By Georgia Hole , PhD student in the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, and Polar Forum Website manager.
Arriving in the remote Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard was like crossing a threshold into my childhood dreams. The many books on polar exploration I devoured as a child (as described in a another blog), suddenly became crystallised into reality as we touched down onto a land with more polar bears than people, and where transport beyond the town is by helicopter, boat and snowmobile. Longyearbyen, with a population of around two thousand, is where the commercial flights call, and the location for my own visit to the University Centre in Svalbard – UNIS (yes, there is a whole university centre on this remote archipelago). Run by the Norwegians, one could forget that at 78°N,this was half way between Norway and the North Pole, as the smooth efficiency and beautiful Scandinavian architecture of the UNIS centre gave an almost cosmopolitan feel to the town. Longyearbyen has in fact swelled in recent years with the ever-growing tourist industry. The land I had dreamed of as distant and mysterious was on some days crowded by offloaded cruise shippers, filling souvenir shops and cafes. There is even a cinema and nightclub, which in a town with 24-hour daylight in the summers, need darkened windows and a real determination for night-life. However, the dominance of nature this far north was clear. I wasn’t allowed to leave the confines of the town without training and a rifle (thanks to the polar bears), and the town was still at the mercy of mother nature; evidenced when I found the accommodation block next to mine had recently been partially destroyed by winter avalanches.
We were to set sail later that week to Sjuøyane, a.k.a The Seven Islands, lying at 80⁰N, just north of the main Svalbard Archipelago (see map), and a known polar bear hotspot. The mission was to collect driftwood samples for my PhD research into Arctic Sea Ice changes, as the northern shores capture plenty of southward-travelling sea-ice on which the driftwood hitches a ride. The last scientific expedition here was in 1996, adding to the sense of adventure of somewhere lesser known even in Svalbard, but also meant we were going into an environment running on nature’s terms, not ours. The priority was therefore to get straight to safety training, and we were soon at a shooting range looking down the sights of 30 calibre hunting rifles; ear-splitting without ear defenders and with some hefty kickback. Being an environmental researcher and vegetarian; guns and hunting are not for me, but with the only victims here being bullseye targets, the rifle’s power was persuasive, and I was the first to take the plunge and pull the trigger to feel the force of a gun designed for 700kg polar bears. I was indeed knocked over by the kickback, but with all four shots on target I’m happy to say I’m quite a mean shot (a skill I hope never to need!).
Flash-bangs and flares would be the first ports of call though, as any killing of a bear in Svalbard results in a legal investigation and possible conviction without proof of a clear threat to your life. We were also fitted with heavyweight, bright orange and ‘fully waterproof’ body suits that keep you dry and warm should you fall into the Arctic seas. Suited and booted we were taken to Longyearbyen harbour, and instructed to jump in to the freezing water to test for suit leaks. Three out of our group of eight leaked… slightly undermining the sense of security all this training had given me, but after this baptism of ice I felt fully aware of the many ways we could be killed out in the field by bears, guns or water.
The journey to The Seven Islands was a feat in itself, being thirty-six-hours long and crossing rough waters, with resulting seasickness for some (luckily not me!), before enjoying an anchor spot for the rest of the trip in calm waters between the islands (see photo 4). Throughout the fieldwork we would eat and sleep on the boat, with impressively varied meals at the boat canteen, and tall piles of Norwegian smoked salmon for filling fat field-lunch sandwiches.
These were much needed as we would be out on the islands from 8 am to around 5 pm, come cold, rain or shine. Out of the group of twenty, in the field we split into groups of four; each with a rifle, two flare guns, and a radio, which along with my saw for sampling wood and the rock-saw for boulders, we felt very well kitted out, and clearly upped my confidence judging from my posing in photo 5… Such precautions soon felt appreciated, as on our first day our group stumbled across polar bear tracks on the beach, fresh enough to mean a bear had passed within the last couple of days! Thankfully we never had any encounters with bears in the field, and I never fell in the sea, but I collected plenty of driftwood and found the landscape awe-inspiring and beyond everything I imagined. We had some fabulous wildlife sights, including walruses, reindeer, puffins and arctic fox. Such a list would have been great on its own, but I have to admit they were outdone when I got to fulfil that biggest wishes of all, catching sight of not just one wild polar bear but three, including one from the safety of a boat during a trip to see Pyramiden, a Russian mining town ~50km north of Longyearbyen. While passing a glacier at 11 pm in bright sunshine (24-hour daylight has its perks) we saw a relaxed-looking bear, reclining as if on a geological sun-lounger (photo 6), and looking more akin to a cuddly Paddington than a deadly Iorek Byrnison,. After all that training, it felt like this bear was flaunting how little he cared about our presence, and how clearly this was his domain; one to which we could only make a passing visit, corralled on boats, while he gazed down on his land of ice.