Well here I am, up in Svalbard. The signs say I’m at 78 degrees latitude north. That’s only 12 degrees and about 650 miles from the North Pole itself. I don’t know much more about Svalbard, except there are several islands in the archipelago. Svalbard means “cold coasts” and it was first mentioned in Icelandic texts in the 12th century.
This is the most northerly land in Europe, (unless Franz Josef Land in Russia is allowed to call itself Europe). It's halfway between Norway and the North Pole and is officially part of the Kingdom of Norway. But it has its own governor (so it is almost a separate country) and, in theory, you don't need a visa to come here, as the land is open to anyone who wants to do Arctic research. In practice you do need a visa or at least a passport as you can only get here via Norway. Unless you've got your own ice-breaker.
Seven national parks and 23 nature reserves protect two-thirds of the archipelago, home to reindeer, arctic foxes and polar bears. I only discovered that Svalbard existed I when I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy. Good books - I’m wondering if anyone else has enjoyed them? He wrote about warrior polar bears (panzerbjorn I think). Which would be scarier - meeting one of them or running into a real bear? Hopefully, I shall see one from a safe distance.
We have begun our journey in the capital of Svalbard. It’s called Longyearbyen, and it’s tiny. The boat is named Expedition and its scarlet paint looks very pretty against all the ice covered pointy mountains. (That’s why this island is called Spitsbergen). I can’t get to sleep. It’s still really bright at midnight; exactly the same as when I arrived, this morning. It stays that way - all night. This is the Land of Midnight Sun (from April 15th to August 26th). In Svalbard, the Polar Night lasts from October 26th to February 14th and you can see the Northern Lights in the middle of the day, in the dark period. If you're lucky.
Today, a lot of briefings about polar bear safety. We are not to go anywhere on shore on Svalbard on our own and all the crew have rifles with them. Scary. We’ve also been told not to go near any bears - if we see one. Or the rifles. Even scarier.
We cruise north. These fjords did not freeze up completely this winter, which they say is very unusual. Global warming. So we’re going to look for the pack ice nearer the Pole. That’s where the bears hang out, hunting for seals.
We stop in a beautiful fjord, all sapphire reflections as the sun comes out. The glaciers are still calving little ice bergs that bob around us and the zodiac boats take us past a group of forty walruses, sunbathing on a shingle spit. The big bulls zoom out to greet us snorting foam and pretending to turn our boats over with their huge ivory tusks. Great photos, but I’m glad they are only playing. They are, aren’t they? One of those tusks could do a lot of damage to a rubber inflatable. I don’t fancy swimming in water that’s only one degree Celsius. I’m singing the Beatles song – goog oog ga choo.
Well I got two hours sleep and then was woken up at midnight, as we had reached the ice. The boat pushed on through it and gigantic ice floes splintered, jostling each other as we edged forward. White as far as the eye could see. You could walk to the North Pole, from here. If you didn’t mind the cold. It was snowing gently and I had all my ski gear and thermals on. I stood on the bridge and watched the Russian captain navigate through the cracking ice sheet to well past 80 degrees north. Two little harp seals flipped off a trapezoid berg and out of our way, I finally went back to bed at half past three and it was still broad daylight.
I thought I would have a lie-in to compensate but we get another alarm call at half past six. Polar bears in the water. A solitary male is whisking a large frond of kelp about, revelling in the huge splash he is causing. Then he clambers on to shore and lumbers away. We can’t get closer than half a mile, as the sea is too shallow. No rifles necessary.
We are still steaming up the coast of Spitsbergen. Just have time to eat breakfast and then another alert. A female bear with a small, very grubby cub, just above the shoreline. The cub is falling behind and mum has to keep stopping to fetch him. He is trying to avoid all the patches of snow and every time he gets to one he lays down and won’t budge until mum finds another way round. She gives him a big wet kiss when they get to the top.
North again and round the tip of Spitsbergen into the Hinlopenstredet. Ironically, although there is less ice this year, our finger of sea is still frozen further south. The captain isn’t sure if we will be able to get through. Two minke whales surge past, blowing several fountains as they go. More walruses, all sunning themselves, as it’s a warm day - two degrees. They loll around and scratch with their huge flippers. When they do move it’s very awkwardly and they edge forward at snail pace, before flopping into the water.
