Arctic Cruise Report: Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

From the National Geographic Explorer in the Arctic July 14, 2010

So, here we are, our third day in “the land of the ice bear.” The very words conjure up images of bears stalking the ice, making spectacular and successful hunts of seals at every turn. It makes us think of the midnight sun, of sparkling blue and white ice, of frozen seas and biting winds. At times, Svalbard can be all of those things, but in truth, it is so much more varied and an often difficult environ.

Our day technically began under a blaringly bright midnight sun early this morning as we watched beluga whales and a swimming polar bear glide amongst the brash ice at Negribreen. However, for practical purposes our day began with another swimming bear, this one at the mouth of Freemundsund, the narrow passage between Barentsoya and Edgoya from which we emerged just before breakfast this morning. Unlike when we laid our heads to rest, the day was still, almost impossibly so. At times, without the ship or bits of ice as points of reference, direction was impossible to judge for the waters were as dark and gray as the skies above and both faded into ethereal space that seemed infinite in their scope.

Time passed without any real sense of progress. For a while, the ship broke through pans of rotten sea ice, then, at other times even the ice was lost in the silent lucidity. Throughout the morning and afternoon, periodic visitors materialized from the mist: a walrus alone in its restful thoughts, then a young bear peering intently into the featureless waters, later more walrus, and then a bearded seal lounged on their private icy rafts. All the while, we glided past intermittent fulmars, kittiwakes, and guillemots as they hovered in space or were they floating in the sea; it was nearly impossible to tell.

Frustration could easily set in on a day like today, when the land seemed as distant as those initial thoughts of what “the land of the ice bear” must be like. As we pondered our day a bit more, however, a certain enlightenment dawned from the fog of vexation: THIS is also the land of the ice bear, a place of almost immeasurable scale and one fraught with difficulties and wonders seldom faced by animals in other parts of the world. It is a place to get uncomfortably lost within and in doing so, to find there is so much more than just bears on ice. The wilds of the Arctic offer feast and famine on its own terms and timetable, but the serene yet haunting beauty abounds once you look past your own preconceived notions.


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