Beyond the Arctic Circle: In search of the polar bear

Artic Circle

I love wildlife programmes but I never believed that the photographs and videos – those close-ups of polar bears as they frolicked on pure white ice floes or ambled with their cubs across huge expanses of white snow – could be taken by someone other than a professional photographer. And yet, there I was, hanging over the side of a bright red, converted car ferry, across from the 80th parallel, only a few hundred kilometres south of the North Pole, with my pretty average camera. Not ten metres below me, a solitary, playful polar bear, sauntered along the edge of the ice pack, checking out the hull of our ship.

Artic Circle Polar Bear

It looked up at me and sniffed. Had it been attracted by the bacon that, only a few minutes earlier, the chef had been preparing in the galley? Now … no one was left in the dining room. All the passengers and even the crew of our 124-passenger ship MS Expedition were dangling over the edges, on all deck levels, trying to capture the moment on film.

Artic Circle Polar Bear

And then it happened. The polar bear, stood up on its hind legs, and put its paws on the ship. It was a moment that any wildlife photographer would have bragged about for years. And I captured it on my little camera.

Artic Circle Polar Bear

One of the last unmapped areas of the globe in the late 19th century was the North Pole. So what better place to explore at the beginning of the 21st century, than a land that even Google hasn’t covered.

A trip beyond the Arctic Circle would be one of the greatest wilderness trips on anyone’s bucket list. And for nature lovers, such as our group, it was a very special week. Leaving from the island of Svalbard, the most northerly reach of Norway, the trip to the starting point is an adventure in itself. A three-hour flight north from Oslo, Svalbard is a series of islands in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. A part of Norway, this archipelago is the northernmost point in the world with a permanent human population. Aside from scientific research, the only other reason that planes are full to capacity in the summer is that from here is your best chance to see polar bears.

The Arctic casts a very special spell and during the summer months, when the sun never sets, there is no better time to explore this harsh land. From Longyearbyen, we took an 8-day cruise around the islands, and encountered polar bears, walrus, seals, arctic fox, grazing reindeer, whales, and a variety of birds that all coexist here for a few brief months in summer.

Over the eight days, we sailed at the top of the world, past spectacular scenery. Ice gouged fjords, multicoloured rocky cliffs covered with breeding colonies of terns and dark blue icebergs carved fresh from gigantic glaciers. The immense grandeur of the scenery is unforgettable.

And if photographing wildlife from the safety of the cruise ship wasn’t enough of a drawcard, we were encouraged to get active and go overboard! Twice a day, we donned bright red parkas, waterproof trousers and large wellington boots, and climbed down into small but fast and stable zodiac speedboats for some up close and personal encounters with nature.

We meandered past seals, sleeping soundly on the ice pack carpets, gazed up at mammoth glaciers and icebergs and explored the coast on foot. Covered in ice pack for most of the year, it is during the short summer months that the wild flowers on the tundra make their appearance.

Some days we navigated the zodiacs through dozens of smaller icebergs bobbing happily in the bays. Other days we climbed ashore and walked up the shale beaches to photograph sleeping mounds of belching walruses, some so large (below) they couldn’t walk. Rather, they had to roll down the stony shore and into the sea.

Artic Circle Walruses

It was the perfect break from everyday life. For just over a week we immersed ourselves in the beautiful territory of the North. Although we were at the top of the world, it was like being on a different planet. A place where only the immediate surroundings had any meaning. No internet, no telephones (it really was a different world); only our cameras, the wilderness and immense sheets of ice glittering in the ever-present rays of the sun.

For more information on this cruise, see www.cruisenorway.com/8-day-realm-of-the-polar-bear-voyage

Caren Trafford writes environmental books for kids – see www.planetkids.biz – and lives in Provence.

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