It is past midnight, yet the sun is still hanging high above the horizon, its rays illuminating every strand of hair on the polar bear below us. As we lean over the bow the huge male raises his head, sniffing the array of scents coming from our expedition ship National Geographic Explorer.
I’m in Arctic Svalbard, one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas and one of the best places on the planet to see polar bears – on ice, in their natural habitat. For more than hour we watch the King of the Arctic as he saunters about – leaping across ice floes, rolling like a labrador, standing on his hind legs and staring quizzically up at us. After only two days at sea, as part of Lindblad Expeditions’ 10-day ‘Land of the Ice Bears’ itinerary, I’m rewarded with a wildlife experience that surpasses anything I’ve seen before.
From Norway’s capital city Oslo, a three-hour charter flight brings me to Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of Svalbard. Known as the world’s northernmost city, this frontier town is surrounded by two magnificent glaciers, snow-capped mountains and timber houses painted in colours that mimic the summer tundra.
It is June and the start of summer, when 148 passengers and an expedition team of National Geographic photographers, naturalists and ice experts board the National Geographic Explorer for a seven-night expedition cruise. Since 2004, Lindblad Expeditions has partnered with National Geographic, an alliance that is a bonus for the environment and passengers.
Finding luxury on an expedition ship is also a bonus. My elegant cabin boasts a queen-size bed, two large windows, spacious bathroom, desk, flat-panel TV and plenty of storage space. Thirteen of Explorer’s cabins feature private balconies with large sliding glass doors; several offer living room-style areas. Staff are warm and attentive, happily taking care of every wish, while a spa and fitness centre take care of the body and a well-stocked Global Gallery (part shop, part gallery) takes care of retail therapy requirements.
But for me the greatest luxury is travelling with highly-trained naturalist guides, each experts in their own fields; improving my photography skills alongside National Geographic photographers; and spending time in the bridge (which is always open), chatting to the captain about receding glaciers, changing sea ice and the latest national soccer results.
On our first day we explore Krossfjorden, skimming over sea ice in zodiacs before going ashore at Stephan’s Garden. I join the fast walkers (slow and medium hikes are also offered) with naturalist guide Doug Gualtier. Like all of the naturalists, Doug has a university degree (and a Masters in conservation biology) and loves nothing more than sharing his knowledge with guests – pointing out anything from clumps of 200-year-old mosses to pods of beluga whales.
As if white beluga whales aren’t enough, the delights continue as we push further north – kayaking through a slushy of ice, marvelling at icebergs, riding in zodiacs alongside cliffs engulfed by a blizzard of birds. We see walruses swimming – their twin tusks looking like giant toothpicks – watch arctic foxes slinking across the tundra and listen to ‘white thunder’, the sound glaciers make as they calve and topple into the sea.
Meals are a highlight, with menus designed in collaboration with chef Serge Dansereau, owner of Sydney’s ever-popular The Bathers’ Pavilion at Balmoral Beach. While lunches include casual buffets, light meals in the library or impromptu barbecues on the back deck, dinners are more elaborate. The à la carte menus range from baked fillet of Arctic charr to seared duck breast, pan-seared king salmon to grilled lamb racks. Afternoon tea is served daily at 4:00pm and the evening talks kick off with cocktails and canapés in the spacious lounge.
Even though there’s no set itinerary – cruising on the whim of the ice and weather – the daily operations are seamless. Each evening we are given an outline of what might unfold the following day, while updates are posted on the in-room television or broadcast throughout the ship.
THE FAR NORTH
It’s 9:30pm and I’m just finishing dinner when I hear the update I’ve been waiting for: “We have a bear, make your way to the bow. Quietly”. Pulling on my boots and beanie I dash outside, where I spot my first polar bear ambling towards us across the ice floes. “They might be ferocious predators, but they are as inquisitive as children,” whispers Doug.
After watching the bear for an hour, Captain Kruess pushes on through the ice, eventually taking us beyond 81°. Over the course of the week, the tally on the whiteboard grows to eight polar bears, including a huge male with a fresh kill, a female swimming and a mother bear playing on the ice with her cub.
During it all, our knowledge of sea ice and climate change grows. A talk by polar ecologist Andrew Clarke teaches us about the domino effect of increased temperatures – when spring melt is hastened and winter freeze delayed, bears remained land-locked (and hungry) for longer during the summer months.
WESTERN EDGEØYA ISLAND
To complete our circumnavigation of Svalbard, the last two days are spent cruising alongside the Austfonna ice-shelf, hiking through a narrow canyon at Diskobukta, watching walruses at Kapp Lee and taking to kayaks and zodiacs in Hornsund fjord. On our return leg to Longyearbyen, we are followed by a platoon of humpback whales.
Standing on the deck, I realise it doesn’t matter how many National Geographic documentaries I’ve watched, nothing beats seeing this fragile environment for myself. In the end we only protect what we love, and we only love what we understand.