They call this the polar desert. It rarely rains and it’s arid and bare. There are orange lichen and a few minute flowers hidden in the rock. Purple saxifrage, spider plants and the tiniest poppy you could imagine. There isn’t much wildlife because there’s nothing to eat. And the plants that do grow have to be able to adapt from polar night to midnight sun. Reindeer droppings, but no reindeer.
South now, into an enormous branching fjord and more zodiac trips, looking for birds. I am lucky to snap a king eider male. They are rare round here and have amazing technicolour beaks.
More glaciers and a huge blue ice berg shaped like the sphinx from one end and the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao from the side.
Sailing past towering chimney cliffs. Ledges crammed with jostling guillemots. They are a little too plump to fly gracefully and they hover awkwardly over their tiny landing strips and then plunge into the sea in search of fish. Meanwhile, the shiny glaucous gulls manoeuvre into positions near the guillemots’ nests so they can snaffle the pear shaped eggs or the fluffy bundles that are the new-born chicks. Some arctic foxes hiding nearby are also planning a lightning raid.
There was too much ice, so we had to turn back. We won’t be able to circumnavigate Spitsbergen. And we’re heading north again. It’s foggy and the bay is full of small ice bergs. On one floe there is a female walrus with a pup. That’s one way to travel.
We wander round an abandoned Svalbard scientific research station. There’s writing on the blackboard dated 1966. The huts are in immaculate condition. Things decay slowly up here. Another polar bear alert. I’m getting very frustrated trying to follow little white pin pricks around. I want to see one properly. Without binoculars. These two are hunting a seal on the ice across the bay. So I’m told. They run away when they see us all marauding around.
Back on the boat we are summoned from lunch, as we have encountered another whale. This time a solitary humpback. He’s busy gorging on krill, but he obliges with a few rolls and a final flick of his fluke.
I haven’t been sleeping well in Svalbard, because of the constant daylight. It’s really bright at four a.m. and there have been quite a few night time interruptions to see wildlife. My eyes are sore and bloodshot. I’ve also been cold on the boat so I bought a fleece from the ship’s shop. They only had one colour in my size - red. One kind person said it suited me, as it matched my eyes.
A six a.m. call. O good. We were supposed to be twitching (bird watching) on an island, but another bear’s been spotted. He’s on a small isle, devouring a seal. He has left his favourite bit till last - the skin and blubber. He’s dragging this around after him. The boat edges in a little closer but we can’t get too close in case we run aground. They woke up the captain to take it in this far. After brandishing his seal for several minutes the bear pops into the sea for a dip and does a few circuits of his island.
So, belatedly, we take ourselves off to see some little auks. They’re also called dovekies, as they are so small. They are not very pleased to see us, crawling over the rocks towards them. They have a plaintive mewing cry. Not surprising really, as their eggs are all in burrows in the rocks beneath us.
We are sailing south again, to the most northerly settlement in the world with the most northerly pub and hotel in the world. It’s called Ny Ålesund. There are about thirty brightly painted buildings. Roald Amundsen had his base here, so there are statues of him. (I wonder if anyone will ever work out what happened to this famous explorer?) There are a few reindeer meandering around the fields as there’s more lichen and moss. Father Christmas must have let them off their duties for the summer. They are being dive-bombed by the arctic terns that have their nests on the ground close by. The reindeer are impervious. They have their velvety antlers to protect them. We aren’t so lucky and have to scurry away, as they come screaming at us, playing out a scene from a Hitchcock film.
In the evening we climb up a glacier to marvel at the huge humbug striped valleys. Puffins are peeping out of their burrows and waving their bright bills as they anxiously exchange chit chat with the guillemots below.
Tomorrow we return to Longyearbyen and then mainland Norway. I’ve been very lucky. The sea has been mill pond smooth all week and I haven’t had to take one sea sick pill. It’s also been quite sunny, so I’ve had some stunning mountain views. But it’s foggy now and the wind is whipping up. It’s bitterly cold and I really feel as if I'm at the North Pole. It’s a good time to come home. And I have seen six bears!
Read more tales from Norway here.
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