Venture into the breathtaking, fragile realm of the polar bear.
Pristine landscapes flank Magdalenafjord, an 8km-long fjord that runs through the Svalbard islands
Svalbard is the most remote of the Arctic Circle’s wildernesses, a frozen archipelago between Greenland and Russia where polar bears outnumber residents. It is tourism’s final frontier and a place at the limits of human endurance; to journey here is to follow in the footsteps of Roald Amundsen and other legendary explorers, who saw a stark, dangerous beauty in this unforgiving landscape of ice.
Svalbard is also a haunted region of ghost towns and long-abandoned settlements. The islands were discovered in 1596 and used for hunting by the Dutch and English, who slaughtered whales, bears and walruses to near extinction. The discovery of coal drew more adventurers, but almost all the mines that used to line the fjords have been closed down. This is now the kingdom of the polar bear.
Many of those who visit Svalbard today—the most northerly permanently inhabited place in the world, just 1,300km from the Pole itself—hope to see the bears, although searching for these elusive creatures is forbidden. Still, everyone is guaranteed one sighting: The arrivals hall at the tiny local airport is dominated by a gigantic polar bear, stuffed and forever towering astride the baggage carousel. It’s the first of many memorable Instagram moments.
(From top) The colourful houses of Longyearbyen, a small coal-mining town on Spitsbergen Island. A polar bear and her cub on an ice floe. The sleek interior of Isfjord Radio, a hotel located at the edge of Svalbard’s west coast.
We land on Svalbard’s largest island, Spitsbergen, having flown through the night and back into light—at least, in the months of the midnight sun, when the plane from mainland Norway takes off in darkness and lands at 1am in what seems to be day. It’s deeply unsettling. The sun doesn’t go down between April and August; from November to January, it doesn’t rise and the temperature plummets to -35 deg C. But we arrive during polar summer, with the fjords unfrozen, and shaggy, stumpy-legged reindeers wandering along the road between airport and town.
We hop on a local bus and take a short ride to our first stop, passing the Global Seed Vault almost hidden underneath a snow-capped hill. When its collection is complete, should environmental catastrophe occur, every plant species will be here, looked after by scientists deep beneath the ground. Svalbard is one of the world’s leading centres for climate studies; it’s also among the best-protected ecosystems, with seven national parks and 23 nature reserves covering most of the islands. Still, this is a fragile place, and rising sea temperatures mean the ice pack is shrinking, sending polar bears further north each year. Following an initiative started in the Antarctic, only small boats are now allowed to travel up the fjords, not cruise ships, limiting tourism to more sustainable levels.
“Sustainability” is a word you hear often in Svalbard. In this domain of tundra, glacier, mountain and fjord, the environment is everything; it demands love, respect and protection. It’s also uniquely challenging: Signs warning of the dangers posed by polar bears can be found at every edge of Long yearbyen, the small town that is Svalbard’s capital, and nobody leaves home without a rifle and a flare gun. There’s little infrastructure beyond 50km of road, no hospitals, and the cemetery stopped being used decades ago, as the permafrost returns bodies to the surface. The old have to move away and no births are allowed here either. Curiously, there are also no cats (to protect the native birdlife). But it’s bleakly beautiful, full of colourful wooden houses raised on stilts against the snowfall, feeling like a frontier town despite its handful of shops and hotels.
From top: Longyearbyen’s colourful homes house its 2,400 population—Svalbard’s largest settlement. Wild Svalbard reindeers. An orca’s fin breaks the surface of frigid Arctic waters
We stay at the most environmentally conscious place of all: Basecamp Hotel, one of five properties run by Basecamp Explorer in Svalbard. The responsible-tourism business, which also has bases in Kenya, plants a tree for every visitor to Svalbard in efforts to offset its carbon footprint. The lodge looks like an authentic trapper’s cabin, lined inside with driftwood and sealskin. There’s no TV, but Wi-Fi is available and a board displays recent polar bear sightings. The tourist office across the road offers bikes to visit husky kennels on the other side of town, while the pub next door serves up whale burgers.
We move on the next morning to another Basecamp property: Isfjord Radio, a former Cold War spy station turned boutique hotel, the most secluded in the Arctic, far from civilisation and without road access. In winter, you arrive by husky sled or snowmobile, a journey that can take days. In summer, you cross the fjord for several hours by inflatable boat. This, in itself, is no mean feat: Dressed in a survival suit (minutes in the water will kill, such is the cold) and sitting on a rubber bench, open to the elements and thrown around in the waves, it’s both thrilling and terrifying. Tiny puffins bounce alongside us, while we look out for whales. The remains of trapper huts crumble along clifftops, a testament to lost dreams.
From top: The Northern Lights play in the Spitsbergen sky. A curious polar bear sniffs the air. Nordenskiöldbreen, also known as the Nordenskiöld Glacier. Global warming and rising sea temperatures have caused the ice pack to shrink.
You can’t leave the boat at Isfjord without a guide carrying a rifle; polar bears wander through here at will. We see paw prints across the beach, but nothing more; there are walruses, though, fat and noisy, wallowing on rocks. Arctic foxes scamper around, their coats already turning white in preparation for winter. We watch a school of creamy-coloured beluga whales glide past. Some of us take the Arctic plunge and dive from the sauna into the sea (you get a certiﬁcate afterwards). For the rest, it’s reindeer steaks and red wine, with the promise of a boat trip to look for bears the next day. Alas, the weather doesn’t allow it; the wind is too strong and the sea, too rough.
The following day though, due to return to Longyearbyen, we beg to try. With survival suits zipped to the chin, salt spray breaking over the boat, we head towards the Esmark glacier, its edges coloured azure and aquamarine in the shifting light. As we steer up the inlet, something appears in front of the boat. It’s a polar bear, a large male, sleek and swimming in our direction. Our guide reverses the boat, creating a safe space between us. The bear rolls onto its back, ﬂoating, watchful. Our iPhones ﬂash, again and again.
Journeying to the edge of the world is an unparalleled experience. Seeing a polar bear—the reason to be there, the point and purpose—is strangely moving, but also less important than it had seemed. The awe of this unconquerable landscape, the raw beauty of Svalbard—these are the things you don’t forget.
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PHOTOGRAPHY: GETTY IMAGES; 123RF