ESSAY John Harrison

NWR Issue 99

Spitsbergen

At half-past midnight I look up to see a huge polar bear in the airport’s baggage reclaim area. I sneak past it and into the sunshine dazzling over the sea to the north. A trip to Spitsbergen begins just 600 nautical miles from the North Pole. If there were a good road, instead of just sea and sea-ice, I could be there by breakfast. I was a touch shy of 80°N and this was Longyearbyen, the only real town in what is officially, since its administration by Norway began in 1920, Svalbard. But most people use the old Dutch name, Spitsbergen (pointed mountains, which it has in abundance).

Longyearbyen (pronounced by slipping two weak ‘y’s into ‘longer ben’) has 1700 residents. It is a place named for US mining speculator John Munroe Longyear who founded it in 1906. I will be glad, in ten days’ time, to return the cruise company rifle, and, I hope, all the ammunition. The reason I carry them is that the archipelago, in an area the size of Scotland, is home to 2000 people, mostly harmless, and 3000 polar bears, uniformly not. I wasn’t bothered by the bear in the baggage area; it had received previous visits from a bullet and a taxidermist. Hunting was banned in 1973, but bears are still killed to protect human life.

Longyearbyen sits on a short fjord which begins to shallow as you pass the town’s industrial pier. I docked there on my first trip five years ago and looked out of my porthole contemplating it was a long way to come from Cardiff to watch sleet fall on coal. From the pier, a dirt road lies beneath low cliffs of coal measures, with a bucket cableway from the mine running along the cliff edge.

Crossing the river dividing the town triggers attacks by Arctic terns nesting in the rocks. Cotton grass quakes in the boggy hollows. There are some pleasant chalet-style residential blocks, but everything occupies ten times the space it needs. It is charmless, but you don’t come to Spitsbergen for Longyearbyen. You come for the wildlife.

So did the islands’ discoverers: Willem Barents and the whalers and walrus-hunters who followed. By 1596, when Barents saw it, European whales were becoming harder to catch, and the Dutch and British came north in the swift summers into the fjords where they hunted among the white cloud forests of whale spouts.

In Hornsund, in the south of the main island, there are still mounds of whalebones on the grey stone beach overlooking the sound, including the massive domes of the skulls of baleen or filter-feeding whales.

Our little ship makes its way round the southern tip of the main island, with a dozen high-powered binoculars scanning for polar bears on the multi-year ice, the ice that lies for several years without melting or breaking. This is the ice that ringed seals prefer to pup on, building their dens to hide the young; and without seals, bears starve. We find a mother bear, followed by last year’s cubs. We come in at dead slow, drift to the edge of the ice. She is an experienced mother; she’s kept two alive for a year. She creeps up on each snow ridge, pups hanging back, learning. She works the whole bay for an hour, crashing her weight down, hoping to fall through onto fat seal pups, but catching nothing, burning fat, losing strength. Fewer than one in fifty of these lunges are successful...

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