One of the major wildlife spectacles on our shopping list of holidays was that of Polar Bears in their natural environment, and this was to be the year to do it. The first idea was the classic one for many – Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, where the bears can be seen at very close quarters from the tundra buggies in October and November. The case for this was complicated by a visit to the Manchester travel show, where the Canadian representatives outlined the fact that Polar Bears could be almost guaranteed in July at the same spot, but there was also the addition to the list of Beluga Whales and other possible wildlife goodies. And this for the same price with an extra day included. Yet both tours were very short, with extensive travel involved (UK to Toronto to Winnipeg to Churchill), so we looked at option three – a Summer circumnavigation of Svalbard, Norway, on an expedition ship voyage. This also had a huge chance of Polar Bear sightings (in fact, Explore, the company we eventually plumped for, offered a bear guarantee, which was a free trip if no Polar Bears were logged), was for far longer (8 or 11 days), and also offered additional goodies such as potential Walrus, Arctic Fox, Reindeer, and a variety of seabirds, cetaceans, seals, and dramatic scenery.
The fact that this was conducted from a ship as a cruise was incidental, since we had decided some time ago not to go on a cruise for the sake of it, and this worked very well. The ship we were on was the MS Expedition, and the “Realm of the Polar Bear” tour run by the parent company of Gadventures could be found on various travel agent sites. The embarkation port is Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard islands), and we arranged flights to here and overnight accommodation in the town ourselves. The mix on the cruise was varied and the staff always thinking ahead in terms of potential wildlife sightings, safety and interest of the tourists. An itinerary can be found on the website and also is sent following booking, but that is more or less ripped up and the eventual journey planned from day to day depending on conditions and potential for current sightings. Whenever a major sighting occurred while on board, the ship’s tannoy announced this to all, so there was no excuse for missing anything. In addition to sighting wildlife from the decks, of which there are plenty for all to be accommodated, the crew tried to plan at least one excursion on to land each day using the zodiac landing craft, or at the very least a “zodiac cruise”. This included walks in the Arctic terrain, and groups of people were allocated depending on ability and want for different grades and speed of walks.