By Angie Butler
As our small but perfectly formed ship the Akademik Sergey Vavilov brushed through lumps of brash ice I was on deck holding the Svarga Dvidasana pose. The gentle rolling of the ship added a new dimension to The Bird of Paradise position, which is challenging at the best of times. However, humpback whales had been spotted and so as not to miss the unfolding Cetacea spectacle, the 6.30am yoga class had been elevated to one of the upper viewing decks.
Yoga seemed the perfect way to start each morning on this 10-day Arctic voyage investigating the fjords and inlets of the Norwegian-owned Svalbard archipelago. Sailing in Arctic waters is all about balance, and while the rumble and protestations of climate change grow ever louder, we would be judging for ourselves the threatened equilibrium of this harsh but glorious frozen landscape.
Our passengers, 51 in total, the oldest a high-spirited 82-year-old grandmother and the youngest a 15-year-old gangly lad, hailed from every continent in the world other than Antarctica. Added to the mix was our expedition leader John Rodsted, an affable “no frills” Antipodean. His career has spanned photojournalism in areas of conflict including Afghanistan, skydiving, stuntman and parachute instructor. With Captain Valery Beluga (trained in the Soviet Baltic fleet) at his side, our itinerary could and would change at any given moment. Rodsted’s mantra “this is not a cookie cutter voyage” was welcomed by everyone.
Bringing a fascinating dimension to the voyage was the Canadian scientist Dr Ian Stirling, a world-renowned expert on polar bears. For some 40 years he has been studying (and following the decline) of the largest land carnivore.
Sailing north-west out of Longyearbyen, the “capital” of Spitzbergen, population 3 000, we had barely reached 79° N when from the bridge a polar bear was spotted on the tundra. There was something eerie about the sighting. Several staff took to the zodiacs (inflatable dinghies) with Stirling leading the charge. On arrival it was found to be dead. The passengers were summoned to follow. We now had the opportunity to see a polar bear, a large male, painfully thin, with a tag pinned to its ear, straddled on its stomach, as if it had collapsed while walking. Stirling noted the details and once back on the ship relayed them to a fellow scientist, Dr Jon Aars, at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso. We would have to wait for a reply to learn more about this cheerless yet fascinating find.
We had much to fit into our expedition and each morning, no sooner was breakfast finished, we climbed into our Arctic suits and took to the zodiacs to cruise or make landfall. The 24-hour daylight between April and August proffers a frenzy of all living creatures on Svalbard to feed and multiply – and we were hell bound to record it.
Point and shoot cameras jostled with lenses as big as bazookas as everyone snapped away at their favourite critter. We bounced on the swell beneath sheer cliffs peppered with thousands of kittywakes, Glaucous Gulls and the kleptoparasitic Arctic Skua. Skuas are virtuoso egg-snatching, chick-crunching flying machines that terrorise seabirds into disgorging their food to produce ready-made meals.
Hoity-toity puffins perched on rocks appeared to look down their red, yellow and blue beaks at us. The jittery Arctic fox scavenging for fallen chicks could only show off its brindle summer coat having lost its highly desired white winter fur a few weeks earlier.
Once hunted in thousands but now trapped under regulation, this surprisingly small weasel-looking creature weighs 2.5-5kg.
The walrus devotees had several opportunities to pay homage to the 1 500kg beached slugs that lie around flapping their flippers to scratch and scratch and well… just scratch. Hunted virtually to extinction for their ivory they are making a slow comeback.
The “flying penguins”, the black and white Brunnich’s Guillemots, did it for me. They lay their eggs on sheer cliff ledges, pear shaped so as to not roll off the edge. Parental duties such as egg-sitting and chick watching are shared. The sky is awash with flying penguins as they undertake fishing forays many kilometres out to sea. By the time the chick is three weeks old and not yet fully fledged, it must leave its precipitous ledge and launch itself into the open sea hundreds of metres below. Sometimes several adults join it, shrieking encouragement as it glides and flutters during this perilous descent. Some may plop on the ground and have to run the gauntlet of the rapacious Arctic fox and Glaucous Gull. If it reaches the safety of the water it is joined by father guillemot to swim as much as 50km to the wintering areas. Mother guillemot went by air.
