It’s near midnight and we’re sitting in an inflatable rubber boat a few yards from the edge of the ice, watching a distant polar bear. He’s not putting on much of a show – staring glumly into a hole, waiting for dinner to pop its head up – but there’s a lot else going on: a couple of reindeer, moving slowly across the frozen land; an Arctic fox, pale brown against the white, running fast; a black guillemot, with smart white patches on his wings, paddling around our little boat with his bright red legs visible in the clear water; seals lying fatly on the ice, their fur glistening golden in the sun.
The bear, curious or hungry, lumbers towards the edge of the ice and wanders up and down, peering irritably at us. Then he tenses as he sees what he has been waiting for: a bearded seal in the water in front of him. The seal slides towards him; the bear readies himself to dive; the seal bobs a little closer, and the bear plunges in. But the seal is too far away, so the bear clambers back onto the ice. A close run thing for the seal, I think: that’s the last we’ll see of it. But it reappears, and the bear flounders into the water again. Then another seal turns up. The two approach the bear in turn, disappearing when he dives. He falls for it every time.
We sit silently in our boats about 20 yards away, barely moving or breathing. The guides keep their guns to hand, but don’t seem worried. Bears are fast on land but slow in the sea.
Fed up, the bear wanders off to have a go at some eider duck, but they fly away contemptuously. And the seals haven’t had enough yet. They come closer, closer, so in he goes again, and again, for an hour or more. The seals are either trying to exhaust him, which would be a slow but effective way to kill a predator in a place where energy and survival are so closely linked, or amusing themselves playing chicken. Since it can’t be in their interest to use that much energy to reduce one bear’s chance of survival marginally, I reckon they have to be doing it to amuse themselves. Slipping around in the water as they do certainly looks fun. When we leave at 1am, they’re still at it, taunting the weary bear.
I slip gratefully into bed and shudder for a long time, realising that the excitement has taken my mind off how very cold I am. It is my first day in the Arctic.
A holiday in the Arctic isn’t on the top of everybody’s list, but it has multiple attractions. For those who want to do something others haven’t done, it’s about as far off the grid as you can go. For those who want extreme experiences, it offers one of the toughest environments on the planet. For those with a penchant for wildlife, it provides the chance to see some of the world’s most remarkable creatures up close. And for those who pay attention to the news, a trip to the Earth’s northernmost regions provides the chance to catch a glimpse of this remarkable – and fragile – environment before global warming changes it irrevocably.
That last factor, says Will Bolsover, founder of Natural World Safaris, the company I travelled with, is his customers’ main motivation. “The polar ice caps are receding. People want to see them now,” he says. Given the nature of the threat, it is not obvious that visiting the Arctic on a boat that uses 12 tonnes of diesel – enough to drive my car nearly nine times round the Earth – in ten days is in the ecosystem’s best interests; still, it is a great way of seeing the place. Being on a small boat rather than a cruise ship gets you close to the wildlife. And Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago 650 miles from the North Pole – offers some of the northernmost land on the planet and thus a chance to see the land mammals as well as sea creatures, and the flora as well as the fauna, that live in this extraordinary environment.
Our trip was structured much like a traditional African safari. Our lodge was the Freya, a Swedish class 1A icebreaker built in 1980 for maintaining lighthouses. She had made a smooth transition from her previous, tougher life into the leisure economy thanks to a recent, and very thorough, refurbishment. Without being flashy, she was so comfortable that when I got home, I realised I needed a new bed. The crew – Swedish, but all with good English – kept the engine purring and the passengers warm, safe and exceedingly well fed.
Our jeeps were Zodiacs, the rubber boats kept on the Freya’s deck and lifted by crane into the sea whenever the guides – Ronald Visser and Annette Scheepstra, serious Dutch academics – spotted something interesting through their binoculars. Then we would clamber into the Zodiacs in our spacesuit-type protective clothing and zip round the coastline, up fjords too shallow for the Freya, getting thrillingly close to animals, birds, glaciers and icebergs.
