“Look out for polar bears!”
People would say this whenever we mentioned we were going on a ten-day polar expedition cruise above the Arctic Circle. Call us crazy but polar bears happened to be one of the main reasons why we journeyed to the “Cold Coast,” an old Norse word for Svalbard. In Norway’s northernmost archipelago, polar bears roam free. However, the tourism brochures take creative license in proclaiming the polar bears here outnumber Svalbard’s human inhabitants. The plain truth is there are only approximately 250 polar bears living in Svalbard’s coastal regions. As polar bears are a protected species in Norway, it is forbidden to actively search for the bears. Accordingly, there are no land-based polar bear safaris companies in Svalbard. Even more surprising, encounters with the “King of the Arctic” during winter months here are exceedingly rare. Hence, the most opportune way to observe polar bears in the wild here is during summer polar expedition cruises to Svalbard’s surrounding islands east of Spitsbergen and the sea ice. It is here from the safe confines of a ship’s deck, or from aboard a zodiac, guests are able to observe and photograph polar bears in their natural habitat from a safe distance that does not stress the bear, nor endanger the safety of onboard guests.
Land of the Midnight Sun
“There it was, surrounded by waters whose surface was slashed and sprayed by schools of walrus and whales that had swum there before ever man was born.” ~ Jeannette Mirsky
Norway’s Svalbard archipelago is brimming with numerous rugged and remote islands, steep-walled fjords, imposing glaciers, frozen wind-swept tundra and scenic snow-crowned mountains. Aurora Borealis, or what is better known as “The Northern Lights”, are visible in the night sky during winter months, whereas summertime brings the “midnight sun” or sunlight 24 hours per day. Lying approximately 580 miles (930 kilometres) north of Norway’s mainland, and 816 miles (1,313 kilometres) south of the North Pole, Svalbard’s largest island, Spitsbergen, is home to a former coal-mining frontier settlement called Longyearbyen. Apart from being the largest and northernmost year-round inhabited town on Earth with approximately 2,400 residents, Longyearbyen is also Svalbard’s capital, cultural and commercial hub. From what was once a whaling base during the 17th and 18th centuries, this modern coastal community offers a wide range of cultural activities, restaurants, bars and serves as a gateway to the high Arctic and embarkation point for polar expedition cruises that offer awe-inspiring wildlife viewing opportunities for Arctic fox, Svalbard reindeer, walrus, several whale species and encounters with the iconic symbol of this land of ice and snow – polar bears.
Aboard M/S Quest
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” ~ John A. Shedd
For this arctic adventure we signed on with PolarQuest, a world renown Swedish boutique expedition cruise company that specializes in travel to the polar regions. Since 1999, PolarQuest has been hosting passengers aboard three expedition ships that operate out of Svalbard. These comfortable vessels were purposely built and designed for exploration cruising in remote ice-choked fjords. What sets polar expedition cruises apart from all others is that rather than visiting curio shops and museums during shore visits, in the high Arctic all activities are centered around abandoned outposts, old mining towns and benign encounters with wildlife. It’s important to note that every trip’s itinerary remains fluid and is always subject to abrupt changes in order to respond to unexpected wildlife encounters that may arise, or to adapt to changing weather or sea conditions. Even during the summer months it’s possible for a ship to get iced in, so there is always a Plan B.
We traveled aboard M/S Quest, which at 141 feet (43 metres) long, can carry a maximum of 53 passengers roomed in 26 modern cabins, all with sea-views and private on suite bathrooms. Dress onboard is casual and the atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and informal. The menu in the dining room offered delicious and varied gourmet meals. The service provided by M/S Quest’s international crew was exceptional. Truly, they went above and beyond to ensure guest comfort and to make guests feel like family. Throughout the cruise we were entertained and educated about Svalbard’s flora and fauna by our polar naturalist guides and subject matter experts in the upper deck’s 300-degree panoramic lounge and bar. Shore hikes, photography and wildlife viewing is the primary attraction for guests onboard and in this regard the expedition leader pulled out all the stops. If the ship while cruising came upon a whale at 3AM, the expedition leader’s voice over the ship’s intercom would lull us from sleep to quietly tell us a whale has been sighted by the bridge crew and to bring our cameras and binoculars up on deck. Hence, we went to bed every night with our cameras locked and loaded by our bedside, ready to rush out on deck for the next incredible wildlife photo op!
“Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.”
