I wasn’t sure about Svalbard. I’d booked it last year after much deliberation and indecision, despite being keen to go and having the destination highly recommended by a number of trusted sources.
I’ve travelled to the northern reaches of the globe on two previous occasions, Manitoba in Canada and Kirkenes, Northern Norway. I’ve seen polar bears at very close range as they traverse the tundra, on route to the intriguingly formed sea-ice, during their annual autumn journey via the precariously positioned town of Churchill. I’ve watched the Northern Lights dance across clear, midwinter night skies near Tromsø whilst careering over the fells on my snowmobile.
So, Svalbard in high summer with 24/7 daylight ought to have been an easy decision if I was looking for another Arctic adventure. But for some reason I dragged my heels.
As the time of the trip grew ever closer, I was gently prompted by the endlessly patient tour operator and eventually the deal was done. All the necessary paperwork arrived and my case was finally packed. I was ready for the off.
Was it worth it? Yes! Yes! Yes! What was it like? Beyond my wildest dreams! Sorry about the clichés, but short of overusing superlatives it’s one of those experiences that takes time to digest and absorb. I’ve been back four days and my mind is still processing what I’ve experienced over the last two weeks.
So what was it like? My first impression was a literally jaw dropping, sharp intake of breath moment as my SAS flight from Oslo abruptly reached the end of the cloud cover that had stretched the length of Norway for three hours. Eagerly anticipating a view after all this time, I looked down and was presented with the wholly unexpected sight of range upon range of serrated, gunmetal grey peaks adorned with glinting snow. In between these raw, jagged structures I could see sinuous stretches of water, the fjords wrapping themselves around the vertiginous cliffs, alongside which a few flatter areas indicated signs of human habitation in the form of small dwellings with lots of red roofed houses, a common sight in Norway. And all lit by dazzling 2 a.m. sunshine! Breathtaking. I sent some photos on my iPhone to friends and family and wondered later if they’d realised it was in ‘real-time’!!
Later that morning, after a much needed brief sleep and a hearty Norwegian breakfast in the Svalbard Hotel, the tour regrouped and we were taken by bus for the short drive to where our ship was waiting. I knew this was going to be an unusual trip when I’d opened the bedroom curtains and found myself face to face with a reindeer on the scrubgrass below the window.
The wonderfully named Akademik Sergey Vavilov awaited us at Pier 2, which was clearly the second class option, it’s primary use being the coal yards which for years generated income and jobs for the residents of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main settlement of around 2000 people. One of the larger cruise ships ( with approx 3000 passengers) had taken pole position at Pier 1, nearer the centre of town. (Sorry for the awful pun.) Our ship by comparison was only able to accommodate around eighty, it’s primary function being that of a Russian research vessel. Much more my style.
The trip’s meticulously prepared itinerary was swiftly dispensed with as we made our way out of port and into the scattered Svalbard archipelago, which consists of the islands of Spitzbergen, Nordausland, Barents Island and Edgeøya. Time, tide and inclement weather are no respecter of mankind’s wishes. Our route was determined by the strengthening winds and possible rough seas and how to avoid them.
So, what did we get up to in the next twelve days? Plenty of early starts, our Pavlovian responses finely tuned by day 4, rising to copious amounts of tempting breakfast fare ably prepared by the fabulous Russian crew. Lots and lots of dressing up in interminable layers of necessary thermal clothing, added to which was the obligatory life jacket, a ‘joy’ to struggle with and adjust to one’s individual physical dimensions…and of course the wellington boots. The advice to ‘pack a clothes peg’ was undoubtedly the best I’d received. My pink peg saved the day. How else would I have located my boots in amongst the seventy or so other pairs of green rubber footwear? Inspired.
We laughed, we wept, we cursed, but each day, often twice a day, we got ourselves out there, down the gangplank and into the zodiacs. I had a theory that there was a webcam in the torture chamber, aka the Mud Room, which was subsequently viewed by the team as idle entertainment after we’d lumbered out in our grotesquely amusing outfits. Was it worth it? Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. No pain, no gain as they say.
And what did we see? A comprehensive chart was kept by the excellent expedition team, noting all daily sightings of wildlife, adding to our growing list of ‘achievements’ and our ever expanding sense of wonder. Provided with binoculars and in conjunction with the vast array of our assorted camera equipment, we were expertly guided around Svalbard’s assorted islands.
