On Safari . . . In The North Atlantic?

Nobody spoke. At 80 degrees North, the 25-year-old hull creaked in the ice. Camera shutters whirred while expedition staff and passengers stared spellbound. A gargantuan male polar bear stood, flat-footed, only a few feet beneath us on the Norwegian pack ice. Had I leaned just a little further over the ship’s rail, we could have shaken hands. Or rather, I could have lost my video camera and the arm holding it.

It was mid-August. I was aboard the Professor Molchanov on a ten-day circumnavigation around Spitsbergen, Norway. The ex-research vessel, crewed by Russians, was my new home away from home. Built for the Hydrometeorology Institute in Murmansk, Russia, it measures a shade over 233 feet long. Ice-strengthened, she was built for Arctic northern conditions.

The remote Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, meaning “Cold Coast,” is home to the world’s most northerly town, Ny Alesund. If you hanker for northern adventures, this is as good as it gets. Here, at the 79th parallel, you are faced with superlatives at every turn: the world’s most northerly post office, earth’s northernmost historical train, the world’s most northerly “tagged” fox family . . . I could go on.

Svalbard’s main island is Spitsbergen, meaning “Pointed Mountains,” and provides the only international airport. On arrival my plane descended around midnight through the low cloud cover into a fairytale setting. Jagged peaks were draped in snow blankets, and the midnight sun pierced through, turning the fjord an apricot hue. From early April to mid-September there is no night here, and from April 19 to August 23, the sun won’t even touch the horizon. The capital settlement of Longyearbyen, housing approximately 1,800 people, is named after John Longyear, one of the Arctic Coal Company’s founders from 1906.

After a restless “night” I headed across town to my ship. I ambled past haphazardly-parked skidoos, abandoned until the winter months. Under a cloudless sky, the mercury hovered at a comparatively balmy 39 degrees Fahrenheit. In town a sign outside the post office politely requested that guns should be left outside, and the pizza vendor advertised his closing time as 5 a.m. I could tell that this trip was going to be a little unusual. And there, moored and shimmering in the fjord — Adventfjorden to be specific — was the imposing hulk, the Professor Molchanov, my ride for the next ten days.

Each morning, at an unsociable hour for a vacation, Troels Jacobsen, our expedition leader, brusquely awakened us in our heavily-curtained cabins. The ship’s speakers would burst into life at 7 a.m. every morning with the unmistakable voice of Jacobsen, authoritatively quoting our longitude, latitude, and the outside temperature, urging us to get immediately out on deck to witness the stunning vistas. We would then glide to an anchoring spot, guzzle down the remains of our coffee from the buffet breakfast downstairs, and climb down and launch out into the sea in our rubber Zodiac inflatable boats.

The first morning we saw a bearded seal out on an ice chunk, a common sight near glacier fronts. Later, as I was taking pictures of wading Barnacle geese — the islands of the North Atlantic are their main breeding grounds — I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my lens of an arctic fox running along the hillside with a Kittiwake chick in its mouth.

Distracted by the beauty of the glacier Fjortendebreen, we almost missed our first polar bear sighting. He was walking along the shore, close to a beach crowded with seabirds that we’d only just finished visiting. Kittiwakes, Atlantic Puffins, and Purple Sandpipers brought our bird species count to seven for the morning. Not a bad haul.

We then arrived in Ny Alesund, the closest town to the North Pole except for a few military bases. Our group madly rushed to send postcards from the post office, to buy the world’s most northerly socks and hats sporting the words: “79 degrees North,” and to get that important stamp proving we’d set foot here. (There is a rubber stamp in the post office lobby where you can ruin a passport page yourself — and the one facing it — with too much ink.)

A pre-landing brief in the Molchanov’s cosy bar brought home the very real danger bears can pose to humans. Jacobsen toted a rifle as he spoke. There were three rifles in all, one for each expedition staff member. “Always be within 100 feet of a gun on land, and no more than 20 people to each gun,” he explained seriously. Despite smiling while we drank tea attentively, this was no joking matter. “I really, really, don’t want to shoot a bear,” stressed Jacobsen for the umpteenth time. He was adamant that he would never allow a situation to develop where killing a bear was an option.

If a bear happened to be roaming on an island that we planned to explore, we would have to alter our itinerary so as to avoid any dangerous encounters. This happened one day, but a little too late — we were already on the island. A guide spotted a lumbering splodge about a mile away on the opposite shore, steadily heading in our direction. We quickly moved back to our landing site for a swift evacuation back to the ship, then recounted later that night, over a stiff drink, how we’d almost been eaten.

Bear-wise, the highlight came on day six, as we were floating just beneath the 80th parallel. Jacobsen’s scheduled lecture on the “ice bear” — as the Europeans call it — rapidly dissipated when the real thing was spotted from the bridge. I will never fathom how our Russian captain can see a white bear — a mile away, no less — in an icy seascape of an eye-crossingly similar color. But he did, and seemingly right on cue.

The bear emerged from a little ice nook and approached curiously, but not cautiously. After sniffing the hull, jumping back just briefly when a plane flew low overhead, he wandered around to the ship’s stern. Poorly dressed passengers — some had hurried outside wearing only slippers and bathrobes — were turning a bluish color by now, but nobody wanted to go inside. This was extraordinary and spectacular; our guides were shaking their heads with incredulity, quite clearly amazed.

We lay heaped on top of each other, hanging over the rail, as the bear seemed to make eye contact. He raised himself onto his hind legs, standing at least eight feet tall. Barely two yards beneath me now, I could see the striations in his claws and the individual hairs in his fur. The ice compacting under his paws was the only sound as we collectively held our breath. I gazed into his dark eyes, pools of gleaming inquisitiveness, until he quietly retreated into the pristine icy wilderness.

Unbelievably, that same evening, just before midnight, the ship’s intercom crackled with another sighting: a mother with a cub this time. We shivered under a weak sun as the duo plodded over the bluish ice ridges, leaping from floe to floe. We watched, mesmerized, as the cub miscalculated the jumps, plunging its plump rump into the freezing water off the starboard side. It remained unfazed — the thick insulation of blubber means that polar bears can endure temperatures down to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit without increasing their metabolic rate.

Having reached our most northerly point of 80’ 32” it was all downhill now. Well, south anyway. Though with flatulent walruses, Russian trappers’ huts, and calving glaciers still to visit — to name just a few points of interest — the trip was far from over.

On our penultimate evening, as we cruised deep in the fjord system of Hornsund, Jacobsen radioed all five Zodiacs to cut their engines. We floated, silent, simply appreciating the swishing and popping of the glacial ice surrounding us. We were in the High Arctic, at the top of the world, and I didn’t want to leave. This northern realm of the world’s largest carnivore had me under its spell. Then the silence was shattered as the engines revved back up, awakening me from a dream I never wanted to forget.

From The Expiditioner

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