I have to admit, when I think of a holiday I think sun, sea and sand, never had I thought of Russian expeditionary ships and long johns! Nor had I thought that a holiday to the Arctic could offer all three and more! So when the opportunity arose to travel to Spitsbergen to see polar bears and icebergs I jumped at the chance, but felt apprehensive of what was to come…
Leaving Oslo in the dark we flew north, unsure what to expect, but when the pilot announced we had crossed the Arctic Circle, I already felt like an intrepid explorer! I awoke to the most spectacular view of fluffy white clouds, a splattering of islands and ice, and a feeling that we had entered the land of Phillip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’. I spent the last hour of the flight with my nose pressed firmly against the window not wanting to miss a second of the staggering landscape below, and hoping to see my first glimpse of our destination, Spitsbergen. I wasn’t disappointed; the airport sits dramatically between two towering, snow capped hills on the edge of the island. Landing at around midnight, we were greeted with bright sunshine and our first glimpse of Arctic wildlife… a bird … my knowledge of birdlife was rather limited to say the least!
My diary entry for the day of embarkation starts with a scribbled list of wildlife… all spelt incorrectly… but 3 of which were names of birds (my knowledge of birds had already improved – well I’d remembered a few names at least!) They included puffins, reindeer, seals, fulmars and skuas (apparently these take their name from a word that in some languages means pirate, as they are known to steal fish from other birds in mid-air – almost an expert now!).
Longyearbyen is a small transit town, with colourful houses set amongst dramatic arctic scenery, its residents are hugely friendly and the polar museum is well worth a visit; for me it was all about the famous polar bear sign! A great photo for any album.
Embarkation was very exciting, we all gathered on the jetty and put on our lifejackets for the first time, a routine we would all become well practiced at throughout the week. Group by group we lined up to learn the sailor’s grip and the routine of step, sit, shuffle, shuffle which we would use each time we got into the zodiacs. One unlucky passenger managed to set off their life jacket much to their shock and the group’s amusement… they weren’t to be the last!
On board the ship was warm and welcoming, our bags were already in our cabins and we had time to explore the ship and settle in. At dinner time everyone headed to sample the delights of the fantastic chefs and the chatter of introductions filled the air. What a fascinating group, people from all walks of life, photographers, birders, those who had been to all corners of the world and those who were starting a journey of a lifetime. The ships guides and resident experts sat amongst us and everyone was happy to share stories and advice for anyone who asked.
And so began our adventure. Each day the boat took us to a new destination while we ate or slept and then we explored the Arctic wilderness by zodiac or on foot.
We visited Ny Alesund, the most Northerly settlement on earth, and posted our post cards from 79 degrees north. Back on the water we were surrounded by hundreds of pearly white belugas whales in our zodiacs. Sitting in silence watching these curious animals rubbing their stomachs on the rocks and listening to the sound of them expelling air from their blow holes has to be one of the most privileged moments of my life.
A visit to a glacier provided a very different experience, the sheer scale of it was difficult to comprehend, the intense blue coloured ice running through the glacier created striking shapes on its snout, while birds circled above us. There was so much to see, and there was a wonderful snap and crackle sound created by air escaping from the ice. We even tasted some ice plucked from the sea, salty on the outside and cool and so fresh on the inside!
Bear! Polar Bear!! One of my diary entries. Our first polar bear was spotted just as the group were disembarking at an old whaling site. Everyone got back into the Zodiacs and we floated alongside the bear as he swam from one island to another. I had not realised just how huge and powerful these beautiful creatures were as his body rose from the water. We watched the male bear as he covered ground at a staggering pace, causing reindeer to flee his path. We left him to continue his journey as our guides were careful that our presence should not alter his behaviour. *“I am so lucky to be here”* is written so many times in my journal!
We were lucky enough to see polar bears on a couple of other days; one sighting was of a mother and her two cubs. We followed them, watching the mother searching for bird eggs as she was dive-bombed by protective skuas. We continued with her as she set off across the water and delighted as the two cubs hesitated before throwing themselves into the icy water. What a fantastic day, the boat was electric with the thrill of all that we had seen and dinner was filled with stories and the sharing of photos taken that day.
A polar desert visit provided such a stark contrast to the surrounding. At the walrus haul-out we all approached quietly, getting closer and closer until the very distinctive smell of the walrus hit us! They move around continuously, grunting and pushing their way into the warmth of the middle of the pile up. More approached by sea, ducking under the kayakers in playful curiosity and then dragging themselves up the beach with surprising ease. A definite highlight for the group and the chance to get some great photos.
The packed days all too soon come to an end and we disembarked back into Longyearbyen for the flights home. What a privilege that I have had the chance to experience this beautiful frozen landscape… next stop Antarctica!
For more information on holidays to Spitsbergen, please contact my colleague Sue, who has firsthand experience of most of the boats we offer.