by John Wilmott, The Telegraph, October 9, 2017
One o’clock: polar bear; nine o’clock: walrus; four o’clock: minke whale; seven o’clock: bearded seal.
These weren’t the times I spotted the mammals, but the easiest way for Boris Wise, our expedition leader, to point out their positions in relation to our ship.
Then, halfway through my voyage around the High Arctic island of Spitsbergen, came the most exciting sighting of all: 10 o’clock, blue whale (announced over the Tannoy just before 7am). Leaping out of bed, I arrived on deck just as a second announcement came that there were at least two of them.
“I think we’ve got three… no, four… possibly five!” said Wise, the excitement evident despite his years of wildlife encounters. Their enormous backs broke the surface a few hundred metres away; even at that distance I could see the huge plume of spray from their blowholes. Gradually they approached the ship, its decks now rimmed with passengers. One did a deep dive – its huge fluke rising gracefully against the backdrop of one of Spitsbergen’s boulder-like glaciers.
We later learnt how rare it is for a blue whale to “fluke”, yet I witnessed this spectacle three times. The next sighting would surely have made even Sir David Attenborough gasp. Well over 100 tons of muscle and blubber rose out from the water so close to the bow of the ship I could have jumped on its back. I leaned as far over the side of the railing as I could without falling in.
The previous day our expedition ship had been buried in the loose ice at the edge of the endless white cap that covers the North Pole. As the crew set out the tables for a deck barbecue in this bizarre location, a minke whale spy-hopped – stuck its head right out of the water – so close we could hear its breath. Making use of the open pools of water between the ice sheets, another of the pod joined in, checking us out. Minkes are among the smaller whales but to look one in the eye is unforgettable.
I had joined our ship, Akademik Ioffe, in Longyearbyen, the surprisingly busy “capital” of Spitsbergen that is a three-hour flight north of Oslo. Ioffe is a Russian-owned polar research vessel that is still used for its original purpose for several weeks each year, as well as being chartered for expedition cruises by the likes of One Ocean Expeditions.
We were welcomed by a team of naturalists, guides and other specialists from North America and Europe, most of whom had spent decades embracing the great outdoors. Their knowledge and anecdotes were to add hugely to our experience over the next 10 days.
Foremost in my mind when booking this trip was the chance to see polar bears. They are, after all, why most people travel to the Svalbard archipelago way up in the Barents Sea north of Norway. But the emblematic bear was, on this rare occasion, usurped by the planet’s biggest animal.
Bears still played an electrifying role in our nine-night voyage, however. Shortly before we enjoyed the minke ballet, the One Ocean naturalist team had spied one wandering across the frozen sea, which is why our ship, built to do just that, had gently nudged its way through the ice.
Some distance away at first, the butter-coloured speck played cat and mouse behind the icebergs, slowly ambling towards us.
I could see its reflection in the water pools and watched its progress through binoculars until it disappeared in search of (most likely) a seal dinner. He was one of nine polar bears that we would see during the trip; towards the lower end of the usual count, though sightings can never be guaranteed.
Ioffe is an interesting ship, with lots of open deck space for viewing both the wildlife and Spitsbergen’s untamed seascapes of sharp mountains striped with snow from the long and brutal winter. Cabins are cosy, the food hearty and the bar lively, the latter being the venue for informal “fireside chats” by the expedition team as an adjunct to the audio-visual lectures in the presentation room.
The daily programme is edifying. Each day, when the 7am wake-up call comes through, there’s a delicious feeling of not knowing what you may encounter over the next few hours – or even late at night as, up here, the sun never sets in summer.
The ship’s fleet of Zodiac craft – manoeuvrable excursion boats taking up to 10 passengers – were used almost daily to ferry guests ashore for guided hikes or for scenic cruising along the face of glaciers. On our way up to the polar ice cap – more than 80 degrees north – we stepped ashore at the site of an old whaling station to investigate a quivering brown mass on the beach that the staff had identified as a herd of walruses. Obeying strict rules about not stressing any animals, we crept up to them, observing the occasional lift of a huge tusked head and listening to their various belches and grunts.
Brushes with nature were plentiful and varied. A large bearded seal resting on an iceberg allowed us to float past on the Zodiacs. Arctic terns danced around us on the water, trying to avoid the bullying skuas that force them to give up their food. White reindeer, unused to human interaction, approached my hiking group, almost posing for the inevitable photos. An Arctic fox trotted along the mossy shore, looking for birds’ eggs.
Towards the end of our voyage the decision was made to round the southern tip of Spitsbergen where more sea ice had been identified by satellite imaging. It was our last chance to see another polar bear. After hours of searching through telescopes among the scattered ice, we had almost given up hope when the call came: 12 o’clock, dead ahead.
Carefully guiding the ship towards our “target”, the whispers of “I can see it!” became more frequent as the slumbering animal woke up and began its patrol. We stopped, letting the bear – a large male in prime condition – choose his own path. He obligingly gave us many picture opportunities before slipping into the water and swimming off into the distance.
In the bar that evening, we toasted this moment and the wild nature of Spitsbergen with cocktails chilled with ice, thousands of years old, from one of the glaciers. At a very civilised six o’clock.