The polar bear is sizing us up.
We’re close enough to see the rise and fall of her shoulder blades as she paces before her trophy, a seal she’s only just pulled from below the ice. There’s steam spiraling from her nostrils, and she’s breathing so heavily we can see the inky blueness of her tongue—it took a lot of work to ambush the pinniped, and she’s tired. But more importantly, she’s hungry, and she’s wondering if she’ll have to defend her supper.
Ultimately she decides the gaggle of humans standing on the ship’s bow before her, frantically clicking away with camera shutters, pose no threat and tucks into her meal.
Once memory cards fill and the subzero temps prove to be too much, my travel companions and I retreat inside to find the warm embrace of a hot toddy. We’re aboard Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Resolution for a 10-day sailing around Svalbard, a clutch of islands halfway between Norway and the North Pole, well inside the Arctic Circle. It’s mid-April, making this the earliest expedition (by more than a month) around the archipelago that Lindblad—or any cruise company, for that matter—has ever done. These quiet, rare moments with one of the estimated 3,000 polar bears that call this part of the High Arctic home are why we’ve come.
There’s no set plan for the week other than to look for what expedition leader Bud Lehnhausen, who has been leading trips to Svalbard since the 1980s, called “little butter balls” on the mosaic of broken sea ice off the coast, where the bears prefer to hunt. For safety reasons (polar bears are the only species of bear that will actively stalk humans), we’ll spend much of our trip aboard the ship. (We do get off the vessel one particularly memorable day to watch a stubby-legged subspecies of silver-furred reindeers playing what one can only call reindeer games.)
For much of the week, I find myself on the bridge—aka the ship’s control center, where the captain and officers man the vessel—which on Lindblad sailings is open to everyone, 24 hours a day. I chat often with Captain Heidi Norling and scan the horizon with a pair of borrowed binoculars. We’re more than 600 miles north of Norway and at a higher latitude than everywhere but some of Greenland and part of Canada’s Nunavut territory, so it’s still firmly winter here—most of the mountains were buried in meringue-like snow, though streaks of rock the color of misty midnight occasionally peeked out. (The color palette this time of the year extends only from pearl to smoke, though visitors in July will see wildflowers and emerald hills.)
Compared to polar bears, seals and walrus were easier to find—they appeared in the distance of the crisp white landscape like smudgy letters on a page. With each sighting, guests and crew dash onto the deck for a better view before coming back in with eyelashes rimmed in frost. Birds are the readiest to spot—they often fly in the ship’s wake, like it’s the lead bird in their V-formation. One afternoon, Captain Norling parallel parks the vessel near a vertical rock face dandruffed with thousands of Brunnich’s guillemots, a black-and-white bird that breeds in colonies on jagged cliffs. For more than an hour, we sit spellbound in the Observation Lounge, sipping coffee and watching out the floor-to-ceiling windows as clouds of birds swoop and dance around the vessel.
Because it’s an expedition sailing, the Resolution doesn’t pull into ports, except for Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard at about 2,500 year-round human residents, for embarkation and disembarkation. Rather, the ship explores the area, cruising where it can with its 407-foot length, as dictated by the ice and weather conditions. The eight-story ship can accommodate 126 passengers (with most of the rooms being suites with balconies) and has two dining rooms, a bar, a spa with two outdoor hot tubs, a gym, and a library. There are also two glass igloos on the stern, outfitted with hot water bottle–warmed beds and eye masks for those brave enough to spend the night atop the ship.
Most evenings, the staff naturalists give presentations on the landscape and animals before dinner. During many of those evenings, one of the topics is the King of the Arctic: the polar bear.
The Latin name, ursus maritimus, means bear of the sea, though bear of the ice might be more appropriate, as the frozen fields are where they spend most of their time—it is both their highway system and their hunting grounds. And it’s disappearing rapidly.
While the bears are the marquee cast members, a more prominent presence is stealing the show.
Part of the reason we’re able to come so early is that the Resolution, which launched in late 2021, was purpose-built to navigate the icy polar regions. But the bigger reason—the elephant (seal) in the room—is climate change. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the Earth, and the effects of those rising temperatures on Svalbard is a constant topic of conversation over the course of the week.
During one nightly briefing, Sven Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions and one of AFAR’s 2018 Travel Vanguard winners, shared that he’d been coming to Svalbard since 1973. Considered one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas, Svalbard’s electric blue ice fields (more than 60 percent of Svalbard is covered by glaciers), dizzying fjords, and raw landscapes provide the backdrop for a sixth of the world’s remaining polar bears, as well as other creatures like the Arctic fox, bearded seal, and Svalbard reindeer. In the summer months, the sun never sets, but rather hangs low on the horizon, so the “golden hour” lasts all day. In the winter, the sun doesn’t rise for five months, but on clear nights the northern lights pirouette across the sky.
Decades ago, the earliest they could visit was July, because this part of the Arctic Ocean was frozen over. Now, most of the sea ice has broken up or melted by May or June—if they can find any at all. And the ice isn’t important only to the bears. It’s the platform where all other systems in the Arctic start. The microorganisms that feed the fish grow there—as the ice diminishes, so do the fish populations. In turn, it means fewer seals and fewer polar bears. Hunting polar bears has been illegal since 1973, but the bears aren’t immune to other problems brought on by humans elsewhere on the planet.
Though Svalbard’s landscape—largely devoid of human life or infrastructure, marked only by the prints of Arctic animals and the wind over the snow—seems rough and rugged, it’s incredibly fragile. And while the Arctic can feel like the outer rim of the globe, almost lunar in its starkness, it’s intimately connected to the rest of the world. The consequences of what happens here reverberate throughout the globe. The ice is an important part of what keeps the Earth cool—it reflects the sun’s energy better than land or water does. As it melts (and flows into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise, which lead to flooding and habitat loss), the Earth absorbs more energy from the sun, thus heating up faster.
Yes, tourism is part of the problem—an estimated 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from tourism each year, according to Sustainable Travel International. But in cases like this—where travelers can see firsthand how delicate the balance has become—it may also be a benefit to conservation. The visitors able to witness the challenges the polar bears, reindeer, and other denizens of the High Arctic face may come home with a new appreciation for the planet, says Lindblad.
“I think it’s incredibly important that people have the opportunity to see these places, learn about them, and develop a sense of reverence and importance for their existence,” Sven Lindblad tells the cruisers over dinner one night. (He’s not on every sailing but was on this one because it was the earliest his company had ever gone to Svalbard.) “The goal is to show people the world, create wonder, and inspire them to change.”
The experience crystallized for me one afternoon while zooming between shimmering, bobbing bits of ice on a Zodiac. While I lifted my camera to capture a walrus (a species whose population has rebounded in recent decades due to new protections that ban hunting) perched on the edge of an iceberg, I could hear a nearby millennia-old glacier seem to groan in protest. As I turned to look, great chunks of ice calved from its face.