Arctic Highlights: Polar Bears, the Midnight Sun and Crackling Glaciers

Posted on August 18, 2011 by

I’ve just returned from an Arctic expedition, still struggling to piece together the touching memories and overwhelming sensations. My mind is trying to process what it was that moved me so – was it the surreal beauty, the extreme conditions or the rich wildlife? Perhaps it was the rare sensation of being literally at the edge of the Earth. The Arctic conditions can be harsh and intimidating, but its poetic beauty is enough to impress even the most hardened traveler.

As I close my eyes now, I’m brought back to the chilly winds and the hypnotic sounds of the high Arctic. As we sailed through pristine waters and unworldly terrain, there was silence except for the occasion crackling of glaciers, the eerie howling of the winds and squacks of the kittiwakes. Out in the wild, there was little sign of human life, but abundant reminders of wildlife surrounding us. Onboard the G Adventures MS Expeditions ship, we were voyeurs – taking a peek into a different world, one that belonged to the animal kingdom and Mother Earth.

Stepping into this less-than-inviting world was truly a privilege, and the few peeks that I took were enough to convince me that this was the very few truly untouched areas left in the world. Arctic travel somehow gave me a glimpse of how it must have been when the first explorers stepped foot on unchartered territories, when the world was at it was originally, when we humans had yet to leave our footprints.

As I take a step back to absorb all that I’ve seen in the Arctic, here are some highlights of the trip that have particularly left a deep imprint in my memories.

A dead whale feast for polar bears in Freemansundet

Dull skies, slight drizzles and choppy waters. We didn’t care. Hell, we didn’t even care if our cameras got wet. There was a group of 11 polar bears feeding savagely on a whale carcass, just metres away from our zodiac. Camera clicks went off, sighs of amazement followed as everyone looked on in bewilderment. On shore, polar bears came one after another, drawn by the smell of the rotting carcass. Polar bears are solitary animals and rarely feed in a group, but once a dead whale gets washed up on shore, it’s a feast that lasts for weeks. It was just the second day of our expedition and we were already treated to one of the best sights of the whole season.

“In my 20 years of Arctic experience, I’ve only seen this twice.” John, our expedition guide, made his point.

An intimate polar bear encounter at the ice fields of  Brasvellbree

It was 12am. The midnight sun was glaring in our faces as we tumbled out on deck after hearing the captain’s announcement. We were sailing towards a massive glacier, surrounded by consolidated ice sheets, and in the distance, there was an animal rolling about on the ice – a polar bear.

I could hardly believe my eyes. There we were, a large-sized vessel cutting through the ice like a giant mammoth, slicing the silence like a knife. Yet, the bear looked undisturbed, innocently licking its paw, lying on its back and peeking at us once in awhile as we slowly glided by. Once we were close enough, the polar bear stood up and approached us, lingering just off the bow of the ship. Everyone was stunned into silence, holding our breathes as we watched the wild animal in its full glory. I stood by the edge of the bow, just inches away from the giant.

Over the past few days we’d heard all about the polar bear’s deadly power – being the largest land predator, it weighs up to 700kg but it’s fast, strong and ferocious. On the day I arrived in Longyearbyen, a polar bear had killed a British teenager and injured four others. It was terrifying to hear about the ferocity of this animal and yet the adrenaline of seeing it from this distance was electrifying.

Seeing hundreds of walruses piled onshore at Torrellnesett

We’d seen 11 polar bears feeding together, a solitary polar bear lingering close to our ship and a walrus floating on an ice sheet with its calf – seriously, it was hard to top that. I didn’t have a must-see wildlife checklist, none of us did. But little did we know, we were in for a treat.

Arriving onshore at Torrellnesett, we came face to face with over 100 walruses, piled atop one another, lounging about under the sun. Brown blubbers rubbed against one another, sharp white tusks poked out in the air and low-pitched moans resonated in the distance. The biomass of the walrus hauled out on the flat plain was a phenomenal sight – seeing animals of this size and in this quantity was enough to blow my mind away. On the beach though, a group of 25 walruses was wading in the water close to us, equally curious. As Frank, our expedition biologist, called out to them, the behemoths sniffed and whistled, approaching to within a metre from us. There were over 70 of us but we all watched on silently, with a smile on every single one of our faces.

