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The primordial Arctic landscape filled my view, and the explosive sound of a glacier calving signalled the start of the day. A 40-metre high chunk of ice fell from the frozen mass, smashing into the water and creating a small tsunami. The glacier’s seven-kilometre façade radiated cold, and the closer we got, the colder it became.
I was travelling on the Akademik Ioffe, a working research vessel that’s commissioned by One Ocean Expeditions (OOE) for their cruises into the polar regions of our planet. The ship was carrying us north along the west coast of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago – at least, as far as the ice would allow.
For most of the 20th century, Svalbard, a forbidding and fascinating group of islands, remained uncharted. At the heart of this archipelago, several hundred nautical miles south of the North Pole, is the main town of Longyearbyen, which for many years served as a base for airship launches and coal mining. Today, a few mines are still in operation, but it’s more often home to vessels of tourists and researchers.
This journey into the Arctic is not your typical cruise and suits those with a taste for adventure and unpredictable travel. I’d come in search of wildlife – polar bears, to be more precise. It was summer and the animals were enjoying the milder temperatures. Early in the season, the Arctic landscape looks more dramatic; the hills are covered in snow and the wildlife is just starting to breed. Even better, there’s almost 24 hours of daylight, so a greater chance of seeing polar bears on the ice.
During our quest for bears, we passed a bearded walrus on a floe of drift ice, while far-flying Arctic terns with their orange beaks and feet swooped past at high speeds. We explored numerous glaciers, where loud cracking sounds came from deep within the frozen mass. The ship stopped briefly so passengers could watch two minke whales, just a few metres from the ship, as they popped their heads out of the gaps between the ice, known as spy holes; they were watching us, watching them.
Our American expedition leader, Boris Wise, had guided many trips for OOE and I asked him what distinguished them from other operators in the region. “Without a doubt, it’s down to our staff,” he replied. “Their CVs and biographies are mind-blowing. The staff-to-passenger ratio on our vessels is higher too. Our ships are unique, very stable and, being research vessels, there’s lots of outdoor deck space. This ship was not so much built for amenities as for capabilities.”
Most days were organised in the same way. After breakfast, guests gathered in the mud room, where wet-weather gear for excursions on the Zodiacs – small, rigid inflatable boats – is kept. We’d spend a few hours on land or cruising around in the Zodiacs exploring the shore and glaciers before returning to the ship for lunch, and then venturing out into the wild again in the afternoon. The ship’s diligent guides and crew worked relentlessly throughout, with safety always a priority. They’d drive the Zodiacs, lead hikes, carry arms for polar bear patrol when on land and give expert presentations, ultimately making sure that passengers saw what they came for.
For the most part, we spent our time on the decks, burning our retinas while on the lookout for bears. Once you get used to their colour – more buttery yellow than white – they’re much easier to spot. Generally, they can be found travelling the ice that’s attached to the shore – the so-called “fast ice” – while hunting for seals.
“Bear!” shouted a passenger early one morning, and we all dashed to the starboard side of the ship. In the distance, and only visible with a powerful zoom or binoculars, was a lonesome bear walking along the ice. The next sighting was pretty much the same – too far away to really see it clearly.
Later in the week, we were awoken by an excited announcement that whales had been spotted. We rushed to starboard, where we were greeted by five blue whales around the ship, slapping their tail flukes and side fins on the water. One spied on us at the bow for around a minute. It was so close that I could make out its salty scent and the patterns on its shimmering blue skin.
We reached 80-degrees north, just 450 miles from the North Pole, where thick ice prevented us from sailing any further. We could hear it groaning around the ship, creaking and growling as it split apart.
And then luck came on our side. A massive bear lay on the ice in front of the ship, its long body outstretched, displaying its thick black pads and claws in an almost comical pose. We stayed just watching the bear for a good 30 minutes close-up before it lumbered across the ice, jumping from floe to floe, and swam off into the distance.
Our efforts were rewarded with eight bear sightings – some far away, and others right under our noses. Atlantic puffins and black guillemots, hundreds if not thousands of little auks, and large, yellow-beaked glaucous gulls were also spotted. The only land bird was the ptarmigan, similar to a grouse, and with almost all white feathers. However, vast numbers of sea birds flocked to the cliffs and shores of the islands, including ducks, geese, pipers, jaegers, gulls and terns. An off-course snowy owl flew past us; it should not have been in this region. Hopefully, it found its way to its destination.
Throughout the week, we had a treasure chest of close-up encounters, spotting ringed seals, native reindeer, polar bears, caribou, Arctic foxes, lemmings, walruses, and blue, humpback and minke whales. During one landing, a curious reindeer herd still wearing their thick, white winter coats came within five metres of us. They were searching for lush moss and a few delicate yellow flowers pushing up through the melting ice. Nearby grazing caribou worked on gaining fat reserves for the winter.
We stopped beside an old whaling station, where a pile of around 30 tusked blubbery walruses dozed, nonchalantly farting and snorting in their slumber. A crowd of 60 people moving towards them, armed with cameras, didn’t faze them, suggesting they’d become accustomed to their admirers.
Despite our good fortune, polar cruising can be unpredictable and you go with an understanding that nature is in control. The weather can sometimes prevent shore landings, although the crew will do their best to make up for it by arranging unscheduled visits on better days. But you can’t make an animal appear on cue, and sometimes it’s just about being in the right place at the right time. However, if you’re lucky and everything aligns, you’re in for a real-life David Attenborough experience.
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