Taking the plunge near the North Pole
Our Zodiac driver Joel cuts the engine and we drift noiselessly on what – to our untrained eyes – appears to be an empty-looking surface of glassy water off the remote island of Nordaustlandet. Suddenly a glistening dark brown head breaks through the surface and Joel’s gimlet vision rewards us with our first glimpse of a mighty walrus.
Seconds later three more appear, this time much closer to our inflatable craft, providing an unforgettable close-up view of their huge trademark tusks and whiskers. We reach a sunny bay on the isle in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago to find hundreds more basking on the shore in a vast blubbery mass. A huge male, probably weighing almost 300 stone, looks up and his deep gruff bark breaks the silence. It’s another extraordinary moment in a cruise deep into the Arctic wilderness following in the wake of great explorers who set out to discover the North Pole.
There had already been plenty of excitement the evening before as we sat down to our second dinner on board G Expedition and started to get to know our fellow shipmates. Nobody could have predicted the unforgettable treat that about to be served up between the main course and dessert when the PA system interrupted the convivial chit-chat with the announcement: “This is your expedition leader Sarah speaking; our captain has seen our first polar bear at 2 o’clock”.
For those of us, including me, who had already forgotten the ship’s bow denoted 12 on the wildlife spotting clock face we didn’t have to worry about missing out. We simply followed fellow diners who downed knives and forks with a clatter, left half-finished meals at the table and grabbed cameras and binoculars before dashing to the starboard side of the ship. On the shoreline was the distant but unmistakable outline of a polar bear ambling at a leisurely pace close to the water’s edge.
At the start of the week, after a flight of less than three hours from Oslo, we had sailed out of Longyearbyen, the capital of the island of Spitsbergen and one of the most northernmost inhabited areas in the world. Spitsbergen is the largest island in the 23,561 square mile Norwegian Svalbard archipelago first mentioned in Icelandic texts in 1194 and referred to as the ‘land of cold coasts’. With a population of 2,000 respectively drawn by wild landscapes and coal mining industry established in 1906 by American John Longyear, the town has a handful of sights such as the evocative North Pole Expedition Museum.
For much of the year this is a harsh, inhospitable and inaccessible landscape to all but the incredible species of wildlife, flora and fauna that have evolved and adapted to make it their home. The most remarkable is the polar bear, descended from brown bears trapped in Siberia during the last Ice Age, and now equipped with hollow hair that acts as an insulating layer and a metabolism that can be slowed to cope with long periods without food. However, the summertime provides a window of opportunity for less well-equipped mortals to discover this surprisingly diverse region where thawing ice floes and frozen landscapes make way for plant-rich tundra and the chance to experience some of Mother Nature’s most incredible spectacles such as close-up views of glaciers formed thousands of years ago.
One morning our sturdy inflatable craft took us to the towering Monaco glacier, named after Duke Albert I of Monaco who led expeditions that first mapped the ice field in 1906. Around three miles wide we witnessed the awe-inspiring phenomenon of “calving” where giant shards of the ice wall crack with a thunderous roar and fall into the water, the resulting waves making our Zodiac bob up and down. Alongside the boat chunks of diamond-clear floating ice made popping sounds as trapped air escaped. Aside from a couple of mornings, when an ethereal mist surrounded G Expedition, all these marvels were set against a backdrop of lapis-blue water and dazzling skies.
By the end of our journey we saw eight bears in total, variously snoozing halfway up steep slopes, padding next to the water’s edge and, most memorably, standing majestically on a rocky outcrop surveying the horizon. And while polar bears might be the undisputed Arctic kings there are numerous things to see and each day brought something new. At Gravnesodden the sombre stones of a whalers’ graveyard provided a stark reminder of the past and on the edge of the Liefdefjord we stepped into a wooden hut bearing the improbable name Texas Bar which was built in 1927 as a shelter by a Norwegian hunter.
One afternoon there was the opportunity for the brave (or mad) to take the ‘polar plunge’ and dash down an Arctic beach for a dip. I can vouch for the fact it was truly bracing and the shot of fiery aquavit afterwards was very welcome.
As we reached the furthest point of our voyage, just under 500 miles from the North Pole, the ship’s sturdy hull crunched through a magical seascape carpeted with ice before we turned back for Longyearbyen.
Our time aboard was divided between insightful lectures by members of the expedition team, relaxing in the lounge or library and hearty meals followed by a nightcap in the cosy Polar Bear Pub at the back of the ship where the long summer nights meant it was still light by the time we headed back to our cabins.
All too soon it was time for our last toast in the Arctic Circle, the most northerly of the five major rings of latitude marking maps of the earth. It is one of the furthest corners of the globe and an incredible destination for an experience of a lifetime.
But the memories lived on, and a week after returning home I was able to download the full expedition log charting our adventure. It included a personalised polar plunge certificate bearing the words: “This certifies that on a sudden crazy impulse, probably caused by an acute bout of polar madness, Jeannine Williamson entered the invigorating waters of the Arctic Ocean when the observed water temperature registered 5°C. What a thrilling, if chilly, memento!
Tel: +44 (0)344 272 2060
Number of Facilities on Board: One Restaurant
Number of Cabins: 59 cabins and suites, Wi-Fi available for a fee.
Price Band: Low to medium
Insider Tip: Don’t buy or bring your own bulky anoraks. All passengers are kitted out with high-performance parkas which you get to keep at the end of the sailing. If you return on subsequent expeditions, you’ll get a discount on the fare for re-using the G Adventures parka.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
Factfile: G Adventures offers the seven-night Realm of the Polar Bear itinerary from June to August 2019 from £2,519, including all meals and snacks on the ship, Zodiac cruises, shore excursions and on-board cultural programme. Longer Arctic expeditions are also available. Visit their website for further information.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of G Adventures