We cruised silently in our zodiacs around ice floes on which perched bearded seals, walrus and, on the first day, we excitedly spotted a humpback whale spouting fairly close to the ship. In our magic inflatables we hugged towering cliffs, arching our aching necks as we gazed in awe at tens of thousands of nesting guillemots and kittiwakes, whilst hoping not to get sprayed with droppings! We listened to the orchestra of their wild cries, raucously breaking the silence in one of the world’s last wildernesses. Their guano aroma, though less attractive, but so evocative of wild places, filled our nostrils with it’s unmistakable scent.
We chuckled at comical puffins, proudly entertaining us with their rainbowbeaked appendages and frenetic flight, as though fearing that in slowing down they would plunge from aerial grace.
We heard the crack of ice calving from blue glaciers and watched in anticipation, with a degree of trepidation, as they crashed into the glacial waters below, creating mini tsunamis and leaving yet more strange angular formations on the frozen curtains above.
We almost reached the North Pole! Well, we sailed to 81.31 degrees North, less than five hundred miles from the top of the world. Sometimes standing out on deck, oblivious to the increasing chill until our hands warned us of the need to warm them up, sometimes in the hallowed area of the ship’s bridge where our journey was in the safe hands of the captain and his crew, we traversed the edge of the ice that marks the start of what eventually forms the North Pole. The crunching, gently undulating collection of brash ice, patches consisting of freezing sea, were intermittently shrouded in fog interspersed with shards of sunshine, creating an ethereal, ghostly seascape. A fog bow formed in the milky arctic haze.
I stood for a long time and looked. I knew I was watching one of the world’s greatest treasures. It was a stark reminder that this ice is likely to continue to decrease with each passing year, it’s gradual decline marking the end of the Pole as we know it and the probable extinction of Arctic wildlife. Another seminal moment on my trip.
Polar bears, everybody’s favourite rare and wondrous beast, were spotted by keen eyed expedition staff; on one occasion a bear was ‘picked out’ by the extremely powerful telescope on the bridge of the ship, allegedly five miles in the dizzyingly white distance.
We saw ten bears in total, some on rocky outcrops of the small islands around which we sensitively circled, some lounging on snow decorated beaches and, the crème de la crème of settings, a mother and cub on a pyramid of snowy ice adjoining a hundred mile long glacier wall. That was some afternoon.
Another day we approached stealthily as four arctic fox cubs cavorted in the grassy hummocks of the coastal area, vying for ownership of a dead guillemot and taking turns to devour it. Around forty of us sat silently transfixed for over an hour, privy to witnessing these beautifully adapted creatures in their natural habitat, seemingly undisturbed by our presence.
Another day, another landing and we were thirty metres from large groups of vast, corpulent walruses hearing (and smelling) their heavy snorting breaths in the chill Arctic air. I never did establish the collective noun of these pinnipeds, though I fancy they could be termed a ‘blob’. Sitting quietly on the shingle beach, absorbed in this primeval scene, I felt an unprecedented sense of privilege to be part of this experience. We were in their territory, this was their land and their ocean. We were the strange beings, the ones that really had no place there. And could certainly not survive even a few hours in those sub zero temperatures. I felt like a trespasser.
So what else did we get up to? We picked plastic litter from beaches. We are now so much better informed about single-use plastics and what action we can begin to take to reduce this woefully bad idea that has been globally adopted to the detriment of all living species. We ate too much. We dozed off (in the fondly termed ‘sleep room’) during the most fascinating talks and presentations on eco-tourism, the growing menace of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, how to avoid being attacked by a polar bear, how to take the ‘perfect shot ’ with your camera..
Some of the women ( and I include myself here) decided to create a new entry for the Guinness book of Records. I can’t say for certain but I think there were eleven of us in the hot tub at midnight, sipping hot chocolate laced with Baileys Irish Cream and warming ourselves in the warm water and 24 hour sunlight.
We made friends, we laughed, we learned, we chatted, we exchanged stories. We looked, we watched , we marvelled. We had a ball!
Was I glad I’d eventually made the decision to go? Without question.
Would I go again? When’s the next flight… !