This word says it all when describing the two Svalbard trips in May and June this year.
Before the expeditions you always hope and dream of great polar bear sightings and of course encounters with other representatives of the Arctic animal kingdom like walruses, seal, whales, reindeer, Arctic fox, not to forget the myriads of birds. However even with average sightings Svalbard is an extraordinary adventure no matter what the circumstances. Our last two expeditions though exceeded all expectations.
I would like to start with the groups. Jami and I thank every single one for being so much fun, enthusiastic and appreciative during the entire expedition. Ah, and then our bear guards on the trip on the MS Freya in May. Mette, John and Jens who were on the lookout on the bridge with binoculars and scopes for 24 hours a day trying to find that tiny yellow dot in the vast white landscape. And they did 20 times if I recall correctly. We called them “5 pixel” bears because they were so far away. And as the days passed our anxiety to see polar bears up close increased. And then it happened on the second last day! A polar bear not far from the ice edge catching a seal out of the water. Another polar bear approaching from the far distance and chasing the younger male away from the seal. Then the younger male swimming a long distance towards a walrus mother and her pub resting on an ice floe. The bear climbed out of the water and sprinted towards the couple and almost caught them if the walruses had not slipped into the ocean just in time. What a sighting!
The main focus on every Svalbard trip is undeniably the king of the Arctic – the polar bear. But sometimes there are surprises other than great polar bear sightings that can equally “knock our socks off”. Peter Kleinen, my old school friend, whom I hadn’t seen for 46 years joined us on our Svalbard trip in May and captured probably the most exciting moment of the whole expedition when a Beluga whale jumped out of the water in front of his zodiac. An extremely rare moment when the whale shows more than just the white back breaking the surface of the water. What an amazing experience!
We were back in June for our Svalbard Extreme Expedition on Arctica II. The trip started with an unexpected problem – the boat’s gearbox had just broken a few days earlier. Hence the expedition had to be delayed by 3 days which we used to explore the scenery and history around Longyearbyen by boat, kayak and hiking up the mountains. The days passed fast and before we knew it the Arctica II moved away from the pier for another Svalbard adventure.
Again during the first days we saw a few “5 pixel” bears through our binoculars far out on the ice. Even after waiting for one of the bears for a whole day it didn’t approach closer to the boat. But the days did not go without excitement – we has some exciting moments with walruses. I am always amazed how “cute” they look on pictures without the noise and smell :-)
We then decided to leave Isfjorden to sail straight to the North-West corner of Spitsbergen to the edge of the pack ice. And that is where we hit a photographer’s “jackpot”. Peter, our captain, and Heinrich, the boat owner steered us through the loose pack ice to an ice floe in the far distance where Jami had spotted a polar beer. The polar bear is Jami’s most favorite animal and maybe that is the reason why she has such a great talent to spot them. Or maybe it is just her persistence and stamina to hold the Svarowskis in front of her eyes for hours on end.
The male polar bear was on a fresh bearded seal kill and was not the least bit disturbed by our boat. The camera shutters were clicking in rapid fire mode as the bear was tearing the seal apart, sometimes looking up with his blood-smeared snout. This was the beginning of an 18 hour non-stop polar bear sighting that included, swimming from ice floe to ice foe, climbing out of the water, shaking off the water and ended with the bear swimming several miles straight towards a bearded seal that was resting on the edge of an ice floe. The polar bear dove underneath the ice and popped out of the water right in front of the seal. However the ice was too thick for the bear to quickly climb up, so the seal was extremely fortunate to escape the massive paws not a second too soon.
This unforgettable sighting would have not been possible without our friend and captain Heinrich Eggenfellner who steered the boat towards the ice where the seal was lying on and parked it a safe distance away not to disturb the seal nor the hunting bear. A maneuver that presented us with the best photo angle possible.
Svalbard is one of the last true wild places on earth where not humans but nature still rules. Everybody who loves the north, wild animals, majestic landscapes and of course the sea should include Svalbard in their bucket list.