On Svalbard, the remote Norwegian archipelago halfway between Europe and the North Pole, it’s illegal to die. Which, for most travellers, of course, isn’t a deal breaker. In fact, it could be reassuring bearing in mind this is the land of the polar bear. It’s also forbidden, my guide was telling me, to leave the settlement without a gun in case you run into a spot of bear-shaped bother.
I am on a cheery whistle-stop tour of the main settlement, Longyearbyen, before joining my ship for a two-week Arctic voyage around this glacier-fringed, far-flung outpost and the east coast of Greenland with wilderness experts Aurora Expeditions.
The extreme below-zero temperatures are the reason for the death ban – the corpses don’t decompose. Scientists exhuming bodies two decades ago collected live samples of the influenza virus, which wiped out five per cent of the planet’s population in 1918. Add the threat of avalanches, permanent darkness for four months of the year and the fact that 60 per cent of the land mass is glacier, 27 per cent bare rock and only 13 per cent vegetation. Life here is tough.
But to visit? Svalbard has a surreal appeal and a desolate, spellbinding beauty. This is life on the edge. Think Twin Peaks or the twilight world of eerie Nordic noir thriller Fortitude, which was, in fact, set in Svalbard, although it was filmed in Iceland.
The brightly coloured wooden houses are built on stilts to preserve the permafrost, northern lights viewing is big business, you can go dog-sledding, bask in the midnight sun during summer and the stellar wildlife-watching isn’t a hard sell. I wander through Longyearbyen’s award-winning museum for a crash course on the archipelago’s geology, flora and fauna until it’s time to board the boat.
On this occasion, I’m travelling on the Polar Pioneer, a Soviet-era research vessel that will retire with Aurora Expeditions at the end of 2019. The purpose-built, state-of-the-art, ice-class expedition vessel, the Greg Mortimer (named after the company’s co-founder), will replace her for future expeditions, offering a ship with green credentials and a patented X-bow design for added stability as it slices through polar seas. After more than 27 years pioneering small group adventures across the planet’s wildest locations, the future for Aurora Expeditions is greener, sleeker and a good deal swankier than its predecessors.
Life onboard is relaxed and the voyage begins with team introductions, from expedition leader Dr Gary Miller, the Russian crew, the naturalists and the photography and kayaking guides. There’s also the compulsory polar bear safety and environmental briefings, lifeboat drills and crucial seasickness advice from the ship’s doctor, before we cast off for Isfjord under baby blue skies.
Each morning the Puffin Post, slotted through the cabin doors, outlines the plan for the day – including Zodiac cruises and beach landings – along with a recap of the previous day’s highlights, the ship’s position, a useful Russian phrase and an inspiring quote. It’s the only form of news you get after the
Longyearbyen 4G falls away, forcing you into a digital detox.
Our voyage offers two days to explore Svalbard’s northwest coast and fjords – it is a great taster of the archipelago, and we manage to cram in a smorgasbord of highlights.
Bundled up like Michelin men, we clamber down the gangway at Kongsbreen for our first Zodiac cruise. The water is the colour of a cappuccino, bobbing with brash ice and playful bearded seals, and the mountains that surround the glacier are a rusty red Devonian sandstone. At Ossian Sarsfjellet we land on the shore then hike up a hill as Svalbard reindeer graze the slopes.
The mist-wreathed island of Ytre Norskøya was once a hub for the Dutch whaling industry in the 17th century, when the waters ‘boiled’ with bowhead whales. Skirting around piles of rocks, makeshift graves above the frozen ground and a Zealander’s ancient skull, we wander across the mossy tundra.
As we tramp uphill a family of arctic foxes scampers across the slope, while over the cliff’s edge we spy perky puffins perched precariously on a narrow ledge.
Sailing on to Hamiltonbukta, the Zodiac cruise takes us past cliffs of cacophonous guillemots before edging towards the face of a glacier as huge chunks of ice crash into the water. The crackling sound of the radio fills the cold air as we fill sacks with old fishing nets and plastics for the Clean Up Svalbard initiative. It’s the news we’d all been waiting for – a yacht anchored in a nearby fjord has spotted a mother polar bear and her cub sleeping on the tundra.
It’s our first polar bear sighting for this trip. With binoculars, and an air of excitement, we scour the slope, only just able to make out a buttery smudge against the scree. All too soon, it’s time to leave, the captain pointing our bow across the ocean to Greenland.
