Chasing the White Monster
The archipelago of Svalbard lies off the coast of Norway, and the best way to explore it is on a cruise. Now the word ‘cruise’ normally strikes fear into my heart and conjures images of mega-liners ferrying hundreds, if not thousands, of people around some of the more unspoiled regions of the world. Then there’s the bingo, cheesy cabaret shows and hordes of octogenarian Americans with external plumbing.
This adventure could not be further from those stereotypes. The ship only berths around a hundred people, so it never feels crowded. Officially it is an expedition vessel, which means it carries a fleet of inflatable Zodiacs for excursions. It is also a certified ice breaker, meaning it can travel through the floe. There are many ships in the region that have to turn tail at the first sight of ice, making polar bear sightings far less likely. She also has a full complement of naturalists and explorers, who give lectures, pilot the Zodiacs and lead onshore landings. They also carry guns to defend the group from any roving polar bears who might turn up, so it’s worth keeping on their good side.
Our first sighting of a polar bear is less than auspicious; cruising through broken pack ice at a slow speed, we spot a lone male asleep, his head resting on a large pile of snow as if it were a pillow. He doesn’t stir as we chug closer, then when it seems impossible he hasn’t heard us, he looks over his shoulder and does a classic double take. His head drops back down sleepily then shoots back up in surprise as his brain registers the shock of seeing a large red ship steaming towards him. He jumps up and flees across the ice, jumps in the sea, swims 30 seconds to the next ice floe, hauls himself up, runs across it and jumps into the water again. He barely looks back at the ship as he disappears into the distance.
That night in the bar everyone feels quite deflated. Sure, we’ve seen our first polar bear, but the fabled white monster didn’t seem quite so big or scary!
Our next polar bear sighting is far more exciting. Everyone is called up on deck by the captain as, from the bridge, he spots a mother and two cubs. They are still some way off, but moving steadily towards the ship. Unlike the first bear, they don’t seem bothered by our presence – in fact, they are walking straight towards us, curiously sniffing the air.
The captain cuts the engines of the ship and we drift slowly. The three bears are on the other side of the ice floe moving towards us. They are calling to each other – a strange and haunting bellow that none of the expert naturalists have heard before. It seems they’re as excited as the rest of us.
The ship bumps softly sideways into the ice floe and stops. The bears are still approaching. One of the youngsters stands on its back legs to get a better view. It couldn’t look more cute if it tried. Its mother appears massive. She’s no more than 10 metres from the ship and looks at us inquisitively, seemingly deciding we are no threat. From this distance it’s possible to make out her massive front paws and the vicious claws she uses to stun seals before moving in for the kill. The bears are with us for almost half an hour before they start to move away, still bellowing to each other.
The next day we are even luckier, and spot a mother with three young cubs. Although they look cute and cuddly, we’re told that even at this age they would still probably attack a human if they had the chance. The mother would certainly pounce without a second’s hesitation to protect her young. The bears head from ice floe to ice floe, swimming between each. As they get out of the sea, the mother rolls on her back to push water from her fur to preserve her body temperature. The cubs follow suit. It is saddening to realise that the chances of all of these three cubs surviving is virtually nil. As the four of them swim off, one of the cubs is actually hitching a ride on the mother’s back, half out of the water and looking around smugly. I get the distinct feeling this will definitely be one of the cubs who does make it.
Svalbard consists of a number of islands. Most of them are uninhabited but there are a couple of settlements on the main island, Spitsbergen, including the enigmatic town of Longyearbyen. The west side of Svalbard is influenced by the Gulf Stream and so doesn’t experience as much ice, especially in the summertime. Off the east side of Spitsbergen lie the islands of Barentsoya, Edgeoya and Nordauslandet across the Hinlopen Strait. This area is shielded from the Gulf Stream and so far has more ice and therefore many more polar bears.
Since this is an expedition, not a tour, the boat is effectively free to go wherever it wants. Captain Heslop fits the bill for an expedition captain perfectly. Not only is he adventurous and dedicated, with an apparent flair for piloting a path through the frozen sea, but he also delivers his briefings like they’re stand-up comedy routines. It’s useful, since there are long hours of steaming through pack ice with little to see and the midnight sun means days literally do drag on forever.
