6/15 Svalbard Explained

Community Highlights Travel Philosophy 6/15 Svalbard Explained

We spent the night snugly moored in Magdalenefjorden Harbor. The water here is billiard table smooth and the environment is marred only by the hum and vibration of the M/S Quest generator. Now through Sorgattet passage into sheltered Smeerenburgfjorden, we are escaping the weather’s impact on the open sea and on the effect of the wind pushing the ice flows together which would block our passage ahead, and, more critically, behind. The ice is ever moving, opening passages and closing them in a matter of minutes in a breeze and seconds in a gale.

01WalrusConvention.JPG02WalrusScratch.JPG03WalrusFlipper.JPG04WalrusLongTusk.JPG05WalrusWater.JPGAt 9:00 we boarded our five Zodiacs to cruise across the fjord to a flat outcropping upon which a convention of walrus was occurring. We estimate 36 animals were gathered there with males and females and adolescents (but no pups) all together, something that won’t happen later in the season. Males tend to go off by themselves. Part of that might be due to the fact that the dominant male is the only one to mate; younger walrus won’t get the chance to mate until they are nine or ten, I am told. As happens with males, they get into scuffles. Better to leave than press your luck and get the big strong males tusk embedded into your inexperienced and smaller body. Save your testerone for a day when you have the size and strength to back it up.

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The Gravneset glacier is at the back of the Magdalenefjorden and we took time to cruise near to the calving edge where deep cracks indicate that the ice will fracture and tumble into the water soon; no one can tell exactly when. Glaciers are more than abundant here, each of them unfortunately retreating. It is quiet and cold here with only a few other visitors encountered by Quest.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, speaking at the Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in early April, said, “Now and then I hear the Arctic described as a geopolitical hotspot. This is not how we see it. We know the Arctic as a region of peace and stability.” That is wonderful to hear but increasingly hard to believe as Norway, NATO’s far-north eyes and ears, just ordered 52 $89 million F-35 American stealth fighter aircraft to replace its aging fleet of 40-year-old F-16s that are today on 15-minute alert to intercept the Russian military emerging from their base on the Kola Peninsula—home to the Russian Navy fleet on the Barents Sea. Nearby on the sea and in the air, there is everything from nuclear-capable Russian bombers to the new Severodvinsk series of nuclear guided missile submarines. Of course, we actually see none of this; there is no visible presence for much other than ice, birds and a few mammals hardy enough to call this home.

Last year, however, the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, Harry S Truman, was in these waters to support 50,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 65 ships in Operation Trident Juncture, a wargame to defend Norway against an “unidentified country.” It was the first time in history that this American aircraft carrier sailed above the Arctic Circle.

If you look at a global map of undersea fiber optic cables, the pair that stand out run from Tromsø on Norway’s mainland to Longyearben. The ground station there, SvalSat, is the only one on the planet that covers all 14 daily passes of orbiting polar satellites. The 1920 Spitsbergen treaty does not allow military facilities in Svalbard but for years speculation has been that military information is downloaded through here.

It is with this backdrop that I make my first foray this very far north to see what can still be seen.

As lunchtime approached the feeling of satisfaction at having found our polar bear and communed with walrus has settled over the ship and the mood is one of peace and satisfaction. I cannot understand many—if not most—of the conversations which occur around me but the tone of voice gives this international meeting a definite sense of conviviality as binoculars come out (I’m in the lounge) to spy on a walrus pair snoozing atop a flat, snow-covered chunk of ice the size of an average sized American living room. Interestingly, two days ago, a mad scramble for cameras would occur but now, we veterans with storehouses of walrus photos, are satisfied to savor the moment rather than record it.

Like other places I have been privileged to visit—in Africa or Brazil, far from civilization—there exists here no ambient noise. No rumbling traffic, no horns or sirens, not even the obtrusive sound emanating from a jet passing overhead, taking vacationers and businesspeople from point A to point B. I live in point C, “Flyover Country.” This, then must be point Z. Nobody flies or drives near here; there are only vessels on water and most of them are—unless you are aboard them—silent like the place they scour to provide placid peace for those fortunate enough to sail aboard them. Count me among those lucky few on this Saturday afternoon. As I miss and think of B4 and what she might be doing about now, it occurs to me that here, rather than diamonds, binoculars are a girl’s best friend.

