Close encounters on the Arctic pack ice of Svalbard, Norway

The pack ice in northern Spitsbergen — the largest island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard  — is home to curious polar bears and unearthly landscapes, best accessed by an intrepid cruise.

A polar bear rests on the ice.

Photograph by Olivier Blaud
By Farida Zeynalova
Published 10 Dec 2022, 08:00 GMT

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, we have a bear on a piece of ice on the starboard bow, just at one o’clock,” announces expedition leader Gérard Bodineau, his thick French accent resounding through my cabin intercom and jolting me out of a heavy sleep. Although I wasn’t expecting to be woken this way, this is exactly why I’ve set sail with Ponant and National Geographic Expeditions — to witness the remote, northernmost reaches of Svalbard and its myriad Arctic wildlife. I leap out of bed, shuffle into my expedition-grade coat and loop a pair of binoculars around my neck. Before rushing off to find Gérard, I take a moment to slide open my balcony door for a peek outside.

Overnight, we’d reached the pack ice off the northern tip of Spitsbergen island — a striking mosaic of ice floes formed by shards of sea ice freezing together. The floes stretch out as far as the eye can see — some shaped like puffs of shaving foam and others frozen lily pads, all undulating peacefully on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. It’s almost silent, bar the occasional whooshing wings of a passing kittiwake and the soft splash of colliding drift ice. Coming from the far more chaotic environs of London, I’d almost forgotten that the Earth could contain such serenity. This is the most still I’ve felt in years.

But now is not the time for stillness — I’ve got places to go and polar bears to meet. By the time I realise I’m still in my pyjamas and not wearing any shoes, it’s too late. I’m already darting towards the navigation bridge, like a ravenous Arctic fox who’s just spotted a juicy lemming. I tug open the heavy door to find the captain, a few naturalists and Gérard, who’s as still as a statue and glued to his binoculars.

The group are utterly silent — we are, after all, trespassing on the bear’s hunting territory and have a responsibility to keep any disruption to a minimum. I tiptoe towards the outside deck to catch my very first glimpse of this majestic animal. The pack ice here in Spitsbergen is an important hunting ground for polar bears, and this one is on the prowl for breakfast. He’s surprisingly close to the boat, but I keep peering through my binoculars for an even closer look. In that moment, as implausible as it sounds, I’m convinced we lock eyes and he stares right back at me, wondering why I’m so consumed by what he’s up to. 

Magdalenefjord, on the west coast of Spitsbergen.

Magdalenefjord, on the west coast of Spitsbergen.

Photograph by Noemie Watel

For the next few minutes, he puts on a show, almost as if he knows we’ve been searching for him. Despite being a strong swimmer, he leaps from floe to floe to avoid an icy plunge, shaking off beads of water from his plush fur with every landing. It’s then time for a bit of playful yoga, and he seems to know all the positions: the obligatory bear, the downward dog, the corpse pose. There’s a brief interval — a staring showdown between the bear and the 30-odd passengers gawking at him from the deck — before he lies on his back, legs akimbo, to stretch it all out.

Polar bears, I learn from Gérard, are solitary animals. In Svalbard and the Barents Sea area, there are around 3,000 of them, roughly 710 of which roam the pack ice here in the waters off Spitsbergen. But a visit doesn’t necessarily guarantee a sighting.  

“I recall spending two and a half days here a few years ago and didn’t see a single bear,” Gérard leans over and whispers. “Today, within minutes, we find the first one!”

It feels like we’ve won the Arctic lottery, with vivid, cerulean-blue skies and a bear so close that I can appreciate all his striking features: his curved, hunt-ready claws; his dark, beady eyes tirelessly scanning his surroundings; and his thick, white fur, which I learn is actually translucent, and only appears white because of the way it reflects the light. 

My journey aboard Ponant’s luxurious Le Boreal had started five days ago, sailing northbound from the mining town of Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard and the northernmost settlement in the world. To get to the pack ice, we’d sailed through some of the most magnificent places I’ve ever set eyes on. The prodigious and remote Recherche Fjord could have easily been an oil painting; its stony peaks and vast stretches of vegetation made me feel small and insignificant in the best way possible. Further north, in Lilliehöökfjorden, we’d stopped in front of one of Svalbard’s largest glaciers. It instantly reminded me of CGI, something about the way the light hit the compressed layers of ice — each a slightly different shade of blue. Here, the masses of ice floating on the water gently crackle, akin to the sound of millions of Rice Krispies falling into the ocean. And just yesterday, we’d glided through the mirror-like waters of Raudfjorden, where we’d listened to glaciers roar as sheets of ice broke away — almost as if in slow motion — before collapsing into the water.

