All on deck! It’s minke bal­let o’clock

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surely have made even Sir David At­ten­bor­ough gasp. Well over 100 tons of mus­cle and blub­ber rose out from the wa­ter so close to the bow of the ship I could have jumped on its back. I leaned as far over the side of the rail­ing as I could with­out fall­ing in.

The pre­vi­ous day our ex­pe­di­tion ship had been buried in the loose ice at the edge of the end­less white cap that cov­ers the North Pole. As the crew set out the ta­bles for a deck bar­be­cue in this bizarre lo­ca­tion, a minke whale spy-hopped – stuck its head right out of the wa­ter – so close we could hear its breath. Mak­ing use of the open pools of wa­ter be­tween the ice sheets, an­other of the pod joined in, check­ing us out. Minkes are among the smaller whales but to look one in the eye is un­for­get­table.

I had joined our ship, Akademik Ioffe, in Longyear­byen, the sur­pris­ingly busy “cap­i­tal” of Spits­ber­gen that is a three-hour flight north of Oslo. Ioffe is a Rus­sian-owned po­lar re­search ves­sel that is still used for its orig­i­nal pur­pose for sev­eral weeks each year, as well as be­ing char­tered for ex­pe­di­tion cruises by the likes of One Ocean Ex­pe­di­tions.

We were wel­comed by a team of nat­u­ral­ists, guides and other spe­cial­ists from North Amer­ica and Europe, most of whom had spent decades em­brac­ing the great out­doors. Their knowl­edge and anec­dotes were to add hugely to our ex­pe­ri­ence over the next 10 days.

Fore­most in my mind when book­ing this trip was the chance to see po­lar bears. They are, af­ter all, why most peo­ple travel to the Sval­bard ar­chi­pel­ago way up in the Bar­ents Sea north of Nor­way. But the em­blem­atic bear was, on this rare oc­ca­sion, usurped by the planet’s big­gest an­i­mal. Bears still played an elec­tri­fy­ing role in our nine-night voy­age, how­ever. Shortly be­fore we en­joyed the minke bal­let, the One Ocean nat­u­ral­ist team had spied one wan­der­ing across the frozen sea, which is why our ship, built to do just that, had gently nudged its way through the ice. Some dis­tance away at first, the but­ter-coloured speck played cat and mouse be­hind the ice­bergs, slowly am­bling to­wards us. I could see its re­flec­tion in the wa­ter pools and watched its progress through binoc­u­lars un­til it dis­ap­peared in search of (most likely) a seal din­ner. He was one of nine po­lar bears that we would see dur­ing the trip; to­wards the lower end of the usual count, though sight­ings can never be guar­an­teed.

Ioffe is an in­ter­est­ing ship, with lots of open deck space for view­ing both the wildlife and Spits­ber­gen’s un­tamed seascapes of sharp moun­tains striped with snow from the long and bru­tal win­ter. Cab­ins are cosy, the food hearty and the bar lively, the lat­ter be­ing the venue for in­for­mal “fire­side chats” by the ex­pe­di­tion team as an ad­junct to the au­dio-vis­ual lec­tures in the pre­sen­ta­tion room.

The daily pro­gramme is ed­i­fy­ing. Each day, when the 7am wake-up call comes through, there’s a de­li­cious feel­ing of not know­ing what you may en­counter over the next few hours – or even late at night as, up here, the sun never sets in sum­mer.

The ship’s fleet of Zo­diac craft – ma­noeu­vrable ex­cur­sion boats tak­ing up to 10 pas­sen­gers – were used al­most daily to ferry guests ashore for guided hikes or for scenic cruis­ing along the face of glaciers. On our way up to the po­lar ice cap – more than 80 de­grees north – we stepped ashore at the site of an old whal­ing sta­tion to in­ves­ti­gate a quiv­er­ing brown mass on the beach that the staff had iden­ti­fied as a herd of wal­ruses. Obey­ing strict rules about not stress­ing any an­i­mals, we crept up to them, ob­serv­ing the oc­ca­sional lift of a huge tusked head and lis­ten­ing to their var­i­ous belches and grunts.

Brushes with na­ture were plen­ti­ful

John Wil­mott takes time away from the ship on Spits­ber­gen The Latin name for po­lar bears,

means sea bear

The Arc­tic wa­ters are home to 17 species of whale

A ‘quiv­er­ing brown mass’ turned out to be a wal­rus herd

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