Polar Bear encounters in the High Arctic
The polar regions of our planet are the last unexplored frontiers, home to amazing wildlife and birdlife, huge tabular icebergs and often tales of myth, legend and the pioneering explorers who battled inhospitable conditions to explore the icy realms of the Arctic.
Today, the beauty and remoteness of the High Arctic can be discovered in modern comfort with another group of pioneers, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic. While the spirit of exploration still runs deep in the naturalists on board all of their vessels, their guests can still experience the spectacular scenery and magical wildlife encounters from explorations past, except with magnificent cuisine, zodiacs, kayaks and more to get you off the ship and plenty of warm, cosy nights spent around the bar!
We spoke with Lindblad Expeditions' Justin Southern to hear all about his experience on board National Geographic Explorer to answer your questions on what an Arctic expedition cruise is really all about.
This sounds like a fantastic trip - where did your Arctic expedition cruise embark from?
We embarked the National Geographic Explorer in Longyearbyen which is the most northern town on the planet. It's located on the island of Spitsbergen, one of the islands of the Svalbard archipelago, a Norwegian territory some 1,000kms from the country's mainland and just a 3 hour flight from Oslo. The city itself is located in a valley on the shores of Adventfjord, and it is surrounded by steep mountains and glaciers and it's not uncommon to spot whales swimming in the fjord from your window! The main reason most people visit Svalbard is to spot Polar Bears, of which we saw 20 all around the Svalbard archipelago. Another highlight was the sheer number of Glaciers, all an incredible size, especially the Monacobreen Glacier which is roughly 4.4km wide. Embarkation for expedition ships is simple, and the port is located only 2km from the city centre, and 4km from the airport. There is an airport shuttle service when you arrive, and Lindblad Expeditions arranges transportation for all guests to the port. We stayed the night before our cruise in a comfortable hotel in the city centre, which is included in your cruise fare. There are plenty of opportunities to explore the town of Longyearbyen, and you can even borrow bicycles from the Tourist Information Centre in summer!
Most people will visit Svalbard to see polar bears. How many did you see on your trip?
We saw 20 Polar Bears during our 10 day expedition on board National Geographic Explorer. One fact I learned from one of the expert naturalists who accompany the daily zodiac excursions was the longest recorded polar swim. It was a female polar bear who swam 426 miles in one continuous swim, which took her 9 days straight – they are prolific swimmers! Also the first thing a Polar Bear will do after a swim is roll on the ice; one, to dry itself off, but most importantly this action brings the Polar Bears core body temperature back down – Polar Bears can struggle with overheating which can happen quite quickly when they run or swim.
What other wildlife did you see when you went out in the zodiacs?
Other animals that we encountered were Bearded Seals, Svalbard Reindeer, Little Auk (Bird), Walruses, a Blue Whale, Arctic Foxes, Ringed Seals, Harbour Seals and plenty of other birdlife. On our very first land walk, I was in the second last group making our way back to the zodiacs when one of the group spotted a Polar Bear on a ridge about 1km away. Bears this time of year should be on the ocean ice hunting and not on land, so our naturalist guide thought the bear may have been injured or there was something wrong. It was making its way over to us so we were told to quickly get down the hill and onto the zodiacs. One of our Expedition guides had to fire off two flares to turn the bear around. We never felt in danger, but it was a close enough encounter to showcase that this is truly what expedition travel is all about!
What were some of the features or amenities on board National Geographic Explorer you particularly enjoyed?
There was no ONE best feature. The ship is designed for fantastic wildlife viewing all the way around the outside. A favourite spot of mine was the Bridge where a lot of the wildlife spotting is done, and Lindblad Expeditions operates an open bridge policy, meaning guests can visit at any time during their expedition. The ship has a full suite of exploration tools, with the zodiacs a particular favourite. They really get you into places you wouldn’t normally go, and with only 148 guests maximum onboard the ship at any time you get the chance to get off the ship daily to explore with a minimum of fuss!
Of course we know the Arctic is cold. Did you have to take any special clothing with you?
It was cold on some days and milder on others. You can certainly hire clothing prior to departure through an external partner, called Ship to Shore, who will send you the waterproofs and warm clothing you'll need to stay comfortable in all weather conditions. Outside of the standard jacket and pants, you really need good mud boots or gum boots for all of the wet landings on the zodiacs and gloves are a necessity when holding onto the outer railings of the ship. I'd also recommend a neck warmer for extra comfort.
One of the highlights of a trip like this is photography. Do you have any tips for taking pictures in cold conditions?
The main thing is to bring extra batteries, as the cold really does chew up your power quickly. Also in the High Arctic a good zoom lens is a must to get shots of wildlife which may be some distance away. If you have your own DSLR camera, but don't want the expense of buying a zoom lens, you can borrow photographic gear on board free of charge from the B&H Photo Locker on board the ship. Equipment such as lenses, cameras and binoculars are available and you can get tips and guidance on taking spectacular shots from the National Geographic Photographers onboard.
What was one highlight that stood out for you about your Lindblad experience?
With over 50 years of expedition experience we have the most knowledgable ice team on the planet, but also listening and learning from our Guest speakers. We had Peter Hilary, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, who, along with Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, completed the first successful ascent of Mount Everest.
How can you have your own Arctic expedition with Lindblad?
Lindblad Expeditions offer a selection of Arctic journeys including Land of the Ice Bears, Exploring Greenland & the Canadian High Arctic, and Norway's Fjords & Arctic Svalbard. See some of Justin's photos in the video below.