bears, some on land and some on ice, but undeniably the best sighting of all, and the one which tipped this trip into being the best I’ve ever done, occurred one afternoon. The sea and ice had prevented us from making a second visit to the bird-cliffs and it looked like not much was going to be happening for the rest of the day. I was just heading back to my cabin for a little shut-eye when I sensed something was happening as I passed a couple people looking excited in the stairs. I headed up on deck just as confirmation came – BearS – three of them, a mother with two cubs resting on the ice-floe. A quick trip to the cabin to get my camera, binoculars and eight-layers of clothes and I was back on the top deck as the ship made its way into the ice.

Bear leap
Bear leap

The etiquette is simple. The ship will go to the bear but keep a certain distance and absolute silence. Mostly the bears are not bothered by our presence but if they are, and start heading away, we don’t follow. Mostly, however, the bears don’t mind us and we spent the next, I don’t even know how long – 2 hours? 3? – observing the antics of the two cubs, playing with snow, tumbling and even waving (ok, we may have anthropomorphised the bear but it’s hard not to when he sits on his hind legs and raises a single paw whilst looking straight at us). Ian Stirling, a renowned Polar bear specialist, who was on board, later told us they were about seven months old. It was one of those wildlife encounters high in emotion and the high number of teary-eyes were not solely due to the cold. Only three times in my travels have I felt like this: seeing the gorillas in Rwanda, seeing my first nesting Leatherback turtle in Costa Rica and here, with these Polar bear cubs in Svalbard.

Into the ice
Into the ice
Waving bear cub
Waving bear cub

After that everything else was just a bonus. But one hell of a bonus it was. As we slowly started back on our journey to Longyearbyen, John, the expedition leader, started telling us of Diskobukta, a bay with a colony of tens of thousands of kittiwakes but a difficult landing due to the tides. Lack of tidal information and a shallow bay at low-tide mean few people actually land here, but those who do are rewarded with carnage. Kittiwakes, an Arctic bird, it turns out, are vicious. Their fights for the best perch to nest would excite even the most stoic cock-fighting Filipino aficionado (of which there are plenty as I discovered on a recent trip to the Philippines) and I witnessed one gouging the eye out of another. And the cherry: an Arctic fox!

Kittywakes eye-gouging
Kittiwakes eye-gouging
Kittywakes fighting in mid-flight
Kittiwakes fighting in mid-flight
Arctic fox
Arctic fox

Due to the ice floe blocking off the northern coast of Svalbard we have to make the long journey south, back the way we came. That means a day at sea, no land, no ice, no bears, a day to relax and reminisce. That is, until blow (no, not the Mexican type) is spotted in the distance: a Blue whale on the horizon. Again a big score, Blue whales were extensively hunted in these waters and are only slowly starting to make a comeback. Sadly this particular whale was swimming away from the ship, and at a much faster rate. The consolation prize are some dolphins – something I didn’t expect in these frozen waters, but nothing to write home about. And then another whale, another BLUE whale! Right by the ship, an immature whale still measuring 15 or 20 meters and doing something which Blue whales are not in the habit of doing. It’s swimming with the ship, instead of heading off it swims back and forth in front of us, and to the side, surfacing again and again until it eventually tires of us and disappears. Later that day, as a few of us enjoyed a late night session at the bar, we were rewarded with two more whales – humpbacks this time. So much for a day of thumb-twiddling at sea.

Blue whale
Blue whale

On our last day we were preparing for our final landing, when the announcement came – Bears! Again, a mother and two cubs, right on shore. Though this time we’d have to get into the zodiacs and go to the end of the fjord. So we did. I was in the first zodiac, but sadly by the time we got to the end of the fjord the bears had gone over a ridge and disappeared. We waited, patiently, hopeful for just one more sighting, one more amazing experience. But it wasn’t to be. Not this time. Still, it wasn’t a low, we were just being greedy.

Reindeer gossip
Reindeer gossip

Bears, reindeer, foxes, whales, kittiwakes, guillemots – I haven’t even mentioned these incredible birds lacking all coordination out of water yet in the habit of swimming 1,000 miles to Greenland before they can fly – gulls, dolphins, walruses, seals, midnight sun and ice, brash ice, ice floes, ice cliffs, icebergs. I’m now sat in my warm, comfortable flat, I’m only wearing one layer of clothes and it’s actually dark outside, as it should be. Still I wouldn’t mind midnight sun.

Gillimots' cliff
Guillemots’ cliff
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