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Kingdom of the ice bear

Head north aboard an ice-breaking ship to Norway’s Svalbard where blue whales bob among icebergs and polar bears swim serenely along its coastline

Kingdom of the ice bear

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Please don’t even think about leaving town without a rifle, warns my guide, Anneka, as we head towards Longyearbyen, the capital of the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, with a population of 2,000.

“You’re now in polar bear territory, although we don’t often have bears walking down Main Street,” she adds — apparently they don’t like the hustle and bustle.

Just two hours later, my 15-year-old daughter, Mimi, and I are sailing away from this Arctic metropolis, heading far from human habitation for the adventure of a lifetime.

While Quark Expeditions has been running specialist expeditions to the polar regions for more than 20 years, this eight-day trip is the first ever family-focused adventure run by the company. In the weeks running up to departure, Mimi was displaying her best super-cool teenage persona, leaving her mum to behave like an over-excited kid at the prospect of finally heading for the Arctic.

As a producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit for more than a decade, I was incredibly fortunate to be sent on assignment to Antarctica; but somehow I always missed out on the trips to the Arctic. For me, this was the realisation of my polar dreams and this time I wasn’t just going to bring back footage and photos to my family, I was taking one of them with me.

The Arctic Circle sits at 66 degrees north. Plenty of luxury cruise ships can take you on a leisurely trip here, visiting a number of ‘Arctic’ ports on the way up to North Cape — the most northerly point in mainland Europe. But Svalbard is very different: an isolated cluster of ice diamonds set in the frozen grip of the high Arctic. Bear Island, in balmy southern Svalbard, sits at 74 degrees north and tiny Ross Island, to the north, lies just below 81 degrees. Next stop — just 613 miles away — is the North Pole.

The family-friendly Quark Spitsbergen Explorer could technically be described as a cruise, but our trusty 104-passenger ship, Akademik Sergey Vavilov, wasn’t built for tourists but for techies. Polar scientists and researchers used the Vavilov as a workplace for years; we discover our simple sea-view cabin was once part of the ship’s laboratory.

Breaking the ice 

As we sail north west from Longyearbyen, I experience that sense of nervous excitement and anticipation I only feel when I’m really ‘out there’ in search of wildlife. Like everyone else on board, I desperately want to see a polar bear, but having worked with the world’s top polar film-makers, I know that even in the self-proclaimed ‘polar bear capital of the world’, no sighting is ever guaranteed. Ursus maritimus may be the world’s largest land carnivore but as its Latin name suggests, the polar bear is actually classed as a marine mammal. A scientific survey in 2004 estimated there were only around 3,000 of them living in the Svalbard archipelago and the vast area of sea and sea ice surrounding it. I want to manage Mimi’s expectations and tell her that in just a week, the only way of absolutely guaranteeing she sees a polar bear in the Arctic is to bring our Frozen Planet DVD.

Bears aside, I know we’ll see plenty of other Arctic species, as well as the remarkable glacial scenery, as the Vavilov weaves its way around Svalbard’s western islands. We spend one surreal day without sight of land, breaking through the sea ice that’s retreated to above 80 degrees north. With the ship blanketed in thick grey clouds and the eerie sound of the bow cracking through the ice, I feel like we’re travelling through the Arctic version of the Bermuda Triangle. No polar bears materialise but plenty of the seals they predate on do. Day after day, we head off in a flotilla of rigid inflatable Zodiacs, including the particularly noisy ‘funsters boat’ frequented by Mimi and the other kids from the UK and US, helmed by their ebullient leader, Val.

I’m quite small, but even I look like the Michelin Man, protected from the cold in multiple layers of breathable clothing, topped off with massive, bright yellow waterproof arctic jackets — provided by Quark — and ugly plastic boots. Even in August, the temperatures regularly fall below zero. On the plus side, being mid-summer, the sun simply never sets, so the experienced Russian polar crew and team of wildlife experts search for fauna round the clock. Just two days into the expedition, the effort put in by the eagle-eyed team is rewarded.

