Lisa G Saw
Arctic Adventure in Svalbard, Norway
In July 2016 I went on an amazing 14 day Polar Bear Photographic Expedition to Svalbard, Norway with Paul Goldstein and One Ocean Expeditions. This truly was a once in a lifetime, memorable experience and did not disappoint! Paul had said in his email to us just before the trip, get plenty of sleep before you come! We would have 24 hours of daylight and the plan was to use as much of it as possible!
We had two days of travelling to get to/from Longyearbyen, Svalbard – the most northerly permanent populated town in the world. They were not the best two experiences I’ve had and I wouldn’t recommend Scandinavian Airlines or Oslo Airport as a result, however, we got there eventually via Oslo and Tromso.
We had a brief walk around Longyearbyen on arrival (and longer on our return). I was not expecting it to be 12°C! (By the way, at this point we were 3,043km from London). There isn’t much to the old mining town; a museum, art gallery and a few shops and cafés, pretty much all along one main street. On the return leg we did enjoy a lovely walk along the shoreline, spotting lots of birds and enjoying some amazing reflections of the mountains in the water. Since it was summer, cars were seen on the roads, but you could tell this was a different place during winter by the sheer volume of snow mobiles parked on the grass.
To board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, we had to travel out in groups of 10 on the inflatable zodiacs, which would later be used for our daytime excursions whilst at sea. This heightened our excitement for the trip. In reality, for a good couple of days everything felt really surreal. I couldn’t believe I was really there after a year and a half of waiting! We were to spend 10 full days at sea and this ship was fabulous. We had a great cabin on Deck 4 right in the centre of the boat, which meant everything was really quick and easy to get to, as we were nearest the stairs. We could walk along the corridor and be straight out on the bow of the ship, which was fabulous for our wildlife sightings, it was down to Deck 3 for the dining room, mud room in preparation for our zodiac trips and the stearn of the ship, up to Deck 6 for the bar/lounge, bridge and upper outdoor viewing decks. Our cabin was cosy with 2 beds, a desk, plenty of storage space and a private toilet and shower wet room. They provided dressing gowns, towels, shampoo and conditioner etc, tissues, tea/coffee and kettle, binoculars and a wildlife reference book along with gumboots, waterproof bag and wet weather gear!
Food was plentiful, regular and pretty good so we were never going to go hungry! We always had 3 choices of main course at dinner and lots of varied desserts. We even had tea late in the afternoon. Inge-Lise and myself made a point of sitting at a different table at each mealtime, talking to different people, which was great. Virtually everyone was friendly and mingled and it was nice to meet likeminded travellers. In fact, meal times were sometimes how we knew what time of day it was because the sun was always up! I have to say I really enjoyed this aspect. In the evening when we would come back to our room after dinner there was always a chocolate on our pillow, the curtains had been drawn and the low lights over our beds were on instead of the main light and this was how they tried to prepare you for sleep! With a hot shower before bedtime, and for Inge-Lise a hot camomile tea, sleep was never far away!
The weather was much milder than I’d expected (all part of the climate change problem however) and not very windy, which was good news for me as the seas weren’t too rough. We had a full day at sea on the first Monday and I did suffer a little from seasickness, but managed to sleep it off for a few hours in the afternoon. I was wearing my special wristbands and took natural ginger and that was sufficient. Towards the end of the trip it got rough again but I still was able to survive without taking any of the medication I’d brought with me! The worst place was going up or down the stairs in the centre of the boat, without any windows! One evening when we were in the bar, the lilt and sway of the boat meant I couldn’t walk in a straight line from the bar to the table, making it look as though I was very drunk! An added challenge when trying to carefully carry two drinks back without spilling them! (As an aside, when we landed back in Longyearbyen after the trip, I did feel like I was still at sea and had quite a few moments when I felt wobbly on my feet! A very strange experience!)
We managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep most nights but we did have early morning wake up calls sometimes 5.30 or 6am for some of the zodiac excursions to make the most of the day. We were also woken up if there were interesting wildlife sightings and this did happen! We had headed up along the west coast of Spitsbergen and beyond the islands to reach the pack ice, which has retreated to 81°N this year in this area (because it was a very mild winter, the arctic sea ice wintertime extent reached a record low, the second year in a row). We had travelled further north than I was expecting and we were just over 100miles away from the North Pole! The main concern about this trip was would we actually see a polar bear! There were no guarantees! But, within one hour of reaching the pack ice, at 5.15 in the morning we were woken a little earlier than planned - the first polar bear had been spotted!
