When I tried to explain to my mother where I was going, I pointed to the pivot on the globe. You know, the one on top, that holds the metal to the sphere. My destination was 79° North, the Svalbard archipelago of Norway: home to the ‘northernmost’ of, well, everything: churches, hotels, supermarkets, and even a bust of Lenin.
Like the moon, the North Pole was a place many vied to reach first. Several nations, hundreds of explorers, and many a foolhardy expedition later, no one can really tell who got there first. Was it Robert Peary, or Frederick Albert Cook, or Matthew Alexander Henson? The specifics didn’t matter, because it was my first time to the North Pole. That is not a sentence you get to say very often.
It was my first experience on a boat for 13 days, in sub-zero temperatures and under the 24-hour sun. These are ‘firsts’ that can mess up the brain, despite prior preparation. The days leading up to my journey were spent studying every aspect of this frigid island group. In order, these are some facts I came across: it is prohibited to die in Svalbard, since the permafrost preserves everything, including your germs. The local graveyard stopped burials over 70 years ago. Another ban is on cats, who threaten the population of Arctic birds there. Svalbard also has more polar bears than people (3,000 against 2,500). This seems quite terrifying if you (dare to) visit in winter, and decide to take a stroll in the darkness, when the sun never rises.
We set out during the blazing Indian summer, though, when there is constant wintery sunlight for four months. Our journey began in Longyearbyen: a small coal miner’s town and Svalbard’s largest settlement. It features cafés, bars, museums, hotels, schools and a church. I was surprised to notice that the streets there had no names, only numbers, and counted more snowmobiles than cars. I was briefly informed about the area’s history. Svalbard is a visa-free zone thanks to an international treaty, and citizens from 46 signatory countries can live and work on the archipelago. However, the town was originally established (and is still named after) by an American, John Longyear, in 1906. He set up the Arctic Coal Company as well as a mining operation hiring 500 people.
Once snug in my hotel room, I watched Longyearbyen’s daily affairs: children cycling to school, mothers dropping off little ones, people taking their huskies for a walk, endemic reindeer grazing on varied vegetation, and friends catching up for locally-brewed beer. These were all everyday activities, but I felt like I was in the opening scene of a film; where everything looks plain in the establishing shot, but wonders soon unfurl.
A drive through Longyearbyen finishes very fast. At one end of the town, on the outskirts, is an unusual sight—a large farm of satellites trying to pick up signals from the ‘beyond’. My sense of the normal about this place—the Svalbard Satellite Station— vanishes at the sight of these 31 antennas spread across acres. I imagined people clocking long hours, since it is the station providing the highest number of satellite ground services in the world. On a nearby island called Spitsbergen is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that preserves over one million seeds 400 feet below the ground. In case of a doomsday scenario playing out, it is here that humanity will reboot after the mayhem. Surreal.
The highlight of our trip soon began, as we boarded the Arctica 2 to set sail into the Arctic wilderness. The boat was not a luxury liner, but I didn’t think it would be this small; we were having to lean, stretch, and suck in our bellies to let a fellow traveller pass. We were told that the communication would be exclusively via satellite phones, that too only when available. Our group was a motley one, with four Indians, two Australians, one English, American and German passenger each, rounded out with a Norwegian captain (Heinrich) and his American assistant. A set of strangers in a confined space in the high Arctic? It seemed the perfect setting for Nordic noir, right out of a Peter Høeg novel.
I kept wondering how people got by the winter months from November to February, when the temperature dropped to minus 40°C and darkness enveloped the town. Did they not get island fever? “It is not so bad,” the captain assured me. “We read books, watch TV, play basketball, hit the bar and there is work to do...,” he added with a wink. “After a long polar winter, we sometimes need to change partners.”
If I were to compress 600 million years of Svalbard’s geographic history and press play, it would begin very long ago near the South Pole. Tectonic drift would then start shifting it around 80° to its current position in the Arctic, morphing midway into a desert near the equator. Thunder and rain would birth its first forest, transforming it into a lush green that would eventually fold under the earth to become coal. The deposits would lay buried under the shallow seas, moving further up towards the permafrost, until dug up by humanity. The fossils preserved on Svalbard’s majestic mountains showed us this story.
For a while, all we could hear from our captain’s room was his racking cough. He had not emerged for a while, and the weather broadcast signalled a storm brewing in the north. Our boat was in the hands of the assistant captain, who was not as familiar with the waters, so we postponed our northern journey and decide to laze around the south and visit some islands.