~ Frank Borman
Daily shore excursions or cruises every day with the five Zodiacs and guides at different locations was the expedition’s primary goal. During all onshore activities away from any settlements, safety is assured by experienced armed guides who carry radios and rifles to fire off a warning shot, if necessary. If while on land a polar bear is spotted, all guests are safely ushered back into the zodiacs.
Beyond Longyearbyen, there are two other smaller remote coastal settlements such as Ny-Ålesund, which has been the starting point of several historical attempts by early explorers to reach the North Pole, and Barentsburg, the only remaining permanent Soviet-era Russian mining settlement on Spitsbergen. While these places make for interesting shore visits, nothing in our previous experience could have prepared us for our close encounters with Arctic fox, walruses, polar bears, Svalbard reindeer and thousands of birds. In order to preserve this pristine wilderness, 65% of the archipelago is protected through legally designated national parks, nature reserves, and bird sanctuaries.
“Svalbard is therefore the best place in the world to study this remarkable phenomenon. These are living glaciers with their own special behaviour”
~ Heidi Sevestre, French glaciologist
Visitors are guaranteed to see more glaciers in Svalbard than anywhere else on the planet. Approximately 60%, or 22,370 miles (36,600 kilometres), of the archipelago’s landmass is blanketed by glacial ice. Among the many things we learned about glaciers was that glacial ice often appears blue when it becomes extremely dense and free of air bubbles. When the happens, the glacial ice absorbs a small amount of red light, leaving a bluish tint in the reflected light, which is what our eyes see. Additionally, some glaciologists claim that at least one of five glaciers pulsate, making Svalbard one the best places in the world to study this unique phenomenon. Globally, the number is one in a hundred.
“The fox changes his fur but not his habits. ~ Anonymous
Ohh, just look at those eyes! Small but quick, Arctic fox are inquisitive and were at the same time seemingly aloof to our close proximity. While arctic fox possesses excellent hearing and a strong sense of smell, their eyesight is considered to be poor. Their strongly pigmented eyes provide protection from the sun’s glare. During the winter months, their eyes assume a seemingly permanent squint, which aids seeing against the reflective glare of snow and ice. They grow thick fur all the way down to the bottom of their paws because they must survive in the cold, snowy conditions of the Arctic all year.
Arctic fox has two distinct colour phases, white and blue. The white phase is uniformly white in winter, except for a few black hairs on the tip of the tail, and brown-grey on the back and thighs. The blue colour phase remains dark charcoal coloured all year round, but becomes somewhat lighter in winter. Between 84–97% of the population in the Svalbard archipelago are of the white colour phase. One Arctic fox recently proved themselves to be a long-distance traveler having walked more than 2,737 miles (4,415 kilometres) over a fur month period to go from northern Norway to Canada’s far north.
“The reindeer arrived here at the end of the last ice age during the Pleistocene era over 11,000 years ago.” ~ Andreas Umbreit
One of Svalbard’s beloved animals, Svalbard reindeer roam freely and are deemed to be relatively tame because they have no natural predators. Polar bears can’t chase them because they’d overheat. Their ancestors are thought to have arrived here after walking across frozen sea ice from the mainland during the last ice age. With their stumpy legs and thick pelts, they’ve adapted superbly to conditions here and use their ice-pick-like hooves to cut through the permafrost to find the vegetation beneath. Along with the Arctic fox and sibling vole, reindeer are the only terrestrial mammals in Svalbard.
“The polar bear is to Norway what the tiger is to India.” ~ Jaya Peter
As our zodiac positioned itself a safe distance offshore, we watched a polar bear, the largest bear species on Earth, lumber along the edge of the rock and shale shoreline. What surprised us was how much ground this bear quickly covered just walking at a leisurely pace. While polar bears prefer to live and hunt on the dense drift ice during the winter months, when the sea ice is thin or melted during the summer months, they will forage on land, plundering birds’ nests, or searching near glacier fronts for seals that may be hauled out on small pieces of glacier ice. Polar bears do not usually attack humans but can be aggressive when provoked, and an encounter with a determined bear in open terrain can be lethal. There’s no denying that polar bears are the most iconic species of Svalbard’s wildlife and it is an exhilarating experience to observe them in their natural habitat.
Bird Cliffs of Insanity
“There it was, inviolate, alive to the raucous voice of millions of birds. ~ Jeannette Mirsky
At Alkefjelle, which roughly translates in English as “Bird Mountain,” there are some towering basaltic cliffs that face towards Hinlopen Strait. These towering sheer vertical cliffs are home to an estimated 200,000 Brünnich’s guillemots who breed in mixed colonies with black-legged kittiwakes wherever they can gain a foothold on narrow cliff ledges. Given the absolutely overwhelming number of sea birds here this place could well be called the “Bird Cliffs of Insanity.”