Climbing the 14th July Glacier

I’ve hiked on a glacier before, but this was definitely something else. The 14th July Glacier, named after the French national holiday Bastille Day, is a majestic tidewater glacier found  at the head of an iceberg-filled bay. In the misty morning, the rock and ice landscape was cloaked in a wispy fog and blanketed in fresh snow. Before making our way up the glacier, we’d glided by cliffs inhabited by thousands of birds – from the Black Guillemots to the Glaucous Gulls and the much-anticipated Atlantic Puffins. Barnacle geese waddled about by the shore and kittiwakes circled above our heads.

As we clambered up to the ice mountain, we found ourselves rambling along a lateral moraine littered with soft, eroded stones, before climbing onto a prominent shoulder of the icy glacier. Walking on ice was exhilarating, slipping and gliding on a shiny surface, like skating on transparent ice, but we were careful not to fall into the deep crevasses. From here, the view of Krossfjorden floored me: a mile of white ice stretched beneath our feet, the ice mountain striated with dark medial moraines and cleft by deep blue crevasses.

Swimming in the Arctic Waters

Snow flakes fell from the sky and the bay of Gravneset in Magalenefjord was blanketed in white. I was shivering even in my parka, hat and gloves but I knew I had to do it. It’s not everyday that I get to swim in the Arctic waters. Peeling off my clothes layer by layer, the cold air enveloped my body instantly. My feet went numb the second my shoes were off. There was no time to think. I charged into the freezing waters and took a quick dive in. In that instant, an energy powered through me and instead of feeling the blistering cold, I felt an empowering sensation. That was perhaps what you’d call a natural high…

More to come over the next few weeks….


This experience is made possible by G Adventures as a part of their Wanderers In Residence program. I traveled with Gap Adventures on their Realm of the Polar Bear trip (Trip Code: XVRPNX). All opinions expressed here are entirely my own. Read more about my travels in the Arctic here or follow me on Twitter with the #gadv and #WIR hashtags.

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About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is the co-founder of WildJunket. As a professional travel writer with a special interest in offgrid destinations and adventure travel, she scours through the world in search for a slice of undiscovered paradise. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Guatemala, swam with sealions in the Galapagos and built a school in Tanzania.

10 Responses to “Arctic Highlights: Polar Bears, the Midnight Sun and Crackling Glaciers”

  1. ivar August 19, 2011 12:26 am
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    this is so amazing.. now I wanna go there :)

  2. loca 4 motion August 19, 2011 2:48 am
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    Looks and sounds like an incredible trip Nell! Especially love your polar bear shots.

  3. Abhijit August 19, 2011 2:48 pm
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    Wow, such a beautiful experience! Looking forward to more posts on this! :)

  4. Sheila August 19, 2011 9:21 pm
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    awesome! it must have been amazing to see polar bears up close in their natural habitat. You're so lucky.

  5. maryjane11 August 20, 2011 2:00 pm
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    OMG! Totally awesome, especially seeing the polar bears up close. There are so few wild places left on earth, and an experience of them lasts a lifetime,

  6. May August 21, 2011 12:21 am
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    I am so blessed to say "I WAS THERE"…….also excited to see your writing on our Arctic trip!

  7. David @MalaysiaAsia September 17, 2011 11:20 am
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    Nell, you've been keeping yourself so busy and great to know you made it to the Arctic! Love the pictures, esp the close up of the polar bear.

  8. Shivya September 21, 2011 3:08 am
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    WOW! What can I say, I hope someday I’ll visit the Arctic too!

  9. Jake Aufderheide June 28, 2012 10:38 pm
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    Swimming in Arctic waters. Sounds like something I would do. Brilliant.

    I'd love to see the Arctic. And the Antarctic! I don't even like the cold, but I've heard the beauty is unmatched!

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