Between Norway and the North Pole: travelling to Svalbard

An unforgettable journey to the savage beauty of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard gives a first-hand look at an imposing landscape with an uncertain future.

Glacier ice lasts throughout the summer and changes colour due to density. Photo by Rosemary Behan
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I board the flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen in shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. This isn’t funny until I get off the flight. As the plane begins its descent, there’s a hushed air of expectation. Cloud whips past the windows, and those of us with window seats crane forward. We’ve left the calm gentility of summer in Oslo – an idyllic green-blue of parks and urban beaches, coffee and art – for a glimpse of something epic. And there it is. A dark, churning sea surrounded by a jagged ring of mountains still covered with snow, descending to empty grey-brown cliffs with grooves like gigantic molars. If this is what it’s like in June, I shudder to imagine the scene in winter.

Svalbard, an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole, is part of Norway, but subject to an international treaty governing its various uses, and has its own governor, known as the sysselmann. The main town of Longyearbyen, population 2,000, is reached by a three-hour direct flight from Oslo, and is the centre for all trips to the area. Norse for “cold shores”, Svalbard is the farthest north you can go by scheduled flight. Spitsbergen, its previous Danish name which now only applies to the main island, means “spiky mountains”.

Appropriately, there’s a stuffed polar bear on the luggage carousel in the arrivals hall. Once my suitcase arrives, out come my leggings, coat and trainers. I’m pleased to see that just outside the airport, on the shores of Isfjord, is a campsite, where some brave souls sleep and swim despite the threat of polar bears.

Downtown Longyearbyen (named after John Longyear, an American mining prospector) has the cut-off, functional air of a 1960s ski resort. There’s one main street with a couple of hotels, two coffee shops, a poor attempt at a shopping mall and a car park. Yet with a port, a working coal mine, a university research centre and the excellent Svalbard Museum, the outskirts have a self-sufficient, frontier feel entirely in keeping with a place that spends half the year in darkness and where the mean temperature at sea level is minus 5°C (temperatures can reach minus 46°C in the middle of winter). Even in summer, the roads don’t go very far. When they run out, just outside of town, travel is on foot, snowmobile or Hägglunds, a rugged vehicle that looks like a mini bulldozer.

That’s why I’m here at the start of the short summer season, boarding the twin-engined, six-deck, 117-metre long Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Finnish-built Russian research ship chartered by the Canadian expedition company One Ocean to navigate a thorough exploration of this archipelago.

Though it’s able to carry 92 passengers, thanks to a group cancellation, I’m delighted to find only another 25 passengers on board, together with 21 One Ocean staff and 42 Russian crew. My room is on the fifth floor at the end of a corridor, conveniently opposite the sauna, and is perfectly comfortable without being opulent. I have a single bed, desk and sofa, plus an airline-style bathroom with a shower. Most importantly, there’s a decent-sized porthole to the outside world, and it’s quiet and stable.

At the welcome briefing in the bar area on the top floor, we’re introduced to the staff, who are mostly from New Zealand, the United States and Canada, as are the other guests. Our expedition leader is Graham Charles, a charismatic outdoor professional who has sea kayaked the length of the Antarctic peninsula, traversed the Greenland ice cap and kayaked around South Georgia, among other adventures. Other staff include historians, nature experts, photographers, doctors and a massage therapist.

To make sure we’re prepared for the worst, our first activity is a lifeboat drill. Because of the harsh weather conditions, our lifeboats are made of rigid fibreglass and fully enclosed, and are stocked with provisions.

Dinnertime gives our group a chance to get to know each other. There’s Jill, a British police officer – useful, I think, in case of any Death on the Nile-type activities; Caroline, a retired civil servant whose previous trips include sailing from San Francisco to Jamaica via the Panama Canal; Tian Tian, a Chinese software engineer living in Tokyo; and Rita, an American who used to deal with motor insurance claims, but has now travelled to more than 100 countries. All are well-travelled, and several have already been on the company’s other ship, the Akademik Ioffe, to Antarctica, taking in the Falklands and South Georgia on the way. Mark, an entrepreneur from the UK, has done this very same trip to Svalbard before, but has come back because “each trip is different”. That’s something that Charles is keen to stress – different conditions will mean different landing spots and wildlife opportunities, and routes may be affected by the weather or other considerations.