Luckily the ship’s bar is open until the last person goes to bed, which, with 24 hours of sunshine, can be quite early in the morning. Most nights when he has finished piloting the ship or doing ‘captain things’, Captain Heslop comes down to the bar for a nightcap and to socialise with us dark-starved drunks. He tries a number of times to explain to me exactly what the captain does, as well as the difference between a ship and a boat, but I never quite manage to grasp it – certainly not after a night in the bar.
One of the most amazing things about the midnight sun is that it is always possible to go up on deck and look at the scenery, and I often find myself there at three or four in the morning. I never tire of this, especially on the east side of Svalbard where there is a lot more ice. Another factor keeping me on deck is the fact that I am in one of the cheaper, lower cabins. The sea level is just a few inches below the level of the porthole. As we make the crossing from the mainland of Norway to Svalbard past the atmospherically misty Bear Island (of Alistair MacLean fame) the seas are so rough my porthole seems to be under the water most of the time.
For three more days we try to make our way north in an attempt to circumnavigate the archipelago, and this results in some of our best wildlife sightings. We come across a number of walruses. These strange beasts are large and excessively fat; they haul out on the ice floes in garrulous and somewhat stinky groups. Fights break out with immediate aggression before quickly dissipating. They are so well equipped for the freezing, dark winters they often overheat in the summertime – even when sitting on ice! Their skins get pinker and pinker until they have to plunge into cold water to cool off.
We don’t spend the whole time on the ship, and often head to the Zodiacs, sometimes to cruise around looking for wildlife or to approach the towering faces of glaciers, other times for a full-scale landing.
Getting ready for an excursion takes time. Although this is summer, it’s still extremely cold and there’s often a biting wind. Waterproofs cover warm clothes and thermal underwear, and high waterproof boots complete the ensemble. Add a hat, gloves and a compulsory life jacket, and it’s difficult to walk down the gangway to the Zodiac, let alone step on to it.
Landings are even more difficult. The Zodiac is taken as close to the beach as possible but you have to wade the final few metres, all the while hoping the water is no deeper than your boots. Once on land a number of armed guides are close by in case of what is euphemistically called a “polar bear encounter”.
Although largely deserted, there are still signs of human life at a number of the landings. Unbelievably there are a number of hardy souls who used to spend the entire winter living in small, remote trapper’s huts. During this time of year the animals have thicker coats. In the case of the Arctic fox, the coat is a bushy white rather than the patchy brown it turns during summer. Trappers used to catch animals like the Arctic fox and the polar bear for their pelts, and in return were often hunted by the bears themselves. The icy conditions and permanent night must have tested the trappers to their limits. The huts are basic, to say the least, and a number still exhibit the claw marks of polar bears left when the animals attempted to fight their way in.
On the penultimate night of the expedition, we cruise into Hornsund, a spectacularly beautiful fjord, lined with craggy mountains that spawn great glaciers. The crew hosts a barbecue on the deck of the ship before an intrepid few board Zodiacs and head off for a midnight cruise. As we approach the Samrinbreen glacier I am struck by its size, and it just seems to get bigger the closer we venture. It seems to radiate waves of cold and we have to stay far enough away to avoid the huge chunks of ice that plunge to the sea.
Svalbard isn’t all about nature. One of the most fascinating spots is the old, deserted Russian mining settlement of Pyramiden. Until the 1925 Svalbard Treaty, when it became a part of Norway, the area was effectively open for any country to exploit. Even now, any citizen of the 40 signatories of the Svalbard Treaty has the right to come and settle here if they can find work.
Pyramiden was abandoned in 2000, although it looks like it has barely changed for decades. The place – a massive, sprawling, ugly complex – is pure fifties communist chic. But it has some architectural gems. There are a number of buildings for the mining and loading of coal, but also an Olympic-sized swimming pool, barracks for the miners and a sports centre. Communism seems to have lingered longer in Pyramiden than in the rest of the Soviet Union – in the centre of this ghost town is a prominent bust of Lenin, looking out over his deserted domain. For all of the facilities, life must have been harsh for the miners here, but it seems that in true Russian style they sought comfort in the bottle – there is a whole bar here, made entirely out of empty alcohol bottles.