In the European Arctic, there is an etiquette
to wildlife watching. And unfortunately, it requires something most humans
“Animals are wary of new things.
They’re curious, but cautious,” said Dr Gary Miller, an expedition leader on
the Polar Pioneer, a 54-passenger ice-strengthened
expedition vessel that travels between the Svalbard
archipelago in Norway, the east coast of Greenland and Iceland. “You don’t want
to come at the animals directly, because they’ll think you want to eat them.”
It was sage advice for passengers
during the ship’s first landing at Alkhornet in Spitsbergen, the largest island
in Svalbard. In a strategic attempt to lure the ship’s passengers away from its
den, an arctic fox dashed out from a rocky outcrop and then disappeared across
the tundra. But just 15 minutes later, when the fox was satisfied the group was
not a threat, it returned to investigate the strange herd of two legged
creatures, running in circles around the group and scent-marking the small
parcels of food it had previously stockpiled in the ground nearby. Bold and
inquisitive, at times the Arctic fox came so close that his long tail almost
brushed up against the passengers’ legs.
Unlike Antarctica, which is
protected by an international agreement, numerous countries lay claim to
parts of the Arctic, which makes it hard to pin down exactly how many tourists
visit the region each summer, when the sun does not set below the horizon and
the ice melts enough to allow expedition ships passage to the remote
wilderness. However, according to the United Nations, numbers rose from about one
million travellers in the early 1990s to more that 1.5 million in 2007, and the
number continues to grow.
Luckily, Arctic tourism remains
sustainable. A 2010 report by the Association of Arctic Expedition
(AECO) found that operational emissions had a relatively minor impact on the
Arctic marine environment, and that environmental awareness was high among ship
personnel, expedition crew and tourists.
Since the Artic does not have a
unified set of environmental policies, the AECO published a discretionary
set of guidelines for visitors and operators that are aimed at protecting the
environment, ensuring safety and promoting cultural sensitivity and social
interaction with locals.
Most boats employ a team of highly-educated
polar and Arctic specialists to lead expeditions. On the 14-day Jewels of the Arctic cruise operated by Aurora
Expeditions, for example, passengers on the Polar Pioneer had access to a
naturalist, geologist, an assistant expedition leader and Miller, an expedition
leader who has spent 14 seasons in the Arctic and 20 in the Antarctic.
On board the Polar Pioneer,
precautions to protect the environment are taken in simple but effective ways.
Passengers wear boat-issued rubber boots on most landings, which are washed and
disinfected once back on board. This keeps the boat clean, and more
importantly, avoids cross contamination between sites, like the delicate spongy
paradise of Alkhornet, an authorised landing site made up of hundreds of
species of lichen and moss..
Dotting some landing sites are
former trapper’s huts. The first visitors were hunters who came in search of
whale blubber, walrus and the white fur of the Arctic fox. Old fox and partially
collapsed polar traps still surround the ramshackle huts. Long abandoned, these
relics are protected as part of the region’s cultural heritage.
Old Paleo-Inuit archaeological sites
are also common, and are usually ideal landing spots to see both terrestrial
and marine wildlife. Early settlers chose places that were favoured grazing or
resting spots, to ensure they had enough animals to hunt. Today, the wildlife
at these sites are shot not with guns, but with the eager click of expensive
camera gear as passengers attempt to snap spectacular wildlife photos.
But there is more than just wildlife
to entice visitors to the Arctic. The stunning landscape is filled with frozen
glaciers, icebergs and ice floes. Best viewed from Zodiacs, passengers can watch
as 10-storey high chunks of ice intermittently calve from the glacier facades
and smash into the water below. It is a spectacular performance that is
unfortunately indicative of a bigger problem: the Arctic is warming up, the ice
is melting and glaciers are receding.
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
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
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
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