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African Safari Travel

Arctic wildlife cruise (polar bear, walrus, reindeer, sea birds, etc.) around Spitsbergen (Svalbard)

I usually bring you news about Africa, but this time I'm sharing something from the Northern hemisphere (wildlife nonetheless). If you just want to see pictures, click here.
Grab a cup of your favorite brew if you're interested in reading about the 


By Christine Eichin

While technically Spitsbergen is the biggest, and only inhabited island of the Svalbard archipelago consisting of many islands, located half-way between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole, for all intended purposes, I will refer to the entire area as Spitsbergen.

Scenery Southwestern Spitsbergen (Svalbard)
Southwestern Spitsbergen                                                    Photo © Christine Eichin
I notice that when I tell people that Spitsbergen is a sovereignty of Norway that they dismiss the remark “but it is much farther North”. Spitsbergen, meaning pointed mountains, is better known in Europe than in the States. Perhaps it’s because we have “the polar bear capital of the world” in North America. By the same token, not many Europeans know about Churchill, Manitoba (Canada), where late October/early November polar bears congregate in great numbers waiting for the sea to freeze on Hudson Bay, giving them the platform they need to hunt their favorite prey: Ringed seals.

The latitude of Longyearbyen, the largest of only three settlements and located in the southwest of Spitsbergen, is 78o north. And the farthest point north in the archipelago is just above the “Seven Islands” at 81o. By comparison, the farthest point north in Alaska, Point Barrow, is at only 71o. Spitsbergen is under Norwegian control, but in regards to commercial interests considered neutral. Any citizen of a country that had signed the treaty of 1920 (including USA) may settle on Spitsbergen. The thought of 24-hour daylight from late April through late August may be appealing, but don’t forget that from late October through mid-February the sun is always below the horizon, and from mid-November through late January, you’ll experience polar night (24-hour darkness). - Unlike other places in the Arctic, Spitsbergen was never inhabited by Inuit.

I first heard of Spitsbergen in 1983. While I immigrated from Switzerland to the United States with my family, my sister, her late husband and 5 friends embarked on a 7-week geological expedition to the northwest corner of Spitsbergen. At that time, you could only visit Spitsbergen for research, and had to request permission with a detailed itinerary, intentions and credentials from the Sysselmannen (governor); it didn’t officially open to tourism until 1990. Spitsbergen is rich in minerals, particularly “Black Gold”. Both Russia and Norway maintain coal mines on Spitsbergen. Since the Russian mine had to be flooded because of fire in 2008, it is not producing profitably, but it is believed the Russians maintain it to have a presence on Spitsbergen. Poland, Japan, China and Norway have research stations scattered around Spitsbergen, and it is expected that other nations race to have a presence, similar to Antarctica.

So, what was the big attraction for me, you ask? Camping, endless strenuous hikes, taking shooting lessons, carrying a rifle in case of a close encounter with a polar bear while exploring like my sister did almost 30 years ago, were not my idea of a rewarding vacation. My first love is Africa, predominantly for the wide-open spaces and the spectacular and varied wildlife. The Arctic, however, is a close second! Most people traveling to the polar regions would consider Antarctica before the Arctic, and though I appreciate and learned to love birds on my many trips to Africa, mammals (the bigger, the better) have my affection. I traveled to Churchill late fall of both 1997 and 2003, and spent a few nights in basic Tundra Buggy®; bunk-bed accommodation, stationed out on the tundra, only to wake up
Tundra Buggy Lodge, Gordon Point, Churchill (Hudson Bay - Canada)
Tundra Buggy Lodge®                                                          Photo © Christine Eichin

each morning surrounded by polar bears. It made my heart sing. I could have chosen to overnight in a comfortable hotel in Churchill, and taken day trips out to the tundra where the bears are, but I would have missed the almost teddy-bear like morning wake-up routine: One is getting up, strolls over to another bear and nudges him… they may play fight for a short period, slide in the snow on their chest or stroll to the “lodge” on the tundra, where they can’t resist investigating the smell of food (or tooth paste, for that matter).

