It was almost at the exact moment of the northern solstice that we boarded National Geographic Explorer for a week-long expedition around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard–the time of year when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky as seen from the North Pole. We were in the land of the midnight sun, and we would not see the darkness of night for the entire time we were there.
Svalbard straddles the 80th parallel, putting it about halfway between the pole and the continent of Europe. The same line of latitude runs through Russia’s Franz Josef Land, Canada’s Ellesmere Island, and the very top of Greenland.
David Braun was a speaker on a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition: Land of the Ice Bears, An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard.
We embarked Explorer at Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main settlement, home to some 2,300 employees of the archipelago’s three economic sectors: coal mines, travel operators, and research institutes. Retirees and others without jobs are not permitted to reside in Svalbard, which is under sovereignty of Norway.
We reached Longyearbyen after flying three hours from Oslo, landing at what is described as the world’s northernmost commercial airport, at the world’s northernmost town. A giant stuffed polar bear stands guard over the luggage conveyor belt, perhaps as a warning that bears wander into the settlement from time to time.
You can’t truly know what to expect the first time you visit the Arctic. National Geographic magazine features and television documentaries conjure up visions of polar bears, walruses, seals, and hardy explorers on wind-swept ice. Lindblad Expeditions’ packing list advised us to bring appropriate winter-wear, including thermal or silk long underwear, rain suits, rugged waterproof boots, and thick jackets or parkas – all of which turned out to be essential for shore expeditions or the hours spent on deck scanning for polar wildlife. So we knew it would be cold and there would be exciting animals to see.
But it was a surprise to find in the Arctic a profusion of wildflowers and mosses taking advantage of the endless ethereal light to thrive and propagate in great swathes between dripping glaciers. Those landscapes paired with huge formations of sea ice luminescent in white, gray and blue atop the dark ocean painted exquisite panoramic vistas of a very special and beautiful part of the world.
The Explorer is a legendary vessel of the Lindblad-National Geographic fleet. Many of the passengers on our voyage had been on the ship in the Antarctic. They were, they quipped, bi-polar. Several of these polar veterans told me that the Explorer was their favorite cruise vessel, and they should know, as most of them were seriously experienced travelers who had traveled on many cruise ships.
The Arctic is perhaps not at the top of most people’s bucket list. But it should be, if only because it is a rare and fragile ecosystem that is rapidly slipping away. “Those of us who have worked here for several years can see how it is becoming more and more difficult to find the Arctic wildlife people come here to see,” Explorer Captain Oliver Kruess told us during one of his evening exchanges with passengers.
A veteran of more than a hundred polar expeditions over 20 years, Kruess has witnessed the impact of climate change on Svalbard, and how challenging it has become to locate the ice bears that passengers most want to photograph.
Finding bears was a mission involving dozens of crew and our accompanying naturalists. There was always someone on watch, scanning the ice and beaches for “fuzzy white objects”, as Expedition Leader Stephanie Martin put it. “Be ready to be woken up at 4 in the morning if we see a bear,” she told us at our initial briefing. “It’s up to you whether or not you want to sleep or look at polar bears.”
Right on cue, the first polar bear of our trip was spotted around 4 a.m., and Stephanie calmly went on to the ship public address system to interrupt everyone’s dreamtime with the news. Apparently a passenger with insomnia who had wandered onto the bridge at that early hour noticed a fuzzy white object, and casually asked the crew on duty if it could be a polar bear swimming in the distance. Our expedition leader was woken with an urgent phone call from the bridge.
Polar bears, we learned, are regarded as marine mammals, because they live in the water and on sea ice for the most part. They swim with ease for hundreds of miles, looking for habitat where they are most likely to encounter the big blubbery seals that provide sufficient quality and quantity of nourishment to satisfy their ravenous appetite.
The first bear spotted on the trip was still in the sea by the time we bundled up in our layers of clothing and staggered half-asleep to the top of the ship. We observed it swimming around, stopping occasionally to scan the tops of ice floes in search of a meal. Before we could get too close, it managed to disappear into the confusion of the loose ice. Passengers who did not go back to bed were rewarded a while later with distant sightings of two more bears paddling in the area.
These first bear sightings illustrated the point Captain Kruess made about it becoming more difficult to observe polar bears in the wild. As the world warms, the ice is melting, retreating farther north. The sea ice is thinner and less densely packed, making it even more difficult for bears to find their prey. They need to swim greater distances to find the ice likely to hold their food.
“Svalbard and all of the Arctic is an area where one of the primary conversations is climate, and how you can see the effects of climate change more dramatically in these northern territories than you can anywhere else in the world,” Sven Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, told me in an interview just before we arrived in the archipelago a month ago.
“What we can see in Svalbard, in particular, is the significant diminishing of sea ice,” Sven explained. “And for a species like polar bears, we can see how their whole pattern of migrating within this system has changed dramatically as a consequence. So it becomes a valuable educational tool to make people realize that change is real, it is not a fantasy, and it is happening in accelerated ways in the Arctic. Svalbard is a great, great teacher as it relates to that.”
Now, watching the bears swimming around in search of food, Sven’s words came back to me. Over the next few days, I looked at the Arctic ecosystem, the beautiful world of ice and ocean and wildflower-festooned land, and I gained a profound appreciation of the privilege of being able to experience it for myself. How soon before it will all be gone, I wondered.
In the week we were in the fjords of Svalbard we saw a few more polar bears, on land, mostly in the distance. On the last day of our expedition we were finally rewarded with a close-up experience, a polar bear on a black beach at the foot of a glacier. As Captain Kreuss expertly guided the National Geographic Explorer to a great vantage point, the bear spread-eagled itself on the ground, glanced our way, then slowly rose to its feet, stretched, and wandered insouciantly out of the picture.
In my next post I write about our encounter with walrus on a beach littered with the bones of their ancestors, victims of decades of hunting.
More About Polar Bears
Polar Bears: On Thin Ice (National Geographic Magazine, July 2011)
As Sea Ice Shrinks, Can Polar Bears Survive on Land? (National Geographic News, July 2014)
Watching Polar Bears Eat Goose Eggs in Warmer Arctic (National Geographic News, October 2013)
Longest Polar Bear Swim Recorded—426 Miles Straight (National Geographic News, July 2011)
Most Polar Bears Gone By 2050, Studies Say (National Geographic News, September 2007)
National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions to the Arctic
Lindblad-National Geographic, a Ten-Year Expedition of Inspiration and Discovery
In this National Geographic-behind-the-scenes interview, Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, talks about the impetus behind the Lindblad-National Geographic partnership, some of the accomplishments, and his thoughts of the future.
More about the National Geographic Explorer
More from David Braun: National Geographic-Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos (2012)
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.