polar bear encounter on an arctic wildlife cruise Polar Bears Galore In Svalbard

Debbie Grainger senior travel advisor at Wildfoot TravelHoping for a glimpse of the illusive polar bear, Wildfoot’s Senior Travel Advisor Debbie Grainger recently set sail for Arctic waters, bound for the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
Here she fills us in on the highlights of her remarkable wildlife adventure.

Ask anyone what wildlife they most want to encounter on their trip to the Arctic, and the majority will answer – the Polar Bear. And is it any wonder? On my recent trip to Svalbard, we got to see 18 of these magnificent creatures during our 9 day trip!

My trip circumnavigated Svalbard, starting and finishing in Longyearbyen, taking us to 81 degrees north 44’ and we sailed 1314 nautical miles which equates to 2433km.

Longyearbyen is a small coal-mining town on Svalbard, also known as Spitsbergen. At a latitude of 78 degrees north – just 1316km from the North Pole, and a 3-hour flight from Oslo. There are a few shops, bars and restaurants as well as a museum which is definitely worth a visit. You learn about the history of Svalbard, the fight of the expedition teams to get to the North Pole, how the mining industry steered the development of the community and the build-up of services. The whaling that took place from 1612, and the hunting and trapping of any fur-bearing animals.

There are many vessels to choose from when planning your Arctic adventure. From small sailing ships with just 12 passengers to the larger ships that take up to 300 passengers. The ship that I sailed on was the Sea Endurance, recently re-named the Quest. It’s a small, mid-range vessel with 53 passengers, 26 cabins all with portholes and private facilities, a dining room and lounge. The lounge is a large, room with huge panoramic windows, and leads right onto the observation decks. Passengers can visit the Bridge whenever they like to chat with the captain and his crew, and the guides encourage you to ask questions about the wildlife, the plants, the geology and history.

Meals are at set times and are buffet-style for breakfast and lunch, whilst the evening meal is waiter service. All dining was freedom dining, so you could sit wherever you wanted and with who you wanted. Also, the guides would join any empty spaces at the tables once all the passengers were seated, which I thought was a lovely idea, as you got to know them better. The food was always excellent, with a great choice – A BBQ was arranged for one of the evenings, however the weather wasn’t very good that day, so we had it inside the dining room!

There were a couple of passengers who had walking difficulties, but they were accommodated so well in the walking groups. Their land trips consisted of short walks along the shore-line, looking at the various flowers, bird-watching and taking close-up photos of the wildlife that they encountered. I noticed how well they were looked after when it came to getting in and out of the zodiacs too.

So back to the Polar Bears. One of our lectures was about these animals, and it made us realise how vulnerable their lives are; How much they rely on the ice so that they can catch their prey.

They are the largest bear species – males can reach, weights of 300-700kg, whilst females weigh 150-350kg. Contrary to belief, they are not snow-white in colour, but more of a creamy to dirty yellow. In fact, the longer they spend on land the dirtier the coat will be.

Telling the difference between male and female, especially from a distance, is quite difficult for the untrained eye. The males have a strong neck and a broad skull base, whilst the female bear have a slimmer neck and a longer skull. Also, if you can see the bridge of the nose, it tends to be shorter and quite often scarred with the males.

Polar bears are marine mammals. They are brilliant swimmers and can cover huge distances without any problems – distances of more than 100 kilometres have been recorded. The long guard hairs form a watertight outer coat over a soft and fluffy undercoat which traps a layer of air against the skin; this allows it to swim well without getting wet to the skin. Once out of the water, a quick shake leaves the outer coat almost dry. The guard hairs are air-filled and exceptionally strong.

polar bear encounter on an arctic wildlife cruise

The real, true habitat for the Polar Bears is the dense drift ice, the frozen fjords and bays. This is where they spend most of their life and have the best chance of catching their prey. A well-fed polar bear with a thick layer of fat, can survive up to eight months without food! So, what is the preferred food for the Polar Bear? A freshly caught seal (particularly the ringed seal) on the ice, as it takes less physical effort than catching them in the water; But they are opportunists and use many techniques to find food; walrus; white whales; reindeer; chicks and eggs from the nest and vegetation. They have a very keen sense of smell and can even detect seal pups under the snow!

