At least 80 sets of binoculars and long lenses are trained onto a single spot over the side of the Ocean Adventurer, which has quieted its engines alongside a vast field of sea ice in the Arctic Circle north of Norway. For almost three breathless hours the eyes of every passenger and crew member on board are glued to an extraordinary death match: a massive female polar bear stalking her intended dinner, a fat, bearded seal.
This isn’t the bear’s first rodeo. Instead of charging recklessly at her prey, she languidly circles the seal in a broad arc, before settling behind a small ridge of ice to plan her attack. Her neck arches and sways as she sniffs at the seal’s scent and she moves between a restless crouch and standing on her hind legs to get a better view. She is pure power, unfettered instinct. On the ship, we quietly pledge our allegiances without dropping our gazes – about half of us are Team Seal, the rest Team Polar Bear. And then the bear goes for it – every rippling muscle in action as she breaks into a fearsome run.
Sensing the bear’s gallop, the seal plops into the freezing ocean and swims away, turning its head once or twice to face its assailant with a look we all agree is just the teensiest bit smug. Our polar bear slams on her furry front brakes. She knows she has next to no chance of catching a slippery seal in the water and in this unforgiving environment it doesn’t pay to waste energy trying. She lopes away to the soundtrack of every single person on our ship releasing his or her held breath. Team Seal clinches the win.
“Film crews who come to the Arctic wait weeks to see anything like that,” says the ship’s onboard marine guide and polar bear expert, Annie Inglis, who looks just as awestruck as the rest of us at having witnessed this stunning natural spectacle. “What a special thing to see.”
In fact, it’s difficult to find anything about this 13-day Arctic cruise, run by polar specialists Quark Expeditions, that doesn’t end up being special beyond anything I could have imagined.
This isn’t my first Arctic experience. When I was about 12 I visited Swedish Lapland with my family but as a sullen tween I refused to leave the hotel room and instead lay on the bed watching MTV. In my defence, it was one of the greatest years for music – it’s not like Nirvana releases Nevermind every day – but I’d always lived with the regretful sense that the frozen north probably had a little more to it. I longed for a second chance and this trip was it.
The idea of our expedition is to sail south from the tiny town of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, which is the only real settlement on the isolated archipelago of Svalbard, a Norwegian territory almost 2000 kilometres north of mainland Europe. Then we’re to circumnavigate the whole group of islands (conditions permitting), weaving through various fjords and stopping at bays and coves, detouring to view wildlife whenever it presents itself.
Each day starts early, at about 7.30am, with a lavish buffet breakfast with our fellow adventurers at shared tables. There are the usual eggs, bacon and cereals but the highlight is the thick tranches of Norwegian smoked salmon. Afterwards, we gear up in layers of thermals and waterproof clothing for a day of Zodiac landings and cruises (assuming it’s safe enough – on one occasion our flotilla lands in a sudden fog that obscures a polar bear that had quietly swum to the same spot. As soon as we saw her we were back on the ship before you could say “largest land carnivore on earth”).
My fellow passengers are unusually adventurous, the sorts of people who don’t consider flopping on a beach a proper holiday. At least a third are Americans and, surprisingly, at least a third are Australian – many of whom have already explored the southern polar regions and are here to find out if the ice looks different at this end of the world. Carmen, in her 60s, has been travelling nonstop for five years, only returning home to Sydney for Christmas. Eighty-six-year-old June has ventured to the Galápagos Islands, Patagonia and Antarctica on her own. And Lizzie, in her 80s and barely one-and-half-metres tall, tells me she’s cycled all of Australia on a girls’ bike with a fluffy white seat. “My doctor wants me to stop so I don’t tell him about it anymore,” she says briskly.
With far less wilderness experience than my shipmates, I’d assumed that everywhere inside the Arctic Circle would be wall- to-wall ice, which led me to wonder exactly why we would need 13 days to see the same thing over and over. But I soon learned the landscape of Svalbard is wildly diverse. In the south, we trek through vast polar deserts, which look entirely empty until you bend down to notice the bright purple and yellow wildflowers that somehow find a way to survive the barren terrain or see a herd of reindeer silhouetted against the mountainous skyline.
