Jim Eagles: In walrus heaven

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I had really wanted to see walruses and we got wonderful views of them.
I had really wanted to see walruses and we got wonderful views of them.

I was just lumbering up the stairs to the top deck of the ship when the call came over the loudspeaker, "Ladies and gentlemen we have a bear. On the shoreline at about 11 o'clock there's a mother with two cubs."

Although I was laden down with several layers of clothing to keep out the Arctic chill, I waddled with remarkable speed up the remaining steps and across to the rail where I whipped out my binoculars.

Sure enough, walking steadily across the icy shoreline of the Hornsund Fjord, I could see the creamy shape of an adult bear followed by the smaller figures of two cubs. They were too far off for good photographs but nevertheless I took a couple of shots just to prove I had seen them.

As the MS Expedition warily edged its way through drifting chunks of ice, I watched as the little family wandered along the beach, the cubs gambolling like youngsters everywhere, the mother keeping a benevolent eye on them and keeping a less benevolent eye out for potential food.

Here on the Svalbard Archipelago, well inside the Arctic Circle and only about 1000km from the North Pole, polar bears rule. They're the largest terrestrial land predator, some weighing more than 1000kg and standing nearly 3.5m on their hind legs, and they have no fear of humans. In the words of veteran guide Frank S Todd in our our polar bear briefing, they see us as "a snack on two legs".

Signs on the edge of most settlements in Svalbard carry a reminder that it is illegal to leave town without being protected by a gun. That makes a huge difference to sightseeing. In the Antarctic, you can land by zodiac and wander at large so long as you don't go too close to the animals.

The lounge was buzzing because polar bears are also way at the top of what passengers on an Arctic expedition cruise want to see.
The lounge was buzzing because polar bears are also way at the top of what passengers on an Arctic expedition cruise want to see.

In the Arctic, before anyone can land, the area has to be scouted for bears and a perimeter established guarded by guides armed with rifles and flare guns.

And, because polar bears are great swimmers, there's no chance of passengers taking to the water if there's a bear in the area, which is why, when our ship wasn't able to get any closer to the mother and cubs, we couldn't just zip over in a zodiac.

Instead, we watched through our binoculars as the mother led the way to a patch of snow where she lay down and rolled around, a sport the cubs quickly joined in. It must have been fun because they then climbed up to a snowy slope and rolled and tumbled to the
bottom.

We followed these antics for a couple of hours until the mother finally headed up the ridge and over the other side. Once they'd gone, I realised my hands and feet were frozen so I headed for the warmth of the lounge, a cup of tea and a freshly baked cookie.

The lounge was buzzing because polar bears are also way at the top of what passengers on an Arctic expedition cruise want to see.

As expedition leader John put it wryly, "I know the success of this trip will be judged solely by whether we get good sightings of bears." And, sadly, spotting a mother and cubs through your binoculars evidently doesn't count as a good sighting, because some of the buzzing was discontent that we hadn't been face-to-face with what John called "the big white fuzz balls".

The dissatisfaction is at least partly the fault of G-Adventures, which runs these expeditions, because its promotional material is full of photos of bears performing up close. But on the first two voyages of this season that didn't happen. And that may be at least partly because of climate change.

The best place to see bears, John told us, is on the ice, because the ship can often get close. But this summer in Svalbard what they call fast ice, because it is fastened to the land, is virtually non-existent.

Inlets like Hornsund, Bellsund and Isfjord, for instance, were practically ice-free. "This is
incredible," said John. "Last season at this time the bays were full of fast ice."

We found one patch of ice but it was a lagoon fringed by rocks. We could see ring seals lying beside their breathing holes and, as we watched through our binoculars, a lone male bear appeared, the seals vanished and the bear walked across to one of the breathing holes and lay down to wait. John explained that the bear would lie there for hours until a seal returned . . . then pounce.

The best place to see bears is on the ice, because the ship can often get close.
The best place to see bears is on the ice, because the ship can often get close.

We steamed north to the polar ice pack, which runs to the North Pole, and found the ice much further south than normal, blown down by an unusual pattern of northerly winds. Then, because the sun doesn't set inside the Arctic Circle in summer, the ship searched for bears around the clock.

We spotted ring seals, harp seals, bearded seals and walruses. We saw minke whales, fin whales, humpback whales, the amazing pink-coloured beluga whales (two pods of them) and white-beaked dolphins.

But the only bear we saw was wandering along the shoreline and we couldn't get close. So the grumbling grew. And poor old John and his team of guides looked increasingly harassed.

"These are perfect bear conditions," he said, "but they're not here. The other expedition ships haven't seen any either. I don't know where they've gone. Maybe there's a dead whale beached somewhere and the bears are all there."

Personally, I wasn't too unhappy. I was pretty pleased at having seen five polar
bears in the wild. And I had really wanted to see walruses and we got wonderful views of them.

Twice we went ashore to walk close to herds lying on the beach and saw their wonderful, vast, brown and pink bodies lolling and rolling and burping and jostling and waving their huge tusks in the air. Another time we went by zodiac to see a herd of about 60 lying on the ice and several came swimming curiously around us.

We checked out spectacular glaciers and saw bearded seals - nearly as cute as walruses - lying on chunks of ice and one of them swam over to check us out.

We went ashore and saw beautiful flowers, the white-coated Svalbard reindeer - smaller than other reindeer - Arctic birds like the snow bunting and the ptarmigan which are white in winter but turn brown as the snow melts, and a couple of people saw an Arctic fox, also in white.

Melting ice makes polar bears difficult to spot.
Melting ice makes polar bears difficult to spot.

Among the spectacular bird life was a couple of kinds of guillemot, which sort of fill the role occupied by penguins in the Antarctic, kittiwakes, razorbills, northern gannets, eider and the stunning king eider ducks, fulmars, red phalaropes, puffins, purple sandpipers, sea eagles, glaucous gulls and barnacle geese - we watched while a glaucous gull stole
a barnacle goose egg and swallowed it whole - little auks and long-tailed skuas
. . . and more.

We visited historic sites, like the place from which Roald Amundsen set out on his expedition to the North Pole by balloon, the bone-littered remains of old whaling and trapping bases and a failed marble-mining operation with its rusting machinery.

And we walked around a few of the settlements which have survived in this harsh climate: Barentsburg, a bizarre Russian mining town, where a bust of Lenin still has pride of place; Ny Alesund, a scientific settlement which boasts the northernmost post office in the world and where you need to wear a hard hat for fear of stroppy nesting Arctic terns; and Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, where you can eat whale for lunch and see reindeer wandering down the main street.

Sadly, many passengers went home disappointed, but my wife and I had a fantastic time. My only grizzle is that I wanted to buy a nice souvenir of a walrus to celebrate seeing them and found only cuddly toys. It seems people only want polar bears.

More info

G Adventures start at about $6400, not including airfares.

For more information: gadventures.com/destinations/polar/arctic/

- Spy.co.nz

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