Our days at sea are filled with lectures and photography workshops. Biologist Ryan Burner gives a presentation on bird migration. Huddled in the lecture theatre we learn about the arctic tern, the mightiest migrant, which travels from pole to pole each year, escaping the Arctic winter for balmier southern summer seas.
Naturalist Roger Kirkwood spins tales of Arctic marine mammals and our impact on them, from the times of whalers, sealers and walrus-hunters to current-day environmental factors. These accounts feature animals like the Greenland shark, which can live for up to 500 years, and hooded seals, which we’d seen lounging on ice floes. I learn that the male hooded seal inflates a red septum out of one nostril to attract a female. It sounds like quite the party trick.
The crossing is mercifully calm, the sea flat and glassy, with a cold current creating an eerie Arctic phenomenon: a fogbow, which is a white arc infused with light. Through the haze, Greenland makes its appearance.
The world’s largest non-continental island sprawls over 2,165,000 square kilometres, 80 per cent of it ice cap. In terms of scale it’s off the charts. Greenland’s fjords are sailed by glacial bergs the size of skyscrapers, while the trees – dwarf birch and arctic willow – are just centimetres high.
Our first landing is at the aptly named Myggebugta, or Mosquito Bay, a Sirius Patrol hut standing sentinel on the shore. Founded during the Second World War to defend northeast Greenland, the sledge patrol was made up of nine Danes, one Norwegian and two Greenlanders. It was disbanded at the end of the war but reinstated in 1950 by the Danish government. Today, its role is military surveillance and policing the Northeast Greenland National Park.
After a quick snoop around the wooden hut we set off across tundra sown with blooming bog saxifrage and up hills in search of musk ox, shaggy relics of the last ice age and Greenland’s largest grazing mammal. Our guides are armed in case we happen across polar bears, and our eyes are on high alert for any sign of animal life. Insects, however, are the only other creatures we find as we reach the summit. With the sun beating down on us, we take a moment to observe the peaceful panorama of the bay below.
The ship drifts through a sun-kissed afternoon to Kap Humboldt where we find a trapper’s hut, ransacked by a polar bear, and then on to Blomsterbugten, or Flower Bay, where we spot wolf tracks and the remnants of fox traps left by Norwegian hunters. But it’s not until we reach Nanortalik’s paleo-eskimo site that we spot a lone musk ox, which bolts like a shaggy mammoth across a carpet of billowing bog cotton. These primeval creatures once roamed as far south as Kansas, but now natural populations can only be found in northern Canada and Greenland. Hoping to track down a herd, we walk across the tussocky tundra, trying to stay down wind until, hunkering down in the grass, we gaze on a grazing herd. We hardly dare to breathe.
Icebergs aren’t nearly as hard to find. In Scoresbysund, the world’s largest fjord system, a labyrinth of waterways, we cruise through Iceberg Alley near Rode Island. It’s a jaw-dropping spectacle of soaring pillars, arches and ice caves, sculpted into outlandish shapes.
We’re anchoring off Ittoqqortoormiit, home to 350 east Greenlanders and around 100 sled dogs. The town was built in 1924 by a Dane, Ejnar Mikkelsen, before Greenlanders from the village of Ammasalik, 800 kilometres south, arrived to settle the area a year later.
Hunting was originally the mainstay of its economy, but now the village relies on tourism (there’s a small museum and guesthouse, which offers dog sled tours, hiking and fishing trips), although locals still export sealskin and polar bear pelts. Hunting restrictions are in place but the village has a quota of 35 polar bears a year.
We’re starting to develop berg-blindness and have overdosed on ice, but we’re not prepared to give up on sighting a bear up close. “It’s not over till it’s over,” Gary reminds us.
And he’s right. At 5.30am on our last morning his voice crackles over the intercom: “We have bears! Zodiacs launching in 30 minutes.”
Scrambling out of our bunks, we grab our life jackets and make our way on deck, and there, lumbering along the shore, is a polar bear drama unfolding. A large male is chasing off a younger bear, while a mother and two cubs run in the other direction.
It’s a pinch-yourself, lump-in-the-throat moment – the best day of the expedition. Puttering around Rømer Fjord in Zodiacs, we watch the bears pick at a narwhal carcass left on the shore by hunters. We keep a safe distance, but when a bear decides to take a swim, it makes the kayakers work hard to avoid doing the same. By the end of the day, the bear count reaches a greedy seven.
The next morning’s Puffin Post fittingly quotes an excerpt from Polar Bears by Dr Ian Stirling: “A wild polar bear is the Arctic incarnate. The Arctic is not a forsaken wasteland to a polar bear, it’s home.” And one that we have been privileged to share.