Nobody says it, but we're all on this cruise for polar bears. Not for mighty glaciers, gobsmacking scenery or the remote locales that get more magnificent and more remote as we sail Svalbard and Greenland, but for polar bears. I suspect a mutiny if we don't see one, and I'll be first to throw the captain overboard.
My first bear encounter is in Longbearyen airport, where we arrive from Oslo on a charter flight. The stuffed polar bear looms over the baggage carousel like a warning of the wilderness beyond. Next day in Ny Alesund there's a polar bear on a sign, which warns not to leave the settlement confines without a loaded gun. But no actual bear heaves over the horizon.
On our third day, as our luxury expedition ship Le Boreal nuzzles against the Arctic icepack, we do see a polar bear. We shriek at the ship's railings, binoculars pressed to our eyeballs, feet stamping in the cold. But does it really count? The bear is a blurry, distant dot. I can hardly make out rump from snout. It's a wonder the Abercrombie & Kent wildlife team spotted it at all, a white blob in a thousand square kilometres of icy whiteness.
We sail onwards over the next days, spotting reindeer (exciting), guillemots (somewhat exciting) and saxifrage, surprisingly exciting thanks to A&K botanist Christina Westergaard and her enthusiasm. Still, a little white flower isn't a big white predator, is it?
Polar bears are elusive creatures, few in number, generally solitary and spread over vast areas. There may be fewer then 300 in the Svalbard archipelago, I'm informed during a polar-bear lecture. Whatever. I'll still whinge if I don't see one up close. Besides, Svalbard has a better concentration of bears than most places, and an expedition cruise is the way to see them, since they loiter on the icepack's edge, where they hunt ringed seal.
We're certainly not going to see one ashore. Not close, anyway. Polar bears may look cuddly, but these large carnivores can attack without warning and with ferocious speed. We're never ashore without a perimeter of lookout crew armed with high-powdered rifles and signal pistols.
Day six sees us sailing the scenic Hinlopen Strait. We Zodiac among icebergs with Russ Manning, a former British Royal Marine Commando with 15 years' experience in Arctic survival. Awesome – but no polar bear. Then later we sail past a massive plaque of ice, and on it a bear is moving fast across the mid-distance.
Through the binoculars I see it pause to inspect the ship. It yawns, a sign of anxiety in polar bears. Yet unaccountably it turns and starts directly towards us. Surely it won't get closer? But it does. We abandon our binoculars. We watch and wait, and still the bear comes on.
Our ship has stopped right at the ice edge, and that's where the bear stops too, directly below the bow. Clearly this adolescent male's curiosity has got the better of its wariness. The atmosphere is electric. Everyone is at the railings. Even the crew has run out, chef in his apron, housekeepers shivering in their off-duty pyjamas. This is what expedition cruising is all about. The thrill of the unexpected. The call of the wild.
We've smiled at glaciers and magnificent mountain vistas, but this has us grinning like clowns. We're spellbound and silent. One of the world's most thrilling and endangered wild animals is just a few metres away and in no hurry to depart. It lingers for a half-hour. Then it slips into the water and swims away.
Abercrombie & Kent's Arctic expeditions sail between July and September. There are four in 2020. The 15-day "In Search of the Polar Bear" cruise on Le Boréal, which next departs on July 31, visits Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland. Prices from $21,720pp including meals, drinks, gratuities, airport transfers, Arctic clothing and daily excursions with the expedition team. Phone 1300 590 317; see abercrombiekent.com.au
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent.