Svalbard: Exploring the untouched arctic wilderness

Photography and wildlife enthusiast Brian Hood suits up for the Arctic chill to face off with majestic polar bears and giant walruses before they disappear forever.

The midnight sun appeared from behind a cloud and lit up the tundra in a golden hue, with the snow-capped mountains of East Fjord providing a dramatic backdrop. At the shore edge the mother bear emerged from the water, closely followed by her pair of two-year-old cubs. We had just witnessed an in-water hunt for a resting harbour seal. We had watched communication between the mother and cubs, the latter falling back a distance behind their mum while she attempted to catch the seal. The bears had been swimming for over two hours. The seal lived to see another day. Our group on the Zodiac was ecstatic! I checked my watch; it was 3am. This was our first night on board.

The polar regions have held the same mystic allure as the oceans and rainforest do for me. The wilderness and nature were always appealing to me when I was growing up in the countryside in the west of Scotland. Gifting myself the trip of a lifetime to experience the High Arctic was just the tonic for reaching my 45th year. Because of the pandemic, my 2020 plans were moved to 2021 and then to 2022. Thankfully this year, in July, the 12-day expedition booked through Natural World Safaris took place.

Grown walruses can weigh over 1 tonne
Grown walruses can weigh over 1 tonne

Svalbard was the destination. It is an archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole that has been governed by Norway since the Svalbard treaty in 1920. It was initiated due to disputes in the mining industry and the need for a legal framework to manage them. Situated at a latitude of 74 to 80 degrees north, this land is approximately 60 per cent covered by glaciers and home to majestic arctic wildlife, scenery and, to my surprise, some very interesting human history.

My primary objective was to see the bears. The polar bear has become a symbol for global warming – an emotive topic that I’ll come back to later. Little did I know how much I would really appreciate what else this rugged land would offer.

Into The Front

Travelling from my current home in Manila, Philippines, I made a pit-stop in Oslo, Norway, where I met my siblings and their kids, who flew over from Scotland to celebrate my niece’s 17th birthday. A fantastic city for a short stay, Oslo would also be the most common transit point for the flight route towards Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement and the largest inhabited area of Svalbard, where I would commence the trip.

After a three-hour flight north from Oslo, I arrived in Longyearbyen for a one-night stopover that gave me the opportunity to explore the town, which is inhabited by only over 2,000 people. Just enough to keep me busy for a day, the museum offered a good report of the history of the region and insight to the wildlife I hoped to see on the trip. Café Huskies was a nice spot to take a break and I dropped by the brewery, too, for a taste. What surprised me the most, however, was the countless dining options. There were at least five places I wanted to try, but sadly most were only open for dinner.

I boarded the MS Polarfront at 5pm to set sail on our circumnavigation around the archipelago. This 54m vessel was launched in 1976 and served as a weather ship in the North Atlantic before being removed from service in 2010. Since its 2017 refitting, the ship has been operated by Latitude Blanche as an upscale expedition boat for the High Arctic. Accommodating 16 passengers, it makes for an intimate group and, as was in my case, very like-minded souls with common interests in nature and photography.

The midnight sun casting a glow over the first bears of my trip
The midnight sun casting a glow over the first bears of my trip

After meeting the crew, our two expedition guides and my fellow travellers, we were briefed on the days ahead. Hadleigh, our expedition lead, summed up the plan: “We are objective-based; we have a rough plan for the next couple of days but we adjust based on the group’s objectives.” I had a feeling that it was going to be a great trip already.

My name was called to be taken to the cabin. I lucked out, as the other solo male traveller had to cancel, leaving me the whole room. And what a cabin it was. I’m used to diving on liveaboards, but that was palatial compared to my recent trips. There was even a lounge area to relax in.

Before our 8pm dinner on day one, we killed some time hanging out on the deck soaking in the scenery. Then we saw a break on the surface of the water – a large pod of beluga whales accompanying us along the way. I didn’t expect these beautiful creatures and so many of them. We enjoyed this sight for over an hour and then headed to dinner. Pan-fried foie gras to start, duck confit as the entree and creme brûlée to finish. The chef delivered. One extra benefit of being on a French boat, I guess.

I retired to my cabin after a post-dinner dram, at around 10.30pm. As I was getting ready to rest, suddenly the intercom goes live. It’s Hadleigh. “Get suited up, we have spotted three bears!” We got into our float suits as the crew launched the two Zodiacs. With great excitement we set off just after 11pm. But we couldn’t find the bears. Forty minutes of searching and nothing. Excitement fades.

“Will sightings be hard like this?” I thought to myself. We headed back to Polarfront, and the radio went off again. The captain announced, “We have spotted the bears to the starboard”. It took me a while to work out what’s going on. They were in the water, swimming. At this point, the boat was at least 1km away from where we had been looking. Our first night adventure had begun.

History and Highs

A great skua flies past the mighty Bråsvellbreen glacier
A great skua flies past the mighty Bråsvellbreen glacier

Days two and three enlightened me to a side of Svalbard I hadn’t thought much about – the human stories. Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet mining town, was our first stop. An eye-opening tour from an ex-resident, now working there as maintenance, helped us understand what life was like before it
closed in 1998. It was an interesting time to be there with the global geopolitical situation, especially as our guide had lost his wife and child in Donbas, Ukraine, to the troubles that region had for many a year.

Day three’s insights included the ill-fated 1897 North Pole attempt by Swedish explorer S. A. Andrée. We visited the launch site, the same as the one Roald Amundsen used for his attempt to cross by airship over the pole. A classic tale of poor preparation resulted in Andrée and his crew crashing after two days. They survived the crash but not the difficult trek back, a fact only confirmed some 33 years later when their remains were found on Kvitøya.

