A zoo’s who of the Arc­tic

Wildlife ga­lore on a po­lar cruise

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - MICHAEL KERR

De­liv­ered over the tan­noy at 7.45pm, it is an ir­re­sistible in­vi­ta­tion: “There’s a lovely pod of wal­ruses over on the beach, belch­ing and fart­ing and wait­ing for us to come, so I urge ev­ery­one to get over there. The last Zodiac back will be at 11.”

A quar­ter of an hour later, lay­ered and life-jack­eted, some 60 of us, ex­pe­di­tion staff as well as pas­sen­gers of the good ship Po­lar Pi­o­neer, are swing­ing our legs over the gun­wales of the Zo­di­acs at the re­mains of the 17th-cen­tury Dutch whal­ing sta­tion of Smeeren­burg (“Blub­ber Town”), on the northwest coast of the Nor­we­gian is­land of Spits­ber­gen.

The wal­ruses are still sev­eral hun­dred me­tres away from us, on the other side of a sand spit, but the sun is so strong, the air so clear, that we can see the ivory gleam of their tusks. Fol­low­ing a briefing from our ex­pe­di­tion leader, Gary Miller (“By law, we can get no closer than 30m”), we ad­vance slowly.

About 35 wal­ruses are hauled up on the sand, ly­ing on top of one an­other. Through binoc­u­lars, we watch as snores and yawns from the mouth of one lifts the tail of an­other. In an in­let to the right, a few old war­riors, one armed with only the stumps of its tusks, swim oblig­ingly be­tween sandy beach and snow-dusted peaks, un­til even the keen­est of pho­tog­ra­phers is sated.

We have boarded at the Ice­landic port of Isafjor­dur, to sail up the east coast of Green­land and on to Spits­ber­gen. Our ship is a for­mer Rus­sian re­search ves­sel, crewed by Rus­sians but char­tered by Aus­tralia’s Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions. Fel­low pas­sen­gers are mostly re­tired Aus­tralians. A younger con­tin­gent in­cludes an army he­li­copter pi­lot and three Amer­i­cans, one an in­ter­net en­tre­pre­neur and the other two work­ing on satel­lite sys­tems for Lock­heed.

We have all been drawn by the prom­ise of “fan­tas­tic ice­bergs and a fairy­tale land­scape of gran­ite spires ris­ing 1000m above the fjords” and by the pos­si­bil­ity of see­ing po­lar bears. We get our first and only (con­firmed) sight­ing of one on our first full day aboard. A group of us are on the bridge (open to pas­sen­gers through­out the voy­age) when Miller spots it through binoc­u­lars: “Two o’clock to the ship. Walk­ing along a ridge. There’s a lit­tle hut on top and it’s to the left of that.”

Miller is on the tan­noy en­cour­ag­ing ev­ery­one to put on ther­mals, wellies and life jack­ets and board the Zo­di­acs for a closer look from just off­shore. That’s the trou­ble with po­lar bears — when you know there’s one about, you also know it’s not safe to make a land­ing. We cruise up and down for a while, but the bear, in­tent on a nap, and too far away to be more than a speck at the end of the long­est lens, makes no fur­ther move­ment but a brief turn of its head to­wards us.

But we do see plenty of other wildlife on the trip. From

Bearded seal on the is­land of Spits­ber­gen, top; It­to­qqor­toormiit vil­lage in Green­land, top right; Po­lar Pi­o­neer, above; wal­ruses in Green­land

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