We continued north-east for the next four days, dipping into nooks and crannies, making landfall and hiking across the permafrost, scrambling up moraines to gaze down magnificent glaciers riven by crevasses. By the time we left the unlikely name of Texas Bar, a hunting hut built in 1927 on the northern coast of Liefdefjorden, we had seen very little sea ice. We turned our bow northwards and headed into the frozen wastes.
At 80 degrees, 1 110km from the North Pole, we entered into a fog, an icescape of smoke and mirrors. It swirled about the ship, the bow just visible. Suddenly, theatrically, the miasma lifted to reveal a perfect specimen of a magnificent fully grown healthy male polar bear pulling itself on to an ice floe. This is what we had to see and for several hours we had the privilege of watching him plunge into the water and haul himself back on to the ice, shaking off excess water, sniffing the air, while he patrolled his kingdom. Finally, the expedition leader decided the bear deserved the isolation that seal hunting demands. Stealth and concentration could bag an unsuspecting ring seal asleep on the ice. We turned south to continue our island hopping. Svalbard is a Lilliputian world for botanists. Trees amount to the dwarf birch and polar willow. To study them at close quarters requires sinking to your knees and peering at the few centimetres of height they have so gallantly achieved. They are barely taller than the 165 species of flora that survive the sunless winters in wait for the brief window of spring. Poppies, bluebells, buttercups, saxifraga will suddenly burst into life displaying a profusion of delicate flowers.
Personally, I was on my own mission. Three years ago I wrote a biography called The Quest for Frank Wild, based on one of the greatest explorers of the Heroic Age of polar exploration. He was Sir Ernest Shackleton’s right hand man and after Shackleton’s death in 1922 he emigrated to South Africa where he died 16 years later. Little was known of his life in South Africa and no one knew where he was buried. Wild was lost in life and in death – that is until I found his ashes in Braamfontein cemetery in Joburg. Two years ago we returned his ashes to South Georgia to be buried alongside Shackleton.
In 1918, at the behest of Shackleton, Wild spent more than a year on Svalbard working for the Northern Exploration Company in a bid to mine coal.
We sailed into Recherchefjorden, south-west of Longyearbyen, and joining the expedition leader and a few of his staff on the early morning “polar bear sweep” (making sure there were none in the area before bringing passengers on land) I had a preview of where some of Wild’s mining exploits took place.
As a biographer, you need only to share the same landscapes, no matter how many years have intervened, to bring you closer to your subject. I had gazed at Wild’s farm at the foot of Ghost Mountain in KwaZulu-Natal. Here I was on the other side of the world looking at soaring snow-tipped mountains and Wild’s mining project scattered with rusting iron mine carts.
Finally news was in from the Polar Institute regarding the dead bear. The 16-year-old male had been captured four months earlier and was then in reasonable shape. It had been tagged and recaptured in previous years along the western coast of the southern end of Spitzbergen. It was unusual for bears that lived in the south to travel to the north. Starvation appeared to be the most likely cause, but without a necropsy Stirling made it clear it was not a foregone conclusion.
However, what was evident this year was the lack of late winter ice in the channels and fjords. Without ice, polar bears are unable to hunt seals, their prime food source. Our voyage had been thrilling, informing and inspiring, but was the dead bear a cautionary warning of a changing landscape, an imbalance that threatens his very existence?
If You GO...
Angie Butler is a polar historian and co-owner of Ice Tracks Expeditions, an expedition voyaging company taking people to the Arctic and Antarctica.
Antarctica Off the Beaten Track November 8 -20, 2013
Whale watching in Antarctica March 16 - 26, 2014
North West Passage August 25 - September 6, 2014
July 5 - July 15 2014
Shackleton Centenary Voyage Antarctica
November 21– December 10 2014 - Sunday Independent