From close-up encounters with icebergs and glaciers to the region’s plentiful wildlife, this is a voyage of nonstop highlights. Always on the lookout for wildlife you’ll explore this landscape not only by ship but also on foot and by Zodiac. Roaming polar bears, lounging seals, grazing reindeer and colonies of birds all co-exist in this harsh land we dare only to explore a couple months of the year.
On Location – Spitsbergen
By: Steppes Travel
We were only two days into our Spitsbergen voyage, aggressively shouldering our way through thick pack ice only 600 odd miles from The North Pole, when the ship’s tannoy crackled into life: ‘Bear sighting, 600 yards to starboard’. It was one of those moments that instantly becomes permanently etched on one’s memory. The reverberation of hastened footsteps rang out across the ship as breakfasts were hastily abandoned and the cabins emptied as we scrambled for our first sighting of the main driving force that had propelled us all north into Spitsbergen’s icy wastes: The White Bear.
The largest land predator on earth, equipped with paws the size of dinner plates, teeth sharper than most other carnivores and standing at a formidable height of up to ten feet, the polar bear is an awesome beast indeed. Even at a fair distance away initially and from the safely of the ship, the whitish smudge moving studiously across the ice sent a tingle down the spine, particularly as it sniffed the air in our direction. It was only as it wandered closer to us that it’s sheer physical bulk became more obvious and that this was no teddy bear. Highly adapted to the challenges of polar life, capable of a surprising turn of speed over short distance and a renowned long distance swimmer, the polar bear is nothing less than a ruthless killer and bad news if you are a ringed seal!
Widely distributed across the Arctic region, it’s Spitsbergen or Svalbard as the Norwegians call it, that rightly in our opinion lays claim to being the best place to see polar bears in their Arctic wilderness environment. Estimated to number over 3,000, that’s more bears than people, sightings as a result are near guaranteed. Combined with its renown as the most wildlife-rich part of the whole Arctic, eye-popping glaciers and relatively easily access via Oslo from London, Spitsbergen’s allure is compelling and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
This was my first foray into polar waters, but I quickly got to grips with the informal routine aboard our expeditionary ice strengthened ship. A ship I discovered offers undoubtedly the best platform for exploration and wildlife sightings in Arctic waters, with more than enough opportunity to get off the boat to do daily landings by zodiac, which is lots of fun, and walks on the tundra for even the most inactive landlubber.
That first polar bear sighting remains the high point of an extraordinary trip sprinkled with many other highlights – from watching immense glaciers carving, to a ringside seat to the sounds and smell of a large walrus ‘haul-out’ – and undoubtedly I returned home with a touch of ‘polar fever’ for this extraordinary region.
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