I'd always loved big cuddly creatures, especially those that lived in a land of ice, snow and glittering night skies. However it wasn’t the Northern Lights I wanted to see when I alighted in Longyearbyen on the Svalbard archipelago - 78 degrees north of the equator. I'd come here to see the polar bears.
Some 3000 Polar Bears inhabited the area around Svalbard (the Norwegian name) or Spitsbergen (what the rest of the world calls it). I hoped to photograph just one.
As I waited for my luggage to come off the carousel I got my first look of a real bear, down on all fours and gnashing his teeth in my direction. Unfortunately for him, he was dead, and stuffed, so I don’t think this really counted in terms of bragging rights.
Kitted out in all my Norwegian Helly Hansen gear, including my aptly named Spitsbergen jacket, I was ready to embrace the arctic cold. I stepped out of the airport, totally insulated, and climbed aboard the Aurora Expeditions bus for the half-day tour of Longyearbyen.
There’s not a lot to see in Longyearbyen. It’s a coal mining town of around 2000. First stop was the ‘Beware Polar Bears’ road sign where like good tourists we filed out to have our photo taken. I’m not sure what a driver would do when they saw a polar bear on the road, but I was told, unlike kangaroos and other Aussie wildlife, you don’t see dead polar bears on the side of the road. This could be because it’s illegal to die in Longyearbyen (seriously, there is a death prohibition), you’re not allowed to kill polar bears, or because there are only a few kilometers of tarred road here.
Bodies don’t decompose at 78 degrees north, well not yet but anything could happen with global warming. So if it looks like you’re going to die you’ll be despatched to another part of Norway and if you do die here, you’ll be airlifted to the mainland. Hence it’s a good idea not to get too close to a polar bear. Perchance if you do get too close for comfort, the Longyearbyen governor advises to shout at the bear, bang together pots and pans or even throw your mittens on the road and make a run for it. Unfortunately I hadn’t packed any pots and pans.
After discussing the likelihood of meeting a polar bear here (its not very likely), we moved on to the dog sled huts. Here you can pat huskies and try seal meat. When you arrive at the home of the Huskies, you’ll see three dead seals hung up to dry. As a vegetarian, this was not a favourite place.
The final stop on the tour was the Svalbard Museum which features lots of photographs and minimal text detailing the history, flora and fauna of the region. There was a small shop here although real shopping is reserved for getting back off the boat. There were some great souvenir shops and free WiFi at the library, a Godsend for catching up on all your emails after ten nights away from mobile coverage.
Finally, after a few hours spent in the small museum, we were taken to the wharf for our trip on Aurora Expeditions’ Polar Pioneer. There were three other ships boarding so we were ferried over in the Zodiacs. Once on board I found my cabin and looked out the porthole at the brightly coloured triangular houses of Longyearbyen. I was finally here in Norway, almost at the North Pole.
Our circumvention around Spitsbergen or Svalbard began when all were aboard. The first morning was spent in the zodiacs motoring around icebergs. I’d never have believed that ice could talk but when you’re up close the crackling of the ice melting in midsummer is like a background symphony to the most exquisite scenery. Think blue sky, mountains and glaciers reflected in the water, ice of varying shapes and sizes littering the water, some white, some brilliant blue with the occasional loud boom of ice breaking off the glacier, known as carving. Amongst all this ice, we spotted a patch of brown, a lone bearded seal who seemed content to be left alone by the polar bears, of which we saw none. The afternoon was spent walking up the glacier viewing bird life and the occasional reindeer. We learned about the arctic wild flowers and herbs, namely sorrel which grew in abundance.
Think blue sky, mountains and glaciers reflected in the water, ice of varying shapes and sizes littering the water, some white, some brilliant blue with the occasional loud boom of ice breaking off the glacier, known as carving. Amongst all this ice, we spotted a patch of brown, a lone bearded seal who seemed content to be left alone by the polar bears, of which we saw none. The afternoon was spent walking up the glacier viewing bird life and the occasional reindeer. We learned about the arctic wild flowers and herbs, namely sorrel which grew in abundance.
Each day followed a similar pattern, usually a zodiac cruise in the morning and a landing in the afternoon where we would go out on soft adventure walks hoping to see a polar bear. Finally on our third night, around 10 pm the call came over the ship’s PA, ‘Polar Bear’. We put on our jackets, gloves, beanies, over our PJs and hurried on to deck. There, in the distance, was a tiny yellow dot. Binoculars were needed for a better look. He was on the move. Maybe to make a kill? We were at the edge of the pack ice, premium Polar Bear spotting territory. I watched him through binoculars for around 30 minutes before sleep called.
The next morning was even more exciting as we saw a bear much closer with his kill, a poor seal who he was munching on contentedly. We weren’t to see any more live bears after this day. However on the shore, we did find a poor dead baby bear, probably died from hunger. It was a sad sight.
Bird lovers were strongly catered for on this cruise with kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, eider ducks, skewers and puffins, many spotted daily. Large mammals were a bit harder to come by. Yet this was no game park stocked for the tourist, this was true wilderness. We did manage to see some great humpback whales and fin whales, arctic fox, and some inquisitive reindeer. Two walked straight up towards me but when I spoke they ran off.
I walked on pack ice, walked upon a glacier which was the closest I will get to feel like walking on the moon, and I watched several fool hardy souls do the polar plunge, but it was not for me.
I learned and saw first-hand the effect climate change is having in the arctic region. According to our naturalist, the ice will be gone from here in less than ten years and so will the polar bears. It was a balmy 5 degrees most days, even heading towards 9 degrees some days, quite unusual for this region. It is probably the first place where we will see the Cree Indian prophecy come to light and find that “money cannot be eaten.”
Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan has rocked off in Easkey, Ireland, checked out the swell at Teahupoo, sprayed cut backs with Jonty Rhodes in Durban and fed reef sharks in Bora Bora. She’s walked with lions in Mauritius, tracked white rhino in South Africa and come 18th in the World Bog Snorkelling in Wales. If it’s quirky, salty or disgustingly extravagant, she’ll cover it. She loves a conspiracy and would one day like to find out if there really are aliens in Antarctica.
Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan is author of soon to be released Hardly Branson: Seven Days in Space with a Martini.