I saw a wild polar bear!
When I was exploring Svalbard back in June 2019, I took a boat trip to 2 fascinating Russian Arctic mining town. Since I was pressed for time and money, I chose a speedboat trip that combined two half day trips to Barentsburg, a still active mining town, and Pyramiden, an abandoned one. We also passed a number of other local sights and it was one of the most beautiful boat trips I’ve ever been on so far, because there’s just something magical about the Arctic landscape that calls to my heart (they don’t call it the call of the Arctic for nothing I guess).
On the way to Pyramiden, our second half of the trip, we first stopped by a small cabin under some gorgeous cliffs in the middle of nowhere, because some very lucky people were getting off to spend some time there and that’s definitely on my bucket list. Apparently there are secluded cabins all over Svalbard that you can rent if you’re feeling adventurous, but you’ll need a rifle license or a guide with one because of wild polar bears. Speaking of which, we saw one! But we’ll get to that. We also saw some reindeer grazing above the cabin.
On the way
Our next stop was Pyramiden, the iconic Russian abandoned settlement, which is known as one of the world’s most interesting ghost town. Normally the boat would stop there for the passengers to disembark and take a guided tour around the town, but since the bay was still frozen over as you can see in the photos below, we got as close as possible and tried to catch glimpses with binoculars. I guess I’ll have to come back, right?
Pyramiden was first founded in 1910 by Sweden and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. It was named after the pyramid-shaped mountain in the background and became a town of about a 1000 people from the mining community, until the mine there was closed in 1998. The company decided to close the mine because of the falling prices of coal and the difficulty of extracting coal from the mountain, so the town was left behind as it was, including little details such as mugs left on the tables. From what I’ve seen it’s a fascinating place, with a mandatory Lenin statue and even a swimming pool, and you can see some amazing photos here. Today there are about 4-8 people living in Pyramiden and they maintain a hotel and the electric generators for tourists who come by to see the town, but it’s mostly inhabited by seagulls, polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.
Impressions of Pyramiden
After we’d gotten a good look at Pyramiden, our next stop was the Nordenskiöld glacier, but there was a sudden commotion on the boat on the way there. One of the crew had spotted a curious lump on the ice in the next bay from Pyramiden, which turned out to be a fat, mature bearded seal. However, the excitement was not about the seal, but rather about the polar bear stalking it. I SAW A FREAKING WILD POLAR BEAR PEOPLE! Yes, the hype was unreal and even though I’d hoped to see one, I didn’t really expect it, because it’s rather rare to see one.
The boat stopped relatively close to the ice sheet and we all crowded on the outer observation deck, passing around binoculars. We were all super excited and got to witness the seal taunting the polar bear by moving around close to the water, but never going in. According to my couchsurfing host’s flatmate, who studied Arctic biology, the bear was a young one and probably male and very hungry if he was trying to take on such a big seal alone, and the seal was taunting him by making it seem like he had a chance. Seals are very fast and agile in the water, so the bears usually have a better chance of catching them on land.
Polar bear photo by J. Lenzen.
My phone camera could only do so much, but I got a better photo of the polar bear from a German photographer I’d met the previous day in Longyearbyen, who also took a tour to Pyramiden that day and had a super fancy camera zoom. Look at him, isn’t he cute? <3 My couchsurfing host also said that I was one of only 4 people out of the 80 he had hosted that had actually seen a polar bear, so I got extremely lucky!
After the bear retreated, we were off to the glacier. Nordenskiöld glacier was named after a Finnish geologist explorer and it’s an impressive mass of clear blue ice. It always blows my mind to think how old and immense glaciers are and that makes it all that more important that we get to keep them and not lose the Arctic to the effects of climate change.
You can also see me wearing an Arctic survival suit in the photos, which was available to borrow at the boat and I used it to the max. I stayed out on the deck most of the time and even though it was cold and the wind was bitter cold and my nose almost froze off, I wanted to make the most of my Arctic adventure. The suit was about 3 sizes too big, but the photo below is one of my favourite travel photos. It was taken by Timi, one of my now friends that I later couchsurfed with in Göteborg and was even a guest on his radio show. Timi and I met on this exact boat trip and he later came to stay with us in Slovenia and his flatmate is now a guest on my podcast, so what goes around really comes around, hah?
All in all, this boat trip was a total win on all fronts and I don’t regret a single cent spent on it. Seeing a polar bear in the wild definitely counts as one of my more surreal travel experiences and I still can’t believe I got to see one. I’d always thought of polar bears as these wild, incredible predators in the far icy north, not something that us regular people would ever be able to see in the wild on a tourist trip. Just goes to show how much the world can surprise you and how lucky we are to live in a time where experiences like these are not reserved just for daring, well-funded explorers. We really should take better care of our planet, because I want my future children to see a wild polar bear one day too. Just not too up close. 🙂