Back on the high seas, wildlife photographer, guide and Wanderlust contributor Paul Goldstein shares his momentous journey to Spitsbergen
When a seasoned Spitsbergen campaigner – veteran of over 70 journeys – says that was the best morning he had ever had you know you have struck gold.
Three mothers with cubs, a big turf war with an old male and a blood-daubed male swimming next to the ship. The graphite isosceles were set up early but no-one really felt that yesterday could be trumped – they were wrong, it was simply... astonishing. No words to describe and anyway what are words when there is another charter next July. 100 people know these are the best Spitsbergen trips around, time is not wasted on post offices, whale bones or trappers huts – it is not some dull well-balanced mainstream tour of this northerly outpost. It is a photographic charter concentrating on the major players, and after three days 20 have come to the picnic, ever considered an alternative here... exactly.
“If you are going to wish, wish big; it doesn’t cost any more.” – Ian Stirling
The inky, malevolent curtain of yesterday lifted, the humidity dropped quicker than the Euro and oozed optimism, purpose and vim. Everything today was perfectly dove-tailed: as the last fluffy pancake was consumed Annie (again) spotted a distant bear almost in Greenland. But, as you know, and Nigel will tell you, we don’t stop for one of anything, we
will for two; for six we will take up residence.
Before long keen eyes picked up carcasses littered across the shimmering hexagons, this was a harp seal abattoir and seemingly most of the strings section had been decimated. With weather closer to St Tropez or Santorini than Spitsbergen, evangelical faces glowed with sun-cream but also something else – a passionate high no artificial substance could ever emulate. Each bear indulged us, with one particular tubby female virtually knocking on deck two’s portholes.
Predators are fascinating and as they circled their prey, their faces pinched with avarice, it was hard not to sympathise with the pastry chef who thought he had made enough cakes this afternoon.
Your first bear is normally some scruffy vagrant plying its lonely furrow down some distant charcoal beach or a timid sub-adult retreating to a different postal district. For most of you it wasn’t even a bear, it was plural – a gift, a huge polar gift that just kept on giving... for 16 hours. This is why you came, this is why the Vavilov kicks its lightweight
shandy-drinking bed-wetting competitors into the mainstream shipping lanes.
Always we are yearning and searching for one of those days, this was one of them, they are of a copper-bottomed currency the paupers of Spain and Greece can only dream of, let’s hope there are some more. You enjoy it? Good, keep it on ice.
“The most remarkable mountains I have seen, are situated near Horn Sound... Horn Mount, or Hedge-hog Mount, so called from an appearance of spines on the top when seen in some positions, takes its rise from a small tract of alpine land, on the southern side of Horn Sound.” William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions
So the drill for this expedition has been brutally broadcast, this merciless mantra etched into everyone’s mainframe. The absence of schedule, the necessity to graft, the capricious nature of both wildlife and weather, the imperative of doing long hours for perhaps, scant reward. Clearly those warnings were digested like a bear spattering the ice with its eighth course of blubber, for this morning Mother Nature disgorged long ephemeral tendrils of mist which morphed into a solid bank of stygian gloom.
Despite this the decks were ringed with enthusiasts, a single fulmar bringing out a phalanx of long precision optics like the Victory running its starboard guns out at Trafalgar. You are keen, keen as the hottest pot of Colmans; we like keen.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, it would be improper for the reward to come too early, it is a slow process before a hopefully not too distant climax. However the tantalising, titillating, teasing tracks, running intricate patterns along the shoreline were a pretty seductive foreplay. As one lecture finished the radio crackled and 50 ponderous Arcticians treated two flights of stairs like the Hillary step. Not that scorching pace would have made any difference as the bear was for turning, leaving the pinniped last rites on ice before swimming away. It was still the first bear for many, we cannot be precious about sightings, we’ll take them all, any way we can.
Locked and loaded now, sleep well, for tomorrow we start our own aquatic stalk.
"A large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything." Laurence Sterne
A wise man once said ‘it’s not the arriving, it’s the getting there’. He was wrong, medieval check-in at the Radisson saw to that, but who cares now, the lines are thrown and the bow noses purposefully South. Right about time you hear this, the signal will flicker then die on your cell phone. There is no YouTube, Twitter or defaults here, there is also a delightful topicality about so many English people taking on a Russian ship just as 11 Englishmen take on 11 Ukrainians in Gdansk. However that over hyped and precious sport is a different world now. Divorce yourselves from western idiosyncrasies, say goodbye to Rooney and Clooney, Aspley Garrard is important, Stephen Gerrard is not. I re-iterate: you are ours now and the next 12 days should be very special. There is a wealth of knowledge, experience and pedigree on board. These qualities cannot be purchased, they are earned after many brutal yards at the polar coal face. All staff know how much this expedition means to you and they will be straining every sinew to maximise your time in this mesmerising land of ice and tundra.
Schedules – that’s not our dish, we will be serving an a la carte menu far from clinical guidebooks and cheesy brochures, high on excitement but low on routine.
You have all decided to do Spitsbergen properly, not from the balcony of some ethically bankrupt gin palace but from an obscenely over-qualified ship designed for these remote waters. Good choice. Perhaps the best choice this summer.
This will be action-packed, relentless, it will also, take note BBC and their puerile presenters, be LIVE. Got that off my chest now, hell I’m excited, welcome on board, wake me when it’s light.
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