Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago: The Land of the Ice Bear

I awoke to find this is really the Land of the Ice Bear. Photos by Greg Roensch.
I awoke to find this is really the Land of the Ice Bear. Photos by Greg Roensch.

By Greg Roensch

“The Greeks called the whole of the region Arktikos, the country of the great bear.”
Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez

The National Geographic Endeavour
The National Geographic Endeavour

The loud groan outside my cabin woke me from a deep sleep. I propped myself up on my bunk and reached for the curtain.

Earlier, there hadn’t been anything outside my window except whitecaps on the open sea and the straight edge of the horizon. Now, our ship, the National Geographic Endeavour, was plowing through a field of ice, and the noise outside my cabin was the sound of the hull scraping against giant slabs of arctic ice.

The Art of Bear-Spotting

I boarded the Endeavour the previous day in the town of Longyearbyen. At 78°N, Longyearbyen is one of the world’s northernmost towns and the largest settlement on Arctic Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. A wintery wonderland of glaciers, fjords, and fields of ice, Svalbard is a prime bear-spotting destination.

For the 70 or so passengers on this seven-day cruise operated by Lindblad Expeditions, the chance to see polar bears in the wild was the main reason for traveling to this remote region high above the Arctic Circle.

Bear-spotting, as I learned by watching our guides, is part art, part science, and a tremendous amount of hard work. The crew worked around the clock in pairs, with one guide watching the radar for likely bear locations while the other searched the old-fashioned way — high up in the crow’s nest with a pair of binoculars. When they spotted something interesting, the guides would make an announcement over the ship’s intercom for the passengers to come on deck and take a look.

As it turned out, our first official summons to the deck was not to see an arctic bear but to witness the amazing aviary metropolis at Cape Fanshawe. As the Endeavour approached the cliffs, we were greeted by the high-decibel screeching and squawking of swarms of birds darting across the sky like a Jackson Pollock painting come to life.

The scene became louder and more chaotic when we pulled closer to the cliff face, where thousands upon thousands of birds jockeyed for position on every ledge, nook, and cranny of this vast breeding colony.

No Such Thing as Bad Weather

Later that night, as I stared out at the scenery from the warmth of the ship’s small library, word came over the intercom about a possible bear sighting. I hustled down to my cabin, bundled up, and ventured onto the deck.

It was 36° F outside. I knew from my guidebooks that this fell within Svalbard’s average temperature range in the summer months, but this didn’t stop me from cursing the icy gust that sent a shiver down my spine.

I fell asleep to the sound of ice thumping against the hull.
I fell asleep to the sound of ice thumping the hull.

One of the guides leaned on the rail next to me and whispered, “We have a saying in Norway that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” I fought the urge to let him know what I really thought about his Norwegian proverb and simply smiled as another frosty blast swept across the deck.

Up in the crow’s nest, another guide was waving with one arm while signaling to a spot in the distance with the other. I looked closely but didn’t see anything. Just more ice.

Then, peering even further out on the horizon, I noticed movement in the water. Holding my breath to keep the binoculars steady, I barely saw a bear treading through the ice-filled sea. Just when it was about to disappear out of my range altogether, the bear rose onto a slab of ice, sniffed the air momentarily, plunged back into the water, and was gone.

After the sighting, many passengers gathered in the lounge for a hot drink and excited conversation about what we’d seen. The faraway bear had sent a jolt of exhilaration through the Endeavor. I, however, was disappointed. I knew this wouldn’t be like a trip to the zoo, but this long-distance sighting was not what I’d envisioned when signing up for this voyage to Svalbard.

I barely saw a bear treading through the ice-filled sea.
I barely saw a bear treading through the ice-filled sea.

Where the Furry White Wild Things Are

I dressed quickly and joined the other early risers on deck. Not fully awake, I’d forgotten my binoculars in my cabin, but it didn’t matter. This time the bear was not some blurry speck on the edge of the horizon.Early the next morning, just after 3 AM, a voice whispered from the intercom.

“Good morning. Time to wake up and see some furry white things.” For those passengers thinking they’d ignore the voice and go back to sleep, it returned, loudly this time. “Rise and shine, people. You don’t want to miss this.”

Instead, the Endeavour was settled in the middle of an ice pack, and the bear, as if auditioning for the role of Archetypical Arctic Polar Bear in our little seafaring drama, was striking a pose about twenty-five feet from the ship.

From the moment we boarded the Endeavour, our guides instructed us to remain quiet if we ever got close enough to see a polar bear. We did our best to keep our communal vow of silence, but nothing could completely stop the murmur of excitement that swept across the deck as this bear posed and postured for more than fifteen minutes before lumbering over to the edge of the ice and splashing into the sea.

The bear was striking a pose about twenty-five feet from the ship.
The bear was striking a pose about twenty-five feet from the ship.

Looking at my fellow shipmates, there was no mistaking the wide grins and whispered “wows,” the pats on the back and the glove-muffled high fives. This was the reason we came to Svalbard — to catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent, threatened creatures on its home turf.

So Long Svalbard

By the time we left Svalbard, we were fortunate to tally 36 bear sightings. It’s hard to believe that there had been a time at the start of our trip when we feared we might not see any bears at all.

We had our last sighting just before leaving the ice of Svalbard to cross the Barents Sea on our way back to mainland Norway. Standing on the rear deck of the Endeavour, I kept my binoculars focused for as long as possible as a lone bear slept next to a black seal carcass on a blood-stained slab of ice.

As the final image of my time in Svalbard, this last sighting left me with a most vivid impression of the nature of life and death at the frozen edge of the world.

Greg Roensch

Greg Roensch owns and operates a one-man editorial service company, Six String Communications . When not writing and editing for work, he writes short stories, composes quirky pop songs, and likes to travel.

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