Did you know that ice makes noise?
It ranges from crackling, fizzing and sizzling to thunderous calving, which is when a gigantic glacier fissures, collapsing into the sea while spewing a plume of dust and ice shrapnel into the air. The emanating sound is like thunderclap. In this polar desert, sounds are magnified and travel far, echoing for miles through the atmosphere as silent as the skies. When that happens, the Arctic reindeer bolts.
Traversing the uncharted Svalbard archipelago in the High Arctic, which is midway between Norway and the North Pole in the Arctic Sea, on small sturdy Zodiac inflatable boats, provides a unique perspective of one’s place on the planet. Blinding white ice floes intersperse with crystalline glaciers and translucent, glittering icicles in an ethereal setting. Surprisingly, there is a staggering spectrum of colour, reflecting every shade of pure blue.
Few enigmatic places remain, where it’s possible to savour a sense of sheer isolation. The deliciousness of seclusion is unparalleled. All modern connectivity becomes alien, with hardly any phone or Internet signal, adding a magical lure to the remote and unforgiving region.
Touring the Arctic
I’m on the MS Expedition by Canada-based G Adventures, attempting to be the first to circumnavigate Spitsbergen island this year. The fact that we achieve this is both celebratory and sad; a brilliant personal achievement yet a tragic reminder of just how far north the pack ice, which normally inhibits passageway, has receded.
On day five, our ship is officially the most northerly vessel on the planet. In a planet of 7.3 billion, to be floating at the “top of the world” at 81 degrees 16 minutes latitude, just 524 nautical miles from the North Pole feels quite the feat. It calls for celebration in the Polar Bear bar aboard the ship. This is a dangerous port of call in the land of the midnight sun; with 24-hour summer daylight tricking the body clock, a drink at 10pm easily becomes a drink at 4am.
But what goes up must come down. And from November, this remote corner of the globe is plunged into perpetual darkness. That’s when the aurora borealis comes out to play. And how she works her magic and mystique, with piercing green rays streaking the dark skies, flirting with all who cast their eyes her way, in a dazzling dance display that’s unique in nature.
Awakening early one morning, I head to the bow of the ship for a moment of solitude as everyone is in deep slumber. I’m greeted by a panorama of segregated ice floes surrounding the ship as far as the eye can trace. The strengthened hull ploughs through the calved remnants of centuries-aged snowcaps and small icebergs. It is a literal sea of blue and white, with no distinction between sea and sky. After days of hazy fog and mist, the sun presides over this view, setting the scene ablaze with celestial flare. The only true comparison is a plane breaking through cloud into a universe of blue and white. The space, peace and freedom of drifting through a barren orbit — and the inner calm it induces — that is the feeling here in the Arctic.
Hunting for wildlife
Utter isolation aside, the main draw to the Arctic is the wildlife. This is the realm of polar bears, which hunt for their favourite ringed seal atop pack ice. Bear territory comes as we manoeuvre the colder, icier, windier eastern Spitsbergen territory, which mostly constitutes pack ice, constantly ebbing and flowing due to winds and water temperatures. There is a significant drop in temperature and I layer away, from wool base layers, to fleeced interiors, to outer windbreakers.
Our first polar bear sighting is an occasion to behold. He is strikingly handsome, with thick cream fur contrasting stunningly against the dark shale backdrop. Underneath it, his skin is lined by a thick black oily layer, which prevents water from touching his body and freezing his bloodstream. Using his superior sense of smell, the majestic bear can trace his prey more than a kilometre away.
One of few animals in the world that actively hunts humans for food, we watch from a small boat, accompanied by a rifle-clad guide. As soon as the bear is spotted, under continuous watch from the ship by a team of naturalists, geologists and scientists, guests are transferred into smaller boats to get closer to shore. Security is tight and safety is paramount. The bear crosses various terrain and topography, maintaining pace, before stopping for a short swim then rolling off on the rocks.
Twenty minutes and a thousand photographs later, we zip off towards a herd of walruses. Some are lazing in a blubbery mesh on the beach, others swimming in shallow waters. I get a clear look at their thick wrinkled skin. Thousands of fine whiskers surround their snout, each individual hair able to move independently to scan the seabed and suck up their favourite meal of clams. Two long prominent teeth jut out as ivory tusks, which are often used to clamber their near-spherical body ashore. Comically, this often proves too much as many feature a snapped tooth.
In this polar desert, where temperatures plummet to -50 degrees C in winter, it’s hard to believe that life clings to the bleak barren wilderness. I visit in summer when temperatures reach a balmy average of zero degrees C. During landings at Ny Alesund, Hornsund and Sundneset, I spot pretty parades of Svalbard poppies, Arctic cotton and saxifrage. At Alkefjellet, the blaring surround sound of screeching guillemots is deafening. Hundreds of thousands flood the searing mist-shrouded dolerite and limestone cliff-faces. Haunting rocky towers leap 100m into the sky at the impressive Jurassic Park of the Arctic, where overhangs, caves and crevices host baby guillemots attempting their inaugural flight. Now and then, a baby gets segregated, to the delight of the silvered furry Artic Fox. I even spot one darting across the hills with a kittiwake in its mouth.
Polar bears are the star attraction but once here, attention quickly diverts to other equally unique Arctic wildlife. One afternoon, while observing a mother and polar bear cub atop the rim of a hill, I’m startled by the entirely unexpected somersaults of a shoal of white beluga whales. They silently tumble and swirl past our boats, grey babies in tow, gracefully gallivanting undersea. Along with bowhead and blue whales, these dynamic masters of the Arctic Ocean live a peaceful existence.
Seals appear anytime anywhere. On one Zodiac cruise, I watch the largest gathering of harbour seals this season. The cute playful marine mammals are drying out on rocks, camouflaged by the backdrop. Suddenly, one pops up in front of the Zodiac. It’s a curious creature with a smile on its face as it plays hide and seek, making us wish we could jump in and swim with it.
Testing the water — literally
One could, except the waters are dangerously freezing. So a “polar plunge” is reserved for the “crazies”. Motivated by a certificate confirming that I have jumped into the Arctic Sea, I find the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity too tempting to resist. On a land outing, we’re given the chance to strip off and run into the waters, through drifting icebergs against a backdrop of mist-encased iced mountains. Not really knowing what to expect, I lose all sensation in my feet within seconds, so it literally is a quick dunk in and out.
Back on the boat, fellow guests from all corners of the globe — from Brazil to Bangkok — congratulate me. Exploring this unique environment with such a diverse group is truly inspiring; we unite over a love of nature and unfamiliar territories. Scientists and naturalists with decades of experience help us to explore the science behind our explorations and raise our awareness of issues at play in this fragile region. This is another major reason to go on such an expedition.
Go to the Arctic for the wildlife. Fall in love with the ice, the landscapes, the silence. It is the ultimate reconnection with the wilds of nature, vastness of the ends of the earth and the pure serenity of yonder.