Mia had been very excited to get to Virgohamna. “Just getting to Svalbard felt like something that would never actually happen,” she confided in me. “And now, getting here, this far north (at 79º 38’ north), to this place I’ve read so much about, and with so much connection to Sweden, it’s just surreal.”
Her, James and I hiked up the steep slope overlooking the site for a birds-eye view of the place in it’s entirety before heading back to the anchored boat. There were walrus on the sandy point to the east we’d have to motor by on the way out of the anchorage, so James, Alex, Brian & Brady took the dinghy over on a mission ahead of us, while Karin, Mia, Kiril & I stayed back and would bring Isbjorn over to pick them up on the way out. I took a 30 minute nap while the others made tea.
As I was waking up, I heard Mia on the radio with Brian. Chris the expedition guide was over on the beach with the walrus too, and had informed our gang that another of his guides on the ship had spotted a polar bear mother and a cub on the island just behind where Isbjorn was anchored, walking along the beach to the south and just over the hill and out of site. A new mission.
We scurried on deck and hauled up the anchor while the dinghy crew launched off the beach, filled the engine with gas and began a long, slow motorboat ride to the south, where James had spotted the bears through his 400mm camera lens. The big black RIBs from the ship got a head start on our crew, but led the way to the south. The shoreline behind the anchorage was foul, so we had to make a long looping course out to deeper water before angling back in towards the shoreline. We too had spotted the bears in the binoculars. They were making steady progress along the rocky shoreline to the south, scavenging for food.
Eventually the bears found a long-dead seal carcass on the beach on the south end of a wide, shallow bay with little information on the chart. Our tiny dinghy nosed into the beach next to the big ship RIBs and the crew got a close-up look at the mother and cub picking on what was left of the seal. On Isbjorn, we gingerly nosed into the bay, Mia & Karin on the bow looking for rocks, Kiril filming. With 16 feet still under the keel, but no information on the chart, we crept ahead, letting the light northerly zephyr push us forward at a knot and a half or so. The bottom appeared sandy, with scattered kelp and no big rocks to speak of. The beach where the bears were was sand, so this boded well. To the east, a large foul area full of rocks stuck out into the bay, so we’d have to avoid this.
We managed to get Isbjorn almost all the way into the beach, dropping the anchor on a very short scope in 13 feet of water and letting the stern swing around towards the shoreline for a better view of the bears. The boat was only two-hundred feet off the beach at that point, and on the chart appeared almost as if we should have been aground. It was low tide too, so I knew we’d be okay to stay. With my 200mm camera lens we could get great photos right from the cockpit of the boat. Soon though, Brian and the dinghy gang came back to give us on the big boat the chance to get even close in with the dinghy. Despite all the commotion, the bears paid us no attention whatsoever. They were too busy surviving, as my mom would have said. Sadly, the little one did look on the skinny side (though the mother appeared healthy). Some of our photos had plastic garbage in them. Ugh.
Chris the Expedition Leader
Just as Brian brought the dinghy alongside to switch crews, Chris turned up in the big black ship RIB, alone.
“You guys want a ride in to the bear!?” He asked. With that, all seven of us, save for Brian, jumped aboard enthusiastically. Chris had returned his last guests to the ship and thought we might want to get a closer look at the bears.
“I’m not sure what my captain would say about this,” Chris mentioned, “but, ah, who cares! It’s fun to hang with you guys.”
With that, Chris cemented his A-OK status with the Isbjorn & Delos crews and totally changed our perspective on the cruise ship tourism that goes on up here. If most of the expedition leaders are as cool as Chris, it can’t be too bad.
Chris drove us into the beach where the bears were leaving behind the seal carcass and continuing to the southeast along the shoreline. In the distance, the big red schooner ‘Nooderlicht’ was steaming out from the Smeerenburgbreen glacier. Chris called them up on the VHF to inform them about the bears - another friendly gesture - and we continued paralleling the coast and watching the bears amble along the shoreline looking for their next meal.
They found it not much later in the form of an old whale carcass. It was mostly skeleton by that point. A few rib bones lay scattered in the shallows while the majority of the spine was on the beach, seagulls picking at the sinewy bits connecting the spinal bones. But adjacent to it was a large patch of blubber that must have survived the winter under the snowpack. Mama bear found it and directed her cub towards it, and they feasted while we watched from the RIB. To say it was an emotional experience would be an understatement. Just look at the photos. To be that close to nature, to the symbol of the Arctic itself...there’s no words.
Chris eventually returned us to Isbjorn before heading back to his ship. We gave him an Arctic crew patch, figuring he certainly earned it as an honorary Isbjorn crew member! Brian had kept anchor watch while we were gone, and had a fresh pot of coffee ready for us when we returned. The boat was fine, but on a short scope and a lee shore, so somebody had to stay back.
By then, all the RIBs had gone back to the ship, and even the red schooner ‘Nooderlicht’ had bugged off, anchoring off the walrus beach to the north. The bears remained at the whale blubber, alone. Brian, James, Karin & Kiril got back in the dinghy and anchored just off the beach and sat to observe the two bears in complete silence for an hour or so. The benefit for us cruisers of not being on a ship’s schedule.