Fast-vanishing frontier casts a cold spell
Longyearbyen, Norway - Inevitably it was the polar bears who were the stars of the show.
After all, how could an Arctic fox, no matter how cute, or a walrus - a blob of blubber grunting indolently in the sun - or even the mighty blue whale steal the limelight from the shaggy-coated king of the white wilderness? When the bears put on a “show”, they leave you gasping with delight.
For many visitors, their only sighting is the stuffed polar bear in the arrivals hall of the airport at Longyearbyen.
This mining town, the capital of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is the gateway to the high Arctic. All adventure cruises set sail from Longyearbyen, and the excitement among tourists is palpable.
Svalbard are the shards of land lying in isolation far north of Norway, on the way to the polar ice cap and the North Pole.
For our lucky group, this icy wonderland put on its most flamboyant outfit, leaving us awe-inspired.
I had joined the Oceanwide Expeditions ship Plancius, an ice breaker carrying 116 passengers. A restful trip it was not, but who needs sleep when excitement waits behind every iceberg, with every turn of the ship’s screws? Besides, the sun did not go to bed, giving us 24 hours of daylight.
If anything worth seeing was spotted, an announcement was blared into your cabin, regardless of the hour. Quickly covering night attire with a warm jacket, we raced to the upper decks - missing any dramatic encounter would have been unthinkable.
But back to the polar bears. We saw them strolling about or rolling in the snow. Some were mothers with playful cubs. One bear was blissfully snoozing, snuggled in the snowhole it had dug.
Now it’s early evening and the Plancius is sailing through ice floes - a beautiful scene of luminous light reflecting off fractured ice, with openings of frigid water.
Enter three bears: a mother and her cub, probably aged about two years, and a young male distinctly interested in the two. He seemed to be stalking them, as they leapt from floe to floe, trying to avoid him. Finally, the fed-up mum had a go at him, and he rapidly backed off, but soon he resumed his circling, trying to cut them off.
Many of us were upset, sure he wanted to kill the cub, then mate with the mum. What a horrid thought! After all, the well-being of polar bears was threatened by ice melting early in the season, making the hunting of seals more and more difficult.
We had been told that, although they were strong swimmers, dozens of polar bears have been found drowned at sea. The distances they had to swim back to the ice pack were becoming ever greater, as the ice receded further each year.
But surely they didn’t need to kill each other to add to their woes?
We cheered up when our expedition leader, a delightful Frenchwoman, informed us the cub was too old, and the randy male would not kill it because, with luck, the female might be ready to mate soon.
“Besides, he might even be killing a cub he had fathered. Remember, they do not live together as a family, so he would not know what had happened to his offspring,” she said.
As the trio made their way across the ice, the youngster was clearly tiring of this game, which might have been going on for hours before we arrived on the scene. Finally, leaping on to a small floe, it sat down, firmly planted its behind, and floated for a while.
All mum’s calls could not persuade it to budge, until it spotted the older male drawing closer, then it hastily leapt off the floe, scampered to join mum, and off they went again.
While seeming a little less enthusiastic, the young male continued to follow at a distance. We sailed away content, but more awaited us.
Our next encounter was at 81º north, about the closest the average tourist can get to the North Pole. The ship’s captain later told us he thought this swing way up north would just be an opportunity to show us the beauty of the ice pack.
Suddenly we spotted a polar bear crouched over its seal kill. What happened next gave insight into how these animals are co-operating as life becomes ever tougher for them. Another, slightly thinner, bear, leapt on to the floe. The first bear growled, but instead of fighting to keep its kill, it dived into the ocean, leaving the seal for the hungrier animal.
Then came another eye-opener. Living in Africa, I am accustomed to seeing predators ripping apart and devouring their prey with gusto. Not so polar bears. They eat with surprising finesse.
Delicately, the bear we were watching opened up the seal and lapped up the blood. No messing all over the tablecloth! Then daintily it tore off a mouthful, and began to eat slowly - almost like our mums told us.
Yet another bear played hide-and-seek with us, diving into the sea or trying to conceal itself behind ridges of ice. Clearly it was not happy with our presence so, following the code all cruise ships are expected to follow - of not stressing or harassing the bears - we left it to its devices.
During our seven-night cruise we had good sightings of a blue whale. At about 30m in length and 180 tons, it is the largest mammal on Earth.
Speedy minke and fin whales and schools of energetic white belugas entertained us.
The sight of a bowhead whale made one of the guides wildly excited. “They have been hunted to extinction in these waters. You find them only off the coast of Greenland. To find them coming back to this area is huge,” he said with emotion.
Bearded and ring seals, and a colony of walruses all piled on top of each other in gay abandon at one of their popular haul-outs on land, all did their bit.
An Arctic fox scoured the area below a seabird colony for baby birds or eggs that had fallen out of the nest. Like everything in this part of the world, it had to work hard to earn its keep, climbing down from the escarpment, then, its precious find clutched in its mouth to feed its young, making the steep climb up a snowy pass.
On the Alkafjellet cliffs, about 80 000 seabirds were massed, making a din. Guillemots, kittiwakes and glaucous gulls wheeled and dived. Throughout the journey seagulls flew alongside our ship. Little auks swam and dived in flotillas. We spotted the occasional puffin and snow bunting, while on land a purple sandpiper pretended to be injured as a ploy to draw us away from its nest.
Making regular forays ashore on the ship’s zodiacs, we walked in the almost lunar terrain. Some hardy flowers were making their appearance, while further south reindeer grazed in the tundra.
One zodiac boat trip took us along the faces of four or five beautiful glaciers, one of which calved, creating a berg with a cracking noise and a tidal wave. As it hit the water, the berg’s pinnacle disintegrated, then much of the main berg shattered in a spray of ice, before the remains bobbed to the surface, ready to join the array of spectacular, beautifully coloured icebergs floating in the pale aqua waters.
Luminous light, stark beauty, intense silence, and unpolluted air.
Add to all this the satisfaction of clearing up abandoned nets and bits of plastic. Oceanwide Expeditions organises a trip or two each year, linking tourism with an environmental clean-up.
The guides, experts in their fields, gave a series of informative lectures. The cabins were compact but comfortable, the meals delicious, and the crew friendly and helpful.
The Plancius had passengers from 19 countries, all with one objective: to explore one of Earth’s last wild frontiers, to enjoy the Arctic while it exists, marvel at its wildlife, and watch polar bears in awe.
The experts say the day is not too distant when it will all be just a memory.
l Oceanwide Expeditions has its head office in the Netherlands. See www.oceanwide-expeditions.com