More than 100 different bird species have been recorded here, along with the ever-present Glaucous gulls. Arctic foxes hunt along the boulders at the bottom of these cliffs for eggs, chicks and adult birds.
Whales, Dolphins & Seals
“Midnight, on the water. I saw the ocean’s daughter.” ~ Electric Light Orchestra
After returning from our evening photographing the birds at Alkefjelle, it was indeed midnight on the water when our ship shadowed this humpback whale. The light was golden as the sun never sets this far North in summer. Svalbard’s Arctic seas are home to 19 species of marine mammals that includes 12 whale species, five species of seals and White-beaked dolphins.
Four centuries ago both English and Dutch whalers commenced whaling and walrus hunting in the Svalbard archipelago. Through the centuries, tens of thousands of Greenland right whales and thousands of walruses were slaughtered to near extinction. To this day, remains of whaler’s graves and blubber ovens scar the landscape in many places.
“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships – and sealing wax – of cabbages and kings”
~ Lewis Carroll
Walrus look back at you when you look at them. When hauled out in groups on land, they appear somewhat wary and a bit skittish if you approach to close. If one gets spooked and goes into the water, the rest of the herd will usually follow. However, when they are in the water, they seem more emboldened to approach closer. In fact, walruses spend about two-thirds of their lives in the water. Highly social in nature, huge herds of walruses haul out on sea ice to rest and bear their young. These carnivores are ferocious hunters, but prefer to dine on a huge variety of invertebrates, from crabs and snails to sea cucumbers and shellfish. They use their whiskers to detect shellfish on the ocean floor and according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Study Center, a walrus can eat up to 4,000 clams in one feeding.
In the walrus’s world tusk size matters. Both sexes grow impressive canines which can weigh several pounds and stretch to over three feet in length. Tusk size helps determine a given walrus’ social status. Well-endowed individuals generally command the most respect, whereas those with broken tusks are more predisposed to suffer from tusk envy.
The Infinite Beyond
“Where I live, the sea ice never stops. It’s a living thing.” ~ Jayko Oweetaluktuk, Inukjuak, Nunavik
Off the Northern tip of Spitsbergen, we sailed several miles offshore, launched the zodiacs and searched for a safe place to land on the drifting ice floe. If we kept on going, the next stop would be the North Pole. Was the wind blowing? Ohh, hell yeah! Yet, the polar sun was shining bright against a cerulean blue sky when we witnessed young and old lay down on the sea ice to make snow angels. We could not have asked for grander weather in this wondrous place on the southern fringe of the frozen Arctic Ocean. This infinite beyond is a place that’s beyond belief.
A Life Changing Experience
“I have not told half of what I saw.” ~ Marco Polo
It’s impossible to comprehensively summarize everything we experienced in the “Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.” For many onboard, PolarQuest’s Expedition Svalbard adventure was hailed as being the trip of a lifetime. It’s tough to argue with that sentiment as circumnavigating Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago ranks among the greatest topside adventures we have ever experienced and it exceeded all our expectations. Suffice to say, we fell in love with Svalbard’s pristine wilderness and round the clock encounters with Arctic wildlife.
Mary Anne Radmacher once wrote, “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” People who live in Svalbard know this feeling well and have coined a saying for it. They call it the “Polar Bug,” a phrase indicating the constant desire you will experience to return after setting foot here for the first time. On that point, Kathryn and I have both been bitten by the Polar Bug and would return to Norway’s Cold Coast in a heartbeat. Not unlike that famous explorer, Marco Polo, once proclaimed, “I have not told half of what I saw.” Indeed, nor have we.
Until our next dispatch, dare to Explore…Dream…Discover.
If You Go
Despite its high Arctic location, the Svalbard archipelago experiences a relatively mild climate. Svalbard’s Western coastline is the world’s northernmost ice-free area due to the comparative warmth of the Gulf Stream. Average summer temperature is 42ºF (5.5ºC). March is the coldest month of with an average temperature of minus 7ºF (-21ºC). While there is little rainfall, moist sea air can generate light mist and fog during summer months. Mid-April until late August, Longyearbyen is bathed in light from the Midnight Sun. From late October until mid-February the land is mostly dark, and between mid-November through the end of January, the sun never rises when it is lower than 6º below the horizon bringing on polar night, when the night lasts for more than 24 hours.
PolarQuest’s Expedition Svalbard
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