Although I have been fortunate to travel to more than thirty countries, until this month, I had not been to the arctic – the real arctic, that is.

As I write I am sitting in the airport in Longyearbyen, the world’s most northernmost settlement at 78° north.  We have just spent nine incredible days aboard the M/S Freya – a Swedish expedition ship – sailing around Svalbard 1,200km north of the arctic circle. This ship served the Swedish coast guard for many years and is of the highest ice class. Simply put, she could pass through the sea ice that accumulates around Svalbard.

On May 1st we set out from Longyearbyen and sailed through the numerous fjords for which the islands are known. The scenery was spectacular and we approached glaciers every day – at a safe distance of course. The sound of them calving was astonishing. Some of my fellow passengers likened it to an earthquake.

Naturally the chance to see arctic wildlife was foremost on my mind and, with twenty-four hour daylight, at this time of the year the prospects were good. Most importantly we had an excellent crew as well as expert guides Lianna, Fred and Melissa. All are excellent photographers.

There was a great deal of sea ice still covering the fjords which meant the presence of seals and the mighty polar bear would be likely. Walruses are aplenty around here and apparently spend most of their time sleeping. They would sometimes sit up on sea ice and watch us as we passed. But only for a few seconds.

My reputation as ‘the world’s luckiest photographer’ had fellow passengers suggesting ‘premonitions’ for me to put out there. It was all in good fun.

Early on the second day we spotted this large male bear hanging out near a seal hole. We spent several hours there but Fred suggested he might turn up further down the ice. So we moved on to another fjord. We were rewarded with another sighting as he appeared but this time the bear explored the sea ice fairly close to the Freya looking for seals.

Arctic foxes were another species I hoped to see and again my luck held out. This one ran across the sea ice near where the Freya was moored one evening. They are smaller than our red foxes and seem to keep moving so as not to be bothered by the numerous sea birds which dive bomb them repeatedly in the open.

One evening I saw movement on the ice and the figure of a four legged creature trotting towards our ship. I was informed that this was a ‘blue’ fox, an arctic fox that has a mutated gene. Apparently they are rarely seen and make up less than 3% of the fox population on Svalbard. While most arctic foxes change colour according to the season these never get a white coat.

It trotted past the ship as we moored. Again, a stroke of luck!

Mid week we encountered a female bear that is renowned within the scientific community. She kept close to a glacier and,  after sniffing around the ice, lay down on the ice for a nap which lasted several hours. Fred suggested she might eventually turn up at a fjord on the other side of the mountains and so we sailed further. Later that day my luck would be apparent.

Alone on the side of the ship with my binoculars I saw movement on the shore. I could swear it was a bear but when I turned to inform others I lost track of it. Did I see a bear or imagine it? A few moments later I spotted it again. That’s when I ran inside the ship’s lounge to announce ‘bear’. The others were playing cards and just stared at me. I went back outside and saw it walking further into the fjord towards a glacier.

One of the crew allowed me the use of his walkie-talkie to tell the bridge. Within minutes everyone was on deck watching this bear – the female from the day before – coming over a hill closer and closer. To our delight she followed the edge of the sea ice for the next half hour affording us lots of prime photography.

She slid down a hill on her belly to get close to the shore. Then she began her hunt for seals once again. More on that later!

As we returned to Longyearbyen yesterday we were greeted by a minke whale that was feeding in the sea. What a wonderful finale to the trip.

I can’t say with certainty that I will return to Svalbard but the memories of the people I shared the experience with, the new friends I have made, the spectacular scenery and of course the incredible wildlife will be with me for the rest of my life.

                                                                                                 -30-

 

 

10 Comments

  1. Carol

    Wow!
    What an amazing trip.
    How “lucky” were they to have you on the trip to conjure so many photo ops!!!
    So nice to see somewhere in the high Arctic still having substantial ice cover.
    The bear looked to be in good shape too.
    Wonder if she is the bear the two ‘Hearts On Ice’ scientists kept encountering when on duty at the Svaalbard Research station in their 3year tenure assessing global warming affects in the high Arctic.

    1. Paul E Gains

      hi Carol! yes this apparently was the best year for sea ice in two decades. Our ship, the M/S Freya, had no trouble with getting through although I heard of two ships that weren’t so lucky. This female has a compelling story which I hope to tell via magazines!

  2. Pat Bleasdale

    Wow, what a wonderful vicarious trip to the north@!! Thanks for giving me the chance to see, close up, what you see! I sent you a note about the eagle pics, please see it when you get home.
    bless you,
    Pat

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