“Walking on thin ice”

Looking for the iconic polar bear is a bit like searching for your favourite book in the library. You are lucky if you find that precious book, but it’s the other treasures you discover on the way that make the hunt so worthwhile.

I’ve been subscribing to Nat Geo mags since childhood and have carefully saved every edition with a polar bear on the cover. In recent years our dear bear has become a symbol of the ice kingdom, and a shrinking world

The cover of the Silverseas brochure features a polar bear and when you book an Arctic cruise that’s what you expect to find.
Yes, we were privileged to sight a bear or two, but no we didn’t have crowds of bears queueing up on the deck all hours of the night and day.

Wayne Lynch clinches it when he describes the Arctic in his book “Planet Arctic” as a place where humanity is put into perspective. “We are awed and humbled by the raw beauty of the wilderness”.

An Arctic cruise is more about the beauty of nature. The wildlife you meet on the way are a special treat. I would like to share a few precious Arctic memories which have enriched our lives.

“The essence of our journey was encapsulated on Day Two. We were sitting in the zodiac surrounded by glaciers. “Let’s take a moment to listen to the silence” whispers Franz our guide. We put the present on pause, to exist in this special place in time where only glaciers can bear the brunt of history and gulls soaring overhead shriek with laughter at the funny humans in zodiacs below.

Our Professor of Ornithology picks up a chunk of ice from the sea. “Have a taste of history”. We take turns to suck on the eons, zillions of years in a crystallized fossil, the water as fresh as the present, the ice as old as the stone age.

The Arctic Circle is defined by the tree line – a place where trees can no longer survive. It’s either snow, rock or tundra. We are cruising in Svalbard, an archipelago with the largest iceshelf in the Arctic. There are great tundra valleys in the centre and ice caps lie to the east. This morning we have a trek on the tundra which begins with a wet landing on the stones of a gravelly beach. We are well prepared thanks to the excellent packing list provided by Silverseas online. Especially about the boots. A happy camper has comfy feet and our BOGS boots are a true blessing. They have perfect waterproof coats and the grip of a polar bear. We hike slowly up the hill, on tundra springy like new carpet. Luck has its way as we catch glimpses of the Arctic fox darting around playing cat and mouse with the deer. He’s the Arctic version of the zebra of the north, adapting his wardrobe according to the seasons – snowy white camouflage in winter, and two tone combination in summer to blend with rock and tundra. He’s difficult to photograph, not still for a moment, those black & white stripes flashing across the tundra, with long bushy tail sailing in the wind. He’s not called the long footed fox for nothing and mischievous like Brer Fox, teasing the poor reindeer trying to graze in peace in the valley. We laugh as swirling terns swoop down and outfox our fox; they circle his den and steal leftover crumbs.

Then comes another beautiful sight on the ridge above. Two twisted antlers have slowly appeared as mother deer and daughter have raised their heads from morning tea in perfect pose for a picture. They’re been snacking their way along once icy ledges of slopes now covered in fresh moss of the season. They have an almost human stare with such large melting eyes; cleverly wide set for panoramic vision to allow them to watch out for unfriendly visitors. They’re incredibly bulky and cow-like with layers of fat to warm them for the winter. I’ve no idea how they put on weight with a diet of pure greens.

On the downward climb we pass little gardens of arctic flowers in bloom in the shade of the rocks. A whole new world of geology is opened up to us crisscrossed with the crevasses of age. Smooth rocks worn down by centuries of glaciers in stunning patterns of orange and grey. The warm shades of the lichen on rock shine like precious stones, but they’re really algae symbiotic with fungi.

When we reach the valley below we ford a tiny stream trickling between a carpet of jade moss. Nature has smiled upon us today with all the joys of spring.

Sipping hot chocolate in the bar, we share the highlights of the day frozen in memory in I-Phones and cameras. I jot notes from fellow guests and friends to compare with “cruise critic”. Aren’t we all waiting to see that polar bear? True we all agree, but there’s so much more we didn’t expect to see. “We are truly privileged” says Anne, “to experience this pristine wilderness before it all disappears”. For me, it’s a sheer joy to breathe fresh air in deep and gaze out to a horizon that never seems to end.

Our photos are better than we ever imagined. Paul has a perfect image of a “Kittiwake” standing barefoot on ice. What an efficient circulatory system he must have to warm his toes! The light is magic here. Everything is so clearly defined, so even an amateur photographer like myself might churn out the pictures of a champ.

Walruses are on the menu for Sunday afternoon. We zodiac ashore to see a gang of these Arctic relics who had swum to land for a spot of siesta.

We smelt them as we approached the beach. A colony lay snoozing together in a heap on the sand like beached whales. They certainly won’t be competing with George Clooney in the looks department. Each is rumpled portrait of buck teeth, whiskers, deep scars and blood shot eyes. And all sunbaking belly up! It looks like a mass orgy in slow motion but they were really too worn out after the mating season to do anything exciting except burp, yawn and bark between the occasional fidget as they gently change position. Who could imagine that these giant creatures are so sociable, all cuddled up on top of each other? The quiet is only broken by the occasional grunt when someone gives a good back scratch to the neighbour with a handy rear flipper.

We keep our distance on the sand in breathless silence. A friendly jab to figure out who we are with one those metre- long tusks could end rather badly.

Back in the boat, Juan our Expeditions Leader, laughs ‘Many wrinkles allow for further girth expansion.’ And we can always rely on Corrie for an honest appraisal of the situation. “If we continue eating like this every day, we’re going to end up looking like them by the end of the cruise!”