We’re in the middle of a history lecture about the human inhabitants and whaling in Svalbard when the sighting call booms over the ship’s Tannoy. British explorers discovered the islands had substantial whale populations by accident, while searching for a northeast passage to China in 1596. Soon after, in the early 1600s, the first whaling bases were set up by the British and the Dutch. The whales were hunted for their oil and, in some of the bays, their sheer numbers meant sailing ships literally had to push past them to reach the shore. One of the captains recorded in his journal the place was ‘alive with whales’. Needless to say, within a century the populations had been decimated and have only recently started to recover. So I’m a tad surprised when, mid-lecture, we hear: “There are humpback whales around the ship, at two o’clock and five o’clock.”

After rushing back to my room to pull on my yellow jacket and grab my binoculars and camera, I step out on the starboard side of deck three. In front of me, a huge, long grey back breaks the surface of the water. As it does so, Damien, who’s just been taking the lecture, squeals like a child. “That’s not a humpback, that’s a blue whale!”

I turn and look at him. “A blue whale!?” I exclaim. “Yes!” he replies.

For someone who’s passionate about natural history this is for me the equivalent of a science geek walking on the moon. I’m surrounded by three polar expedition leaders and none of them have ever seen a blue whale before. Mimi’s beside me and my excitement is contagious. She frantically takes photos while I stay glued to my binos. The ship slows to a standstill as we watch two adults and a calf calmly hoovering up krill close to the surface. They come to within 200 metres of the ship — close enough to spot clearly the mottled, rust brown patches decorating the steel-grey bodies of the adults, some 30 metres long. Periodically they reveal their huge heads, marked with disproportionately tiny eyes, and occasionally they dive deep enough to give us one of the most iconic sights in the natural world — a majestic blue whale fluke.

As they inch forward, gracing us with their considerable presence, every single one of us falls silent. The only sound is the gentle splash of these magnificent beasts breaking the surface of the dark, freezing ocean — followed by the soft caress of their lengthy bulks moving effortlessly through the water, before slowly submerging. Flocks of fulmars and guillemots seem to give their own special fly-past, curious at the rare sight of these goliaths visiting their Arctic homeland.

Around 30 species of bird are found in and around Svalbard — most are here to breed during the short summer months before heading south for the winter. As if a trio of blue whales isn’t enough for one day, after lunch, our Zodiac trip to the Alkefjellet cliffs proves to be astonishing. Not just for their extraordinary geological formations, or the fact the cliffs seem to be fighting off the cold embrace of the surrounding ice cap, but because they’re the breeding ground of around 60,000 pairs of Brünnich’s guillemots. Just a few months earlier, the only sound from the cliffs would have been the wind whistling through the towering, 300ft-high basalt columns, or the fresh water run-off escaping as waterfalls from thousands of years of glacial control. Now in early August, these cliffs are screaming with life.

As we approach, the sound of bird call is almost deafening — a surprisingly low-pitched cacophony, similar to that of a huge secondary school full of excited children. Individual bird calls are impossible to distinguish. Next comes the smell. More than 100,000 seabirds on a seafood diet — some regurgitated, most coming out as guano — is not for the weak-stomached.

I flash back almost instantly to the three weeks I spent filming for the BBC on an Adélie penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a smell not easily forgotten.

On these cliffs, the whole rich drama of the Arctic life cycle is being played out before us. Guillemots are superb swimmers and incredible divers, but rather poor at flying. Once fledged, the young, who are still unable to fly, have to drop off the cliff. The lucky ones fall into the sea, the unlucky don’t. We watch glaucous gulls picking off the young, hapless guillemots — this is wildlife in the raw, not sanitised for teatime TV consumption.

The highlight for me, though, is our second new species viewing of the day — an arctic fox. The main reason why the birds nest in these precipitous cliffs is to try to avoid the jaws of these agile predators. The sprightly fox, spotted by one of the young explorers, hasn’t fully moulted its stunning white winter coat. Moving across the largely grey landscape, it’s easy to glimpse this beautiful predator moving confidently around the accessible areas of the cliffs, hunting for eggs, chicks and juveniles.

Polar giants

The day’s wildlife extravaganza doesn’t end there — at 8pm, we’re back out in the Zodiacs, heading for a walrus colony. Just as we land on the beach, two bleach-white beluga whales swim close to shore — another unexpected bonus. Walruses are huge creatures and like polar bears are only found around the North Pole. Unlike solitary bears, however, walruses live in large family groups. Yet despite their scimitar-like molars — which can grow to a metre in length — they’re extremely tactile creatures. This large family group of mixed ages and sexes is all huddled together, seemingly motionless, like a large brown rock.