Churchill and Spitsbergen are two completely different polar bear experiences! Polar bears are solitary animals, except a mother with cub(s). Unlike brown and black bears, polar bears are not territorial and don’t hibernate. Only expecting mother bears den. Though polar bears are excellent swimmers, they need ice floes from which they can hunt. When the pack ice on Hudson Bay melts in the summer, the bears come ashore. Their metabolism slows down drastically, and they have to “diet” for months. They have hardly anything to eat – perhaps some seaweed and other plants and the occasional bird if they are lucky. Instinctively the bears head towards Cape Churchill, in the southwest of Hudson Bay, where they arrive in bigger and bigger numbers late fall and coexist mostly peaceful. They would exert too much energy fighting. At this stage bears may have fasted for the better part of 4 to 5 months and are “weak”. Cape Churchill sits on a shelf, and due to the shallower water, the sea freezes there first. As soon as the ice is thick enough to support a bear’s weight, they are gone, eager to hunt seals. While observing polar bears in Churchill, you’re likely to also see Arctic fox in their pure white winter coat and ravens, ptarmigan (also in their white winter plumage), perhaps an Arctic hare in his white fur, occasionally a snowy owl or a gyrfalcon, and if you’re EXTREMELY lucky, a wolf. If your aim is to see the most polar bears, Churchill won’t disappoint you if you travel late October/early November. In the sparsely forested areas south of Churchill, you may see caribou and on occasion a moose.
But I yearned to see polar bears in their 'true' natural environment, resting on ice floes, swimming in the frigid ocean and perhaps hunting their favorite prey. I knew the coastal areas of Spitsbergen were my best chance. And while bears are the main attraction, you are likely to see Arctic fox in their brownish/gray summer hair, walrus, whales (beluga & minke), eider ducks, barnacle and pink-footed geese, as well as many sea bird colonies, and what they call reindeer. Since these are wild, in America we would call them caribou.

Polar bear swimming away with prey, Spitsbergen (Svalbard)
Polar Bear swimming away with Prey                                         Photo © Osi Odermatt

Getting to Spitsbergen, especially from the west coast of the USA, may involve an overnight in Oslo (Norway). The Radisson Blu Hotel is located within the airport; only a short walk from arrival. If you have more time, you can reach Oslo downtown by train in 20 min. Scandinavian Airlines is currently the only carrier with daily scheduled flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen. Non-stop flights take approximately 3 hours; a connection via Tromsø about 4.

An expedition-style cruise is arguably the most comfortable and efficient way to experience Spitsbergen. The choice of ships is increasing. I was looking for a “small” ship (in the ballpark of 100 passengers or less), and definitely one that carries Zodiacs for explorations into bays and fjords that are too shallow for the ship to maneuver into. (Without Zodiac excursions, cruising around Spitsbergen will most likely just be a very scenic adventure, but you’d have to be extremely lucky to see wildlife up close.)

My other criteria was the itinerary. Many cruise ships sail only along the west coast of Spitsbergen and around the northeast. There is a Gulf stream which carries warm currents, keeping the west coast ice-free for much of the year; but farther north, and particularly in the east, there is pack ice, and ships with ice-strengthened hulls may be able to navigate when the pack ice is breaking up. The chance of circumnavigating Spitsbergen increases dramatically later in the summer, but no guarantee. The east is also incredibly rich in wildlife. Spitsbergen authorities are actually considering closing the east coast to tourism, and only allow researchers to go there. For now though, it is still accessible (pack ice and ice-strengthened ship permitting).

Polar bear on pack ice, Spitsbergen (Svalbard)
Polar Bear on Pack Ice                                                          Photo © Christine Eichin

Tours to see polar bears have become increasingly popular the last few years, as global warming threatens their existence, and/or they move further and further north with the receding ice. I was elated to learn that my choice of ships still had availability for a late July/early August sailing when I inquired early May. Prior to the economical crisis, I would have had to book at least 10 – 12 months prior to departure.

