In search of the polar bear’s kingdom and a lost story from Australian history

A mother polar bear and first season cub dine contentedly on whale flesh. Dead whales provide a food bounty that can last over a year. (AAP Image/Roderick Eime)

WE cautiously exit the Zodiac on the pebbly beach.

Ten at a time, we land on the beach, our guides already well ahead of us, scouting for sightings of the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore.

Three hundred and twenty kilometres north of the tip of Norway is the island of Spitsbergen, one of just a handful of the remaining polar bear hotspots in the world.

With a world population of this majestic mammal possibly as low as 20,000, there is a real urgency among adventure travellers to see this creature in its native habitat.

With climate change and poaching, some biologists suggest children being born today will not have this special privilege.

Clutching loaded rifles, our guides are 100 metres ahead of us making sure we don’t surprise any unseen or sleeping beasts.

Veteran Swedish polar researcher, Olle Melander, acts as tour guide for visitors to the Walter Wellman historic site on Spitsbergen. (AAP Image/Roderick Eime)

Regulations require guides to carry loaded rifles and flare guns, but in over a decade of operation, Aurora’s expedition staff have only ever fired two warning shots; a testament to good planning, careful observation and prompt action.

“If we sight a bear while we’re on land, our first call is to get everyone back on the Zodiac while the guides monitor the animal,” says Sue Werner, deputy expedition leader (EL) and daughter of Aurora co-founder, Margaret Werner, “if a curious animal approaches within 200 metres or so we fire a flare with a loud bang, but of course we never land if a bear is sighted beforehand.”

At 78 degrees N, we are firmly in the realm of the mighty polar bear, and our expedition, Aurora’s circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, is an outstanding success with almost twenty sightings, including three mother bears and cubs feeding on the last morsels of a whale carcass.

The wildlife catalogue extends to Arctic fox, walrus, reindeer, seals and a myriad of seabirds wheeling and squealing overhead.

A curious young walrus comes close to check out the photographer. (AAP Image/Roderick Eime)

On one occasion, we entertain several thousand tiny guillemots gathered around us with whistles. It’s hilarious when the entire throng whistles back on cue.

Humpback, minke, fin and even blue whales are regularly sighted in these frigid waters.

During the closing stages of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, explorers took balloons, airships and aircraft to Spitsbergen to take advantage of the high latitude to launch expeditions to the North Pole.

Byrd, Amundsen and Nobile were among them; the first definite arrival at the North Pole was made in 1926 by the airship Norge after it left the scientific outpost of Ny-Ålesund, the world’s most northerly permanent settlement.

There is a little known Australian connection with Spitsbergen too.

In 1928, the Adelaide-born adventurer, Captain George Hubert Wilkins, and US pilot, Lt. Ben Eielson, completed the first ever trans-polar flight.

Tourists aboard a Zodiac observe walrus diving for clams in the waters off Spitsbergen, Svalbard. (AAP Image/Roderick Eime)

After taking off from Barrow, Alaska, 20 hours and 3700 km later, the pair landed their single-engine Lockheed Vega amid a fierce snowstorm near Green Harbour (Grønfjorden) to the west of Longyearbyen.

For this feat and his previous work, he was knighted and known thereafter as Sir Hubert Wilkins.

Later that year, Wilkins and Eielson went south to conduct the first flights over the Antarctic.

Spitsbergen (translated from Dutch for sharp peaks) is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, 1800 kilometres north across the Barents Sea from Norway.

At the dizzying latitude of 80° Svalbard, by rights, should be encased in ice, but the warm Gulf Stream currents create an unusually temperate climate and summer air temperatures as high as 10°C are possible.

The landscape is bleak and rocky and characterised by vast glaciers, but embellished here and there with patches of rich green, thanks to bird droppings beneath the towering cliffs.

Delicate arctic wildflowers appear on the tundra afre the winter thaw.(AAP Image/Roderick Eime)

Foxes scamper about feeding on the many chicks that topple from the crowded ledges.

Bears also occasionally wander in when slippery bearded or ringed seals are scarce on the ice.

Our vessel, the 1750 ton 71m Polar Pioneer, may be at the smaller end of the world’s growing expedition fleet, but she’s a tough little customer.

Polar Pioneer (ex- Akademik Schuleykin)

Although not an icebreaker in the strictest sense, she’s sliced through light sheet ice beyond 81 degrees and bumped small bergs aside with ease.

Built in Finland for Russia in 1982, she’s comfortable, capable and an ideal vessel for the task.

There are numerous ship operators venturing into this far north wildlife wonderland, but few as well equipped and capable as Aurora’s Polar Pioneer.

Unlike some Antarctic oceans, the icy seas are not usually rough, so a vessel like this can capitalise on its small footprint and access every nook and cranny around the coast, slicing through thin ice when required.

Larger ships impose higher demands on the patience of passengers and the environment and seldom offer such enriching enhancements as sea kayaking, extended hikes, camping or even scuba diving under the ice.

Yet Spitsbergen is by no means the end or the beginning of Arctic adventure possibilities. Iceland and Greenland also offer scope to extend your northern experience with exciting volcanic action and Inuit encounters.

By the time we return to Longyearbyen for the busy turnaround day, we have ticked off all but a couple of species of rare whales as well as almost 20 polar bear sightings, some as close as 100m.

Svalbard, Norway.

The terms ‘life changing’ and ‘experiential’ are all too often tossed about to describe mediocre vacations.

The entrancing polar regions are where these type of voyages began and Spitsbergen is at the heart of it.

I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.


Sydney-based Aurora Expeditions operates regular voyages to Spitsbergen in July and August each year aboard the 54-passenger, ice-strengthened vessel, Polar Pioneer.
Options include kayaking and ice diving.

For full itineraries and bookings, phone 1800 637 688 or visit the website at