Follow us on

|

Arctic summer

Arctic summer: A window to the world of wildlife

Print edition : Aug 16, 2019 T+T-
A polar bear.

A polar bear.

An Arctic landscape of blue skies and white peaks.

An Arctic landscape of blue skies and white peaks.

A polar bear about to embark on a ocean crossing.

A polar bear about to embark on a ocean crossing.

This bear swam non-stop for 45 minutes in search of food.

This bear swam non-stop for 45 minutes in search of food.

After an exhausting swim.

After an exhausting swim.

Polar bear in a fast-changing landscape.

Polar bear in a fast-changing landscape.

A walrus colony on the beach.

A walrus colony on the beach.

A walrus up close.

A walrus up close.

A puffin.

A puffin.

Puffins’ resting place in high cliffs, away from the reach of predators.

Puffins’ resting place in high cliffs, away from the reach of predators.

An Arctic skua returns to his nest in the tundra grass.

An Arctic skua returns to his nest in the tundra grass.

A Svalbard reindeer that ventured close.

A Svalbard reindeer that ventured close.

The Polaris 1.

The Polaris 1.

A pair of Arctic foxes playing.

A pair of Arctic foxes playing.

Guillemots, simulating penguins in their gait.

Guillemots, simulating penguins in their gait.

A harbour seal mother and pup.

A harbour seal mother and pup.

A mini colony of black-legged kittiwakes on floating ice.

A mini colony of black-legged kittiwakes on floating ice.

Summer in the Arctic, which lasts just four months, presents nature enthusiasts a window to the wonderful world of wildlife.

Standing on a inflatable rubber boat, we, awestruck, clicked away furiously as a young polar bear ambled his way down the mountain, glanced at us before getting into the icy waters of the fiord, and swam across to the other bank and continued his quest after shaking himself dry. This was our first polar bear sighting ever.

The polar regions have always held a fascination for us thanks to the numerous nature documentaries that we had watched. The richness of the fauna and the absence of human population in these regions make it a fascinating world to visit. Our specific destination was Svalbard Islands, an archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

Rich in natural resources and wildlife, these islands belong to the sovereign of Norway but have been maintained as visa-free zones for visitors. Our group consisted of a small group of wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. We set out on a small French Ship called “Polaris 1”, chartered by an ecological safari company based in the United States. Our trip commenced at Longyearbyen, an erstwhile coal-mining town with a population of 2,000 people and rather colourful and quaint houses. After spending a day exploring the town, we boarded “Polaris 1” and the next 10 days were spent aboard the vessel.

The expedition was led by two marine biologists and photographers who did an amazing job of spotting wildlife by looking non-stop through their spotting scopes and binoculars. Once spotted, we were taken closer to them in inflatable rubber boats, called zodiacs, provided the conditions were safe. The zodiac rides were always exciting, giving us the closest experience of being in an Arctic environment. We had to be dressed in such a way as to protect ourselves and our equipment from getting wet. Rugged glacial mountains rising from the ocean, forming fiords, partially melted seas with large stretches of pack ice and ice floes that house seals and walruses with polar bears lurking around, eider ducks and arctic birds such as guillemots and little auks flying around, rapidly changing weather and skies in permanent daylight conditions were all a part of the magical world we experienced and desperately tried to photograph. We realised that it was impossible to capture the entire beauty of this in photos and therefore settled for just taking in and admiring it, sometimes without attempting to take photos.

The Arctic habitat, particularly the polar bear’s, has been the most affected by global warming. We saw one bear swimming non-stop for more than 45 minutes in search of an ice sheet where it could hunt seals or other prey. Polar bears are not natural swimmers but have been forced to adapt themselves to swimming for sheer survival. Almost all the bears we saw were on the move, looking for prey. The expedition leaders were careful to maintain a discreet distance from them, respecting the strict regulations in force to ensure that the wildlife is not disturbed in any way. Walruses and seals are the other mammal species that are widely prevalent in the Svalbard region. We went to beaches that were occupied by walrus colonies and spent a few hours just observing these clumsy creatures as they rolled and lolled their way in and out of the water. The bearded seal we came across had the look of a dignified old man as he seemed to regard us keenly and wisely.

Ever since the polar explorers discovered a way to reach the Arctic, man has exploited its natural resources in every possible way. Svalbard is no exception and whales have been the worst casualty, almost hunted to extinction. The whale population has been rather slow to return to this region, so spotting a pod of Beluga whales swimming alongside our ship or the odd minke whale showing its shark-like fin just above the surface of the ocean was particularly exciting.

There was a constant buzz of bird activity around the ship as Atlantic puffins, northern fulmars, guillemots, eider ducks, little auks, Arctic terns and seagulls were busy flying around. Some species, such as the pink-footed goose and the barnacle goose, were nesting on the mountain slopes of the tundra. Some of these would have traversed vast distances in order to breed. Particularly amazing is the fact that the Arctic tern travels 44,000 kilometres a year from pole to pole.

The Arctic summers (June to September) are very short and a lot happens during these four months. Polar bears come out of hibernation, often with their cubs, and mammals such as the reindeer and the Arctic fox try and make the most of the season by feeding and giving their young ones a chance to survive before the next long winter sets in. As a result, the whole ecosystem becomes a hub of vibrant life.

We had a chance to experience this as we took a zodiac up to the shore and trekked up the slopes of a mountain that was a part of the famed Arctic tundra. The landscape looked extremely rugged and beautiful at the same time. What was covered in ice just a few months back had melted away and given life to sprawling green meadows that were soft and lush and had a variety of flowering plants and lichens that brought crazy dashes of colour. Reindeer were grazing freely, feeding on the plentiful grass, and there were thousands of guillemots and seagulls nesting in the cliffs, many in precarious spots where they were safe from predators. We found Arctic fox dens amidst the rocks and a couple of pups frolicking and playing in the grass, waiting for the mother to bring them food. Sure enough, the mother came with a bird in her mouth, and the hungry pups grabbed it from her to feed themselves. It seemed unbelievable that in four months all this would be gone and replaced with a sheet of white, almost covering it like a corpse, and the next year this amazing cycle would repeat itself again.

Life on the ship was never boring as there was always something to anticipate or see. Just being out on the deck, taking in the stunning landscapes and, sometimes, calving glaciers was sheer joy. Every now and then, however, we would retreat to the relative comfort of the interior of the ship for a meal or for processing our photos.

The ship had a library containing books about the region, and it was informative to read about the islands and the exploitation of natural resources that they were subjected to over the years.

Our journey commenced at 78.2° North, and navigating our way through the fiords over a week, we travelled a little beyond 80° North until we hit the point where the sea was frozen and we could not progress further. The captain and the expedition leader informed us that this year the ice covered a much larger area than in previous years. Indeed, a welcome change amidst the general trend of declining sea ice. We do not know what caused this change this year but we hope that this was not a one-off year, and maybe, some of the things we have done have helped reverse this process of melting. That is certainly a good hope to have and maybe it can accelerate all the actions we need to do to halt climate change.

Just when we were beginning to feel at home in the Arctic environment, our dream journey ended and we came back to Longyearbyen after 10 awesome days of sailing. As we headed home, we carried memories of a true paradise on Earth that opens up for us to visit for four months in a year but one where we should leave no footprints whatsoever if we have to retain it the way it is.

Chennai-based K. Rajiv is a retired pharmaceutical professional turned travel aficionado and wildlife photographer.

C. Srikanth is a Chartered Accountant by qualification and is an investor and trader in the financial markets. He is the founder of Altius Foundation, an NGO that works on several initiatives related to children and education, and is a passionate traveller and wildlife photographer.