Snowy landscapes in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway
17 July, 20199 minute read

Travel diary: Spitsbergen & polar bears

Day 1: Arrival in Longyearbyen

On the 3-hour flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen - home to just over 2,000 people - I am lucky that the weather is clear and my window seat provides super views of the Norwegian coastline, before flying over the Barents Sea. After a while, land comes into view out of the plane’s window... and it's a spectacular sight!

The approach to Longyearbyen is over an icy glacial landscape, with snow-capped mountains and a stunning river delta. It's midnight, yet the ‘Midnight Sun’ is shining brightly. I reflect that a mere six hours after leaving a sweltering London, I have arrived in the remote Polar North!

Day 2: Longyearbyen sightseeing, embarking MS Nordstjernen to Barentsburg

Our Spitsbergen hotel is the rendezvous for passengers boarding the ship and we meet this morning, all talking excitedly about our forthcoming voyage and the chances of spotting polar bears! A tour of Longyearbyen includes a small art gallery; a visit to the town boundary for a photo beside the polar bear warning sign; and a visit to the excellent Svalbard Museum. Then, the nearby dock is our embarkation point for Ms Nordstjernen - a ship with a colourful history, dating back 60 years. Arriving in my small cabin, I remember that my sleeping compartment is just that and free time is much better spent on deck marvelling at the views, or in the ship’s public areas - the ship oozes character, history and charm and the lounges and bar area on Deck 2 have plenty of comfortable seating, original artwork, polished wood and brass fittings which hint at a bygone era of coastal cruising.

Later, we arrive at the small mining settlement of Barentsburg - a Russian settlement, with a population of just 400. A local guide takes us into the slightly eerie surroundings of what appears to be a pretty deserted town. "Follow me, my dear friends", he instructs as we walk through the small town, passing monuments to Lenin and Communist Party slogans harking back to Soviet days. A folklore show is put on by our guide and mine workers, with traditional song and dance.

Day 3: Magdalenefjord

I awake and go out on deck to beautiful bright sunshine - the landscape is majestic as we pass by a large glacier. Sailing into Magdalenefjorden, a group of walruses are spotted swimming close to the ship as if to say “good morning”. Magdalenefjorden is one of the best known and beautiful fjords on Spitsbergen, with its jagged mountains.

We board the Polarcirkel boat for a visit ashore and zoom off for a tour of Gravneset - a former 17th century whaling station. Magne, our guide leads a group of us around. We walk on, crossing the open tundra where there are several Arctic terns nesting - the males dive bomb us to warn us away from their nests! In the distance, a large glacier looms and can be heard 'grunting' and 'roaring' as ice carves from its base and interior.

The sun continues to shine and it's getting pretty warm, as Magne spots a walrus on the far side of the bay. Excitedly we reach for our binoculars and sure enough, there he is sunbathing on a beach, with two more playing in the sea! Small icebergs from the glacier fill the bay and it's an enchanting scene.

We return back towards the boat with some amazing photo opportunities on the way, then Magne asks “anyone want to go for an Arctic swim?”…Sounds like too good an opportunity to miss... I charge in to the water like a fool and dive under. It's 4°C. My breath is completely taken away and I frantically doggy- paddle my way back to the beach. One of the older Scandinavian chaps in the group remarks “if it wasn't for foolish acts, we wouldn't learn anything”.

We enter the Smeerenburg glacial bay with lots and lots of floating ice and I see one has a seal sunbathing on it. Our Polarcirkel boat zig-zags through the ice to get close to the glacier. The ice structure occasionally ‘rumbles’ and cracks and as you approach it, you feel incredibly small. There are kittiwakes circling and feeding by an ice cave and the glacier has a blue hue where ice has recently broken off. There is a ‘crack’ and more ice splashes into the sea about 100 yards from us. Leaving the bay, an announcement is made that a pod of white beluga whales has been spotted, and we rush to the front of the deck. The white backs of the whales pop in and out of the water as they swim across the fiord in front of our ship. What a wonderful view!

Day 4: Texas Bar & ‘hot springs’

Texas Bar is the first landing site this morning - a former 19th century Dutch trappers hut. The waters are really calm and there is not a breath of wind. The silence is beautiful, broken only by calls from the gulls on the cliffs nearby.

Back on board there is suddenly, an announcement from the bridge - "Polar Bear!"…all of us freeze with excitement… "We have spotted a polar bear with her cub on the island ahead. For the best view, make your way to the front of the ship, the captain will take us a little closer".

Eyes widen and everyone peers through binoculars, snapping shots through telephoto lenses. Sure enough, there on the little island ahead of us, a mother and her cub are ambling along. The captain continues to skilfully manoeuvre closer to give us a great view but not so close as to disturb them. Later this afternoon, we arrive in Bockfjorden to see some of the very few ‘hot springs’ on Spitsbergen.

As we sail northwards, we cross the fabled ‘80th parallel’ and know that we are one of just a handful of people in the world this far north at this time. Sparkling wine is served on deck and as we chink glasses, the captain sounds the horn in celebration. An announcement is made… "50 walruses up ahead on the island!"…we empty glasses and rush forwards. There, Marta, the guide, gives a humorous talk on walruses and this particular group of males that inhabit the island. "If you were to kiss one, it would probably suck your brains out", she randomly remarks in a deadpan , typically Norwegian-style, before going on to explain how walruses feed on the mussels by sucking out the flesh from the shells.

Day 5: Ny-Alesund & 14th July Bay

We awake to views of Blomstrand Glacier and I realise that I’ve quickly become used to the beautiful Arctic scenery out of the window, as I am no longer surprised to see little icebergs floating past the window! We visit the world’s northernmost community at the township of Ny- Ålesund - an important international research centre with 15 nations basing their geological, biological and glacial research here.

As we leave, the captain announces a route change, due to poor landing conditions at our planned destination - we go to a new destination called 14th of July Bay. As we approach, a fresh announcement is made…“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are sorry but we need to abort our landing because of a polar bear on our landing site!” Once more, everyone rushes on deck and sure enough a large bear is wandering along the shore in front of us, remaining long enough in view for all to get some more memorable photos.

Later, we sail south, towards Longyearbyen. A Farewell gathering is held by the captain, crew and guides, with certificates given out to ‘the true heroes that took a swim in the chilly arctic waters’ - a proud moment indeed. 

And so the voyage ends. At 1am we arrive back in Longyearbyen in broad daylight, disembark and are taken on the short transfer to the tiny airport. As I stroll across the tarmac to board our plane, I reflect on what has been a thoroughly enjoyable short adventure in the Arctic.

Rob Stapley sits on a RIB boat while exploring Norway's Svalbard archipelago

Tempted to explore Spitsbergen for yourself? Take a look at our 'Spitsbergen - In the Realm of the Polar Bear' cruise.

Image of blog author Rob Stapley

Rob has been with Titan for 15 years, and over that time he has experienced a variety of roles in the product team, covering Canada, Northern Europe and River Cruising, while he is currently responsible for Titan’s Ocean Cruise itineraries.

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