Spitsbergen – between north cape and north pole

On the Spitsbergen archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, which belongs to Norway, there are about 400 more polar bears than people. Lea Hajner nevertheless ventured briefly ashore north of the Arctic Circle.

“Excuse me, you in front, yes you! Please stay behind me in the group, it is dangerous here”. Remi, our guide, is still friendly. The somewhat older lady, who has already pushed her way into the small boats and has nevertheless forgotten her binoculars, still can’t wait to get there.

Moody polar bears

It’s the wrong place to ignore rules of the game. Anyone leaving the main town of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen must carry a rifle for safety reasons. Or, as usual on shore excursions of cruise ships, stay in the group. Because polar bears can appear anytime and anywhere and their state of mind is as hard to predict as that of top models. Hungry, curious, aggressive. Or completely disinterested, because humans – compared to a fat seal – have far too little fat on them anyway. Well-fed polar bears even allow themselves the luxury of eating only the seals’ skin and blubber. Really hungry bears, on the other hand, eat them from head to tail. Fact is: you just don’t know and the common polar bear has a poker face to boot. When he attacks, it is often without warning.

Reason enough to have a lot of respect for the king of the Arctic, of which there are about 3 in Spitsbergen.000 there are. About 400 more than human inhabitants. During my one-week trip through Svalbard, as Spitsbergen is called in Norwegian, I learn something about the Arctic and its inhabitants every day. It takes three hours to fly from Oslo to the archipelago that lies roughly between the North Cape on the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. No trees grow here anymore and only particularly stubborn plants manage to get a place in the barren tundra. Besides polar bears, walruses, seals, various birds, Svalbard reindeer (with fat belly and short legs) also polar foxes live here. At the beginning of June, in the transition period between darkness and 24h daylight, the fur of the foxes looks merrily spotted.

With the ship along the coast

During the four-day trip on the ship my longing to finally see a polar bear myself becomes greater every day. Often I just sit on the deck with my binoculars and search the coast on good luck. Remi would grant us a sighting, but the thought also makes him slightly nervous and he quickly adds that he would much rather we stay on the ship while we do it. Then he can leave his 308 caliber rifle and enjoy the spectacle in a relaxed way.

Animal sightings on the ship – I learn – are always a double spectacle. Spectacle one is the animal itself, spectacle two the watching crowd at the ship. There are multilingual and excited comments – in our case: in German, English, Norwegian, French and here and there the tour guide of the Chinese group also translates for his compatriots.

The first bear of the season

First it is a walrus that shows up. I spot the animal early in the morning on the way to the Magdalenafjord with the naked eye. Two photos and the fat gentleman is out of sight again. About the whole walrus colony a few days later at 80. northern latitude we are happy anyway.

On the second day we found a polar bear! The crew cheers: it’s the first of the summer season and a big one at that, hiking up and down the coastline. Hungry looks. Now I am quite happy to be able to observe it from a safe distance. My fellow travelers probably also. For the duration of these moments, despite all cultural differences, we are united in the joy of seeing such a graceful animal in the wild.

To the crowning of the journey we see on the last day – more exactly in the last night, in which the midnight sun shines particularly beautifully – also still several whales. My camera feels a bit like a sticker album, now filled with all the animal pictures I’m looking for and priceless.

As we enter the harbor of Longyearbyn again, the cell phones have reception for the first time in days. Slowly I got used to the strange rules, according to which life works here on Spitsbergen. As a farewell, the sun shines from the sky and I dare to leave out a layer of clothing on such a summery day around 8 degrees plus. For some hours I even make friends with the idea to live here. But then a thick cloud pushes in front of the sun and within a few minutes it is freezing cold. So I prefer to remain a visitor to this special place – one who may return again some day.

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