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Polar bears on the pack-ice

Our Festival of Wildlife travels to Spitsbergen in 2020, accompanied by an expert team of naturalists, photographers and expedition crew. This specially chartered cruise has been timed to coincide with bears on the pack-ice, and in this article Wildlife Consultant Chris Smith describes the thrill of seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat …

{img_alt} Our ship sliced through the calm, inky black waters of the ocean. It was early morning, and yet it was broad daylight as we sailed high above the Arctic Circle in midsummer. This was the closest to the North Pole that I had ever been. We were sailing north from the top of Spitsbergen. Another, smaller, island of the Svalbard Archipelago appeared as a faint speck on the horizon. Slowly, the island began to become more distinct, and two snow-capped peaks burst through the misty cloud that cloaked this isolated landmass. The peaks grew larger and larger as we approached, until we passed right between the two towering mountains, imposing ‘guardians’ to this high-Arctic world. We dropped anchor in the serene waters of a sheltered cove behind these rock goliaths, the only sounds those of waves breaking and bird-calls echoing around the mountains. {img_alt}

Scanning the beaches around our ship we quickly spotted the distinctive blubbery outlines of walruses on the shoreline. We took straight to the water in Zodiacs in order to take a closer look at these unique marine mammals. Approaching as quietly as possible, we were close enough to make out details on the bodies of these true Arctic specialists with just the naked eye. The sound (and smell) of these extraordinary animals as they interacted with each other reached us. Indeed, the phrase ‘huffed and puffed’ might have been coined to describe the noise walruses make as they become increasingly boisterous with one another. Our Zodiacs drifted silently past the walruses, allowing us fantastic opportunities for photography. Walruses really are mighty creatures: full-grown males can weigh more than two tonnes and their tusks can reach more than a metre in length! {img_alt}

We returned to the ship after what we thought was the end of an exhilarating morning of wildlife watching in the Arctic wilderness. However, no sooner had we stepped back on board, there was a message sent over the ship’s tannoy – ‘Polar bear spotted onshore’! We raced straight back to the cabins to layer up again; the Zodiacs were relaunched immediately. It was time to see the great wanderer of the Arctic. {img_alt}

As before, we approached as stealthily as possible. A large female polar bear grabbed our attention – she had been attracted to the beach by a walrus carcass. Having eaten her fill, she made herself comfortable on the beach, lying down and surveying her surroundings. This was our chance to get closer! Our excitement had reached a whole different level and yet not a sound could be heard as everyone watched the bear in stunned silence. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck (despite the multiple layers I was wearing) as we moved closer. {img_alt}

Crouching down, we drifted past the female polar bear several times in the Zodiacs. Each time we got a tiny bit closer. On our final pass we couldn’t have been more than 15 metres away. This really is one of the world’s most captivating creatures, the true icon of the Arctic. This was why I had come to Spitsbergen and the Svalbard Archipelago, but nothing could prepare me for the thrill of seeing this magnificent mammal.

Join award-winning photographers Nick Garbutt and Bret Charman, Mark Carwardine, Wildlife Worldwide Founder Chris Breen, Director Nick Joynes and other guest speakers for this eight-night chartered voyage in search of Spitsbergen’s wonderful wildlife.