Silversea's Prince Albert II (Part 4)

| July 6, 2009

This small expedition vessel offers all the luxury and charm of Silversea, but in more exotic -- and challenging -- settings.

Svalbard At Last The next day we reached our arctic target, Svalbard. (Well, we reached it but again we didn't land.)

We had picked up our "bear guides" in Trondheim. These rugged men are charged with protecting innocent travelers if a polar bear gets too close. The law in Svalbard says no person shall travel in the wilderness without a gun. If a polar bear approaches, there is no playing dead, as with a grizzly or a black bear. They won't sniff and walk away. They will eat you.

Our guides told us that a shot to the heart of an attacking polar bear is not enough to stop one; they still have enough strength to rip you apart. To survive, one must shoot a polar bear in the head.

Of course, killing a polar bear is a crime, unless the outcome is a choice between you and the beast. The bear guides will first shoot their rifles into the air to scare an intruding bear away, but it is a quick decision. One cannot outrun a polar bear. (If a polar bear is bearing down on you, the joke goes, the most important aspect of running is to be faster than the person behind you.)

Our expedition team leader, with the advice of our bear guides, decided to search for polar bears on the "polar bear highway," a long stretch of sea ice on Spitsbergen's east coast known for seals and those who prey upon them. The ship cut through the ice floe at a vigorous speed, the 1A ice-class hull leaving splashes of blood-like red paint on the cracking growlers we cleaved apart.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Svalbard - Ice floe to the horizon in every direction   bergy bit with polar bear prints   Beautiful Svalbard ;-) when we finally get to see it

By now more and more passengers were saying, "if I don't see a polar bear on this trip I will jump overboard." Theoretically, our team leader had made the best call he could that day, but not a single bear was spotted. By midday most people were sanguine, taking naps or reading books. Zoo animals were not my personal concern, however: I spent my time on the lookout for whales. I was among the first to spot seals on the icebergs, however, and two of those small bergs had very defined polar bear footprints as well.

We were told that what looked like a solid ice pack on the previous day's ice report was today an incredibly large floe. Believing we could fare better closer to land in our quest for bear, the ship turned around with a new strategy about 4:00 p.m. But the ice floe was thicker than predicted, so we didn't see land for the rest of the day. Still, the weather was beautiful and the memory of an ice floe stretching point to point on the horizon is now embedded in my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Our second day in Svalbard was completely different; The weather turned ghastly once again. Our captain had navigated into what was supposed to be a protected inlet during the night, but even with mountains on three sides of us the wind was gusting up to 70 knots from the direction of the sea. It was not only freezing cold, it created swells up to four feet high inside the inlet -- unbelievable conditions only an Arctic explorer could enjoy.

By now some of the guests were understandably reticent about taking long, non-landing expeditions on the open-air skiffs. When the team announced we were going out, we should have thought twice, but we joined the party once the announcer said they hoped to see a polar bear.

This was the day I learned about waterproof clothing. Neither my gloves nor shoes were waterproof. There was no landing scheduled this day, hence we were not advised to wear our rubber boots. But even within the Zodiac the spray from the swells had my hands and feet thoroughly soaked within the first 20 minutes of what turned into a three-hour excursion.

I was not the only one. There were other people with regular shoes and even some only wearing blue jeans instead of the waterproof pants I had on. Everyone was soaked head to toe in a zero-degree wind-chill factor, but fortunately the wind died down as we got closer to shore.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Prince Albert II in Svalbard ice   bear guide looking for bear   growler hornsund inlet svalbard

Ninety minutes out we were in front of a glacier that dwarfed any in Alaska. It was enormous, buttressed with an ice pack shelf some 200 yards into the sea, but there was very little evidence of noticeable calving action because it is so cold there.

Suddenly our guide said, "there's a polar bear."

"Where? Where?" None of us could see it until he pointed to a tiny honey colored spot at the base of the glacier, 200 yards away. Once it moved we could all see it, training our binoculars and telephoto lenses. I actually have video footage where you can tell it was a bear.

Our guide hit his radio to claim his sighting to the other Zodiac drivers, and we learned some of them had already retreated to ship. We waited for two other Zodiacs to arrive, watching the bear walk away until he was invisible to naked eye.

At that point our expedition guide announced, "bundle up for the ride back to the ship, because it's going to get very wet." The good news was that we were returning to the warm comfort of the ship. The bad was what we would endure to get there. One of the younger people on board asked if we could revisit a small ice growler for better pictures. Her clothing was fully water protected. Those of us who weren't so fortunate glared at her with daggers.

The ride back to the ship lasted 30 minutes. The skiff sent wave after wave of ice cold water, soaking us head to toe for the last 15 of them. I couldn't feel my toes when the sailors lifted me from the skiff to the ship. An hour later the captain had navigated the ship back to the very same glacier where our bear was sighted. He was still there and even closer than before.

This was a very tough day for some of us, which is why we cannot overemphasize the need for clothing preparation. But at least I can say I saw a polar bear in the wild. That night the expedition team was all smiles: Mission accomplished.

Continue Article >> Svalbard at Last (Continued) (Part 5)

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