Meeting the Locals in the Arctic Circle

Polar bear

One of the world’s most charismatic creatures is also one of the hardest to find. Anne Fullerton heads to a remote island in the Arctic Circle in search of the enigmatic polar bear.

Polar bears are the headliners of the animal kingdom. Big cats, elephants, whales and dolphins have their charms but few species can match the polar bear’s Hallmark-cute infancy or majestic adult form. Couple 500 kilograms of muscle, fat and plush white fur with one of the most celebrated habitats on earth – a place we’re told during our early years is populated by elves – and you have a recipe for off-the-scale awesomeness.

I was raised on a steady diet of National Geographic magazines so it takes me less than two seconds to accept an invitation to join Lindblad-National Geographic’s Land of the Polar Bears expedition. But getting to the ship is a different kettle of Arctic whitefish altogether.

First, I fly to Oslo, a city of golden-haired inhabitants who radiate such good health, it’s as if they emerged, vital and fully formed, from a cereal commercial. Then I take a chartered flight to Longyearbyen in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. At 78° north, the climate here is so brutally inhospitable that the islands were never settled by indigenous people. It wasn’t until whalers and trappers laid eyes on the region’s abundant fauna (whales, polar bears, narwhals, walruses, Arctic foxes) – and set about slaughtering it in the 17th and 18th centuries – that Svalbard was inhabited on a permanent basis.

Longyearbyen

After loading our luggage onto a truck, my 147 shipmates and I get acquainted with the town, a cluster of houses and buildings in constant mutation because of the rapidly melting permafrost below. Here, climate change isn’t an abstract concept but a tangible force that deforms your house until the doors won’t close (though people tend to leave them open anyway).

“Crime is nearly non-existent,” says our guide, Adrian. Impressive, given the laundry list of forbidden activities. “It is illegal to leave town without a gun because of the polar bears and you’re not allowed to be born here or to die here,” he deadpans. Pregnant women are sent to the mainland to ensure they have a smooth birth but there’s a more pragmatic reason for exporting the expiring. “We can’t bury any bodies because the permafrost prevents the corpses from decomposing,” explains Adrian. The cemetery closed in 1950 after locals discovered the dead were languishing in perpetuity just beneath the surface, like forgotten chicken nuggets at the back of a freezer. Worse, as the permafrost began to melt, it pushed the perfectly preserved bodies back up towards the living.

National Geographic Explorer Cabin

After our brief introduction to life, death and life after death, we board the National Geographic Explorer, a converted ice-class vessel that once operated along the Norwegian coast. While its 81 cabins are comfortable and spacious, you won’t find the pools and hot tubs offered by some less intrepid cruise lines. (I’ve already been warned by return guests not to use the c-word – this is an expedition, not a cruise.) It does have a sauna, spa and fitness centre and what it lacks in ostentatious luxury it makes up for with viewing decks.

National Geographic Explorer

The plan is to sail north from Longyearbyen to explore the coast for the next six days. The itinerary is kept loose, as polar bears, like many celebrities, aren’t keen on schedules. Pulling away from shore, I wonder what mysteries will reveal themselves among the pristine peaks of the Arctic; what untold beauty awaits us in this primordial landscape of glaciers and icefloes.

“Reindeer poop!” bellows Eduardo in his crisp Argentine-British accent, pushing a few black pellets around with a stick on the shore at Sjovaernbukta. “Can anyone take a guess at what this poop is telling us?” In addition to having an encyclopedic knowledge of both poles, Lindblad’s long-serving naturalist can read excrement like biological tarot cards. (It’s been a tough, dry season, while more consistently clustered samples show times are good.) We also view goose poop and lichen that grows from poop but, alas, no polar bears – or even polar-bear poop. Eduardo reassures me this is by design. We will never watch a polar bear from land, at least not intentionally. But he has the legally mandated flare gun and rifle, just in case.

National Geographic Explorer

Our first animal encounter happens on the second day when, midway through a safety briefing, a guest shouts, “Whale!” and we rush to the lounge windows to scour the horizon – only to find it has disappeared. Later that morning, an announcement over the PA urges us to go to the viewing deck. We crowd in with binoculars to see the dorsal fins of two blue whales surfacing ahead of the ship. I quickly discover that looking for wildlife is like Magic Eye art: some people can glance at endless blue and immediately make out the relevant image, while others require some coaching.

Without our eagle-eyed naturalists, I’d certainly have missed the afternoon’s – indeed, the trip’s – highlight. At first, it’s just a distant yellow speck, like a patch of dirty snow, barely visible to the naked eye. But then the dot moves. Now it’s moving over the hill, followed by two smaller dots. I adjust my binoculars as the dots come over the elevation and into focus – unmistakably, a mother polar bear with two cubs in tow. A cheer goes up. “Look at them!” shouts Brent, the Kiwi expedition leader. “Aren’t they just the most adorable little things?” Apparently, not even a career spent chasing polar bears can dull the excitement of seeing two youngsters – about a year old, he thinks – frolicking in the snow.

Polar bear

For the next half-hour, the cubs chase and wrestle each other, falling increasingly further behind their mother. For a moment, they disappear completely, only to emerge from a mud puddle considerably easier to spot against the white background. Finally, they catch up, before morphing again into distant yellow specks.

After the sighting, you can almost feel the pressure lift. “When guests come aboard, they often have what I call ‘polar bear tunnel vision’,” says naturalist Jenny. “Then, after we’ve seen a couple, people start to pay attention to everything else: the glaciers, the different ice formations, the way the landscape changes… I like to think of the polar bear as the key that unlocks the whole concept of the Arctic for people.”

She’s right. In the following days, I’m enchanted by the jigsaw puzzle of pack ice; the pale form of a beluga whale moving gracefully below the surface; a pair of puffins tucked into a cliff face; and two walruses perched on a piece of ice, like tusked caterpillars, throwing suspicious glances over their shoulders towards our vessel.

On a quiet day, the expedition leader decides that if we can’t find any wildlife, he’ll create some, and orchestrates a “polar plunge” off the side of the boat. Twenty-five brave guests – including Eva, an 89-year-old Hungarian woman – leap into the icy water from a platform, before being hauled out by rugged-up crew. “The weirdest part is when you get out,” says one plunger over a recovery beer. “It feels like someone has smothered your body in hot sauce.”

Seal

But even after the fin whales, the bearded seals, the endless procession of seabirds and the impromptu polar swim, it’s the image of a polar bear that stays with me – a male walking quickly across the ice with such grace that the pace seems languid. For a moment, he stops and looks directly at the ship, pausing to watch us watching him. It’s a privilege and a wake-up call.

“You can hear newscasts about it, read about it, watch documentaries about it but you don’t have that direct connection until you’re actually here,” says Rich, the photography instructor, that evening. “It’s important to get people to experience these places in order to realise how incredible they are and, hopefully, to preserve them… To most people, it’s so far away, it’s just a big chunk of ice. But when you’re here, it’s so much more.” It’s true. Up close, a big chunk of ice looks less like frozen water and more like a home. Theirs and ours, too.  

Polar bear

When to go

The best time to see polar bears in the Svalbard archipelago is May to September. This Arctic region experiences 24-hour sunlight from late April to late August, which maximises your chances of spotting the bears, while 24-hour darkness from late October to mid-February makes them virtually impossible to find.

How to get there

Longyearbyen is the main airport serving Svalbard and is most easily reached from Oslo, Norway. While no additional visa is required if you fly in from mainland Norway, you’ll have to present your passport and go through security as if you were entering another country. Because of the harsh terrain and climate and limited accommodation options, cruises are the most popular way to explore the region.

What to pack

Even in summer, temperatures often drop below zero so pack thermals, gloves, a woollen hat and warm clothes that can be layered easily. All external layers should be waterproof, including knee-high gumboots for Zodiac landings. Lindblad-National Geographic expeditions offer the option to rent equipment to reduce your luggage and carbon footprint. Good binoculars are essential.

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