After dinner, there’s a mandatory briefing about responsible tourism. Travel here is bound here by a code of conduct set out by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators. Sensibly, given it’s one of the world’s last great wildernesses, tour operators must limit the disturbance caused by their activities, and this includes keeping a distance from wildlife and “cultural remains”, and avoiding walking on wet vegetated areas (it destroys the structure of the fragile organisms on the ground). Everywhere we go on land, we must be accompanied by an armed staff member, because of the threat of polar bears. These can only be shot if they come within 30 metres of us, and such incidents are subject to serious investigation because of the animals’ endangered status.

We set off into the “night”, though with 24-hour daylight at this time of year and no blackout blinds in the cabin, the closest you get to darkness is the noticeably dimmer hours between about midnight and 4am. As we pull away from the harbour, I realise that there really is going to be no internet for the next 12 days – and soon after that, the phone signal goes. Luckily, there’s a big difference between not being able to access the internet and just not looking at emails, Instagram and Facebook. Like most of the other passengers on board, I find that once I know I can’t access these services anywhere on board, I stop trying. People make more of an effort at conversation, and we all get more out of the opportunities present. After reading a few chapters of Savage Beauty, a biography of the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay, I sleep soundly.

We’re woken the next morning at 7am by Charles’s soft voice on the tannoy. By 7.30, I’m drinking smoothies on the top deck with Hilary, the ship’s young “assistant hotel manager”, before a mammoth buffet breakfast in the dining room. A delicious spread of fresh fruit, bagels, yogurt, toast and a selection of hot items mean that losing weight isn’t an option on this trip, no matter how much activity you do. The food is uniformly good – lunches and dinners are all three or four courses, with a huge salad buffet to start with, followed by soup, a main course and dessert. Every menu is different, crafted by the head chef Gerado, an Argentinian, assisted by the sous chef Ildefonso, from Manila. An army of smart young Russians assist with the preparation and serving.

Overnight, we’ve moved out of Isfjord, one of Svalbard’s biggest fjords and the most “developed”, into Bellsund, farther south. Although this section of the coast is warmed by the Gulf Stream, and is thus warmer than elsewhere, Charles advises to “dress like an onion” before going ashore. We’ve all been given a set of red, padded waterproof jackets and trousers, and waterproof boots, to go over our leggings, trousers and other layers. Though weather on deck may seem balmy, conditions can change, says Charles, and “it’s easier to stay warm than get warm”. All of this happens in the “mud room”, just before exiting onto the main deck.

Sure enough, the wind as we board the zodiacs to shore is bracing. On top of the red suits, we’re also required to wear life jackets, which will inflate automatically on contact with salt water. The large zodiacs are stored on deck and lowered down into the water by cranes at each and every stop. From there, groups of six to eight people board each vessel, which has its own driver/guide. With a full ship, the process of getting everyone on and off the ship takes much longer – in our case, it’s about 20 minutes – though the process of getting dressed and undressed each day adds up to about an hour by itself. Most worryingly, we’re told that because of an absence of facilities on shore and protection of the environment, we won’t be able to “use the toilet” for at least the next three hours.

Our first landing is at Bourbonhamna, which was a whaling centre in the 1600s. Whalers – mostly from Denmark, Norway, Britain and Russia – took advantage of the relatively mild conditions and the shelter the bay provided whales to trap whole pods of them in nets, haul them to shore, bludgeon them to death, chop them up and melt down the blubber in large pots. The hunters only stopped when they ran out of whales to kill, and to this day, the once thriving populations have never recovered. Incredibly, on the shoreline behind the beach where we land, there are still piles of whalebones and seal skulls. Today, there’s still a hunter’s hut in use here, but only a limited number of animal types and species can be killed. We walk away from the shore up to the base of some mountains, through sometimes boggy terrain, spotting pretty purple saxifrage flowers and mosses. From a distance, I can smell the diesel from the ship’s engines – an unfortunate but, for the time being, inevitable pollutant of the fresh air. The landscape is bleakly beautiful, and with no other groups anywhere near us, it does feel like we have it to ourselves.

