Encountering polar bears in the Arctic
In August 2012, I embarked on my first Arctic adventure – a 15-day voyage from Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. The experience was utterly life-changing and I have been enamoured with the Arctic ever since.
Relaxing on the third evening, I watched the ice floes drift past and drank in the spectacular surroundings of icebergs and the Greenland Sea’s thousand shades of blue. Sailing around Spitsbergen, we had witnessed a gigantic glacier dramatically collapsing and observed fin whales – the second largest of all whale species, known as the ‘greyhound of the sea’ – but were longing for the most sought-after wildlife sighting of all: a polar bear. Anticipation was building.
Finally, at 9pm, it was announced that the Arctic’s apex predator had been spotted. My fellow cruisers and I rushed to the ship’s bow and there he was, straight ahead of us, feasting on a seal. He completely ignored us as he polished off his kill, then rolled around on the ice, stretching languorously.
The crew managed to take us within about 12m of this incredible animal and he seemed unperturbed, except for the odd sniff in the air. He sauntered to the edge of the ice and, to our amusement, a corner broke off, causing him to sink gently into the freezing waters. Unbothered, he swam to the next ice floe, hauled himself out and shook like a giant, shaggy sheepdog, droplets flying everywhere.
Suddenly, another one, even bigger than the first, appeared on the starboard side of our ship, about 15m away from us. He, too, entertained us with some comic movements, such as rubbing his chest on the ice as he pushed himself along with his back legs, as if to scratch a really irritating itch. Eventually, the pair plunged into the murky depths and swam off.
Believing the show to be over, our boat continued onwards and we returned to our daydreaming and reading. But just five minutes later, another polar bear appeared on the ice, not far from the stern. Again, our vessel slowly and quietly approached this magnificent creature so we could see him up close.
By now, the midnight sun was lowering in the sky and the tranquil sea was dyed blue, pink and orange, broken by millions of fragments of sea ice. It was a truly spectacular sight.
c+l’s Arctic wildlife checklist
With its blubbery body, whiskers and oversized tusks, the walrus is a hilarious animal to behold. They live in vast colonies all over the Arctic, but the best viewing spots include northern Greenland, Spitsbergen and Svalbard, especially in the north-east of the archipelago.
Catching sight of one of these rare, well-camouflaged mammals is almost as exciting as seeing a polar bear. You’re most likely to encounter one in Iceland, particularly in the remote west fjord country, Ísafjarðardjúp and the north of the Strandir region, as well as on Spitsbergen and north-eastern Greenland.
This species is endemic to the eponymous archipelago. Herds of reindeer can often be spotted on cruises around the Svalbard coastline but the best place to see them is on the island of Edgeøya, part of the large Søraust-Svalbard Nature Reserve, where it’s possible to explore on foot with an experienced local guide.
During the Arctic summer, whales from the world over congregate in the frozen seas of Alaska, Greenland, Norway and Canada, returning from spells in warmer waters. These migratory species include gray, blue, fin and minke whales, and the best time to see them is between June and August. However, beluga and bowhead whales are resident all year round, and you may also be lucky enough to spot pods of orcas, which often hunt off the Norwegian coast.
Due to its slender, sharp horn, this creature is known as the ‘unicorn of the sea’. Simultaneously spectacular and strange-looking, the narwhal can be spotted in the northern Canadian Arctic or off the coast of western Greenland, particularly in winter.
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