We also had our first walrus encounter that day. A scene from David Attenborough’s A Life on our Planet discussing the loss of sea ice and the population decline of polar bears and walruses will stay with me forever. No matter how many times I see it, it will always elicit a strong emotional reaction.

A mother bear cuddles with her yearling
A mother bear cuddles with her yearling

Thankfully, here in a Svalbard that is also impacted by global warming, there is no overcrowding and no tumbling to their death down a rocky mountain. Our first sighting of walruses was of them just peacefully relaxing and going about their business about 20m from the shore edge. They had, however, become much more active than when we passed them earlier. A small group was splashing about in the water, with one gigantic male lumbering his way down the beach, only to change tack as he laid down on his side and proceeded to roll himself down the beach into the water.

Post-dinner, more bears! We were feeling like a very lucky group. This time a mother and her yearling cub were walking along the shoreline. The Zodiacs were launched, and we spent time observing beautiful mother-and-cub interactions as she cleaned her paws while her cub rolled around playfully and rubbed its mum. The day was very satisfying indeed.

Day four took us into another unexpected area for me. Birdlife has never been at the top of my wildlife list, but this trip has challenged me to re-think this stance. Alkefjellet, a huge cliff face housing tens of thousands of nesting Brünnichs guillemots, was the destination. It was a spectacular site with moments when the sky was overcast by thousands of birds flying overhead. This was where we also saw our first Arctic fox. Not just one, but four were spotted around the base of the cliffs.

The towering cliffs of Alkefjellet
The towering cliffs of Alkefjellet

The fox, in its summer coat, was well-camouflaged against the rock – taking a keen eye to spot. Foxes were, for us, a consistent feature every time we went to a bird-nesting site. There were two more that we visited. The first was a canyon in the sound of Freemansundet that plays host to a few thousand black-legged kittiwake. A gentle tundra stroll through a herd of Svalbard reindeer took us up to our position. Here again, we were treated to a fox who might not have seen other humans before. Usually a very skittish animal, this one paid us no attention as it found an overhanging rock and curled up for an afternoon nap, sheltering from the light drizzle that had started to fall.

Ingebjorgfellet was our last bird excursion point and the location for nesting little auks. The Zodiacs landed a decent distance away, so we had a couple of kilometres’ hike to reach a spot on the rock where we sat and watched wave after wave of auks flying around, hearing the gentle whistling sound of their rapidly flapping wings as they passed close overhead. And again, another Arctic fox appeared, just like the others, looking for its next meal.

Along with the beluga whales on our first day, we also observed fin and minke whales, as well as my first-ever blue whale during our entire voyage. It’s always good to see these giants of the ocean, but I personally find watching from a boat a bit anti-climactic. A trip to swim with the humpbacks in Tonga really raised the whale-sighting game for me.

The Last Age

The towering cliffs of Alkefjellet
The towering cliffs of Alkefjellet

Alongside the wildlife and human history of Svalbard comes the other story – the one that the glaciers tell. The magnificent mountainous scenery, with scars and cuts from the weight of the ice that covers so much of this land, is plain to see. It is here that you witness the changes that the glacial moraine marks to give us a glimpse of the past.

Svalbard has experienced one of global warming’s biggest impacts that it’s reported the area is predicted to warm by 10 deg C by 2100. Our second expedition guide, Mats, has been working in the area for 40 years. Neither he nor I profess to be experts in the field of environmental science, but what he explained about the changes he has seen and the degradation of sea ice we saw with our own eyes give weight to the projection.

What long-impact this will have on the wildlife is hard to know. The bears we saw here were not the starving images that are used in marketing to pull at the heart strings for charitable donations. And some populations like the walruses are increasing. However, it is clear that animal migration patterns are changing, that the pack ice is retreating earlier and earlier. And within our lifetime, there will be no more bears in Svalbard.

Our group was really one that carried good fortune with it. In total we saw 11 bears. There were multiple foxes, walruses, different types of seals and millions of seabirds, including the elusive ivory gull, a specific target of one of our fellow expedition members who is a keen birder.

The MS Polarfront, our home for the trip dwarfed by nature
The MS Polarfront, our home for the trip dwarfed by nature

The highlight for me, though, was another walrus encounter on day six. We had been looking for bears on days five and six with no luck. Hopes were up for a while, but there were some very bear-like rocks visible in this summer season! We spotted another walrus haul-out and decided to go on land to spend some time with them. As we boarded the Zodiacs, James, a fellow expedition member, leaned over the ship’s edge and nonchalantly declared, “A bear has just arrived.”

That was our first male bear sighting. Our guides quietly steered the zodiacs towards the action as the bear seemed to stalk towards the walruses. We sat and watched, like a typical western stand-off as the large male walrus made a wall, and the females and pups stayed behind playing in the water. Bears are not successful hunting walrus here, and this attempt was no different. After a long while, the bear realised his next meal was elsewhere so he trod off,
just turning his head to gives us a stare as he disappeared over the beach horizon.

While the stand-off took place, the young walruses, including a small pup, decided to come and check out the Zodiacs; their inquisitive nature and expressions on their faces showing off their sociable personality. This encounter summed up a wonderful experience for me, far exceeding my expectations and making up for the two-year wait.

(All images: Brian Hood)

This story first appeared in the Oct 2022 issue Prestige Singapore.

The post Svalbard: Exploring the untouched arctic wilderness appeared first on Prestige Online - Singapore.