polar bear encounter on an arctic wildlife cruise

Polar bears are generally loners, living possibly the loneliest life on the planet, unless there is an abundance of food. The other time that there is a gathering of numbers is during the mating season. The mating season is in April and early May – the males will stay with the female for a couple of days for repeated mating, but then the male takes no further part in the process and goes his own way. Implantation is delayed until September, when the female takes to a den excavated in the snow. Late December one or two cubs are born in the den. At birth, the cubs are the size of a rat, almost naked, and blind. But their diet of rich milk – 30% butterfat – means that by the time the mother and her young family leave the den in late March/early April, the cubs have increased from a birth weight of 680g to a healthy 25lb. The mother will not have had any food for the last 4 months, so good hunting results are critical, and only the experienced mothers will be able to raise the cubs to reach the age of one year old. The mother will look after the cub/s for 2 years, teaching them their predatory trade, before abandoning them to make their own way over the ice and the polar seas. Mortality is high again during the first year of independence. The female Polar Bear breeds only once every two years.

polar bear encounter on an arctic wildlife cruise

The early 1800’s saw commercial killings of Polar bears, which led to the steady decline in their numbers. It was 1973 before the Polar bears became a protected species under the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar bears. These days, it is global warming that is the biggest threat to the Polar bear. If the sea ice continues to decline at the current rate of about 13% per decade, then the Polar bears will suffer a loss of habitat, and consequently food. The fact is simple – the bears depend on the ice, as no ice, means no seals. No seals means no Polar bears.

Find out more about our Arctic trips here


Kinotehnik LCDVF 3C Viewfinder Kinotehnik LCDVF 3C Viewfinder

Dave Cheetham Wildfoot TravelEach month Wildfoot Travel’s Dave Cheetham reviews a piece of wildlife travel or photography gear. From clothing, to books and cameras to accessories, the product-in-focus may vary, but the honest and thorough scrutiny remains constant.

“As a DSLR user, I’m sure I am not alone in my frustration with shooting video in the field. I know my camera (Canon 5D MkIII) is capable of shooting great video but, confined to viewing it on the LCD screen, I find it impossible to see what I am filming. Most of the time sunlight and reflection on the screen make it almost pointless trying. So I set about finding a solution.

Enter the ‘Kinotehnik LCDVF Viewfinder’. With models available to suit a wide range of cameras and screen sizes, the first task is to make sure you choose the right one for your camera. Having done that successfully, I bit the bullet and paid the surprisingly high £85 price tag. A unequivocal solution to my screen-reflection-worries was the only thing that could possibly ease the sting of that size of payment.

After unwrapping the device and scanning the instructions, I peeled off the backing tape and attached the thin, unobtrusive metal frame around the screen on the rear of my camera. With that neatly in place the viewfinder’s magnetic surround met the frame with a comfortable and reassuring click and we were ready to go. Simple.

From that moment on my film-making worries were over. Today, the viewfinder makes shooting any video a pleasure. It attaches and detaches with a flick of the wrist and I can honestly say that I have never even noticed the metal frame which remains mounted on the back of the camera since it’s application.

Easing your eye to the viewfinder’s comfortable eyepiece, the subject is magnified and crystal clear, leaving you free to focus and adjust the camera settings, helping you get the best video footage possible.  What’s more, by some weird and inexplicable technological magic, the screen is magnified, so you see everything at three times it’s real size. Aside from allowing better camera control, this leads to an uniquely intimate connection between you and your subject, enriching wildlife encounters ten-fold.”

Kinotehnik LCDVF 3C Viewfinder

The rubber eyepiece offers a snug and comfortable fit, blocking out all external light. For projects which require you to keep your eye to the lens for longer periods, like observing wildlife or simply waiting for the magic to happen, there is an additional microfibre eye-cushion.

The viewfinder is lightweight and comes with a handy carry-pouch which clips on to your belt (or anywhere else you choose) so it is always to hand. When you are not using the viewfinder, an unobtrusive lanyard allows you to keep it hanging from your neck ready to be clicked on or off in a jiffy.

In any review I would award this excellent new addition to my camera bag five-stars – and a sixth if that were allowed.

As a side note, this neat accessory offers an additional benefit for anyone with restricted vision. The magnified view can be used to take still photos as well as video, enhancing visibility and camera control for those with eyesight issues.

Every day, hundreds of albatross die in longline fisheries What’s the problem?

