Thermal underwear … gloves … woolly hat … down jacket … OK, agreed, it’s not what most people would pack for a summer cruise … but this was no ordinary cruise. Thousands of passengers? Choice of restaurant on different decks? Tired floor shows? None of that (thank goodness). Not even any sun loungers. We were heading north – far, far north into the Arctic pack ice on a refurbished – and ice-strengthened – former Russian scientific research ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. Ten days of sub-zero temperatures: here we come!
First we had to fly to Longyearbyen in Svalbard where we’d board the ship. Things didn’t get off to a good start: we were delayed 3½ hours at Heathrow. SAS doled out stingy £9 vouchers to its passengers (although some people inexplicably got £10), which didn’t cover the cost of an airport meal – or even a large glass of wine. It remains to be seen whether SAS cough up the €250 (each) due to us because of the delay – and since it’s an EU directive, thank goodness Britain is still technically in the EU so there might be some chance of it.
On arrival at Oslo airport at an unsociable hour there was a massive queue at Passport Control – and all of two desks open. We eventually fell into bed at 2 a m – and had to be up again at 6 (really 5 a m because of the time difference) ready to fly on to Longyearbyen.
That flight was via Tromsø, where we all had to get off, go through Passport Control and then get back on the same plane. Apparently this bit of red tape is because Svalbard is a tax-free zone and treated separately from the rest of Norway.
Eventually a bunch of weary travellers reached Longyearbyen, where we were met on the dockside by Paul, our Tour Leader, bouncing about like Tigger, enthusiastically greeting old friends and new and directing us into the zodiacs that would take us out to the ship. Stormy weather further north was forecast for later on, so the ship’s departure was delayed a few hours – which was fortunate for the passenger who had been bumped from the connecting flight and otherwise would have missed the sailing. We sailed at 2 a m – after all, in 24 hour daylight, it makes little difference what time of ‘day’ you go.
We woke to mist and monochromes. Fulmars, gulls and a northern gannet escorted us as we continued our way northwards.
The following morning we anchored near Monaco glacier and went for our first zodiac cruise. We puttered about on a sea shiny as glass, between bergs of ice blue (well, what other colour would they be?) that had been sculpted by nature into strange and wonderful shapes. One small iceberg next to us suddenly and unexpectedly rolled and rocked our boat. On other ice floes, kittiwakes and arctic terns called to each other. At a safe distance we went along the face of Monaco glacier – blue, white and grey, fractured and fissured, and with a backdrop of clouds and black and white mountains. We could hear creaks and low rumbles coming from the glacier and twice we saw it calving.
Later that day we went ashore at Worsleyneset. A few low-growing plants and flowers are found there, but our walk was mainly remarkable for the discovery of a fine specimen of polar bear poo – well, it was a fine specimen until Tony stepped in it. Polar bear poo (I know you’re dying to know) is silvery white and crumbly – at least it is when the bear is on land and has a more varied diet. Out on the pack ice, where they feed almost exclusively on seals, bears excrete an oily, viscous liquid. (We saw demonstrations later in the trip.)
We sailed on through blue skies and pack ice. At our approach, birds might fly off – or they might perch briefly on a chunk of ice. A wingtip might skim the surface of the sea – or the bird might land with a sploosh in the dark blue ripples. Once I glimpsed footprints where a bear had made its way across the ice some time (hours? days? weeks?) before. A pod of belugas were seen off the port side of the ship. Time passed in an Arctic bubble. Did the sky ever darken to a deeper shade of pale? Did the sun ever dip lower than 15 ̊ from the horizon? Not that I saw.
We sailed past Moffen Island which sits astride the line of latitude at 80 ̊ north. It’s a favourite haul-out for walruses – and there they were – unless it was a pile of mailbags on the shore.
Very early the next morning (July 6th) an excited voice (Paul’s) crackled over the intercom: there was a bear up ahead. We watched the bear wake up, wander about jumping from one ice floe to another, poo, swim off. Dinner that evening was interrupted by another announcement: a swimming bear had been sighted. Ninety-three peach melbas were abandoned without a second thought as we all made our way up to the for’ard decks.
And early the following morning (July 7th) another announcement: another bear.
It was far out on the pack ice, about a mile ahead and at first we struggled to locate the tiny cream-coloured smear even with our binoculars. Goodness only knows how our spotter had managed to find it. As we got closer the smear gradually solidified into an enormous furry hummock – a bear, stretched out on his stomach.
Our first thought was that he was relaxing after feeding, but no. The ship carried on approaching slowly, stealthily: the bear woke, looked round and lazily got to his feet – and revealed a dead seal next to him. It was obvious he wasn’t hungry. After a while, he decided he’d swim to a different ice floe – taking the seal with him – and had a bit of a nibble at it. But he really wasn’t hungry. He scraped at the ice to loosen it and seemed to be trying to cover the seal, possibly to minimise the smell so other bears wouldn’t be attracted – behaviour that the on-board scientists had never seen before.
He wasn’t going anywhere. Nor was the ship, so we left the bear with his kill and went for dinner: a barbecue on the aft deck. Yes, you read that right. We had a barbecue out on the aft deck. Some of the crew even sported Hawaiian shirts. Bit different from a soggy English barbecue on a soggy English summer evening, eh? And how many polar bears would you find in an English back garden?
The bear’s concealment strategy didn’t work: another bear arrived on the scene. This second bear was half the size of the first, but still it fancied its chances. It was a female.
She was wary. She had an injured foot and clearly wanted to avoid a direct confrontation. She sat a short distance away from the big bear, looking submissive, watching, waiting. All of us on board stood on deck watching, waiting. The big bear stood proprietarily over his seal, sometimes feeding off it, sometimes just guarding it. Hours went by. Eventually, we retreated to the warmth of our cabin to watch the drama through our window.
Big Bear decided he would move to yet another ice floe, taking his dinner with him. Little Bear ran forward, hoping somehow to grab something, anything … Big Bear snarled, growled – and got back on the ice. And proceeded to eat … and eat … and eat. Little Bear retreated. At 1:30 a m we decided it was time for bed. By then the ice had shifted and the bears were on different floes and drifting slightly further apart – one bear snoozing with half an eye open, one bear watching, waiting … Fog came down.
At 3:30 a m I woke up and peered out: both bears were still there on their separate ice floes, one still half-snoozing, half-feeding, one still watching, waiting …
Later, at a more sensible hour of the morning, the fog was still there but the bears had gone. People who’d stayed up to watch all the action reported that Big Bear had eventually decided he was full and had swum off. Little Bear rushed over to gobble up what remained of the kill. Not a lot, by all accounts.
Pictures can been seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/52323463@N06/albums/72157670546875342