79 Degrees North. Svalbard.
48 hours ago, searching the fast ice for polar bears, we were blessed with the rarest of sightings: a mother with two ‘in-year’ cubs. Well fed, content. Eyes and noses, nine black dots standing out in the pristine snow, playing familial games against a mountain backdrop in a balmy bath of glorious sunlight.
It’d been worth the search, the bow of the Polar Pioneer embedded in the ice, its lines perfectly reflected in a glassy sea with all hands relentlessly scouring the endless white. Forty-two faces taking a journey from concentrated hope to wonder to delight.
The world changed in an instant. It does that here. The bears were gone, lured perhaps by the scent of a rumoured whale carcass, unnerved no doubt by shapes and sounds previously neither seen nor heard.
With them went the weather. We were bathed in an Ovaltine fog, unable to distinguish the below from the above and the sea, when seen and almost inviting minutes previously, seemed malevolent in its oily stillness. Mood dampened, we needed to move on.
The fog was inescapable. Slowly and carefully, we sailed into nothing; transfixed by ethereal but frustrating beauty. For hours we searched and hoped, praying for a break in both our fortunes and the weather, with the expectation built on such rich pickings turning to palpable discontent. We had become explorers.
A decision was made. Our tango loving captain, our tour leader (the excellent Paul Goldstein – never has a man worked so hard for his people) and our extraordinary guides banked on bold. We’d make for Brasvellbreen, the largest glacier front in the Northern hemisphere, it’s face rising 100 feet from the water, stretching an impossible 112 miles. A place rarely seen, unheard of by most.
We chugged on, enveloped by fog, cocooned in our vessel. Some stood at the bow hugging mugs, others chose the roof whilst I and several others favoured The Bridge.
I have come to love this boat, this old Finnish built Russian tub with its ice-enabled hull. It smells of adventure, its mahogany lined cabins and old-fashioned cots delivering old-school comfort. I have been charmed by its engine room and have found reassurance in its homeliness, far removed as we are from the obvious 21st century bling of the larger, blander alternatives.
We arrive in the now. Our break has come. We are here.
It’s early I think, the midnight sun rendering time of day irrelevant. The fog is with us but broken, sunlight invading the space, allowing glimpses of the indescribable. I’m sat in a Zodiac, our landing craft, with my boat fellows. The sea is a still perfection, a mirror. We float below a sheer ice face, the majesty above us reflected perfectly below. We seem magically suspended in the middle.
We’re surrounded. ‘The Wall’ in front and above, fragments behind and around, rolling in their footprints, popping like popcorn. The colours of our world have changed: all is now white, blue or grey. No one is speaking. We’ve given up on photographs. We don’t watch. We look. We stare. We marvel.
We’ve pulled the Zodiac onto a large slab of flat, floating ice. Treading carefully, we wander.
I stand, thinking: Work requires me to write about this. A blog. 500 words. How do I describe the indescribable? How do I write about something that no photograph or penmanship could give justice to? About something so beautiful and yet so terrifying. That needs to be seen to be believed.
I can’t. I can only give advice: Forget trying to capture what cannot be captured by anything other than presence.