A zoo’s who of the Arctic
Wildlife galore on a polar cruise
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