In the last 25 years I have visited more than 70 countries, but it is only in Longyearbyen – Svalbard – Norway where, in the hotel directory booklet, you will be able to read: “Please do not leave town without carrying a gun that you are able to operate”.
Wow, you might think… why should I want to visit such a violent place?
Once at the hotel reception you will understand a bit better, when in front of you, you will find a cabinet with a sign: “Please leave your guns in this cabinet: there are no polar bears inside the hotel”. In fact, in this archipelago, composed by nine big islands, North of the Arctic Circle, live more polar bears than human beings.
We land at the “international” airport in Longyearbyen in the middle of the night. To welcome us a polar bear… a stuffed one unfortunately or maybe fortunately as we don’t have any guns with us yet! A sad smile for the inglorious ending of this magnificent creature, but the big hope in the heart to see many more roaming free in the fjords. Outside the terminal the sun is shining. The midnight sun rises towards the end of April and its rays disappears at the end of October. Considering that the archipelago is located between 74 and 81 degrees North, the temperatures are mild with and average of +7 Celsius.
We spend the next day in the little village, inhabited by roughly 2500 people, taking care of the last minute errands before embarking the Akademik Vavilov, a Russian research vessel now used for polar expeditions, which we will call home for the next three weeks. It is 6pm when we leave port sailing the Isfjorden in the soft evening light. The adventure has started.
Still sleepy and with sticky eyes I open the curtains of our porthole. We are in Paradise… cruising in the Lilliehook fjord along the glacier that reflects in the calm waters. I quickly dress and in a trice I am on the outside deck. The fresh air on my face and the breeze in my hair, I smell the Arctic, I smell the ice… what a wonderful feeling.
After breakfast we are getting ready for our first zodiac cruise. All the equipment is ready and the excitement is growing high. Among million of little chips of ice, growlers and bergy bits we manage to get closer to the most majestic icebergs: Nature’s best sculptures. It is a feast for the eyes and the photographer’s imagination can go wild in this intricacy of shapes, texture and colors.
A roaring thunder followed by a huge calving brings us back to reality. The glacier is alive moving forward and producing tons of icebergs a day.
With bated breath we are now all starring at the glacier face with cameras ready, hoping for a new calving. No disappointment when right in front of us the magic happens, along with the thunder this time also a gust of clicks, an echo of wows but also in the back of my mind the sad reminder of climate change and the clear proof of a world that is literally crumbling.
After a few days among the superb fjords of the North West coast of Spitsbergen we are heading North passed the 80 degrees. We are at the dinner table when our expedition leader informs us about a polar bear spotting on a close by Island. Time to get ready for an evening excursion.
We approach the coast on our zodiacs at a very slow speed. There is a surreal atmosphere, between calmness and tension, excitement and fear. The polar bear is sleeping on a pure white snow ridge and as we are getting close, he doesn’t even open his eyes to acknowledge our presence. Its spotless shiny fur is glowing in the soft midnight sunshine and the blue sky is the perfect background. We couldn’t ask for a better situation.
We spend the next few hours observing this magnificent creature waking up, yawning, stretching, getting curious about our presence and then finally falling back asleep. We tip toed back to our ship ravished by the intensity of this magical moment and feeling privileged and blessed by Mother Nature’s generosity.
The script will repeat day after day, cruising and discovering the beauty that the fjord jealously hides among the perennial ice. Walruses and seals that sleep on the pack ice, polar bears hunting seals, joyful foxes playing close by, gulls, arctic terns, guillemots, little auks and puffins without forgetting the funny reindeers.
Despite the past mining and wildlife exploitation, today, luckily, 2/3 of the archipelago is protected and there are seven National Parks and twenty-three Natural Reserves. In the last forty years hunting has been severely regulated. Since 1973 polar bear hunt is prohibited, but despite the slow population increase, scientists are still very cautious due to the loss of habitat caused by climate change.