Seabirds, especially albatross, are globally caught in longline fisheries for tuna and swordfish. Birds dive to catch the bait as the lines and baited hooks are deployed, becoming hooked, dragged underwater and drowned. This source of mortality is contributing to an increased risk of extinction to 15 of the 22 albatross species and kills an estimated 100,000 albatross annually.

The Hookpod provides the solution to this problem in a one-stop mitigation device which negates the need for other measures, in particular tori lines and lead weights. Extensive trials over 7 years have proven the efficacy and durability of the pod.

We are currently working with the New Zealand industry and government to provide Hookpods for 1-2 vessels operating in the surface longline fleet fishing for Bluefin tuna. This fishery is a particularly high-risk one for albatrosses and traditional mitigation is not completely effective. Seeding this fishery with Hookpods will help the NZ government demonstrate the efficacy of the Hookpod and push for the opening of international regulations to allow their use.

What’s the answer?

The Hookpod is a truly remarkable invention which virtually eliminates the seabird bycatch in pelagic longline fisheries. It has been shown to reduce bycatch by over 95% in trials, without affecting catch rates of fish or affecting fishing operations.

By encapsulating the barb of the hook within a durable, reusable polycarbonate case, the Hookpod renders it harmless to seabirds, safely taking hook and bait to a depth of 10-12m, where a patented pressure release system springs the pod open, using the pressure of water, and releasing the hook to begin fishing. We are developing this opening mechanism to open at 20m and are hopeful that this may have impact on reducing turtle bycatch as well.

hookpod provides the solution to long line fishing catching birds

The Hookpod is fitted to the fishing lines and stays in place on the branchline above the hook, being used each set once the hook is baited and then retrieved as part of the fishing gear with the line, closed and stored in the setting bins, causing no additional work for the crew. The device has been shown to be very durable under standard fishing conditions, with trials showing that pods can remain in daily use for over 2 years.

provides the solution to longline fishing catching birds

Every day, hundreds of albatross die in longline fisheries. But there is a unique and exciting new solution to halt this. It’s called a Hookpod. Hookpods cover baited hooks as they enter the water and stop birds getting caught as they dive for baits. They are effective, easy to use, safe and economic for fishermen. If every pelagic longline fishing fleet used Hookpods, I believe we can stop the accidental death of these magnificent ocean wanderers.


How can you help?

By sponsoring a hook you can provide a Hookpod direct to the longline fishing industry to protect against seabird bycatch. Just £5 will buy a Hookpod and we will work with our partners in New Zealand and around the world to equip a fishing vessel – saving the albatross, one hook at a time.

Hookpod Benefits

*Reduce seabird by catch by 95%

*Operationally easy to use

*Long lasting and durable for at least 3 years

*No impact on target catch rates

To sponsor a Hookpod visit www.hookpod.com


Polar Bear Jumping Icebergs Franz Josef Land – An Uninhibited Paradise

This archipelago is located north of Russia in the Arctic Ocean and is the most northerly part of Russia. Consisting of over 190 islands, there is no indigenous population and the only human inhabitants are Russian military personnel and scientists. It is a remote and windswept region well north of the Arctic Circle and a haven for birds and other polar wildlife. It was designated a National Park in 2016 by the Russian Government, which protects the rare and diverse wildlife and other resources.

Explorers have long travelled to and some have attempted to exploit this land, looking for furs and minerals; however, none have stayed too long. Nowadays, only scientific and tourist ships visit there and it was on one of these that I travelled a couple of years ago. And what a remarkable trip that was – totally different from anything I have experienced before.

Flower ice sea


I was on board an American ship on charter to a Russian operator, Poseidon Travel, based in St Petersburg. This is the only commercial operator with a licence to operate in these waters, apart from some in the Far East and one other, which shares with Poseidon operations to the North Pole – more about this vessel later.

Our ship is Sea Spirit, a recently refurbished 1st class ship built specifically for polar tourism. As such, it has ice-strengthened hull and is equipped for sailing in all weather conditions. It is not an icebreaker, but is ideal for pushing through sea ice and brash ice and finding appropriate mooring spots. It is a passenger – comfortable vessel with all facilities for safe and stable cruising through all sorts of sea conditions.

On-board facilities include lounge and bars, dining room with silver-service dinners and lunches; optional service for breakfast with buffet or waiters and afternoon tea on sea days. All cabins have twin, king or double beds plus, in many cases, private balconies. Available for all is a gym, hot tub on deck for use in quieter sea conditions, library stocked with destination-specific material; each passenger is also issued with a 10mb communications access card.

