Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Today was all about mood and atmosphere here onboard Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer as we continued to hunt the elusive Polar Bear in Arctic Svalbard.
To kick things off, we started the day with a two-hour overland “hike” (more of a stroll, really) along the gravely shoreline of Torellneset, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard.
Once again, disembarkation from the ship was conducted by Zodiac groups to ensure Zodiac operations are orderly and efficient. Once ashore, groups were then further subdivided and passed off to one of the Silver Explorer Expedition Team members for a guided walking tour of this fascinating landscape. Even better, each group set off in their own separate direction so that we wouldn’t all be herded along.
With our four polar bear guards minding the perimeter, we joined Expedition Team Member Franz for a fabulous walk – and a great chance to stretch our legs after being at sea for a few days.
Regarding the polar bears, the team is prepared for any eventualities: should a bear breach the perimeter, Franz – like the other Expedition Team members – carries a high-powered pistol in his pocket. It’s a stark reminder that, while our ship may be far more comfortable than those early explorers, we’re still subjected to the same threats as they were. The trick is, we’re taking control of our environment in a way the early explorers weren’t able to.
Along our walk, we were fortunate enough to see about five walruses in various stages of hauling themselves into and out of the water. We probably spent 30 solid minutes just watching them before continuing on.
While the walruses were no doubt impressive, what made a more lasting impression on me was the presence of some small plants, lichens, and Arctic Crocuses that were actually managing to grow in amongst this gravelly hell they find themselves forced to cope with. These were barely taller than a few centimetres at their largest height. They’ve taken forever to grow just to become this infinitesimal size.
And yet, as you look around, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this barren wasteland contained no life at all. But your eyes can be deceived. Indeed, nothing is as it seems in the Arctic.
Looking up at the group walking along the raised ledge, they were silhouetted against a thin but noticeable band of white haze seemingly trapped between the earth and the clouds above.
They call this phenomenon an Ice Blink. Local Inuit and early explorers operating in the Arctic in the days of sail would use this light – or ice blink – to guide them safely around any ice that might lay in their path. Essentially, light is reflected off the sea ice and bounces off low-hanging clouds to create a bright white ‘band’ that is noticeably different from the clouds in both contrast and colour.
Franz had us stand in place for one moment. No shuffling, no pictures. And you hear nothing. Nothing. Not even the wind, not even the sound of your own heart beating. Torellneset is like a science fiction movie that someone turned the soundtrack down on. In the distance, maybe, you hear the faint grunts of the walrus as he hauls his corpuscular frame out of the water. A bird, here and there.
Or maybe it’s all in your imagination.
Many an Arctic expedition was trapped on islands like this. Akin to being left alone in a drowning room, things tended to go downhill early. Simply sustaining life is nearly impossible. The earth is frozen. Ice litters the water. The largest plants are small enough to be snuffed out using only your fingers or the tip of your boot. You are Godzilla in the land that time forgot.
An early polar explorer named George De Long was just one of many who learned of the Arctic’s unforgiving nature the hard way. In 1879, he set out for the North Pole, but became trapped in the ice pack. Realizing their ship was doomed, he and twenty other men set out across the ice.
It took them three months of sledging, pulling rescue boats and supplies behind them, to reach open water.
And did De Long survive? No. Despite having made it to Siberia’s Lena River, they perished sometime in late October or early November of that year. Their bodies were discovered the following spring, along with a journal belonging to De Long. It had one final entry:
October 30, Sunday – One hundred and fortieth day. Boyd and Gortz died during the night. Mr. Collins dying.
So once again, I think it’s important to appreciate this place for more than just its physical features or the possibility of seeing wildlife, largely because travel here even just a century ago was a dangerous business. And now, we are treated to this foreboding environment surrounded by every comfort.
After an enjoyable lunch outdoors at The Grill on Deck 6, we resumed our polar bear hunt with an afternoon of cruising through the pack ice at Bjornsundet, part of the Nordaust Svalbard Nature Reserve.
I watched this for an hour or so, out on deck before returning to my suite to get some work done. Halfway through writing an article, the ship shakes noticeably. I got up from my perch at the desk and drew back to the curtains to find the tough Silver Explorer carving a path for herself in the pack ice. }
We’re going to stay here, wedged firmly into the pack ice with our strengthened bow, until 0300 tomorrow morning, in the hopes of seeing a polar bear. I shudder to think of the sight that will ensue if they page us over the public address system at 0230 in the morning – because we got a taste of it at dinner!
Dinner began tonight at the usual time of half-past seven, and everything went as normal for about fifteen minutes – when the public address system’s hi-lo chime sounded.
Bing-bong-bing! A very good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen, we have just seen a polar bear…
Expedition Team Leader Juan continued to talk, but no one really heard. Dishes clattered as forks were dropped mid-bite. Chairs strained against their cables securing them to the floor as they were abruptly pushed back.
…the bear is a mother with her cub, about three miles off…
Hmm. Three miles. What is that – almost six kilometres? No one else is doing the math. No one cares – The Bear trumps all. The cacophony of sound now turns into an orderly but fast-paced rush to the exit. I haven’t seen these people move so fast in a week; you’d think they announced that they were giving away gold on the open bow deck. People left food half-finished and splattered all over the table. iPhones sat on tables. Purses sat by chairs. No one cared. The cameras were all that was important.
I decided to stay put and enjoy my appetizer and my glass of wine, and here’s why: at that distance, the bear could well be a speck of an iceberg in the distance. Or the beginnings of a cataract. I loved the idea of going out, but I loved the warmth of the dining room more. So until they announce it’s just a wee bit closer, I probably won’t make the trek! Still – I appreciated it, and aside from a handful of us who stayed behind, most people emptied out of the dining room for about half an hour to have a look.
After dinner, I took one last stroll around the open promenade on Deck 6 before returning to my suite. I was tired – mentally and physically. I felt spent. I felt old and worn. My singular thought was to go inside, shower, and go to bed in order to be up at 6:00 a.m. for our morning of Zodiac touring tomorrow.
When I opened the door, a strip of Moulin Rouge-esque lighting greeted me from floor level. Curious. So, like the moth to the flame, I followed the red LED road around the corner, down the hallway, and into the bedroom – where a small party was in progress!
Yes, a towel animal polar bear was living it up with two towel animal walruses. The room is bathed in red light, which snakes around the lamps and the bed itself. A small LED light mounted on the desk is projecting psychedelic shapes across the room and the party taking place on my bed.
I burst out laughing. Silversea may be luxury, yes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to have fun!