Into the Realm of the Polar Bear, June 2013

This year I decided to return to Svalbard for a week long holiday on a boat. The goal of the trip was to circumnavigate the islands, but of course, all things are weather dependent, and on arrival we were told that it was about 95% sure that we would not be able to get very far around to the North due to the amount of pack ice that there was still in the area. But, being that I had booked on an adventure, I was happy with whatever our expedition leader, John, decided for us. After all, pack ice meant a higher chance of seeing polar bears, as they live on the ice edge, so there were advantages to too much ice! 

We left the interesting town of Longyearbyen on a sunny afternoon, with temperatures above freezing and light winds.

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We were to be based on the M/S Expedition for a week – it’s a converted ferry that makes its way from Antarctica, up the West coast of Africa, and on up to Scotland, Norway and finally Svalbard.

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Although you could see the tell-tale signs of its old life as a ferry, the boat had been totally overhauled by G Adventures, and our cabins were spacious, and very well looked after!

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We headed up towards Nordenskioldbreen, the glacier in front of which we anchored for the night! What a view over dinner and from our cabin porthole! It was a great start to our trip.

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It was actually my birthday on that first evening, and I was presented with Champagne and a cake at dinner time, and also had all the wait-staff sing to me … they then queued up to give me a hug and a kiss! It was an embarrassing but great way to start my holiday!

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The next day was another pretty sunny day, and we headed over to Pyramiden which is an abandoned Russian mining town.

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Well, mostly abandoned. There are still a few Russian inhabitants, and they are always delighted to share a glass of vodka with you, and tell you all about the mother polar bear and cubs that wandered through the town the previous day!

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Aside from the bears, they have other local wildlife keeping them company, like the reindeer

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Many of the buildings have also become key nesting sites for the birdlife too. Kittiwakes have made nests on air conditioning boxes, window sills, airbricks, and anywhere that there is a small hole to perch on! They are very noisy neighbours, and in summer, that is potentially 24 hours of noise!

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The Russians always ensure there are a few people still at Pyramiden, and we discovered what they do to keep themselves occupied during the winter polar nights (where the sun never actually breaches the horizon) … they build houses … out of what they have to hand … and it seems they have a lots of bottles to hand!

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It’s amazing to be in a place that is effectively a small town, with only a handful of residents. It’s feels a little like we were urban explorers!

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The next day, we headed off out to sea, going North up the coast to find Magdalenefjorden, which we were told was a place with lots of bird and wildlife.

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As we got out of the shelter of the fjord, the visibility really closed down, and we were travelling in temperatures of around freezing, and we had both fog and snow to contend with! How different to our first day!

We did however brave the zodiacs, and had a cruise along the tidewater glacier to take a closer look at the little Auk colony (otherwise knows as Dovekies).

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We then headed out to Smeerenburgfjorden which is a very scenic fjord complex with some historic sites along the way like a whalers camp at Smeerenburg. The scenery was beautiful even in less than great visibility

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We then had our first ice-based large wildlife sighting … of a bearded seal. The captain, Thomas Roder, slowed the boat down, and we crept forwards as quietly as a large ferry can! We managed to get pretty close before the seal decided he’d go for a long swim!

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Later that day we reached our most northerly position of 76° 57.76′ N. We cruised along the Polar Ice Cap. Everywhere we looked there were sheets of ice in all directions.

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The next day, with good visibility and temperatures of about a degree and plenty of clouds in the sky, we continued along the Ice Cap edge, and saw a huge walrus who was kind enough to wait for us to approach before abandoning his resting place!

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We then decided due to the lack of available routes to continue East along the top of Svalbard, to head down into Woodfjorden. We came into the area known as Reinstrandodden, and were excited to see a pod of around 100 beluga whales. At this time of year they are very yellow, and that is because they need to exfoliate! Usually around July time, they will find somewhere that is fairly shallow, where a river empties out into a larger body of water, so that they can rub off their old skins, and return to their paler white colour. But for the time being, they are yellow!

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Our expedition staff were very excited by this sighting, as they are a rarer sight even than polar bears! Going by this revelation, we were getting pretty excited about our chances of seeing a bear! We followed them for a while, but as they continued to move away from us, we left them to their journey, and carried on further into the fjord.

Then Katharine, our expedition musician, shouted out that she had spotted a Polar Bear on the ice at Lemeroyane! Our first bear! It was our fourth day, and we’d seen a polar bear! It was a long way off, and in an area that was incredibly hard for our captain to maneuver the boat, so although we watched him for a while, it was pretty hard to see him.

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It was a very exciting time, but we decided to move on as the fog came right down, and it became increasingly hard to see the bear as he walked across the ice. We knew where he was, so could always return and scout the area again.

We continued down into the fjord, and came down to the Emmabreen glacier, where we spotted two polar bears – a mother and her young cub. It was very hard to be able to see if it was just a bear, or a bear and cub, but eventually through comparison of various photographs, we figure out there was indeed a cub present.

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So we were up to THREE bears, all on the same day! Next stop, was to head down to Vulkanhamna, where the ice was classified as 10/10 which basically is the thickest ice, and would need an ice breaker to move through it. Our boat was only “ice strengthened” which means we could get out of trouble, but couldn’t break through large quantities of pack ice.

We came to rest a short distance into the ice at Vulkanhamna, as there had been ANOTHER bear spotted! This time, it was a mother and her yearling, and she was hunting the seals who had pulled themselves out on the pack ice. We were all out on deck watching the hunt unfold, as the fog rolled down and it became almost impossible to make out the distant shapes of the mother and cub. Everyone was trying to watch either from the main deck, the top deck, or even from the dining room! But we couldn’t see anything!

