We had been waiting quite a while to start this expedition, and our travellers had seen this trip cancelled at least four times due to covid travel restrictions! But I was dedicated and kept believing in it, as did our patient guests. It was going to be a whopping 14-day Svalbard trip organised by Vega Expeditions on MS Freya, so those who understand what this means know they should have been on that trip!
I had been monitoring the ice situation around Svalbard closely and knew we had to go southeast and across Storfjorden to take our chance near the islands of Barentsoya and Edgeoya. However, the weather and ice conditions weren’t favourable, and all the ships with shorter sailing schedules would never make it on time to spend a fair time in this far away location. But we were on a mission: to go out and explore as far and as long as possible. We had a very long trip ahead, my longest ever on a small ship like Freya and with a small group of only 12 photographers.
When we eventually made it through the partially ice-filled Freemansundet strait, we reached the edges of the ice floes in the early morning. As the sun started to rise higher, sea fog came up and limited our manoeuvrability. So, we decided to park on the ice and wait for better visibility. We had all the time in the world anyway, and it’s a wonderfully relaxing thing to do, to get stuck in the ice in the mysterious Arctic, surrounded by fog, far away from everything. You have time to contemplate on the bridge with a cup of coffee while staring into the void.
Later that morning, the fog cleared up slowly, and we could distinguish more distant piled-up ice floes again. It was then that PJ and I noticed her at the same time. A breathtaking view of a healthy Polar bear mother walking between the ice floes with two cubs, both about five months old! They were walking in our direction. What an exciting surprise, appearing like ghosts straight from the foggy surrounding!
We knew we had to act fast and quietly. A Polar bear usually keeps wandering on the ice, giving the ship a brief look, if interested at all. We warned everyone on board in a split second and told them to dress warm and bring all lenses. Always bring all lenses! That turned out to be quite essential because by the time we were out on the deck, the mother bear and cubs were determined to give us a closer look and were approaching quickly. What happened in the next fifteen minutes or so was heaven to the eyes. The relaxed bear allowed her cubs to walk very close around the ship, and we got the most amazing view of their behaviour and very young lives.
We all got stunning pictures, using all lenses from tele to wide-angle, which allowed us to include their icy environment. When the bears finally lost interest in the ship, we thought it was over and had to say goodbye to them. But the best was yet to come! They had barely turned their back on us when they decided to sit down and have a rest, but not before the mother bear nursed her cubs. And all this right in front of us! This incredible warming moment seemed to last forever. It made us all become silent, in awe of this exclusive nature show we witnessed.
Needless to say, our trip couldn’t go wrong anymore. And even as we had many more close encounters with Polar bears, our thoughts remained with this Polar bear mother and her newborn cubs, hoping they would make it through the challenging summer.