My first sights of Svalbard came at 1:00AM after watching the sunset in the Oslo airport, only to watch it rise again as we flew beyond the Arctic circle and into the territory of the summer’s midnight sun. Cotton candy skies gave way to a white glow, which finally took shape to snowcapped mountains, as we began our decent into the world’s northern most airport in the town of Longyearbyen. On the cusp of my first expedition, the wheels touched down and I was already in awe of my first taste of the polar regions.
After a restless night of sleep, feeling like a kid on Christmas morning, I finally gave up on sleep and headed out to explore the quaint port town of Longyearbyen. A morning of museums, Arctic history, and wandering finally, and with much anticipation, turned into the afternoon where I boarded my first expedition ship. 40+ knot winds chased us south to seek refuge in Hornsund. At the capable hands of Captain Zekan with some help from his lookouts (a.k.a me) we outran the storm to awake to water so calm you weren’t sure where the sea ended and the sky began.
After a morning of briefings, I had a day full of exciting “firsts.” Our first expedition day started off with spotting our first polar bear along the shores in which we were supposed to land. The bear kept its distance and eventually headed into the water and away from our ship. The expedition team quickly made a new game plan, pushed back lunch, and got the Zodiacs into the water. We high tailed it to the loading zone to see if maybe we could catch the bear from afar, if it had finally wandered ashore. Due to regulation and our own safety, since the bear remained in the water, we headed the other way to explore Gnalodden, which was full of bird life, glaciers, and perfect weather.
Changing the previous days’ hiking plans to a Zodiac cruise had me itching to stretch my legs, so I was happy to hear we were starting our second day with a long hike on the Arctic Tundra. Kapp Lee was everything I wanted out of an expedition excursion including hiking, incredible summits with sweeping landscapes, and plenty of wildlife. We found reindeer horns that had been shed, reindeer horns still attached to live reindeer, and a few giant potatoes or Walrus depending on which school of thought you subscribe to.
Due to the diligence of the incredible guides on board the Expedition, whose trained eyes can spot a needle in a haystack, day three of our Realm of the Polar Bear expedition delivered on its name. To call this day life changing, truly does not do it justice. Our morning expedition was a ships’ cruise of Mohnbukta, slowly sailing past fast ice in hopes of spotting the snow bear, the white bear, the Polar Bear – King of the Arctic. What started as a moving spec on the horizon, whose curiosity and strong nose led him wandering in our direction, finally transformed into a bear you could with the naked eye. I cannot say I didn’t shed a tear, as the captain drove the ship straight into the ice the bear came in for a close encounter and stared for a long while directly at us. It is a moment of my life I will never forget.
After celebrating our first real polar bear encounter we geared up for our next adventure. Our afternoon excursion was a Zodiac ride where the weather turned a bit windier as we headed to explore the large glacier of Negribreen. It was the wettest and windiest Zodiac ride we had, and I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front of the Zodiac and got a wild ride.
After a wet and windy day on the Zodiac, we were greeted by staff with a shot of whiskey and headed straight for the sauna to warm our bones. Following dinner and the nightly recap, the night unfolded into one of the most epic moments of my life. Off the bow of the ship we spotted a mom and her two adolescent cubs. As we took in this moment in silence and awe, we heard a whisper over the intercom, that off the starboard side, was another mom and her two cubs. I could not believe our luck that we had 6 polar bears exploring right in front of my eyes. (can you spot 3 below?)
The next morning started with an easy hike in Agardbukta where we saw polar bear tracks, waterfalls, and arctic tundra. The afternoon expedition headed to Russebukta for a bird spotting hike with the crew’s ornithologist. We wandered around the squishy tundra and Arctic lagoon and saw long-tailed ducks, king eiders, red phalaropes, a walrus in the water and a polar bear skull! Never a dull day in the Arctic!
Our fifth morning had us exploring Bamsebu, the hut where the first all female team will be overwintering and conducting research this upcoming winter. Along these shores are also the remnants of an old whaling site complete with decrepit boats and piles of whale bones. After wandering these shores taking in the sunny weather we headed out for a Zodiac cruise to a nearby beach to relax and look for wildlife. Along the cruise we saw seals, an Arctic fox was spotted, and of course plenty of birds. As we were cruising along, I spotted the guide following the long hike group walking along a ridge line. Seeing the scale of human to the backdrop of the mountains spoke well for life in the Arctic.
Our afternoon was just as full as we headed to Ingeborgfjellet to an Auk bird colony where hundreds of nesting and noisy birds made their home. While snapping photos and taking in the view, we finally spotted a few Arctic fox. The weather was warm and perfect, so the crew decided this was also the spot for our polar plunge. We all lined up on the beach, to a 3-2-1 countdown before finally running and diving (or at least I dove) into the 32-degree water.
Waking up on the final expedition day was bittersweet, we still had a full day ahead, but I knew we were nearing the end of the journey. Our last day had us Zodiac cruising in Eckmanfjord where we spotted a polar bear hunting seals on the fast ice. We cruised slowly and took it all in before heading back for lunch. The afternoon we headed to Templefjorden. We walked along the water, took final photos with our friends, hiked up the ridge line, spotted the single puffin we saw on the trip, and soaked up the final day. We took in the midnight sun for one final night, before packing our bags and heading home.
Svalbard will forever hold a special place in my heart. It was my first time seeing a polar bear in the wild. My first time feeling the midnight sun on my skin. My first time being to the Arctic and my first taste of the polar regions. My first expedition trip was life changing and I can say with certainty it won’t be my last.