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By Barnaby Davies 

At 80 degrees north, aboard the Professor Molchanov, nobody spoke. The 25-year-old hull creaked in the ice. Camera shutters whirred. Expedition staff and passengers alike were spellbound. A gargantuan male polar bear stood, flat-footed, only a few feet beneath us on the Norwegian pack-ice. Had I leant just a little further over the ship’s rail, we could have shaken hands. Or rather, I could have lost my video camera and the arm holding it.

The remote Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, meaning “Cold Coast,” is home to the world’s most northerly town, Ny Alesund. If you have a hankering for northern adventures, this is as good as it gets. After all, here at the 79th parallel, you are faced with superlatives at every turn: the world’s most northerly post office, earth’s northernmost historical train, the world’s most northerly ‘tagged’ fox family …

Svalbard’s main island is called Spitsbergen, meaning “Pointed Mountains,” and provides the only international airport.

On arrival, my plane descended around midnight through low cloud into a fairytale setting. Jagged peaks were draped in snow blankets, and the midnight sun pierced through, blushing the fjord apricot. From early April to mid-September there is no night here, and from April 19 to August 23, the sun won’t even touch the horizon.

The capital settlement of Longyearbyen, housing approximately 1,800 people, is named after John Longyear, one of the Arctic Coal Company’s founders from 1906. As there are only a handful of places to stay, the shuttle bus from the airport calls at every single hotel and hostel. Two o’clock in the morning saw a remarkable amount of cheerful bustle: travellers were checking out of dormitories, staff were watching television, residents and tourists were out walking. The natural light is simply fantastic at this latitude.

I was booked on a mid-August departure on Oceanwide Expedition’s ten-day circumnavigation around Spitsbergen. The ex-research vessel, called the Professor Molchanov, was my new home away from home. Built for the Hydrometeorology Institute in Murmansk, Russia, and painted blue, it measures a shade over 71 meters long.  

Each morning, at an unsociable hour for a holiday, Troels Jacobsen, our expedition leader, brusquely awakened us in our heavily-curtained cabins. Actually, I grew to love the Tannoy bursting into life at 7 every morning with his undulating Danish dialect. Jacobsen authoritatively quoted our longitude and latitude and the outside temperature, and urged us to get out on deck immediately to witness the stunning vistas. Then, each day, we would glide to an anchoring spot, guzzle more coffee with a buffet breakfast downstairs, and launch the rubber Zodiacs.

The first morning yielded a bearded seal hauled out on an ice floe, a common sight near glacier fronts. The twitchers among us photographed wading barnacle geese while an arctic fox ran along the hillside with a kittiwake chick in its mouth.

Distracted by the beauty of the glacier Fjortendebreen from the Zodiacs, we almost missed our first polar bear sighting. He was walking along the shore, close to a beach full of seabirds that we’d just visited..Kittiwakes, Atlantic puffins and purple sandpipers brought our bird species count to seven for the morning.

We then arrived in Ny Alesund, the closest town to the North Pole except for a few military bases. Our group madly rushed to send postcards from the post office, to buy the world’s most northerly socks and hats sporting “79 degrees north”, and to get that important stamp proving we’d set foot here. There is a rubber stamp in the post office lobby, where you can ruin a passport page yourself, and the one facing it, with too much ink.

A pre-landing brief in the Molchanov’s cosy bar brought home the very real danger bears pose to humans. Jacobsen wielded a rifle as he spoke. There were three rifles in all, one for each staff member. “Always be within a hundred feet of a gun on land, and no more than twenty people to each gun,” he stated seriously. “I really REALLY don’t want to shoot a bear,” repeated Jacobsen for the umpteenth time. He was adamant that he would never allow a situation to develop where killing a bear was an option; he remained vigilant on land at all times.

If a bear was on an island we’d planned to visit, we altered our itinerary. This happened once, but a little too late — we were already on the island. A lumbering splodge was visible a kilometer or so away on the opposite shore, but moving steadily in our direction. We moved swiftly back to our landing site for an evacuation back to the ship, then recounted, over a stiff drink, how we’d almost been eaten.

Bearwise, the highlight came on day six, hovering beneath the eightieth parallel. Jacobsen’s scheduled lecture on the “ice bear,” as the Europeans say, rapidly dissipated when the real thing was spotted from the bridge. I will never fathom how our Russian captain can see a white bear, a mile away, in an icy seascape of an eye-crossingly similar colour. But he did, and right on cue …

The bear emerged from a little ice nook and approached curiously, but not cautiously. After sniffing the hull, jumping back just briefly when a Sysselman aircraft flew low overhead, he padded round to the ship’s stern. Poorly dressed passengers were turning a bluish colour by now but nobody wanted to go inside. You could tell this was unusual, and spectacular, because our guides were shaking their heads with incredulity, quite clearly amazed.

We lay heaped on top of each other, hanging over the rail, as the bear seemed to make eye contact. He then raised himself onto his hind legs. Just two meters beneath me now, I could see the striations in his claws, and the individual hairs in his fur. The ice compacting under his paws was the only sound. I gazed into his stippled dark eyes again, pools of gleaming inquisitiveness.

Unbelievably, that same evening, at 11:45pm, the ship’s intercom announced another sighting — a mother with a cub. We shivered in the nighttime sun as the duo plodded over the bluish ice ridges, leaping from floe to floe. We watched, mesmerised, as the cub miscalculated the jumps, plunging its plump rump into the freezing water off the starboard side. It remained unfazed — the thick insulation of blubber means that the polar bear can endure down to -40ºC without increasing its metabolic rate.

Having reached our most northerly point of 80’32” it was all downhill now. Well, south anyway. With flatulent walruses, Russian trappers’ huts, and calving glaciers still to visit — to name just a few points of interest — the trip was far from over.

On our next-to-last evening, deep in the fjord system of Hornsund, Jacobsen radioed all five Zodiacs to cut the engines. We floated unspeaking, simply appreciating the swishing and popping of the glacial ice surrounding us. We were in the High Arctic, at the top of the world, and I didn’t want to leave. This northern realm of the world’s largest carnivore had me under its spell. Then the silence was shattered, and a Russian-style knees-up — the world’s most northerly barbecue, aboard the Professor Molchanov — got under way.

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