Most people wouldn't put a week-long midsummer holiday where the weather was grey and dull in their top three holidays ever. But that was what happened when I travelled to the Arctic with Quark Expeditions.
“Take this,” a friend had said, thrusting a book into my hand the day before I was due to leave. “You'll need a good book for a cruise.” By the end of the week I hadn't even thumbed the first page.
Spitsbergen & Svalbard: Top of the List
Anyone passionate about wildlife should put Spitsbergen and Svalbard at the top of their list of places to visit. Having worked as a television producer for the BBC's Natural History Unit for more than a decade, I have been lucky enough to visit Antarctica, but I'd never been to the High Arctic. Essentially an ocean surrounded by continents, the Arctic has an advantage over its frozen cousin in that it's much more accessible, yet it too teems with wildlife. Seeing it for the first time with my 15-year-old daughter Mimi on a family-friendly trip with the polar experts Quark Expeditions certainly made it worth the wait.
The word Arctic comes from the Greek “arktos”, which means “bear”. And, as anyone who's ever watched an Attenborough documentary knows, this is the kingdom of the ice bear. From the moment you step off the plane in Svalbard's diminutive capital, Longyearbyen, you know you are in arktos territory. At the luggage carousel you are greeted by a big stuffed polar bear, aggressively baring its teeth.
Just a few hours after arrival we set sail for a week of exploration on board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. A former polar scientific research ship, the Vavilov is an icebreaker reconfigured to take passengers. While some luxurious cruise ships cross into the Arctic Circle, you have to head to the High Arctic, where sea ice forms, to have any real hope of seeing a wild polar bear. Located in the Arctic Ocean halfway between Norway's north-western coast and the North Pole, the Svalbard archipelago – clustered with pyramid-shaped mountains and glaciers – meets this criterion.
The Svalbard archipelago has one of the largest polar bear populations in the world, with more than 2,000 of these marine mammals. Superb swimmers, they spend the dark winters hunting on the sea ice that wraps its icy grip around the archipelago. In summer the ice retreats and many bears stay on land, often close to coastal waters. With 24-hour daylight , this is the time of year to look for wildlife.
Don't be fooled by “land of the midnight sun” marketing speak; this is the High Arctic, after all , so even in August temperatures were often well below zero, with drizzle, snow and grey skies to obscure any suggestion of sun.
The wildlife and plants didn't disappoint, however, and this is where Quark Expeditions excelled. Having sailed these waters for many years, the Russian crew, along with the mostly North American polar expedition leaders, all have eagle eyes when it comes to finding wildlife. Which is just as well if you consider how difficult it is to spot a polar bear – an often motionless whitish blob in a landscape that, from afar, is filled with whitish blobs. Just like the cameramen and women who spend months in the wild collecting their stunning footage, you have to know not only where to look, but also when to be patient. Especially when it comes to polar bears.
Zodiac Cruising Waters Teeming with Arctic Wildlife
Other Arctic animals, fortunately, are easier to encounter. Each day we would head off in inflatable Zodiacs – this being one of Quark's first family-friendly expeditions, the teenagers usually went off with the ebullient Val, their immensely knowledgeable leader.
By day five we'd all seen a walrus colony, various species of seal, the ubiquitous reindeer, ice-white beluga whales, countless nesting birds and an Arctic fox on the hunt for easy juvenile pickings.
The most unexpected wildlife sighting, however, came while we were on board the ship. Coincidently, we were in a lecture about the many species of whale that regularly visit the Arctic when the announcement “Blue whales at two o'clock” rang through the public address system. I thought I was hearing things, but Mimi and I grabbed our bright yellow jackets, binoculars and camera from our small, basic cabin (once a science lab) and headed out on deck. There, off the starboard side of the Vavilov, was one of the most magnificent and majestic sights on Earth. Not one, but three blue whales. Growing up to 100ft in length, Balaenoptera musculus is not only the largest animal species living today, it is the largest animal ever to have lived . Few people ever get to see blue whales, and even our expedition guides stood transfixed.
Incredibly, here before us the massive bulks of two adults and a juvenile moved silently and calmly through the water. As their heads broke the surface of the dead calm, icy sea they looked rather like dark grey torpedoes, with their tiny dorsal fins sitting way back towards the tail.
A Once in a Lifetime Sighting
The Vavilov was able to slow down and change course. These intelligent creatures allowed us to share the pleasure of their company for more than an hour before the captain sailed the ship out towards the sea ice.
More than 2,000 polar bears inhabit Svalbard- Photo Courtesy: Tim Morton
By day six, our wildlife checklist ran the gamut. All that was missing was a polar bear. Many of our fellow passengers, from the United States and China, had crossed half the planet for their once-in-a-lifetime polar bear sighting. By now the crew had doubled their efforts, on watch 24 hours a day, using powerful binoculars to look out for anything bearlike. The grey skies looked pretty much the same at 3am as they did at 3pm, so a good night-time sighting was more than possible. It was rather like being on a natural-history film shoot, where “wildlife law” always seems to dictate that the animal you want to film rarely arrives until the eleventh hour.
A polar bear was finally spotted just after we'd sat down for lunch on the final day. Again, the tannoy: “Polar bear swimming close to the island on the starboard side.” The rush from the dining room resembled a comedy cartoon scene with 60-plus Arctic adventurers attempting to get through a single door at the same time.
Incredibly, the sun came out to reveal a female bear in her full glory. We watched her swim, climb and forage for several hours before the grey returned once more and the Vavilov started her trip back to Longyearbyen.
The book that my friend gave me, meanwhile, is on the bookshelf, still unread, awaiting the next cruise.
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