As we walk across the polar beach towards them, only a single, deep, guttural groan gives away their disguise. Eventually, we’re close enough to see where one animal stops and another starts. I stand and watch in silence, waiting for some walrus action. Finally, there’s a shuffle, then an outstretched fin, then finally a juvenile (with smaller tusks) looks up at the visiting humans standing some 50 metres away, before settling back into its slumber.

The next morning, we all head out to the tundra in search of wildflowers. Incredibly, 175 species of plant grow here and we’re visiting at the height of the brief, yet spectacular, flowering season. Val and her team of young explorers, including Mimi, quickly tick off and photograph the most common varieties from their fact sheets, before being distracted by bones and a vast range of scat, including fresh polar bear dung, and massive footprints.

Although everyone wants to see a bear, the plan isn’t to see them up close during a landing trip — they’re apex predators and will prey on humans, given the right set of circumstances. No expedition company wants to chance a repeat of the fatal attack on a British schoolboy in Svalbard in August 2011. So before we even step foot on a landing site, the area is always recceed by armed bear-spotters. Then an expedition leader, carrying a rifle, escorts every landing group.

By day six, I’ve accepted we’re probably not going to spot a bear. Desperate, everyone on board is looking down binos and telephoto lenses, scrutinising every whitish rock, looking for signs of life — but nothing. But during lunch, just before we head out on our final shore excursion, we hear the words we’ve all been waiting for over the ship’s Tannoy: “Polar bear at one o’clock.”

What follows is straight from a French farce — 60 adults and 12 youngsters all rushing for the same door at the same time — a door only one person can fit through at a time. Instead of rushing off with her new-found friends, Mimi grabs me and says, “Come on mum, we’ve got to see the polar bear together.”

We watch the tiny cream dot from the bow of the ship. The female bear moves slowly down the cliff edge, close to the shore. As we head for the Zodiacs, she slips into the water. We follow at a safe and suitably respectful distance as she swims serenely along the shoreline. Every now and then she pokes her head up and casually checks us out.

In her own time, she moves back to shore, heading effortlessly up steep cliffs — simply spectacular framed against jet-black rocks. Both Mimi and I are taken by how an animal so colossal can be so incredibly graceful. Two hours pass in a flash. Finally, we leave her, high up in the tundra — the Polar Queen of the Arctic.

Essentials

Getting there

SAS, the only airline that flies to Longyearbyen, goes direct from Oslo during the summer or year-round via Tromsø. Fly to Oslo with SAS from Manchester, Heathrow and Dublin, or with Norwegian from Dublin, Edinburgh, Gatwick or Manchester. www.flysas.com  www.norwegian.com
Average flight time: 1h55m to Oslo; 4h from Oslo to Longyearbyen.

Getting around

Svalbard is a wilderness with virtually no roads, apart from in and around Longyearbyen. Travelling independently is not advisable; you need to use a professional overland tour company or travel on a ship.

When to go

The best time for winter, land-based tours is March and April, when you can enjoy snowmobiling, dog sledding, skiing, snowshoeing and the possibility of spotting the Northern Lights. From 20 April the sun doesn’t set for a full five months. The average temperature is between -12C and -15C.
For summer tours, July and August are the best time for wildlife viewing and flora. This is the height of the cruise season and a great time for trekking. The average temperature is 5C but it can drop to below zero.

Need to know

Currency: Norwegian Krona (NOK).
£1 = 10 NOK (credit cards and other currencies including sterling and the euro are widely excepted in Longyearbyen).
Health: Consider a rabies vaccination as there are occasional outbreaks among foxes, reindeer and seals. There’s only one hospital and pharmacy — both in Longyearbyen.
International dial code: 00 47.
Time difference: GMT +1.

More info

www.northernnorway.com
Spitsbergen – Bradt Travel Guide, by Andreas Umbreit. RRP: £16.99.  

How to do it

Svalbard is not a budget location. Quark Expeditions offers its 11-day, family-friendly trip (ages 12 and over), the Spitsbergen Explorer, from £3,170 per person, excluding flights. www.quarkexpeditions.com
Longyearbyen-based Spitsbergen Travel offers a range of experiences for adults and children, including summer dog-sledding with wheeled sleds for under £100 per person. www.spitsbergentravel.com  

Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)