The polar bears. The history. The fields of stunning, silent ice. There’s nowhere on Earth like the Arctic, writes Alexandra Carlton.
You’ll never forget your first polar bear. On my 14-day Quark Expeditions cruise around Svalbard, a group of islands around 2,000 kilometres north of Norway’s mainland inside the Arctic Circle, I don’t have to wait long. The second day after our departure from the southern settlement of Longyearbyen, the call comes across the ship’s speaker system and is passed from passenger to passenger. Bear, starboard! We barely pause to grab our ship-issued yellow parkas before racing to the decks to see for ourselves.
I’m one of the few guests without a high-tech, long-lens camera or binoculars, but there’s no need; the Quark wildlife experts are quick to hand out the ship’s excellent equipment and point tech amateurs in the right direction.
And there he – or she – is. Butter yellow from the reflection of the light, the bear clambers onto its hind legs and stretches as though putting on a show for our benefit, before snuggling into its icy sleeping spot once more. Its grace, restrained power, its absolute wildness, reduces all of us to open-mouthed silence.
Wildlife every day
This thrilling sighting is far from the last polar bear we’ll see on our once-in-a-lifetime expedition around this remote group of islands. Our Arctic cruise will circumnavigate the whole archipelago, weaving in and out of fjords and bays. In total, our group is lucky enough to spot 19 polar bears. This includes two tumbling cubs marching after their mum, and one feisty female charging at a fur seal in an attempt to turn it into dinner.
We also spot pods of beluga whales, blows from minke, humpback whales, and puddles of cantankerous walruses. With 24-hour daylight, wildlife can appear at any hour, in or out of the water. Sometimes it’s difficult to drag myself away from the decks in case something else appears on the horizon.
Mornings begin with a collective thought: what will we see today?
This spirit of curiosity and adventure colours every on-board interaction,– to the daily schedule of environment and conservation talks given by the ship’s team of wildlife and history experts. My fellow guests and I compare sightings at every opportunity, or pass around photos of proud reindeer silhouetted against the sky and stripey-faced Atlantic puffins blundering from one rocky cliff to another
Expeditions with history and wildlife
Each day we clamber into Zodiacs to explore the islands on foot. The quiet Arctic tundra is dotted with reindeer and wildflowers. Svalbard is peppered with historical artefacts: we explore an abandoned 17th-century whaling station, the remains of its huge blubber ovens preserved by the chilled conditions, and a wooden trapper hut known as Texas Bar, built in the 1920s.
We’re split into groups of three depending on how far and fast each guest wants to walk. For the first few journeys, I charge ahead in the ‘fast’ group. But a few trips in, I decide to join the more sedate groups, quickly learning that you see a lot more when you take things slow.
The Zodiac rides are expeditions in themselves. We pick our way through breathtaking icy landscapes dotted with bergs and flanked by towering blue glaciers. The expedition team has a knack for helping us appreciate even the smallest detail. The ice’s vast palette of shimmering colours is particularly exquisite. Some have geometric patterns like a crystal whisky glass; others are rippled as though the ocean waves froze in a nanosecond.
On board an Arctic cruise
We don’t even need to leave the ship to experience the still majesty of the ice. One evening, I find a quiet patch of vessel’s railing near the stern and simply watch the jigsaw-patterned floes float before me, for hours on end, breathing in the perfect purity.
Silver-service meals are taken in a communal dining room and feature fresh produce from all over the globe. You’ll dine on American steak, Norwegian smoked salmon and even Australian barramundi.
The Polar Plunge
On the final day of our journey, I’m introduced to another Arctic ‘first’ that’s impossible to forget: a leap into the chilled Norwegian Sea for the Quark ritual known as the ‘Polar Plunge’. Participants are encouraged to get into swimwear, and we’re strapped into a safety harness. I take a deep breath, close my eyes and jump, the ice-cold water shocking my body with wild invigoration. Bubbling up from beneath the sea’s chilly depths, I splutter with laughter. I never imagined this forbidding, frozen world could fill my soul with such deep warmth.