Flying into Longyearbyen on the 24th June at 1am, it was daylight and we emerged from the small airport to warning signs of polar bears. We were excited to explore and discover a whole new world. As a former mining town, the town is reminiscent of the wild west. Our path was crossed by the illusive arctic fox on our way to our hotel. We would not realise how difficult they are to spot until seven days into our 9-day expedition with Natural World Safaris. We boarded the M/V Kinfish later that same day, formerly a sea-rescue vessel part funded by the CIA during the Cold War and later a scientific ship. Now it has been transformed into a 12-berth explorer vessel which would transport us around the archipelago of Svalbard. Our team included travellers from Seattle,San Francisco, New York, London, Bath and Manchester. All keen wildlife enthusiasts and photographers, the polar bear was at the top of all of our wish lists. We sailed out of port and headed south. Our first morning was incredibly dramatic: we were woken up at 6am and dressed quickly to jump on the zodiac sand head out to a cluster of sea ice. A female polar bear with her older cub had just killed a bearded seal and had dragged it on to the ice, joined by a group of eager gulls. It was our first sighting of this magnificent polar mammal and was striking with the backdrop of deep blue icebergs.
We headed back to the Kinfish, feeling triumphant to a tasty and warming breakfast. Our expedition team Ben and Pernille were fantastic at spotting the wildlife and keeping us active and informed at all times.
In the afternoon we spotted a mother and six-month-old cub at a great distance. The sky was blue and the bright sunshine took the temperature to a balmy eight degrees Celsius. We were ready to wait for them to travel closer to the ship. And to our absolute amazement and delight, the cub played in the water, juggling large ice blocks, diving into the water and then jumping back on to the snow. He became aware of the ship and curious to explore approached us slowly until he was just five metres way from us. His mother stood up from her hunting position and slowly approached the ship, keen to keep her one cub safe. Apprehensive of the movement of the hanging zodiac, the cub came closer and then backed away. He howled not sure of the ship. All 16 of us on board did not dare breathe. We photographed and all you could hear were the shutters of the various cameras. We also took video of this adorable and very cute looking mammal who would have stood taller than any of us. The cub walked away and then bounced back like a puppy inquisitive to see us once again.
When he finally ambled away with mum, we were dumb struck and felt high on the unexpected encounter. We drunk bubbly in the glorious sunshine, relaxing in chairs on the deck. We continued to travel and during our expedition we spotted 23 polar bears. We also photographed walrus up close on a remote spur of beach. We saw the most intricately formed glaciers in shades of whites to the deepest blue. We travelled by zodiac through crackling sea ice and saw seals swimming along with the rarest of bird life. We breathed in the cleanest, fresh and chilled arctic air and felt we really had escaped the everyday rush of life. Relaxing on the deck with hot chocolate and cinnamon French toast while a glacier calved off and crashed in to the sea was momentous. We even paddle boarded in suits designed to deter the arctic cold seas for up to six hours, an activity I never imagined doing inthe high arctic! The zodiac was sent out on a critical errand – the clearest,purest ice block for early evening G&Ts.
Our final day and after a three-hour trek spotting reindeer, whales and a tiny arctic fox cub, we headed back to Kinfish for warming soup and homemade breads as we prepared for the ultimate challenge- our polar plunge. With a party atmosphere we gathered to music on the deck and stepped to the edge to jump deep in to the dark, inky blue freezing waters. Dropping deep below the surface I burst out of the water as my heart leapt and my breathe caught until I screamed with the shock like cold. Jumping on to the deck I was draped in a large towel and handed a shot of brandy. What a high!Just 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole, I really was on top of the world.
Natural World Safaris offers small ship Polar Bear Explorer departures to Svalbard each summer.
For more information visit: https://www.naturalworldsafaris.com/holidays/polar-regions/svalbard/svalbard-polar-bear-explorer
N.B - cover image copyright Shannon Wild