In September I headed deep into the Arctic ice pack off the coast of Spitsbergen aboard the sturdy M/V Plancius in search of polar bears. Originally built in 1976 as the MS Tyeman for oceanographic research. She has been refurbished and reconditioned to become a comfortable expedition vessel, now plying her trade in both Arctic and Antarctic Oceans taking intrepid passengers in search of wildlife and wilderness.
The captain was obviously enjoying himself as we bumped and crunched our way into the ice, with a clang and a shudder we edged our way through picking the easiest leads. I spent hours on deck watching the huge sheets of ice as they cracked and slid out of our way occasionally riding up on each other like the continental plates. The ice reduces the swell when you are deep in the pack but reaching the edge this created a mesmerising ripple effect. The disturbance of the water creates turbulence below pushing plankton to the surface attracting many birds including a good number of ivory gulls, which are normally quite rare. Delicately swooping down to the surface to snatch up the specks of food, accompanied by the nosier Kittiwakes who scrapped and squabbled amongst themselves. Fulmars were also constant companions, flying right alongside the ship often so close you felt you could reach out and touch them.
We did see the occasional seal, mainly ringed but certainly not enough of them to keep a big predator such as a polar bear well fed particularly with around only a 10% success rate. We spent over two days around 81°16.5’N / 020°06.4’E searching in vain for bears but were rewarded with beautiful vistas, fog bows and blue whale’s and despite the disappointment of not seeing a polar bear I loved every minute of it. In an area where the ice was more broken we launched the zodiacs to see the ice from a different perspective and the variations of form. This year’s sea ice was just forming in greasy patches while other pancakes were made up of multi-year ice where the distinct layers of snow fall and freeze could be seen. Amongst the sea ice were large chunks of glacial ice, mini icebergs in weird and wonderful shapes formed by wind and water erosion. Before returning to the main ship we landed on a large flat pan of ice, careful to anchor the zodiac well we gingerly climbed out onto crunchy surface to be served hot chocolate and rum, not your average afternoon.