Another day we explore the site of a 17th-century whaling station, the remains of its huge blubber ovens preserved by the cold. On one landing we climb to a cliff of nesting seabirds as our guides line the perimeter with shotguns in case a polar bear decides to join the tour. If this happened, the crew is trained to quietly lead their guests back to the boats if it’s safe to do so or deter the bear with loud noises or flares. In 30 years of Arctic travel, Quark’s team has never had to use lethal force to subdue a bear. But it’s comforting to know they’re in no hurry to lose a guest, either.
Of course there is plenty of ice. Masses of it, especially as we inch closer to the Pole. Huge, blue glaciers that calve with almighty crashes into the ocean. Vast jigsaws of sea-ice floes that scrape and separate like prehistoric continents colliding and dividing. Jagged icebergs – sometimes white, sometimes opaque pastel blue, sometimes translucent cobalt – are hypnotically beautiful and chillingly forbidding. At times I catch myself standing frozen – from both cold and awe – on the bow, mesmerised by the fact that I’m witnessing it all in relative safety. I borrow a book from the ship’s library about 19th-century explorers’ obsession with the region and find myself constantly looking up from the page to the view from my cabin window (a vista that the 24-hour daylight of peak summer allows me to see at any hour), wondering what made them think they could enter this world and emerge alive.
And then there are the animals. In total, we see a staggering 19 polar bears, including two cubs trailing obediently after their mother. Humpback, fin and minke whales (and possibly a blue whale… the jury’s out), as well as pods of ice-white belugas. Fat, comical walruses, hauled out in blubbery puddles on ice floes and rocky beaches, irritating each other with jabs from their mammoth tusks. A herd of pretty harbour seals diving and playing in a sheltered rocky cove. Squawking colonies of seabirds, including the doleful-faced Atlantic puffin, often being harangued by hungry Arctic foxes. “Isn’t it a privilege,” breathes June from beside me on one of our daily Zodiac cruises. This from a woman who has been lucky enough to see so much of the world.
With no internet access for most of our voyage, our conversation and attention is focused on the surprises we encounter each day, particularly when our expedition leader, David “Woody” Wood, gathers us each evening in the ship’s lounge to recount the day’s adventure. A tuft of reindeer fur turns into a discussion about how recent mid-winter thaws and refreezings have affected the local reindeers’ food supply. The fate of a baby guillemot we see snatched from his nest by a predatory gull occupies the next day’s breakfast chat. We feel like David Attenboroughs-in-training.
I’m constantly thrown by the colours; the spearmint green of the sea and the blue of the ice, the sort of palette I’d always presumed was exaggerated by art directors responsible for chewing gum or sports drink ads. It’s difficult not to get teary looking at it and on more than one occasion I find myself almost embarrassed by the emotion this place brings out in me. “I think I’m becoming a nature person,” I write earnestly in my journal, much to the mirth of friends back home in inner-city Sydney who know that my idea of nature, until now, has been a quick trot to the dog park.
But that’s the effect the pristine purity of this remote place has on people. It tugs at something personal and primal in your heart in a way that’s hard to shake. If only someone had told my 12-year-old self that while Kurt Cobain may have been speaking to my soul indoors, there was something fundamentally life-changing outside.
How Quark Expeditions ensures its voyages to
the Arctic help rather
A member of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators,
Quark Expeditions adheres to the independent body’s strict guidelines
to conserve the pristine environment. Each season, it donates $150,000
to charitable organisations, such as Polar Bears International and Penguin Lifelines , which work to protect the region’s vulnerable wildlife. Quark
offers carbon-neutral voyages and, where possible, uses recycled, reusable
or eco- friendly products and services on board. The company’s vessels
burn marine gas oil, a clean-burning and low-emissions fuel.