My companions were an international lot – British, American, Canadian and Taiwanese. Some of them offered a delightful insight into worlds and places of which I knew nothing. Some did not. The enforced intimacy with fellow passengers on a small boat threatened to be a downside, but the problem was mitigated by three factors: the comfort of my cabin, into which I retreated with pleasure; the huge number of books I had loaded onto my Kindle, with which I passed the time between Zodiac outings; and the relaxing effect of being unplugged from the modern world, which made me uncharacteristically tolerant. After a week spent with no internet access or phone connection, my urge to throw overboard the woman who cried “Wow! Coool! That’s so greeaaat!” at every passing iceberg had dissipated.
The guides treated us somewhat like children at the seaside. We needed to have one long outing a day, and sometimes two, to keep us amused. Sometimes we would be woken in the middle of the night to check out a promising beast that the guides had spotted; though since there was no darkness, the distinction between day and night was artificial. When there weren’t bears around, we would visit bird-nesting cliffs, or a glacier, or a solitary walrus lying on an ice floe, tusks to the sky, enjoying the sun in much the same pose as many a portly pink gentleman on a British beach.
There were other entertainments. The ship’s engineer invited me to join him in a sauna. I went in with my swimming costume on; but he and the cook were in there naked, so, keen to follow Nordic sauna etiquette, I took my swimsuit off. Then the captain turned up in his trunks, so I wondered whether it was all an elaborate joke against the Brit. But they were Swedish, and serious and kind, so I doubted it. When the crew went into the sea for an Arctic dip, I followed; the endorphin rush from the shock of leaping into near-freezing water kept me high for hours.
Although the trip was advertised as a polar-bear safari, bear-expectations were kept low: we were told that it was possible that we would see none. But, in the event, we saw so many that I became blasé, and stopped getting out of my bed at the 3am knock. That is a problem with safaris: the novelty wears off. Your third polar bear looks very much like your second, which looks like your first.
What didn’t wear off was the joy of the landscape. Svalbard’s Dutch name, Spitsbergen, means “jagged rocks”, and the striated mountains powdered with snow make ever-changing black-and-white patterns. The snow reaches down to the sea, and the white meets the smooth blue water, and the sun glitters on all of it. I found the clear, silent brightness of it endlessly uplifting.
The profusion of bears was partly luck, and partly because, global-warming notwithstanding, the polar-bear population appears to be growing. It is hard to count a white animal in a white landscape, when it can travel many miles a day and its enormous territory is divided between four nations, but it seems likely that the population is still bouncing back after centuries of hunting. Walruses are easier to count: their numbers have certainly increased dramatically since the 1950s, when there were only a few hundred left in Svalbard. At the last count, there were nearly 4,000.
In the short term, it is not the supply of wildlife that is under threat in the Arctic: it is the peace. For some of the trip our ship was the only vessel in that vast, white emptiness, but for much of it we had company. Sometimes there was a sailing boat in the distance, sometimes a cruise ship. Tourist numbers have nearly doubled in the past decade, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t do so again in the next one. According to Katy Kao, a Taiwanese member of the party, “the Chinese are crazy for the Arctic. They have three places on their checklist: the Himalayas, the Antarctic and the Arctic.” She has no interest in the Himalayas but has already done the Arctic three times and Antarctica once.
When we head towards the best place for a walrus encounter, there are already three boats there, so we make for another beach. It is a less reliable walrus haven, but luck is with us. We pull the Zodiacs onto the shingle about 50 yards from a pile of them. They slowly start to lumber into the sea, and I assume that’s the last we’ll see of them. But instead of disappearing, half a dozen of them roll towards us, and stop about four or five metres away.
They are vast, Jabba the Hut creatures, weighing over a tonne; their skins are warty and knobbly; their tusks are maybe a metre long. We lie on the beach, taking pictures of them; they wallow in the shallows, taking stock of us. We click and whirr; they stare and snort. After 20 minutes or so, they get bored, roll into the waves and make off into the deep; we pile into the Zodiacs and return to the Freya. There is a pleasing equality about the meeting: both parties are intrigued by the other’s weirdness. But for the walruses, as for us, strange creatures are interesting only when they’re scarce. As the numbers of humans rise, their novelty will wear off.
Emma Duncan travelled as a guest of Natural World Safaris