Wildlife-spotting in Recherche Fjord, further south on the west coast.

Wildlife-spotting in Recherche Fjord, further south on the west coast.

Photograph by Justine Ammendolia

The bear turns his back to us and starts sauntering away. That’s when Gérard announces it’s time to leave him be — the group of naturalists on board had drummed into us the importance of respecting wildlife, here or anywhere else in the world. 

After getting dressed and grabbing a refuelling croissant from the breakfast bar, I return to the bridge where Captain Mickaël Debien is delicately navigating through the ice floes. He’s just as impressed by this morning’s visitor as I am. 

“What we saw this morning, it’s incredible! You can never get bored of that,” he says. “We’re lucky with the weather too — there’s no wind, so we have the impression that nothing is moving.” Gesturing ahead, he adds: “It looks like a pastel painting.”  

At 81 degrees, we’re at the most northernmost point of our voyage. The North Pole, at 90 degrees north, is roughly 500 miles away from us, and can only be accessed with an icebreaker ship, which Le Boreal isn’t. The vast expanse of ice floes in front of me plays a big role in keeping the Earth balanced. These meringue-like pieces of floating ice, much like all the ice here in the Arctic, reflect sunshine back into space, helping to even out the planet’s temperatures. 

A few moments later, I find out from one of the guides that we’ll be, lo and behold, actually stepping onto an ice floe. Yes, we humans, standing on a floating sheet of ice not too far from the one that was occupied by a ravenous bear earlier this morning. After an engaging bear lecture in the theatre by Olivier Delclos, an expedition guide and a self-proclaimed nomad, it’s time to board the Zodiac — a rigid inflatable boat. There are 10 of us and we’re zooming towards the 60-metre-wide ice floe. I clamber out and take a couple of Bambi-like steps to test the ground. Will it hold us? Is it supposed to hold us? I knew I shouldn’t have had that second helping of tarte tatin at lunch. 

A group explores the glaciers of Svalbard in a Zodiac, a rigid inflatable boat.

A group explores the glaciers of Svalbard in a Zodiac, a rigid inflatable boat.

Photograph by Nathalie Michel

The ice I’m nervously standing on has travelled from near the North Pole and is about a year old, Gérard tells me. “The thickness is a bit more than a metre, and there’s about 700 metres of sea water underneath.” I relax slightly when he adds that the ice only needs to be 10-12cm thick to hold a human being. I look back at our ship, just like the bear was doing this morning, and I wonder — what was going through his mind, looking at this large metal vessel so alien to him? Did he walk this very piece of ice I’m standing on? Would he be angry if he knew that I was milling around on his turf? 

Half an hour later, we’re back on the boat and eating dinner on deck two at La Licorne, one of two restaurants on board, when the captain announces he’s started the journey back towards the south of Spitsbergen. As we sail along, the large popples of water from the window remind me of chocolate melting in a pan; so silky that it’s difficult to differentiate what’s water and what’s sky on the horizon. Just as my dessert arrives, Gérard’s by-now-familiar voice rings out over the tannoy again — there’s another bear on the starboard, and he’s resting on a bloodstained ice floe.There’s a sudden clanking of cutlery and the dining room empties within seconds. 

I dash back to the bridge, and there he is, full and content, lying lazily in front of a butchered ring seal. I hear a gasp — somebody spots another bear sleeping on an ice floe just a few metres to the right. This one’s a female and her mouth is dappled with blood — which suggests the two bears hunted together, according to Jennifer Ailloud, one of the naturalists. We wait in sheer silence and endure the brittle air in a bid to see what happens next. I pinball between the two bears using my binoculars, and before long, the female is awake and swimming towards her supper. Together, the two bears start picking away at the seal’s rubbery skin — it’s brutally astonishing, or astonishingly brutal, depending on how you look at it. I sit on the floor for the next 45 minutes, desperately trying to document the moment through photos and videos, but it seems nothing I capture can do the scene justice. Gérard’s thick French accent resounds over the tannoy one last time and jolts me out of a heavy reverie — it’s time to leave the bears to enjoy their dinner, and for us to go back to ours. 

How to do it

Ponant offers the eight-day Fjords and glaciers of Spitsbergen expedition on board L’Austral, departing from Paris on 17 May 2023. Prices start from £7,770 per person based on two people sharing a Prestige stateroom cabin (deck six), including accommodation, all meals, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, mini-bar and 24/7 room service, as well as a pre-cruise package with an overnight stay in Pullman Paris Roissy-CDG Airport and international flights from Paris and Longyearbyen. Ponant’s 2023 sailings with National Geographic Expeditions have yet to be confirmed. 

Published in the Cruise 2023 guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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