As we sail away from Magdalenefjorden, the announcement comes from the dining room that lunch is being served. I skip lunch to savor the scenery as only a solo traveler can. That was a fortunate choice. Belgians Christine traveling with Greta and Paul Andre and Luc spotted something in the distance and alerted the Captain. It turned out to be, well, just see: 09PolarBearEarly.JPG10PolarBearEarly.jpeg

The afternoon, previously thought to be more Zodiac excursions instead became a sublime meeting from the bow of M/S Quest. I suspect that thousands of photographs of this encounter were taken, quite a number by our guides and the ship’s crew. “The most amazing sighting of the season,” they said. A remarkable find, by all accounts, one not often experienced even by the experienced hands who surround us. At one point we closed within about 100 yards of this magnificent feasting creature but only after an hour or so of creeping up. All concerned had the primary goal of not spooking the bear in any way. Not once did she seem bothered by us as she ate the ring seal she had bested, rested and ate some more. Between 2:45 and 6:00 she feasted as did we all. 11PolarBearStaringEarly.jpeg13PolarBearTeeth.jpeg8971e3a0-9267-11e9-a979-ffb2cdfedbd6.jpeg15PolarBearCU.jpeg16PolarBearSeatedLickingPawJPG.jpeg17PolarBearIceFormationBehind.JPG

OK. Goal met. Twice. All relax, there is no pressure from here on.

As Americans, we primarily think of sea ice in the southern Beaufort Sea located north of the Canadian Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Alaska where a reduction is Arctic sea ice is both clear and observable. Once, more than 1,500 bears lived there; now 800 to 900 do. The bears that survive are pushed farther and farther north where there is more ice which means more places to hunt seals, their primary food source.

Polar bears are not alike in personality. On land, some seem unfazed by human activity such as snow machines or all-terrain vehicles or trucks passing by. Others are spooked and retreat. The presence of small cubs makes most females more prone to retreat from disturbances. Far from here, oil and gas exploration near dens make such an eventuality more likely. Cubs prematurely moved from their den run a greater risk of failure to thrive and, ultimately, death.

Adult polar bears vary in size from 200 to 800 kg. Humans are considered alien in the polar bear habitat, and a polar bear may see us as potential prey. The polar bear is incredibly strong and even cubs weighing under 100 kg can be extremely aggressive and dangerous. Polar bears attack extremely quickly and without warning. On land--not aboard ships--tourists are told to be accompanied by a guide or a local with a firearm when leaving settlements.

Polar bears are marine mammals and can swim for hours and miles. Their fur features hollow hairs that provide both floatation and insulation.

One can encounter polar bears anywhere in Svalbard all year round. All humans are reminded to be cautious when moving outside the settlements and preferably be accompanied by a local guide.

A bit of research turned up advice for avoiding confrontations with polar bears. I quote various sources here:

"It’s important to prepare well and think in advance about how to act in the Svalbard nature. We strongly recommend going on an organised trip. However, if you choose to explore alone, the following points are extremely important:
• Be extremely observant and try to move only in open areas.
• If you see a polar bear, retreat calmly and never pursue it!
• Most polar bear visits are at camps. Find a location with a good view in all directions and, if there are several in your group, sit facing different directions.
• Avoid setting up camp near the seashore as the water and ice edge are natural places for polar bears to search for food.
• Set up tripwires around your camp. Polar bear watch (someone always awake) is regarded as the only safe strategy when it comes to camping in the outdoors.
• Store food away from tents but within view of the tent opening.
• Avoid cooking inside your tent as the smell remains on the canvas and may attract polar bears.
• Arm yourself correctly. A high-powered big game rifle (7.62, 30.06 or 308 calibre) and a signal pistol are the best weapons for protection against polar bears.
• Ensure you have knowledge of the weapons and experience using them before you set off.

Polar bears often approach humans out of curiosity. However, it’s important to treat all polar bears as threatening. If a polar bear walks towards you, make yourself visible early and try to scare it away by shouting, clapping your hands or waiving your arms around. Load your firearm. Fire a shot with your signal pistol into the ground in front of the polar bear or a warning shot with a rifle if the polar bear is within 50 metres."

Or, book an expedition aboard M/S Quest and let others do both the planning and worrying. Don’t expect lavish surroundings inside the ship as more significant surroundings will envelope you outside. I remember very few hotels rooms I have occupied—even the lavish ones. I shall never forget, however, watching a polar bear, oblivious to me and my fellows, stroll, then slide and then stroll some more as we spied on him from thirty yards away—ensconced safely in a mini-fleet of Zodiacs. I shall never forget, as well, watching a polar bear, again oblivious to us all, devour a ring seal she—or he as we cannot be absolutely certain about gender—had bested on an ice flow far from everywhere as we spied on her from one hundred yards away—ensconced safely aboard M/S Quest.

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Remarkably, the teenagers aboard on their incentive trip were non-plussed by this spectacular event and spent most of the encounter in a lounge-based game of Uno. Life is wasted on the young. What they believe to be important isn’t while what they believe to be unworthy of their attention could have, had they only known and paid heed to it, helped to shape enrich their lives.

This featured blog entry was written by paulej4 from the blog Polar Bears of the Svalbard Archipelago.
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By paulej4

Posted Thu, Jun 20, 2019 | Svalbard | Comments