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Svalbard in Spring: On Reconnaissance with Sven Lindblad

Arctic sea ice lit by the sun

Founder Sven Lindblad has been to the Norwegian Arctic countless times, but he never had a more magical experience than when he traveled there in March of 2018. Here, he shares details of his reconnaissance trip along with some of his compelling photography. Travel with Sven aboard the April 18, 2022 departure of our new itinerary, Svalbard in Spring.

 

I first visited Svalbard in July 1973 on my father’s ship, the Lindblad Explorer. An earlier visit was deemed impossible because the sea ice would not have broken up sufficiently to allow our ship, a 1A Ice Class vessel, to navigate safely and provide guests with access to this Arctic Archipelago.

Now, 45 years later, the Arctic presents a very different navigational challenge: where, and when, can sea ice still be found? Oddly, we can often find more wildlife now than we could back then, which is of course, rewarding for our guests but is a result of diminishing habitat for these majestic animals. Like a waterhole in Africa during a drought where animals are concentrated to the limited water supply, so are the bears and seals due to more limited ice. So, I decided to explore Svalbard aboard a chartered Swedish icebreaker in March of 2018, a full two months earlier than any of us had ever ventured this far north.

Polar bears on ice in Svalbard.jpg
All photos taken by Sven Lindblad.

On the second day of the expedition, we reached 80° North latitude, just 600 miles from the North Pole on Svalbard’s northwest corner. Our ambition was to round Spitsbergen Island, often challenging even in the early summer. Our plan was stymied, though, but not from ice. The local authorities restricted travel further east at this time of year over concerns about search and rescue if something went wrong. Although disappointed we couldn’t progress beyond, it wasn’t really an issue as there was so much to explore within acceptable limits.

"It was, above all, about light."

We were literally alone in this vast wilderness and what we saw and experienced was so beautiful, so remarkable, our entire team was constantly mesmerized. It was, above all, about light and how it played on ice and on the sea. We focused on the everchanging nuances as shadows came and went, mountainsides glowing in bright orange in the morning, bright pure whites during day, and soft pinks in the evening. We strolled across sea ice, overjoyed by the pure, crisp air. 

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Navigating the ice edges, we encountered walrus, bearded and ringed seals, and scanned for polar bears. One day we spotted a mother with two adolescent cubs; within half an hour they were just off our bow, sniffing and curious. Later we saw seven bears, but didn’t approach to avoid carving up the ice they’d need for as long as it remained. 

 

As our team disembarked the M.S. Freya, we all knew that we had witnessed the reality of change—dramatic change. Arctic sea ice is no longer a given at the times it should be. It will essentially be gone at a time when, 10 years ago, we would begin our explorations here. And it is clear that this diminishing of sea ice will continue with relentless and, perhaps, accelerating speed. We also realized that, while we profoundly lament this march towards ice extinction, being here when we were, a time unthinkable a decade ago, was a wondrous and precious opportunity. It may not last beyond our generation, almost certainly not beyond the next, unless… 

 

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