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  • Matt Armstrong-Ford

Svalbard

Updated: Jul 4, 2019

78°15 N lays the town of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitzbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, 1309 Km from the North Pole. This is where the adventure begins.

How do you describe the indescribable? Words and pictures simply do not do this alien world justice. The sheer size of the land scape is unimaginable, but look closely and you will see signs of life in its most intricate form.


The main aim of this trip was to see and photograph Polar bears. Like most people who visit for the first time, I assumed that Polar bears where pretty much all this place had to offer. How wrong I was. It didn’t take me long to work out that Polar bears are just the tip of the iceberg, pardon the pun.



Our mode of transportation for our time in Svalbard was the M/S Quest. And expedition ship that can sleep up to 50 passengers. This ship would, over the next 8 days take us as far as 79°56 N to the very tip of the archipelago and where the sea turns to ice. For those of you reading this that have been on safari in Africa, the best way to describe the format of life on a voyage such as this would be as so. The ship would act as our lodge, providing us with very comfortable en suite cabins and 3 very large and very good meals per day, along with a well stocked bar. At least twice a day we would climb into Zodiacs, inflatable boats that can comfortably sit 12 people. Each Zodiac is piloted by a member of the guide team. These would act as our game viewing vehicles. Taking us close to shore or closer to the wildlife. And yes, this does include Polar bears.




We set sail form Longyearbyen late afternoon on the 22nd May. We made our way north into “Nordfjorden” to expore the Fjord. No more than 3 hours after setting sail we heard the cry of “Isbjorn” directly translated, Ice Bear. 3 hours into the trip and we had seen our first Polar Bear. Making its way down the vast mountain side towards the shoreline was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. White against white, it was tough to make out at first but its black nose and ever so slight off-white colour gave him away. After a few minutes we were instructed to prepare for a zodiac cruise. The boats would launch in 20 minutes. Time enough to grab my gear and dress in full arctic regalia.



Image JoJo Supasit Sriawathsak

We Jumped into our Zodiac and began to make our way toward the shore line. The plan was to dissect the bears path along the beach so that we would be ahead of him and as he made his way along the waters edge. Sadly, he had other ideas. We were in position and could see him making a direct line for us, until he decided to slip up a gully and disappear out of sight.







We made our way back to The Quest, thrilled to have seen our first Polar Bear. We anchored in the Fjord that night and set sail again at, well I want to say at first light, but the sun does not set that far north in the month of May. After breakfast, we sailed passed one of the many glaciers that can be seen in Svalbard and the captain took us to the very edge of the “Fast Ice”, Sea Ice that forms between two points of land. From here we had a spectacular view of the glacier against the back drop on the gigantic mountainous land scape.


As we stood admiring the beauty of our surroundings, one of the guides said he could see a bear below the far edge of the glacier. After a few minutes of peering hopefully through our binoculars, we could eventually make out the figure of a bear making its way toward the edge of the ice. Again, we geared up and jumped into the zodiacs. This time there was nowhere for the bear to go. As we began our approach, one of the other zodiacs began to break away and head to toward a spit of land off to the south. Our guide, politely asked via radio where on earth he was going, to which he replied. “To see the bear?” again, very politely our guide inform him that he was heading in the wrong direction and the bear was in fact to the north. After some deliberation it was quickly established that there were in fact two bears. As we slowed down to see which bear would make for a better sighting, we heard a loud burst of air from beside the zodiac. We had been joined by a pod of Beluga Whales who had just broken the surface to take in air before diving under the ice in search of a meal.



Focus quickly switched back to the bears, and the decision was made to pursue the original bear. As we approached we could that he was a young adult male. He was busy diving in and out of the water and by the time we had gotten into photographic range he was posing perfectly on the edge of the ice. After a while he then made his way back across the fast ice. Walking directly past where we were floating. We watched as he grew smaller and smaller before disappearing into the whiteness.











The following day we head South to “Hornsund” and to the Recherce Glacier where we would cruise around in the zodiacs looking for whatever was around. We had a number of fantastic Seal, Bird and Raindeer sightings that made for some wonderful photography.













After lunch we made our way to an area known as an Iceberg graveyard. Huge mases of floating ice that had broken off from the glaciers dotted the seascape. We once again cruised the area in the zodiacs and we able to get a real sense of how huge and beautiful these gigantic ice cubes can be.






We then headed North, first pulling into “Bellsun” and area know for its Walrus populations and it didn’t disappoint. Before continuing northward with the town of Ny-Alesund our next destination. The northern most permeant settlement in the world.


Image JoJo Supasit Sriawathsak

We spend the morning exploring the settlement which is inhabited by research scientists and their families. There was even a shop where we could stock up on essential supplies. Chocolate! The plan for the next few days was to keep heading North until we reached the sea ice and could go north no further. We eventually reached the Ice and weaved our way through the huge masses of flat floating frozen sea water. We encountered a number of Walrus and seals as well as a Minkie Whale. At 79°56 N we could not go on and turn around and began the journey South.


We headed South for the next two days, exploring the various fjord systems along the way. One the final morning we spotted a large colony of Walrus on a spit of land. We anchored and launched the Zodiacs. The seas were rough but we made land fall safely and walked along the beach toward the 1.5 tone gargantuans. This provided for some of the best photography on the whole trip. The Walrus were very inquisitive and seem very intent on checking us out.



Back on board for our final evening before heading back to port, we were informed that we would have the chance to have a swim, should we wish. Yes that’s right, a swim. The infamous polar plunge. The water temperature was -1.8°C. We were told that if we wanted to take a dip we would need to report to the gang plank. I was quite looking forward to the whole thing until I made my way downstairs and noticed laid out on a table by the entrance to the ship was a defibulator and a bottle of Vodka. The Vodka didn’t worry me so much, in fact I was more than happy to see that, but the defib did make me a little nervous. Against my better judgment, I took the plunge. Fortunelty the defib was not needed, but the Vodka was most definitely appreciated.


After an “arctic BBQ” we lifted anchor one last time and head home to Longyearbyen arriving in the early hours of the morning.


The adventure was over. In a sense. We were going home, but the memories and emotions from this arctic wonderland will stay with me forever. So how do you describe the indescribable? The only words that I can think of that can do this place justice is “Life Changing”. A term that I feel is used far too lightly and frequently. This place, however will truly change you in some way. Change the way you view the world and our place in it.


For details on how you can join me in Svalbard in 2020 follow the link below

https://www.armstrongsafaris.com/blog/polar-bears-of-the-arctic





Image JoJo Supasit Sriawathsak


Image JoJo Supasit Sriawathsak


“I know why I am here and not in a city full of people, companies and neon lights.

I don’t always like myself the way I am when I am around other people.

There is something unnatural about the way I have to control, evaluate and observe my reactions. There are certain things that are expected of me – I have to be a son, a friend, a lover, and enemy, a brother, a citizen a soldier…. This means nothing here. I am no God out here. I cannot make the wind blow or the snow fall. Sometimes I cannot even get my sled dogs to obey me. But I am second to a God. I am a human being, alive, due to all my efforts.”

Odd Ivar Ruud, 1978



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