An Arctic holiday on a Russian research ship
The Sunday Times, 24th February 2014
We were at breakfast when John, our rugged Australian expedition leader, told us over the ship’s public address system that a bear had been sighted on land, as we were crossing the mouth of one of Svalbard’s westerly fjords.
“Get your life jackets on,” he urged. “Gangway, 9am.”
John’s words were music to my ears. Over the past several decades, I have travelled all over the world observing and writing about wild animals, particularly endangered species. But I have never seen a polar bear in the wild. It was the third day of an Arctic adventure. I desperately wanted to see that bear. We all did.
Our Zodiacs, each carrying 10 passengers, cruised parallel to the rocky coast. We looked at the bear and the bear looked right back at us. Once or twice, he lifted his head, half raising his torso, before lying down again.
Our guide and Zodiac driver that morning was Cecilia, a young Norwegian policewoman who had taken temporary leave to join the team on board the Russian polar research ship the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. “This bear’s doing what a bear is meant to do,” she said. “He’s lying down, conserving energy. If you see polar bears walking around, that means they’re hungry and looking for food.”
We must have made a dozen passes that morning, right in front of the bear, at a distance of less than 100yd. The sea was calm. There wasn’t much ice in the water to impede our passage — the absence of ice around the archipelago was distinctly worrying.
About 3,000 polar bears live in Svalbard, out of an estimated worldwide total of 20,000. They need ice to survive — it’s where they find the seals that constitute their main food source. For the past couple of years, though, the ice, which in winter used to cover most of the sea around Svalbard, hasn’t arrived.
“You can’t be sure it’s down to global warming,” Cecilia said. “But the reality is that there are some very hungry bears around.”
Little wonder, then, that you don’t go ashore when you know bears are there — and that every guide carries a gun.
The polar-bear sightings were the high point of the trip. Not far behind was the afternoon when we found ourselves, miles from shore, surrounded by a pod of fin whales. After centuries of being hunted in the Arctic, fin-whale populations are just beginning to recover. That afternoon, we must have seen 20 of them, feeding, spouting and diving.
The Sergey Vavilov is a quiet vessel, but the appropriately named Captain Beluga had turned the engines off, using the electric bow thruster to manoeuvre his ship as we followed the pod for more than an hour.
One sunny afternoon, we cruised in our Zodiacs along the vast blue-white cliff face of the Monaco glacier, in the Spitsbergen part of Svalbard. Seals had hauled themselves out of the water onto the mini icebergs that had been caused by the calving of the glacier. We saw part of the cliff collapse into the sea with a boom. Seconds later, we felt the wave surge. If rule number one in the Arctic is to keep your distance from polar bears, number two is to give glaciers a wide berth.
In total, we saw five bears during the trip, and I like to think one of them at least was “mine”. I was on the Sergey Vavilov’s observation deck early one morning. I won’t say that day had just dawned, because in summer, in these high latitudes, the sun never sets. But the breakfast gong was a long way off. I had my binoculars trained on the shore when I noticed a tiny butter-coloured blob.
One of the expedition guides, Sunni, was standing next to me. (Twenty-one years ago, she walked to the South Pole, dragging her own sledge, part of the first all-woman team to have done so.) I handed her the binoculars. “Can that possibly be a bear?” I asked.
She took a long look, then shook me warmly by the hand and made for the bridge. Moments later, I heard John’s announcement: “Good morning, everybody. If you want a bear before breakfast, come up on deck and take a look.”