By Carol Santora
We relish wildlife experiences. Quark Expeditions, a Leader in Polar Adventures, offers small-ship journeys to Arctic and Antarctica destinations – all focused on wildlife and environmental awareness and conservation. We chose to visit Svalbard, a Norwegian island in the uppermost Arctic territory. Our ultimate goal was to view polar bears in their natural habitat. We also wanted to learn first hand about environmental changes and the ice flows.
To get to Svalbard, you fly thru Oslo, then on to Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city. Longyearbyen is a small coal-mining town on Spitzbergen Island, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. It has some fascinating laws: one cannot die or be born here, because there are no options to be buried due to the permafrost and lack of decomposition and no maternity facilities; you must carry a rifle outside the town due to danger of polar bears (who do occasionally venture into town); you are kindly invited to remove your shoes when entering all stores and residences; and the main mode of transportation is snow scooters. The Ocean Expedition was docked in this colorful town of 2,100; we boarded and were off. In June, there is no darkness – light 24 hours. Very interesting.
There are two expeditions per day, all out on zodiacs or kayaks with rigorous rules to follow regarding boarding and behavior, or rather safety and awareness of what affects the animals, distance, noise, food supply, even detritus on your boots. Clothing was extremely important as it was quite cold and protection was mandatory. Quark distributes wonderful bright yellow jackets as part of your experience -you will not get lost and you will be warm!
There are many species of birds and marine life. Specialists are on board to join expeditions and to lecture about the world around you – geologists, mammal specialists, ornithologists, photographers, historians. Recap each night covered all sorts of fascinating details. All guests were asked to contribute photographs for both picture of the day and the group book at the end of the journey. We viewed all sorts of birds, including Atlantic Puffin, Arctic Tern, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Common Eider, Ivory Gull, Kittiwakes, the Little Auk and the Arctic Skua. We observed lots of walrus and seals, arctic fox and reindeer and several whales including the white Beluga. Interesting fact, the walrus survives on eating mollusks, sucking the meat out of the shell – that is a lot of mollusks for these big boys!However, everyone on board was waiting with bated breath to see the polar bears… we did see them, four to be exact. Bears are solitary animals. The males are not involved in raising cubs. Mating takes place on the sea ice but the fertile eggs do not implant until the following fall and only if the mother has enough fat to sustain herself and her cubs during the coming season. This is called delayed implantation. Polar Bear cubs are usually born in December and remain in the den until Spring. They stay with their mother for 2.5 to 3 years. Polar bears split evolutionarily from Brown Bears around 300,000 years ago. Their favorite food is seal, and they can smell them 3 feet under the ice and a half mile away. They must eat one every 6-8 days. A Polar Bear’s sense of smell is said to be 10 times better than that of dogs. They have two layers of fur, a dense under layer and another oily and yellow. There is air in between their black footpads and hair on their toes. Skin and tongue are black. When you are searching for these bears, you look for a buttery color on the ice. The last bear viewing was good, but the distance was pretty vast. My hopes of a bear on the next ice flow or clamoring up the side of the ship were not realized. Lucky I carry a long camera lens, and there were binoculars available to all.
We experienced numerous fjords and extensive hikes, divided into ability groups: chargers, hard/medium/light hikers and those who want to leisurely take pictures and smell the flowers! The guides always carried rifles and flare guns in case of encountering a polar bear when off the ship. Highlight: The vistas we encountered on these zodiac excursions were staggeringly beautiful.
The Polar Plunge! There seems to be a regular tradition for individuals to jump in the freezing cold water for a quick chill. Of the 117 passengers on the Ocean Adventurer, 22 did jump! The doctor was waiting near by with a defibrillator! Not needed for these hardy souls. Then they jumped into the hot tub and had bragging rights the remainder of the trip! We watched! What an interesting mix of passengers in age and nationality. Everyone was extremely friendly and shared life experiences. Most of these folks had already been to Antarctica, so were quite well traveled and had many interesting stories! The age of guests ranged from 17 to 81. An auction occurred toward the end of the voyage to raise funds for polar bear research – to track mother and cubs in Svalbard but also Greenland and Canada. By the way, there are no penguins in the Arctic and no polar bears in Antarctica. It is surprising how many people confuse that fact!
The Arctic water and sea ice are clearly warming and melting at a more rapid pace endangering all the marine life in this area including birds. At one point we were 600 nautical miles from the North Pole. There was visually plenty of ice – both glacier (moving ice) and sea ice. The ice ebbs and flows each year; actually we were told that the ice was increased at present but could change at any time. There is a great concern for the plastics and trash that are being disposed of in the ocean – kudos to companies like Rothy’s and 4ocean.com that are trying to create products out of plastic bottles, to recycle and to clean up the ocean expanse! There were no plastic water bottles on the ship. The experts on the Quark highlighted their concern about nature and the animals, particularly the Polar Bears who are designated “vulnerable,” not endangered yet, but their numbers in the wild are shrinking.
Now we need to decide if Antarctica, the Seventh Continent, is next on our list—-maybe we do the fly/cruise? The Drake Passage can be extremely rough….
See below for more photos from Arctic Adventure