I ought to mention how fabulous the One Ocean Expedition staff were. They were on constant vigile looking out for the wildlife, taking shifts and swapping over, so even through the night (remember it’s still light) they were glued to their binoculars and telescopes. They were all so knowledgeable in their field and we had several talks during the course of our trip. They would sit with us during the meals and get to know us and vice versa and they were so friendly and helpful. A truly brilliant staff, so much so I’d travel on this ship with this company again…maybe for the Antarctic in a few years!!!
Back to the bears…yes we saw lots of them…I think we saw about 10, but to be honest we kind of lost count! How crazy is that. Each encounter was different and sometimes better than the one before. You never forget your first sighting and it was special. This cream coloured bear was sleeping on a small ice floe in the distance. As we neared him he could smell us and he popped his head up, then stood up. I don’t know how many minutes or hours we were watching him, we were all mesmerized. He had a little walk, took another nap, jumped over a few ice floes and eventually swam away. We got to see bears feeding (not hunting) covering their food in ice (something rarely witnessed) rolling around in the ice trying to cool down, grooming (they’re very clean animals) yawning, sticking out it’s tongue (it uses it for smell), swimming and then shaking off the water afterwards and we even got to see two at the same time, when a younger female had smelt a seal from miles away and came in to scavenge on the carcass, only the big male was not done yet and was not having any of it. We saw the female’s submissive behaviour, trying to approach, then backing away, lying down low. She must have been so hungry because she didn’t wait until the male had finished to try and approach again, jumping from floe to floe until they were eventually on the same one. But, there is a hierarchy (it wouldn’t have turned out so well for her if she had challenged him) and she had to wait until the male had finally finished eating all the blubber it could get before slipping into the water allowing the female to rush over and eat whatever left overs she could. Some of the bears were very inquisitive and came towards the ship to sniff us out (they don’t have good eye sight) and the very last one we saw walked to within 2m of the ship, along the side of the hull and then around the bow. With all 93 of us, plus staff and crew, scrambling to get a good look at this young female, we were in awe of how close we were to her (about 5m). I never thought I would have a photo where the bear filled the frame. I didn’t need a telephoto lens to capture this! This was the most wonderful lasting memory I have of the polar bears and this trip. She’s now the screensaver on my mobile phone!
The captain and his crew were amazing at manoeuvring the ship in the pack ice. The Vavilov is extremely well stabilized (great for rough waters) and very quiet, so in stealth like movements we inched forward, so as not to scare the polar bears. Of course, with the unpredictability of the wildlife sightings this meant mealtimes were often moved around, which you could imagine was a real pain for the kitchen staff, but they did a fabulous job. One time lunch was about 3pm I seem to recall, another time we ate our main course at dinner but then headed out to see the polar bear, which was approaching. There was time to duck in later for dessert but many either forgot or couldn’t tear themselves away from the bear! On the evening of the two bears close together we ended up having our dinner as a bbq outside on the deck!
Aside from polar bears, which was the main purpose for this voyage, and we spent 4 days in total up at the pack ice, we saw lots of other wildlife. There were countless birds (little auks, arctic terns, fulmars, guillemots, ivory gulls, glaucous gulls and I even saw my first ever puffin!) whales (blue, minke, beluga and the rare in these parts, bowhead – even the staff were ecstatic about this sighting of 2 as only 10 have been sighted in these waters due to over hunting) seals (though I missed seeing any really close) reindeer (particularly good on our last land excursion) and arctic fox (I saw one in the distance, but some lucky ones saw a mother and 3 cubs on this last excursion).
But the trip wasn’t all about the wildlife. The landscape was also dramatic and beautiful and this was part of the reason why we wanted to come to Norway to view the polar bears. The islands were very mountainous and we saw so many glaciers (I’ve never seen so many – sadly all of course retreating due to global warming). There were lots of icebergs floating in the water off the glaciers. We didn’t witness any calving but saw a few ‘bits’ dropping off and splashing into the water. We managed to do some landings on the islands, which was a great opportunity to properly stretch our legs. Some of the rocks were covered in lichen, showing the first signs of life where the ice has retreated. It was also amazing to see tiny flowers growing on the barren looking land. In it’s own way the pack ice and the melting ice floes were equally as beautiful. Along the horizon was the expanse of the pack ice, which extends to the North Pole and beyond to the Canadian Arctic and Russia. Closer to us were broken fragments of the ice floating slowly away. There was a calmness here that was amazingly peaceful. We were so far away from civilisation, living in what felt like a little bubble, not caring about what else was going on in the world. Though the bubble would burst soon enough enjoying the long days, watching the wildlife and the ice pass us by, was a joy and an amazing privilege to experience. In the open expanse of seeming nothingness a small creamy figure, a spec in the distance, dwarfed by its surroundings, slowly plodded along in search of food. It is a lonely existence for the polar bears, one that is hard to imagine!
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