The M/V Plancius, owned and operated by Oceanwide Expeditions, is the perfect polar expedition ship. Even the lowest category cabins (except a few triple occupancy) have two twin beds and en-suite bathrooms, and superior cabins offer a queen-size bed, and of course far more room. If you want to splurge, there are suites and the owner’s suite available, as well. The ship has an “open seating” dining room, accommodating all passengers in one sitting; and doubles as a lecture room, especially on dual-language voyages. On deck 5, there is an observation lounge with big picture windows, where coffee, tea, hot chocolate etc. is always available, and you can search for wildlife through the telescopes or simply watch the stunning scenery go by. It features fairly big-screen TV’s for presentations, and of course, a bar. On the top, deck 7, there is a big open-air area with benches, and the bridge, which has an “open policy", as long as you don’t interfere with the captain and officers navigating the ship. The ship has a non-smoking policy, expect in a few designated outside areas. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, but dinner is a sit-down affair, usually with 2 meat and/or fish choices, and a vegetarian option. The chef on our departure was from Germany, and as you can imagine, the baked goods were especially yummy. The atmosphere on the ship is relaxed and informal. Some educational lectures are offered during the voyage, but there is no entertainment except for the one you provide yourself. This is an expedition-style cruise, and the focus is on the scenery and the wildlife, with the ship being your transportation. And in tune with expedition, the itinerary is flexible depending on ice conditions and what you may find. The cruise director in close cooperation with the captain sets the next day’s itinerary, which is then broadcast on each cabin’s close-circuit TV after dinner. There is a camera on the bridge pointing straight in front of the ship, and transmitting live to each cabin’s TV 24/7, as well.

For your shore and Zodiac excursions, the cruise employs one guide for every Zodiac with maximum 10-11 passengers. The guides may have various backgrounds. One may be a historian, one a geologist and the rest mostly scientists that specialize in bird- and wildlife. You are not assigned one particular guide, so throughout the cruise, you can learn something about just about anything Arctic from all of them. There is also a general medicine doctor on board.

A typical day starts with the wake-up call at 7 am, breakfast at 7:30, briefing on the morning activity between 8:30 and 9 am, then hiking or Zodiac excursions to explore the different fjords, glaciers and bays. You are back on board for lunch at about 1 pm, and have another quick briefing before venturing out on the afternoon excursion. You’ll be back on board in time for dinner, which is usually between 7 and 7:30 pm. Of course, you can always choose to stay on the ship, and enjoy your beautiful surroundings from the deck or observation lounge. I love that the guides eat with the passengers, so you can always ask any questions you may have. They are very knowledgeable and willing to share their expertise. If you’re not exhausted from the excursions, you may enjoy an after-dinner drink at the bar and converse with other passengers before going to bed. You can’t ever really say: “Good night” – the sun shines even at midnight. This is the only destination where in the summer, jet-lag is no problem. Not that I didn’t have it, but when you wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning, you can get up and continue sightseeing. If you’re looking for company, go to the ship’s bridge. Eventually you'll find your rhythm. Should the officers on duty come upon a pod of whales or some other exciting wildlife, they will make an announcement over the loudspeakers, ANY hour of the day.

The language on board is English, but some departures are offered as bi-lingual. If that is the case, there will be enough guides speaking the second language to accommodate the non-English speaking passengers, and all announcements and briefings will be in both languages. If you’re embarking on a Zodiac excursion, all Zodiacs on board are deployed at once, and the English-speaking guests are boarded first, then the other language-speaking passengers. This insures a certain routine to get people off the ship quickly, and that you will be with a guide that you can communicate with, and whom you can understand when he explains the ecology, the wildlife, etc. It works very efficiently.

Zodiac excursion, Spitsbergen (Svalbard)
Zodiac excursion             Photo © Christine Eichin

For shore excursions, there are typically up to 4 Zodiacs shuttling passengers from the ship to shore and visa versa, depending on the distance to cover. All Zodiac landings are “wet landings”, meaning you have to step into a little bit of water when going ashore. On Plancius, a pair of neoprene-insulated rubber boots are provided for every passenger for the duration of the cruise. It is impractical to change shoes once you’re on land, as many landing sites are muddy, with no place to sit down. Depending on the area, you may have to walk through a little bit of “swamp”, as snow melt may leave certain places quite wet. Therefore the knee-high rubber boots may come in handy, though they don’t provide much ankle support. I wore my hiking boots (stiff uppers, not the high-tech kind) with gaiters, and since it was late in the season with a lot less snow melt than in June, for example, I was ok, and didn’t get wet feet once. Just in case, though, I wore neoprene socks. They insulate even when wet, and won’t give you blisters like other wet socks might because Neoprene doesn’t bunch up.

