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Since 1979, when NASA first began recording satellite ice images, scientists have seen a 13% decline per decade in the minimum summertime extent of sea ice, and in late August, NASA confirmed that the ice was at an all time low.

For example, when the Polar Pioneer visited the Brepollen glacier in Svalbard, the ship’s chart noted that just a few years ago the glacier face extended a few hundred metres further out -- demonstrating just how rapidly the glacier has receded.

However, although the sea ice is shrinking -- covering less total area as well as becoming thinner -- the Arctic is still a world ruled by ice, a lesson well learned when the Polar Pioneer encountered heavy pack ice between Svalbard and the eastern coast of Greenland, forcing the captain to divert the boat and drop speed to just a few knots. A day at sea was added to the itinerary, but few passengers minded; there was no wind and blue skies -- the perfect conditions for wildlife watching.

In the distance, ring seals were spotted briefly before they disappeared into the safety of the water – a good sign, the crew assured. A cautious seal means that polar bears are most likely around.

Several hours later, in the honey-dipped low light of the midnight sun, a polar bear was spotted on an ice floe, finishing his dinner. The engines were cut and with the precision of a surgical team, the crew manoeuvred the 71m vessel slowly and safely just near the bear, who, intrigued by the sight of the boat, walked over to take a closer look. Gripping the ice with his sharp claws, the polar bear leaned over the edge of the ice, sniffing the air and taking in the foreign scent of the 50 sweaty, sunburnt tourists, expedition leaders and crew. The experience was made even more spectacular by the appearance of a second, larger and more inquisitive bear that was so well camouflaged he appeared almost out of thin air.

The polar bear is the most unique creature in the Arctic, but it is also an animal to be respected. Polar bear attacks on humans are rare, but do happen, and on all Arctic landings guides carry both flare guns and rifles to protect passengers from overly curious bear encounters.

Throughout the Svalbard archipelago, polar bears are protected, but in the remote village of Ittoqqorrtoormiit on the east coast of Greenland, they are hunted for meat under license and within strict limits set out by the government. Cut off by sea ice nine months of the year, Ittoqqorrtoormiit, population 400, receives two supply ships between late June and September, when the ships can make it through the ice to deliver goods. The half-dozen expedition ships that also visit each summer provide an opportunity for locals to ply their goods and make an income (and for the kids who managed to commandeer a Zodiac left on shore, a bit of summertime fun). For travellers, a visit to Ittoqqorrtoormiit offers incredible insight into how man has built a community in the Arctic’s incredibly hostile conditions – and survived.

At the end of the Polar Pioneer’s journey in Iceland, Miller said he hopes visitors walk away with an appreciation of the Arctic’s wildlife, the people and the complexity of the landscape. “It’s not a wasteland where we should let anyone do what they want to it,” he said. “We hope that people come to the understanding the Arctic is worth saving.”

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