Searching for polar bears in Svalbard – A tall ship sailing expedition in the arctic

tall ship svalbard arctic

POLAR BEAR! POLAR BEAR!’. It’s the excitable voice of our expedition leader Andreas. A loud commotion in the gangway outside my cabin. The clock reads 1am. I pull on my clothes over my pyjamas, zip up my jacket and race up on deck where I’m joined by 20 other excited passengers. Bright sunlight reflects off the icy water blinding me for a second.

It’s day three of our eight day expedition; I’m on board the tall sailing ship Antigua exploring the North-West coast of Spitsbergen. It’s June and the sun hasn’t set since April, and it won’t set again until the end of August. I haven’t seen night-time for over a week now.

Overnight Antigua has sailed into a narrow fjord lined by majestic, snow-covered mountains. The tranquil icy water creates a perfect mirrored reflection of her masts. A few of the hardier passengers are huddled around the raised area at the bow poised with their cameras at the ready.

bow of a tall ship arctic

All eyes on deck

On a nearby shore a large adult polar bear trudges through the snow, seemingly oblivious to the group of curious spectators it has attracted. The engines of Antigua have slowed to a gentle idle. We glide along parallel to the polar bear – watching intently as it navigates the rocky, undulating terrain on the edge of the fjord. Its fury legs disappear into deep snow for a second. It then hoists its body back up in an uncomfortable motion, emerging once again from the white stuff.

We watch, mesmerised. The polar bear breaks the surface of the motionless water and swims towards us, darting between the floating ice. We slow to a standstill. In Svalbard it’s forbidden to do anything that might alter an animal’s behaviour, so boat operators are exceptionally mindful about not disturbing the wildlife. An adult bear can travel up to 60km in a day, so getting this close up and personal is never guaranteed. Luck is on our side.

The polar bear swims across the bow of the ship. The huddle of passengers frantically click away on their cameras. It’s a humbling experience to observe a polar bear in the wild. I pause for a moment before I reach for my camera, stilled and in complete reverence of seeing this magnificent creature in its natural icy kingdom. Rarely does a moment have such an impact that you feel compelled to totally absorb it rather than simply capture it on camera.


See more by boat

There are an estimated 975 polar beers in the Barents Sea region making it one of the main draws for visitors to Svalbard. Due to the danger posed by polar bears, by far the best way to get close to them is by boat.

A tall ship is the perfect way to appreciate the beauty of this far-flung remote corner of the earth. Antigua is a barquentine. In non-nautical speak that means she is a sailing vessel with three or more masts with square rigging on the foremast. She started life as a fishing vessel in England in 1957 and in 1993 was converted into the elegant tall ship she is today. At fifty meters in length she is more personal than the larger cruise ships offering tours in the Arctic which allows us to get much closer to the wildlife than would be otherwise possible.

Sailing around Spitsbergen on Antigua is to step back in time to a forgotten age. The outside world doesn’t exist here. There is no wifi or mobile phone reception. The frozen landscapes outside of the settlements are timeless and remain unchanged by man since the first explorers landed here in 1596 with the exception of the retreating glaciers.


Further Exploration

Each morning at breakfast Andreas, a Svalbard veteran expedition leader of over 20 years, explains the plan for the day with a childlike excitement with the familiar forewarning: ‘Be warned! On Spitsbergen plans always change.’

And he is right. One day a polar bear was sighted at a landing spot and the trip ashore was aborted due to the danger posed by encountering these mammoths on land. The weather in Svalbard can easily turn and make a planned stop impossible. Flexibility is key.

Shore explorations by Zodiac (a small inflatable boat) are a key part of any expedition cruise. The captain and Andreas work tirelessly to maximise the shore visits for the passengers onboard Antigua; a level of personalisation that would be lost on larger tourist boats. 

view from a zodiac

We make a two landings on Prins Karls Foreland, a narrow island with jagged snow covered mountains off the west coast of Spitsbergen. The first stop is to get up close to a walrus colony.

Andreas leads us silently to a vantage point from where we observe 20 adult walruses resting on a desolate beach. Later that afternoon, we don snowshoes and hike for several miles across the deep-set snow to one of the many glaciers in the region.


The next morning we sail to our most northerly destination in the arctic ocean with no land in site. At this point the sea becomes frozen and the ice extends all the way to the north pole which, from here, is less than 600 miles away. We spend several hours drifting in an ice flow, hopeful of an encounter with a polar bear – hopes which soon fade. A mist rolls in, visibility decreases.

Like something out of a seafarer’s fable, the ice flow closes in on the ship. For a moment I can feel the claustrophobia that Shackleton must have felt when he became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell sea. Thankfully, the same fate will not befall us; the captain starts the engines and Antigua pushes back through the ice to clear open water.

tall ship in an ice flow

Reflection on a remote place

Every day is an exhilarating experience onboard Antigua. A Zodiac safari takes us along the edge of a receding glacier. A loud thundercrack. Several tons of ice fall off the face of the glacier  into the fjord below. The haunting echo continues out. With Svalbard’s glaciers in retreat, you cannot avoid contemplation of the effects humans are having on the planet.   

Svalbard is a photographer’s dream. As the rest of Europe enjoys a warmer summer, the landscapes in June remain snow covered. The wildlife is abundant. Over the course of eight days, we saw several polar bears, blue whales, belugas whales, walruses, arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeer and a whole array of arctic birdlife – including eider ducks, arctic terns, kittiwakes and northern fulmars.

To visit here is to experience a true remote wilderness where nature is in control and, in our modern technological society, that is an increasingly rare and beautiful thing to witness.

remote places

We flew to the departure point at Longyearbyen with SAS who fly to Oslo which connects to most European and international destinations. Find the best prices for flights on Skyscanner

Secret Atlas offers expeditions around Svalbard with prices in 2020 starting from 2,700 Euros. Please see my Arctic cruise guide for more information on how to plan your voyage around Svalbard. 

andy marsh

Hi, I’m Andy, co-founder of Secret Atlas, currently on a personal journey to travel to the most remote places on earth.

If you are interested in visiting Svalbard or Greenland on a small ship expedition please check out our tours here.