Our first stop was a Russian industrial town closed in 1998. Set against the craggy mountains, Pyramiden was a grey and forlorn complex of mines, storage sheds, tanks and rusty pipelines running up and down the hilly area. As we walked by the large housing complexes, there were recreational centres (with a swimming pool!), and then a library, I tried to imagine this as a thriving town amid the fjords and glaciers. We heard the old Soviet movie theatre had been completely restored, and that films could be booked on request. The story goes that some time in the late 90s, the entire population of Pyramiden was airlifted or shipped out of town. When people from the mainland visited after the exodus, they found kettles with water still on the stove, slippers left askew, unmade beds...it became a place frozen in time. The only occupants today are those who manage and visit the Tulpan Hotel, and scattered wildlife. We spotted loud, squawking kittiwakes nesting in old buildings, vying for window sills with the best view, and an Arctic fox on the hunt. Our guide told us that a polar bear had passed through just two days ago.
Our captain’s condition worsened over the next 48 hours on sea. An emergency meeting was convened to decide whether we should cut short the expedition and drop him back to the mainland. As we weighed pros and cons, I imagined similar scenes being played out in the early 1900s when a whaler or miner would fall prey to the harsh climate. The Arctic does test human endurance and morality. Luckily, on the third day, Heinrich emerged to steer the boat, assuring us were in safe hands. We sailed ahead.
Infinity. Maybe this is what it feels like, I told myself, as I looked out each morning. Ethereal white clouds against an epic landscape. Water in its various forms; of the seas, adrift as a pack of ice; droplets as clouds above. The sunlight cutting through with stark brilliance, bouncing off the oceans and ice. On a clear day, I hadn’t seen a sharper, more luminous blue landscape.
We played out our fantasies of walking like Jesus on water (technically on ice, that Heinrich assured us would not give way), and lay down in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, trying to make sense of the otherworldliness of this place. A thunderous roar broke the silence.
You don’t see many humans here, but civilisation’s impact could be heard in the sound of an iceberg that had crashed into the sea. I was no longer sure of the solidity of the sheet we were on, and was reminded of the fragility of the Arctic; the contrast between the seeming permanence of the mountains, as old as the sky, and the shifting ice.
Our days were spent in anticipation, scanning the sea for polar bears. We took turns and kept watch round the clock. Being from the tropics, it has always been relatively easy to spot a tiny green bird in a thick green jungle. But when it came to a bear weighing hundreds of kilograms, we were at a loss. Against the flat white landscape, one loses all sense of scale. I couldn’t figure if the white stretched for six miles or 600.
Our guide spotted the first bear. The rest of us strained hard to see it against the glacier, making out a form that appeared and disappeared like a mirage. Our second sighting confirmed an adult bear and a young’un. There was no possibility of going closer on account of thick ice. We watched a winsome scene play out, as the bears chased and pulled each other into an ice pool and splashed around. No cameras came out as the action was too far away. The next couple of days, all we saw were these ‘pixel bears’—too far away to be photographed.
What you see depends on where you are looking from. April to August, the sun holds centre stage, doing a ballet. It crisscrosses the horizon—climbing, dipping, pirouetting—but never setting. Due to the earth’s axial tilt, the North Pole tips towards the sun, meaning it is always in sight. It took me a while to get my head around this one.
Learning that the best light for photography arrived around 2am, we set out after 12 to take pictures of a group of lazy walruses. It was a relief to get off the boat and stretch our legs. The walruses rolled around and into the water, bathed in the glorious sunlight.
On one of the islands, we visited a log cabin, home to a lone trapper who spent the winters trapping foxes or hunting polar bears for fur. The doors and windows were polar-bear-proofed (crisscross logs nailed across doors and windows), and the interiors were basic: a stove and an oil lamp, some old cheese stuck to the pan, a chair and table, and three racy novels in Norwegian. A pair of reindeer antlers above the doorway was the only embellishment in what must have been an isolated and lonely life.
As we sailed further, we saw remnants of an old whaling station. A broken down boat, oil barrels, whale bones, it all spoke of the extreme hardship in the field. Marine animals in the Arctic, with their huge reserves of blubber that could be melted to extract oil, were the main attraction in these risky waters. The whalers knew that death was a real possibility, and packed burial material on their trips—boards to make coffins, and soft cloth to wrap the bodies. The mass graves that we passed bore testimony.
The polar bear needs floating ice to hunt. There is hardly any ice in the south. So, in spite of the storm warning, we headed further north, constantly scanning the horizon for an off-white form. Finally, we spotted one making its way along bits of broken ice. It was not tagged, unlike all the bears in Svalbard. We were told it must have come from Russia. It looked lean, its bones visible.