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So, we all went to have some dinner, as although it looks daylight in the photo, it was about 8pm by now! Needless to say, after dinner, everyone was straight back out on deck to see whether we could see the bears, and to see whether they had been successful with their hunt. Sadly, they hadn’t managed to catch the seal (apparently the stats are that only about 1 in 20 hunts are successful). We watched them for a while, and then suddenly we noticed that the cub was obviously bored with waiting for the seal to appear, and had decided our boat was far more interesting. He was making his way slowly towards us.

We had been instructed about sightings like this. We had to remain calm, quiet and above all NOT make any sudden movements. We all watched, not daring to breathe, as he made his way across the ice, getting closer and closer. This was AMAZING. He just kept getting closer and closer, whilst we were all rather stunned! The expedition staff were going (silently) crazy as this was the best sighting most of them had had!

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As he got closer, his Mum followed him at a distance, happy that he should make his own way, but being close enough on hand to keep an eye on him!

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It wasn’t long before he was right up in front of the boat

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The view from the top deck was by this stage slightly obscured – so the photo below is courtesy of a fellow passenger Chris Westwood who was kind enough to share his photo of the trip with me!

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The yearling was so incredibly curious, when he couldn’t find a way up the front of the boat, he came around to the side to see if any of the port holes could offer a way in …

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His mum kept a close view of what he was up to

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She eventually decided he’d seen enough and  called him away …

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He went, although not overly willingly! She had to huff and puff a few times to get him to move away! And, his curiosity soon overwhelmed him again, and he came back again for a second look

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Then Mum called him away again, and this time was more successful at leading him a short distance away.

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There was a lovely moment where he sat down and looked back longingly at us. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking we were dinner, or just potential playmates!

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Then I took my favourite shot of the holiday – a wonderful moment of interaction between Mum and cub, where you can see their affection for each other, which will only really be present for another 6 months maximum before the cub heads off to lead his own independent life.

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As she led him away, it became clear just how much of a child this HUGE bear was – his behaviour was like any child who spots puddles … he just needed some wellington boots!

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Once he’d stopped playing in the puddles, he followed his mum who walked around the boat to investigate where we’d broken through the ice. The cub used it as an excuse to jump in and have a swim!

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Eventually, they walked off up the ice edge and disappeared into the wilderness. We all retired to the bar to celebrate our incredible experience and stayed up far later than was wise which I blame partially to the fact that even at 2am, it is bright daylight!

After that amazing experience, it was hard to imagine how the next day would top it. We had remained in the area overnight, and so we headed out to see Monacobreen up close in zodiacs, first passing the face of Emmabreen to see whether we could see the mother and cub from the previous day. Emmabreen was a particularly beautiful glacier, and the weather had cleared up considerably enabling us to see a lot more clearly compared to the day before.

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The water was calm and glassy, and Dr Tom was out scouting for bears!

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He found a lone bear on this area of ice – bringing our total sightings to SIX. However, the bear was a long way off – so even if I pointed out where on this ice he was, you’d be unlikely to see him!

We then headed south and cruised along the Monacobreen – a stunning glacier that looks in places like a castle.

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After getting up close and personal with some icebergs in the iceberg field in front of Monacobreen, it was time to move on, heading north up Woodfjorden.

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Looking backwards gave us a stunning view of Monacobreen as a whole … I love the falling sunlight on the right hand side …

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As we headed North, the expedition staff again became very excited, as there was a sighting of a blue whale! For those of you have have visited the Natural History Museum in London, you will be aware of the size (and rarity) of these mammals. And here was one swimming in front of us!

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Along side the blue whale was a fin whale, and some minke nearby too. What a collection of whales! And a great way to end another day in the Arctic!

Next day, the weather had taken a turn for the worse again and we had fog and snow to contend with! However, it didn’t stop us from cruising along between Hambirgbukta to Sjettebreen in the zodiacs. We passed more little auk colonies, and then found a small bay where 6 walrus had hauled out for a rest! There was also one in the water as well!

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After that, we headed back to the boat, and cruised along to Ny London, where we landed in pretty miserable conditions, but were able to walk around and stretch our legs, whilst hearing of the history of the place when it was a marble mining town.

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The next day was our penultimate day of exploring, and we headed further south to Ny Alesund in Kongsfjorden and had reasonable weather – a balmy 4 degrees! Ny Alesund is historically important as it was not only the location of Nobile’s airship attempt to fly over the pole, but it was also a coal mining settlement and still has polar research facilities.

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From Ny Alesund, we were able to send postcards from the “Most Northerly Post Office” in the world, and get a stamp in our passport!

After we left the town, we headed off to Regnardneset to go for a walk along the tundra, which again allowed us to stretch our legs, and attempt to find our shore legs after 7 days on a boat!

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The views were fantastic.

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As we headed off from this position, to start our return journey to Longyearbyen, it was clear that the ice situation was only getting worse, and we had a few issues exiting the fjord. Luckily for us, our captain was an Ice Master, and he really proved himself getting us out through the pack ice, even if it took him several hours to achieve that!

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That night, our last night on board, we again got caught out by the forever daylight and found ourselves in the bar way beyond 2am. However – you’d never know it!

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The next day it was an early start, and transfer over to dry land at Longyearbyen. Our trip was over, and we were all rather shell shocked that we had seen so much, and that the week had flown passed so quickly! It was an amazing adventure, one that changed regularly according to the weather and ice conditions. We saw so much, and the landscapes were so beautiful, and it’s definitely a place I’d recommend everyone to put on their wish list. If you want to see more photos, then there are more on flickr:

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Hope you have enjoyed this post.

Photos: Copyright Clare Forster

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