That night, after a dinner of tandoori chicken, we set off to round the southern tip of Spitsbergen to its east coast, where, with the absence of the Gulf Stream, we’re told it will be much colder and that we might see polar bears on ice. We seem to be travelling very slowly, and my cabin seems to be heating up; the only solution seems to be to open the porthole at night and drape a blanket over it to keep out the light.

The next morning at 9am, there’s a talk about birds by Steve, an ornithologist from California. Most astounding is the migratory habits of the Arctic tern, a small bird weighing about 100 grams that clocks 70,000 kilometres annually by migrating from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. We’re also told about other common local species, including northern fulmars, eiders, black guillemots, kittiwakes and little auks. This is followed by a presentation on the history of Svalbard by Jonathan Chester, who is a good speaker and the author of several books on Arctic history and wildlife.

The excitement of rounding the wild southern tip of Svalbard – marked as Sørkapp Land on maps – is slightly dampened when, in a recap, Charles tells us that there is a problem with one of our engines, and we’re travelling on only one. Plans for a repair are in the works, but for now, we’re told that the ship can’t pass through ice as planned, on the orders of the Russian captain.

After a Mexican lunch of salad with tortillas and casserole, we board zodiacs and head towards a floating mass of broken sea ice at Isbukta. It’s hoped we’ll see bears, but this looks unlikely. The water is choppy and it’s extraordinary to see the ice littering the sea like polystyrene. Jagged blue icebergs are surrounded by an angry sea, as staff explain that the denser the ice, the bluer it is – “these come from glaciers.” It’s bone-chillingly cold, and the rough sea means several of us are soon soaking wet and feeling queasy. My ski gloves aren’t waterproof, I discover, and it’s too cold even to take pictures. On our way back to the boat, three walruses suddenly appear out of the water in front of us, a startling moment, as they look us in the eye before carrying on their way. After warming up in the sauna back on the ship, Charles tells us that easterly winds have blown most of the sea ice to the left, meaning that there’s no point continuing north-east to Kapp Lee as planned. After a steak dinner and a quiz, it’s to bed, as the ship turns around and we start to head back up the west coast.

We’re just about to board the zodiacs the next morning when one of our guides spots a bear on the beach. Our plan is aborted. Instead, while continuing on our way, Steve gives us a talk on polar bears. Out of a worldwide total of between 25,000 and 30,000, there are an estimated 3,000 polar bears in the Svalbard and Barents Sea region. While the population is thought to be stable, anecdotal evidence, including on our trip, suggests bear sightings are becoming less common, and many of those that are seen seem to be malnourished. This is thought to be down to the melting of sea ice, which the bears depend on to hunt for food. Rather than living on completely frozen areas of the North Pole, bears are found in the more southern parts of the High Arctic, where the ice gives way to sea and seals can be hunted. Some 45,000 square kilometres of sea ice is disappearing every year, leading to fewer opportunities for seal hunting. While bears typically have a few cubs, more now are having only one cub, despite the fact that only one in three make it to adulthood. Mixed in among these depressing statistics are some polar-bear facts: polar bears were marine mammals that evolved into land mammals (the Latin name for the species is Ursus maritimus); males weigh about 800 kilograms, with females being much smaller. Despite their size, the bears are incredibly fast and agile. Tracked bears have been shown to cover thousands of kilometres per year. When born, the cubs weigh less than 500g, and all mothers are single mothers, raising their young on their own away from their fathers, who have a tendency to kill them.

We enter Hornsund, and take a zodiac cruise around Burgerbukta, a mirror-calm fjord surrounded by mist-covered mountains and glaciers. We hear the call of birds, but nothing more.