Heinrich maintained distance so as to not disturb the animal, sensing that the bear was heading towards a seal napping on an ice floe far away. Eight cameras on the deck, unmoving figures. We held our breath as the bear swam closer, diving silently down and disappearing underneath the iceberg. We waited, not sure which side of the seal it would emerge from; the ensuing two minutes felt like hours. Suddenly, the polar bear splashed out. In a flash, the lazing seal slithered off the ice and into the water, while the bear struggled to heave itself onto the ‘berg. What a miss! But everyone on the boat had captured the scene. After being stuck with pixel bears, this ‘almost’ hunt was spectacular. We watched the tired bear stroll off until it was a speck in the horizon, completely unaware of the impact it had had on us.
I must mention the northern flumar, which kept us constant company through the journey, flying next to the boat. Fulmarus glacialis or the ‘foul gull’ earned its name due to the rank stomach oil it sprays on predators such as the Arctic fox and the polar bear. Every May, more than three million of these birds come to Svalbard, nesting on very high cliffs. Some birds, like the bar-tailed godwit, travel all the way to Svalbard to breed. The Arctic tern, with its stylish black cape, is another migratory warrior with records to its name. Weighing no more than 100 grams, one bird from the Netherlands clocked the longest recorded animal migration ever, approximately 91,000 kilometres.
The bird cliffs that dot Svalbard’s archipelago boasts of many other avian celebrities like the Arctic puffin, Brünnich’s guillemot, the glaucous gull, the ivory gull, and eider ducks. Part of our group abandoned the bear watch and set out on Zodiac boats to look for the only landbird to live in the area all year, the rock ptarmigan. A member of the grouse family, we found it perched on a rock on an island, foraging with its mate. In the winter, the ptarmigan is snow white, with a cool red comb above its eye, while in summer its plumage apes the colour of the grass and rocks. Unlike the sand grouses in India, it was not skittish, and allowed us to approach for a closer view. “These guys are going crazy over a ptarmigan!” chuckled Heinrich on the wireless to the boat. Like the tiger tourism in our country, the star of Svalbard is the polar bear. When there is a glamorous top predator around, looking at birds—leave alone taking their photographs—is often treated with mild amusement, bordering on derision.
If we did spot a polar bear while on the Zodiac, we were to inform our mates over the wireless in coded language. “Never refer to the polar bear as the polar bear; the wireless communication can be heard by every boat in the archipelago.” When we spotted a bear with a ‘seal kill’, we had to report it as a ‘puffin with a kill’, else all the boats could rush to the spot like Jeeps on a tiger trail.
A group of kittiwakes flocking near the surface of the water was a sure sign that a large humpback whale would emerge. With its loud exhalation, followed by the characteristic tail splash, the humpback whale entered the scene with a lot of drama. We watched a second whale join in. It circled around, creating a bubble-feeding net around schools of fish.
One night, while on the bear watch, we heard a faint haunting melody. What was it? We strained to listen, our hearts in our mouth, mesmerised by the magic of the symphony. Was this the famed whale song, sung by a pod nearby? Heinrich dispelled our excited guesses the next morning, pointing to the mast of the boat. The wind blowing against the pipe had created music, much like a flute. This is perhaps what they refer to as a sailor’s hallucinations. The bear watch had upset our circadian rhythm, and our eyes and ears had started playing tricks.
On the 12th day, we spotted a polar bear tracing a path in the snow. We watched as it walked slowly, meandering up and down the snowy slopes, and sniffing the footprints of another bear. We got off the boat on to the Zodiac, eager to get on the same elevation as the bear. Surprisingly, the animal slowly descended from a slope, and walked along the edge of the water beside us. We listened to the padded crunch as it stepped on the ice, and gazed at its soft, long fur at the bottom of its paws. The star of the scene, what most lures travellers to the Arctic, walked a couple of minutes alongside our ferry, and then started to climb back up, crossing over to the other side of the mountain. We sailed back to the boat in utter silence, overwhelmed at the privilege of going shoulder to shoulder on this one-in-a-million morning walk.
Several Indian cities have one-stop flights to Oslo, the capital of Norway. From there, airlines like Norwegian and SAS have domestic flights (3hrs) to Svalbard Airport Longyearbyen (LYR). You may also arrive via an adventure cruise from the European mainland. Norway falls under the Schengen visa scheme, but Svalbard does not, so make sure to have your passport and any other national identity card on you at all times. For other travel guidelines and visitor information, see en.visitsvalbard.com.