Which reminds me that no cruise critique is complete without a word about the food. How can one possibly squeeze in three massive meals a day, when we’re so busy with outings twice daily in zodiac or on land. Only in the world of the midnight sun where time can be maximised in relentless hours of light.
There can’t be anything more delightfully decadent than feasting on scones, jam and cream as the icebergs drift gently past your window.
That was afternoon tea.

Dinner.. well, not exactly “under the stars”. More like “under the sun.”
But not Tuscan. And more light than sun.

Silver Explorer offers a very cool “Hot Rock Barbeque” on the upper deck in frozen light. It’s Day Five and we’ve reached the Sea Ice. Perhaps not the warmest night to choose the ‘Hot Rocks but the best part is that we don’t have to dress for dinner. We huddle at the one surviving sheltered corner table in hooded parka and waterproof pants. The only ones to brave the cold tonight along with a hardy Swiss couple who seem oblivious to the biting wind roaring past our faces. The main challenge is to remove hands from warm gloves in order to cut the meat .The chunky slices are unable to decide whether to melt or freeze. It’s a bit like eating a melting ice-cream in reverse. Not a dining experience one would forget in a hurry. ..

I picture myself as a polar bear in this highly unpredictable environment.

The word Arctic comes from the Greek word “Arcticus” which means Kingdom of the Bear. This iconic symbol of the north is embedded in our psyche as a symbol of cold. My mind is on him as I shiver over my supper.
I know he lives life on the treadmill, constantly on the move with huge overlapping ranges from ice to water which he cannot defend. He’s typically solitary. Roaming all the time in search of food.

Day Six: We are 1,012 kms south of the North Pole and north of Spitsbergen. The strengthened hull of the Silver Explorer cuts through the ice with a grinding crunch and the view of the ice floes sailing past my cabin is brilliant. The entire team of eight Silverseas Expedition Leaders, marine biologists, glaciologists are on the bridge in top gear on the polar look out.

We are in prime conditions. The pack ice has thickened enough for the polar bear to walk on, A lone seal appears ahead perched on an ice floe surveying his surroundings like the warm up band before the star of the show appears. The ice has formed the right kind of frozen platform for a bear to pounce on his prey.

We are lined up on deck like an army of red and white soldiers in our arctic uniforms, binoculars fixated on the horizon, cameras ready in focus, listening out for an announcement by the captain when the star is to appear.

“Quick! Focus your lens on two oçlock” says Kit, our marine biologist excitedly. He’s out there, just to the right of that island. I freeze my fingers off in the struggle to master my new fancy binoculars. The minute I focus exactly on the bear, he moves. But he’s closer and adrenalin is racing.

Now I see him! He clambers out of the water, rolls into an easy half somersault on the ice to shake excess water from his fur, and finally stands up to face his audience. His antics are hilarious.
Black rimmed eyes stare straight at my lens. As if to say “what on earth are you doing here in my domain?”” I am in heaven.

Then he moves. So in tune with his environment, nose in the air as he pads along the ice, one elbow in front of the other, on his way to the next victim of prey.

Alone in his glacial world. The sheer ice carpet is the backdrop to his ever shrinking home.

Then as suddenly as he faces us, he turns back and sinks behind the rock.
But that’s only the first round of the show, ladies & gentlemen, until our appetiser is served.

Pia our chef is annoyed. Just as we take the first spoonful from our steaming bowls of soup, the captain makes his second announcement. “The polar bear has stood up and is walking towards the ship!” There’s a stampede from the dining room, grabbing parkas, gloves & hats on the run. An eleven year old boy travelling with his grandparents lets out a hoot of sheer delight.

Our bear is much closer now. When he finally stands up and moves from his lair, tears of joy spring to my eyes. Visible to the naked eye, we watch as he prowls carefully across the ice like a graceful ballerina, bulky yet steady, king of his Universe. He typically moves slowly, not wanting to heat up too much as it’s only minus 5 today. He’s been lying down on the ice to cool off and is now back on the hunt.

In the presence of such majesty we are dwarfed as human beings.
He stalks along with the dignified rump of a lord. Walks, sniffs and then waits with patience and stealth for seals to come up for breath. He needs 40 or 50 seals a year, and has all the time in the world to wait. And so have I as I watch how he moves. He’s top dog here and no one can challenge him.

Does he know we are here? His sense of smell is superb. Kit says he’s a nose on four legs and can smell a seal a mile away.

It’s a juggle between I-phone and camera, as he gets bigger and bigger. I just can’t get enough of him. And now he stares at me again, his black searching eyes right into my lens.

The captain is careful for us not to overstay our welcome.
To snatch a glimpse of this majestic animal on ice is to capture a unique moment in history, frozen in time. So most unfortunately are my fingers.
Oh that I had fur growing on my paws like the bear!

But it’s worth the ice and the wind, the frost and the fear, for one clear raw gaze of this magnificent creature.

We are so privileged and fortunate to catch a glimpse of his world. Alas fast melting before our eyes.

And now many months later I still feel that polar stare.

Sea ice is dynamic and the next day the ice zone is too packed for us to sail back. But maybe we have gained more than just a sight of a polar bear.
Maybe the thrill of such a privilege to view this starkly beautiful wilderness will help us refocus our lives to preserve one of the few remaining gifts of nature on this planet.