Cool memories


A cool story to take our minds of the sweltering heat

Remembering the Polar Bears on a Cruise to Svalbard

They may be nice to look at but they can be very dangerous 

By Hazel Johnson
True North Perspective
Hazel (Gulka) Johnson is the author of RV-ING and Other Adventures North of 60.  She lives in Ottawa and has published travel articles in the local media, as well as in several anthologies. She blogs at

Ottawa Canada — It's been a long, hot, dry summer, and I am reminiscing about some of my trips North – wish I were up there now. I realize that one of our reasons for often heading north in the summer was to avoid the 30 plus temperatures of Ottawa at this time of the year. Five of our nine trips North have been in the last six years – no wonder I'm feeling the heat this summer.

While I lounge in my air-conditioned home, news about the North keeps popping up in the newspapers and TV. Lately it has been about polar bears: first, declaring them a protected species; and just today I saw an article in the Citizen (Aug. 6) about a polar bear killing a student in a group camp in Svalbard, Norway, as the group slept in their tent. This was just 40 km from the town of Longyearbyen, that I fondly recall visiting on a cruise North we took in 2006. While the polar bears are beautiful animals, they are very dangerous; I've been lucky to see them close up, but from the protection of a ship.

In this article, I will reminisce back to our cruise in 2006 which my spouse and I took that started in Tromso, on the north coast of Norway, with a focus mostly on polar bears. From Tromso we headed north to go around the Svalbard Islands, still part of Norway, and that is about as close as you can get to the North Pole from a settled land. Our ship was the Explorer, which incidentally went down in the Antarctic region several years ago.

For the first day-and-a-half the sea was rough so few passengers were seen on deck; but lectures on what we were likely to see were well attended. Our first stop was on Bjornoya or Bear Island which was teeming with hundreds, perhaps thousands of guillemots; other birds present were kittiwakes, northern fulmars and thick-billed murres. This, no doubt, was bird heaven. The tundra was ablaze with the purple saxifrage as we visited the Bjornoya Radio and Meteorological station where nine people worked and ran it. This was done on a rotational 6-month period for it was deemed no one should live in this isolation for longer periods.

As we sailed further north the air temperature decreased, hovering around 2 to 0 degrees C. The original plan was to sail around the island of Spitsbergen, the largest of the Svalbard Islands, but there was too much ice cover and it was not possible; so the ship had to turn back. We would often hear a crunching growling sound as the ship ventured into ice; then the Captain would have to back up and try another route.

On one of our Zodiac trips to shore, we viewed a large number of walruses huddled together at the water's edge. We later took a Zodiac cruise near an old huge walrus; we were delighted to get such close-up pictures of these huge beasts. While we made a few other interesting shore excursions along the way, there is no doubt that the highlight of the cruise was coming across bears on ice floes. We were trying on free T-shirts for size that the company was giving each of us when the announcement of 'polar bears on ice floes' came though.

Everyone rushed on deck to view them; this was not the first call we had, but on each previous sighting, the bear would jump off the ice into the water and swim away.  This time, the mother bear with two cubs one-and-a-half years old, stayed on the ice floe as the ship cruised closer to them.  In fact with their noses turned up, they walked towards the ship, obviously smelling food — us. With the ice floe near to the ship, we all got excellent photos for the next five-ten minutes as the bears frolicked around. Eventually the mother convinced the cubs to come away.

The next afternoon we were just as lucky. In the morning we had attended a lecture on polar bears, and now we received another announcement; this time it was a mother with three six-month old cubs on a small ice-floe. We all rushed out to the starboard with warm jackets, and all you could hear was cameras clicking. We were told often enough that we must be quiet so as not to disturb the wild life. The mother bear was nervous as she looked for a place to take her cubs away, but the ice floe was small, and she finally dove into the water toward another floe with her babies following her. At this point the Captain sailed away so as not to disturb them any further.

The next morning as we were rounding the south coast of Spitsbergen we viewed a polar  bear on an ice floe dragging a bearded seal he had just killed, away from the ship, stopping to eat it now and then. While the bear was upset with the ship, he would not leave his breakfast. In the afternoon we sailed past a bunch of harp seals of various shades of color on an ice floe; one by one, they slid into the water.

By the time we reached Longyearbyen, a quaint town nestled in a valley, surrounded by mountains and water, and where the adventure cruise ended, the outside temperature was 5 degrees and sunny.

The next morning as we ate breakfast with a gentleman who lived there part-time, we mentioned seeing a man carrying a rifle and wondered how dangerous it was around here. He told us of a couple of incidents where people had been killed by a polar bear. One was about a guide who took a group for a hike on a shore excursion. Though they had seen a white object, they thought it was a stone. As they got closer the object suddenly moved and charged towards a passenger; the guide carrying a 22 pistol shot at the bear. The bear turned around and killed the guide though he shot a second time. Another man took the pistol and finally killed the bear. The lesson was, the guide should have been carrying a shot-gun.

These are sad incidents and we must respect the bears' territory. But with care, we can do both, as we did on our cruise to Spitsbergen. I'm enclosing three photos from that cruise.

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