Preferably a breathable, waterproof (Gortex, for example) jacket and pants are also essential. In rough seas, a little water may splash over the rims of the Zodiacs, and you want to be sure to stay dry. Layering (T-shirt, fleece top and waterproof shell-type jacket) is more suited to adjust to weather changes than a single insulating garment (down jacket, for example). Do not forget a hat and gloves!

You are thoroughly briefed on each shore excursion before boarding the Zodiacs, so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into. There are always at least two different hiking groups: The “hikers” (those who are fit and want to cover more ground), and the leisurely group (the talkers and picture takers). Often the leisurely group is then also split into two groups. Each group is and has to be accompanied by two armed guards. Remember, this is polar bear country, and you never know if a bear is just around the bend. Though 99% of polar bears would run away and avoid human contact, there is always the chance you come upon that one bear who is desperate for food and has become increasingly aggressive, especially later in the season when the ice floes have melted, and a polar bear had to go without food for a while. A first defense would be flare guns to scare off an inquisitive or aggressive bear, and if all fails, though polar bears have been protected since 1973, it may be shot in self-defense. A thorough investigation by the Sysselmannen will follow! You really don’t have to fear for your safety if you follow the instructions of your professional guides. They are extremely well trained and knowledgeable, and constantly on the lookout! - Should a polar bear be spotted within a mile of a landing site, you are not allowed to go ashore. The crew will revert to plan B, which is finding a different landing site, or opt for a Zodiac cruise, instead.

For those seeking more day-long and serious hikes, Oceanwide offers special departures; and some departures with kayaking or camping options at additional cost to accommodate the hardiest of explorers.

Spitsbergen has no bushes or trees, only lichens, mosses and a few hardy small plants: Arctic cottongrass, Spitsbergen poppies and mostly various species of saxifrage.

The scenery is spectacular: Snow-covered mountains, fjords, glaciers and bays. You would expect this raw nature paradise to be inhospitable, but during summer, while it’s daylight all the time, it is remarkably mild. The average temperature is in the ballpark of 45o F (7o C). It can be windy, but there is surprisingly little precipitation; some areas are so dry, they are considered Polar deserts. Never forget, this is a most fragile environment, and I can’t stress enough that everything you pack in, you must pack out. It will take decades to decompose even organic matter. As with our national parks, you are not allowed to take any “souvenirs” (rocks, plants, antlers, hair, walrus tusks, whale bones or even a rusty nail from an old trapper’s hut), and you are not to disturb any cultural or historic sites. You must leave everything the way you found it, and take only photographs! I took hundreds…

Scenic View through an Iceberg 'Window in Time', Spitsbergen (Svalbard)
A window in time                                                                 Photo © Christine Eichin

Like on safaris in Africa, I loved the anticipation of spotting wildlife. And while there are no guarantees, I’m told there has not yet been a cruise, where not at least one polar bear had been seen. My favorite memories are not only watching a polar bear on the pack ice with its reflection in the water, but our “talking” group walking in unison towards a pod of walrus, stopping every few feet to insure we didn’t disturb them to the point they felt threatened because they would have retreated into the water. I loved observing some Arctic terns dive-bomb a Glaucous gull who patrolled the area of the Arctic terns nesting site and the thousands of little auks or dovekies (relatives of the puffins) who went out to sea to fill the pouch under their beaks with small crustaceans and return to feed their young on the steep rocky slopes, making it look like rush hour on a busy freeway. I was frustrated the bearded seals didn’t sit on their ice floes long enough to get decent photos, and elated to learn that the Arctic fox we had seen patrolling below the steep bird-inhabited cliffs was actually a blue fox, which is a mutation in only 3% of the Arctic fox population that does not change its color with the seasons. I enjoyed the Northern fulmar, a gull-like bird that is in fact related to the Albatross, and a constant companion flying alongside our ship while cruising. I was mesmerized by the icebergs that rolled and turned upside down without warning, and loved the popping and hissing sounds of the glaciers. Nature is alive and awe-inspiring!

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