The next day begins at Brepollen, another mirror-calm bay where a polar bear has been spotted under the scope on deck. It’s several hundred metres away, but looks magnificent through the viewfinder. While part of the group takes off in zodiacs to follow the bear as it swims to the other side of the shore, I join the kayaking group, and enjoy being at the very end of this valley, just the other side of the wild east coast we have already seen. The kayaking is easy and surprisingly warm, and we’re all kitted out in US$1,000 (Dh3,673) drysuits, in case we capsize. When we get back to the boat, the other groups regale us with tales of a prolonged bear sighting, showing pictures of it rolling around in the snow.

After a chilli lunch, we make another landing at the nearby Gashamna, a gorgeous plain of snowmelt and moraine. As we wade across streams, it’s how I imagine Alaska.

After a few days on the go, we’ve settled into a faster routine, and, apparently, engineers are on board fixing the engine problem. We’re up at 5.30am on day 6 for a 6.30am landing at Poolepynten on Prins Karls Forland. Easy targets just like the whales, walruses were hunted to near extinction for their blubber, and are only now slowly recolonising from the west coast. They apparently still haven’t come back here to breed. Steve explains how they feed on thousands of clams in one eating session, feeling them on the ocean floor with their whiskers, sucking them up, sucking out the meat and spitting out the shells.

After a pizza lunch, it’s another change of clothes and back on land at Alkhornet, part of a national park, for some more birdwatching; then, heading north, we spot a blue whale from the ship.

The next few days passes with fascinating landings at Ny London, named after a British marble prospector, a walk along the shore of the 14th July Glacier, cracking dramatically like a shotgun, a barbecue on deck, kayaking in front of glaciers and a beach clean-up at Smeerenburg on Amsterdamøya, another abandoned whaling station that looks idyllic on a clear, calm, sunny day, but is littered with unbelievable amounts of lethal rubbish from the fishing industry. We see a large group of walrus here, some of which seem slightly irritated by our presence. I remark that with the amount of food we’re eating, we’ll all look like walruses soon. “It’s an achievement that I can still do my trousers up,” says Joanne, an ex-journalist who now works for a charity.

Travelling north-east, we cross 80 degrees north, which gives us the satisfaction of saying we’ve been to the North Pole – though we are still several miles away from the centre of it and won’t be going any farther north because of weather conditions. It’s at the bird cliffs at Alkefjellet in the Hinlopen Strait that I get to see my first polar bear close up in the wild. The bird cliffs, which have been informally “booked” by another ship, the National Geographic Explorer, suddenly become free earlier than expected when that ship doesn’t turn up. Setting out in the zodiacs with our kayaks towed behind, we see a bear with a cub sleeping just in front of us. Cutting the engines, several dozen SLR cameras are soon firing like machine guns. Because of the distance we have to keep, a long lens is essential – at least 300mm. The cuteness of the cub and the protective stance of the mother, fitted with an ugly tag to monitor its movements, are affecting. I do worry that we woke the bear, and I since wonder what happened to it. But I also find myself turning off taps and reusing towels like never before. Living in Abu Dhabi, I often leave the TV, air con or lights on. But when you see such a fragile, beautiful environment that’s visibly shrinking, only a fool would ignore it.

We’re woken up at 6am by Charles on the tannoy, telling us that the boat is pushing through ice. It’s yet another amazing scene from the control room, which we’re allowed to visit almost any time we like, and the top deck. After breakfast, we set off in zodiacs and later on I go kayaking, alone with Sophie, the kayak guide, and an armed escort in a zodiac behind. You feel very vulnerable passing through large pieces of floating ice – a bear could jump out at any moment – though Sophie says the area has already been scouted. I build up a sweat on the way back to the ship, and decide I want to roll over in the kayak for a dip – which Sophie gamely facilitates to the cheers of the rest of the group. Except for the hands and head, I’m protected from the water by the drysuit, but it’s still an invigorating shock.

On our second-to last day, in Woodfjorden, my group’s zodiac is out in front, and we’re scouring the shores for bears. I spot one with the naked eye, and we draw closer – another mother with a cub. They track along the coast for a good 15 minutes before disappearing over a hill – just one of many highlights on a trip that made the extraordinary an easy, everyday experience.

Read this and other stories in Ultratravel magazine, out today, November 26, with The National.