Not that they know it, but many African animals are blessed with magnificent collective nouns. A flamboyance of flamingos, stubbornness of rhinos, cackle of hyenas. The animals of the Arctic have largely not been so fortunate, with one excellent exception. Although herd can be used to describe a group of walruses, the alternate – and obviously superior – collective noun is an ugly. An ugly of walruses.
As I look out across the near-frozen water of Recherche Fjord in Norway's Svalbard archipelago, it occurs to me that this could not be a more perfect moniker. Walruses are remarkable creatures in many ways, but handsome they most certainly are not.
Thankfully, what they lack in looks they make up for in buffoonish personality. From our motorised dinghy, eight passengers from the Akademik Sergey Vavilov and our pilot Lauren Shipton, one of the ship's expedition staff, watch a bull walrus haul himself to the frozen shore, then proceed to scratch his considerable back on the rough shale below.
To us passengers, this sort of animal behaviour is a polar delight, but to the Vavilov and her expedition staff, it is nothing new. The ship has been sailing the world's coldest seas for the past 30 years, spending the austral summer exploring Antarctica and the boreal summer around both the Norwegian and Canadian Arctic. A former Russian research vessel, its bridge – which is open to passengers – is covered largely in Cyrillic writing. It is unsurprising, then, that its crew is mostly from Russia and the Ukraine.
The expedition staff are a far more cosmopolitan bunch – many are from Canada, but there's also a Swede, a couple of Americans and two Britons. Whatever their passports say, they are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and as hard as Tarzan's feet. Their duties do not read like regular day jobs – these hardy souls must brave the cold to ferry passengers in dinghies, either to land or between icebergs. If making a landing, they must go ashore first, armed with guns and other deterrents, to sweep the area, looking for polar bears.
Their reward (aside from financial, which will only really be useful once the season has finished and they're back home) is broadly the same as it is for the passengers. They get to see the world's last pristine places and some of its rarest, most extraordinary wildlife.
A downside of this is bearing witness to the disintegrating environment. The staff take turns at giving lectures on their various areas of expertise – birds, photography, bears, ice … but the overall picture from these is not a happy one. The world's climate is changing quickly, but it's happening at these extreme latitudes faster than anywhere else. One fact that haunts me on this trip is that as the glaciers retreat and the ice-caps shrink, so the Earth reflects fewer damaging rays, speeding the heating process ever more. A dire situation is getting quickly worse.
Over the nine-day Spitsbergen Encounter programme, the idea is not to be frightened or to leave with a sense of hopelessness, but I feel that at least part of the motivation for coming is – or at least should be – to witness first-hard what we are choosing to lose.
Svalbard will endure, even if its ice and animals do not. At 61,000 square kilometres, it is a huge, mountainous archipelago. There's a strange irony in it, but despite being just more than 1,000km from the North Pole, when more sea ice melts and sea levels rise, lofty Svalbard will, geologically at least, cope reasonably well.
How its wildlife reacts remains to be seen. Already, however, some of the animals are adapting – a phrase that comes up over the course of the expedition is "climate change winners". These include barnacle geese and other species of birds whose ranges are extending as the ice retreats; it's also likely to be good news for egg-and-chick thieves like the arctic fox and glaucous gull.
It would be a hard push to describe the mighty polar bear as a climate change winner. As the sea ice evaporates every year, so do the bears’ hunting prospects.
Yet, while no one doubts the precariousness of their species, over the course of the One Oceans' trip, we Vavilov passengers are lucky with our sightings.
We see 10 bears (representing around 1.2 per cent of Svalbard's 975 estimated total), including three cubs. All look to be in rude health, with the exception of one of the babies who, from afar, seems to be walking with a limp. That afternoon, the ship's resident "bear man" Derek Kyostia takes to the microphone to assure shaken passengers that this wound may not be terminal – the cub is too young to hunt anyway, and so long as its mother is cautious and their luck holds, it will hopefully recover. The biggest threat to its well-being until then is likely to be other bears.
One morning, off an icy beach that leads to an Arctic desert on Nordaustlandet, there's concern that one particularly enormous male bear might be a little too healthy. With the passengers divided between dinghies, we make our way through a maze of sea ice, following some rough instructions from the Vavilov crew, who have radioed from the bridge to say they've spotted a bear walking along the shoreline. As we try to make our way through the white labyrinth to find the Arctic's apex predator, expedition leader Boris Wise is surprised by another bear, prone on the ice. He instructs his staff to keep a safe distance and cut the noise.
However, if this polar bear is lying in wait for anything at all, it appears to be a bedtime story. Ursus maritimus is arguably the world's most fearsome land animal, but looking at its thick white fur and the way it can manipulate itself into a sort of self-hug, it also looks supremely comfy.
The staff carefully and as silently as possible manipulate their respective dinghies to a safe distance of 30 metres and after that, we float in cold silence, watching the bear. Tens of thousands of photos capture its every quiver. Occasionally, it opens its eyes and sniffs the air to get a bead on us, more than once it yawns.
Then, when he’s ready, he stands up, and calmly walks away, nothing able to stop him, in his world or ours.
How to get there:
Polar specialists One Ocean Expeditions run both Arctic and Antarctic cruises, including the nine-night Spitsbergen Encounter programme. While polar bear sightings are not guaranteed, they are highly likely (oneoceanexpeditions.com).