Perhaps it was a reaction to over four years living and working in a hot climate that made me finally book that trip to the Svalbard Archipelago that had been on my “To do one day” list for so long. The Archipelago, part of Norway but hundreds of kilometres away from its mainland, is better known to some people by the name of its main island, Spitsbergen. Formerly dominated by coal-mining, and before that by whaling, it now makes most of its money from tourism, from people like me going to see the polar bears before they’re all gone. 2,400 of them living in the Archipelago at present!
The walruses were also an attraction, as were the reindeer and a small but interesting variety of birds. So I booked myself onto a cruise – triple share, to keep the costs down - and begged and borrowed a collection of warm winter clothes from friends and acquaintances in London.
The first shock though, before I’d even registered the cold, was the 24-hour daylight. Of course I knew to expect it – in theory – but I was still not prepared to arrive at my hotel to check in for the first night at 1:30am with the sun shining! It continued to surprise me and other guests on the ship for the whole cruise, as we sat round talking in the bar, or watching for seals and whales from the bridge, only to be reminded by someone that it was already well after midnight and that breakfast, as usual, was at 7:30. It’s rather nice but does take some discipline to ensure you get to bed at a reasonable hour!
In fact the light was the main thing I enjoyed about the tour. Many afternoons there was a kind of ‘sunset’ period, when there were orange, pink and purple tinges to the sky, and the sunlight often seemed more silver than its usual golden colour – more like a strong moonlight. Perhaps it was all the water and ice that made it look like that, and perhaps more noticeable to me than those from more northerly latitudes as it was such a contrast to the strong, bright African sun. But it was really beautiful.
One of the first wildlife sightings was of a big pod of beluga whales, all around our little zodiacs. These whales are totally white – very strange. Apparently when the whalers started visiting the area a few hundred years ago there were so many whales there that they had to force the ship through them the same way they would through ice! Almost impossible to believe that now, when there are so few whales left there. & what was diplomatically left unsaid by the guides was that Norway still allows whaling today – as evidenced by the whale on the menu in the Radisson Hotel on the island.
Later the same day, just as we were setting out on a walk to search for some tundra birds, came the call to get back to the zodiacs – QUICKLY – as a polar bear had been spotted. It was a couple of kilometres away, but by the time we had got our life jackets on and were all in the zodiacs the bear was half way towards us. They can run faster than humans but even when apparently just ambling along they actually cover distances surprisingly quickly.
The bear made its way towards the beach we had been on, as we cruised along in the zodiacs, cameras snapping away. Having missed the chance of lunch there, it stepped into the sea and swam – again quite quickly – at least a kilometre across a channel between two islands. We now understood why we always had to be accompanied by someone with a gun!
We had two more polar bear sightings during the week, another lone male and also a female with two cubs. Despite their dangerous reputation, they are of course very attractive animals. I’m still trying to decide which of my 48 polar bear photos I can delete…
I think most people’s next favourite animal, mine included, was the walrus. They are actually quite unpleasant when on land – fat and ungainly, constantly scratching themselves, and absolutely foul-smelling – but when they drag themselves into the water they are suddenly transformed into powerful, agile and even graceful creatures.
We also saw seals (ringed, bearded and hooded – and for those still up at 3am a large group of harp seals), and reindeer, though sadly no arctic fox. Our planned trip to the base of some cliffs of nesting birds where foxes often patrol was thwarted by a load of pack ice which our ship couldn’t break through. The birds were nice too, including puffins, the beautiful sabine’s gull and a red-throated diver on its nest. Back on the island the day the cruise ended three of us also managed to see ptarmigan.
Some of the passengers on the ship were quite interesting too. The sixth best twitcher in the world (8,383 species of birds seen including his first ever little auk on this trip), a world traveller with only eight countries still left to visit, and one man rich enough to take a family of six on the trip and to drink champagne with dinners on several days – I googled his name when I got back to find he is in the Sunday Times Rich List and worth some $300m! & thankfully my room mate (only one, luckily, as the triple share would have been horribly cramped with three people) was nice enough.
For those interested, the cruise took us almost to 81°N, which I think is some 5-600km from the North Pole. One afternoon we all landed on the sea ice somewhere north of the 80° line and drank a celebratory hot chocolate with Baileys! As for the weather, well we had a couple of cold days, particularly when that icy wind was blowing, although with three layers of clothes on my legs and six layers on my upper body I didn’t find it too bad. The main problem was how to keep nose and cheeks warm. We also had some fairly warm days - 12°C on one day!
My overriding memory of it all though is that wonderful silvery light.
(borrowed a colleague's laptop - seems the problems with the photos is specific to my laptop)