Arctic Cruise Report: Svalbard Archipelago, Norway

From the National Geographic Explorer in the Arctic June 15, 2010

“Into the Pack Ice!”

So read our daily program for today, the first day for the National Geographic Explorer to be in the Svalbard Archipelago in ice for the 2010 season. Officers, crew, staff, and guests-in-the-know are all aware of what an expedition day in the ice might bring. What vistas might present themselves? What animals might we see? The buzz at breakfast was loud and animated, as the anticipation of a day on the ice was almost palpable.

Sure enough, the call came from Expedition Leader Tim Soper over the loudspeaker just as breakfast was tapering off, “Fast ice in view off the bow, with a couple of active whales in front of it.” The last of the tea and coffee was downed, coats, binoculars, and cameras were grabbed, and we all headed out onto our favorite spots on the ship for viewing. Conditions were absolutely perfect; flat seas, lots of sunshine, and of course all of that magical white ice to weave in and out of.

It didn’t take long to see our first charismatic mega fauna either. A bull walrus was hauled out on pack ice and enjoying a morning nap. A slow and cautious approach by Captain Oliver Kruess brought the ship into perfect viewing distance as cameras clicked and whirred away, the walrus content to stretch and snooze alternately. More cruising brought several close up looks at another species of pinniped; bearded seals were also hauled out on the ice and happy to be models for intent photographers.

Throughout the morning we encountered polar bear tracks leading across various pieces of pack ice, but it wasn’t until just after lunch that the bears themselves were spotted by sharp eyes on the bridge. A sow and her coy (cub-of-the-year) were out hunting on 9/10ths pack. On approach to the sow and cub a third bear was spotted sleeping against a snowy hummock of ice, this time an adult male content to stretch in the (relatively) warm sun. Curiosity finally overtook the need to nap and the bear sniffed the air to try and determine just what this apparition of a huge iceberg really was.

All was quiet on deck; we were in ice bear stealth mode. Our efforts paid off as the bear lumbered onto its paws, and proceeded to inspect the ship. What a pleasure and privilege to be able to watch a wild polar bear, far from land on pack ice, truly the master of the frozen world around it.

What a perfect beginning to the 2010 season. We were all so excited we could “bearly” contain ourselves!

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