Passengers Sea Raft

There is a doctor on board with a proper hospital for passengers and crew alike – on this trip, one of the crew suffered appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. Luckily, one of the passengers was a qualified surgeon and offered her services; this also coincided with our arrival at the Russian military station, so she was taken off and a procedure undertaken onshore at the hospital. Both doctor and crew member then returned on board and continued the voyage around the islands, whilst both recovered from the surgery. The doctor received a refund of her passage as a reward for her professional efforts.

Access to the ship is via a marina deck at the stern, where zodiacs dock and passengers can embark and disembark in relative comfort and safety. The ship also carries kayaks for pre-arranged  passenger use and those who avail themselves of this facility, certainly enjoy the opportunities to get away from it all and enjoy the scenery from closer quarters than their fellow travellers, who just have to listen to them relating their experiences in the lounge later!

Scientist Cliff


Another ship on charter to Poseidon is a nuclear-powered icebreaker called 50 Years of Victory. Our visit to the islands happened to coincide with this ship’s visit on its way back from the North Pole. We were permitted to go aboard and have a look around. This was quite an experience. The ship is fitted out for passenger travel, but is quite basic, having been designed for transportation of scientific personnel. The cabins are also somewhat utilitarian, but all are ensuite. Unlike other expedition ships, there is a swimming pool for guests’ use – not as you might imagine if you are accustomed to regular cruising, this one is as unsophisticated as the cabins and was originally just for crew recreation – another part of the 50 years experience, nevertheless!

Helicopter Ship Expedition

My impressions of the ship matched the above description. The galley is staffed by Russian personnel, many of whom do not speak English, but all of whom are friendly.  Food is ‘international’ with a Russian flavour and served at table for dinner and via a buffet for breakfast and lunch. This is in contrast to catering on Sea Spirit, which is higher standard and more varied.

50 Years also carries helicopters, so all passengers have the opportunity to fly on excursions over the ice and sometimes land and explore. Although nowadays, the ice is receding everywhere, so landing place are becoming increasingly rare. Nevertheless, flying from a deck is an exciting and unique experience not to be missed.

There is also plenty of open deck space on board with lots of chances of wildlife and scenery viewing – although there is a lot of sameness out in the open ocean and crossing and breaking through the ice, it is nevertheless an amazing experience not encountered by many. The ship is also quite ordinary, travel on it is really only to say you have sailed on a true icebreaker. The expedition staff are all qualified and very professional with expertise in all sorts of fields from birds and wildlife to glaciology and weather, so you are always in expert hands and most staff can answer most queries thrown at them.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this amazing vessel and am pleased to have had the experience.

Sea Spirit

Back on board the Sea Spirit it was dinner time and, although we had missed the main service, the waiting staff still manged to conjure up a superb meal from the kitchen, including all courses – most impressive and quite delicious!

Sea Spirit Raft

Then, we went back to our ‘proper’ schedule and pushed on through the islands. I say ‘pushed on’ but this year, the sea ice had receded early stranding many of the native wildlife, which rely on the ice for prey and food. So, it was only close to shore that we encountered sea ice and were able to push through with zodiacs and get close to walrus and seals resting on floes and chunks of ice.

We saw our first polar bear on an iceberg. It was an amazing experience on our first full day out. Zodiacs had been out surveying landing spots and had come across the animal on a berg – it was only a youngster, probably in its first season alone and had probably been left behind by its family. We circled the berg, conscious of disturbing the bear, which was well aware of our presence and eventually jumped into the sea and swam away towards shore. Nevertheless, we were all excited at this encounter and hoped it was an omen of good things to come.

Polar Bear Jumping Icebergs

And it was. We were to come across several bears on the following days, as well as other varied wildlife, including walrus, seals and myriad birds.


But, Franz Josef is more than just wildlife. Each island is quite different with many showing signs of human occupation from the days of whaling and exploration. There are tales of explorers who spent months trapped in the ice over long winters to be rescued by sailors, the following summer. We visited one island, where the Russian equivalent of the National Trust has established a base. This was once a whaling station and is a collection of huts, including a post office, where we were able to purchase stamps and postcards and leave them for posting as souvenirs. This was the only retail outlet the islands and most passengers took advantage and sent postcards home to destinations all over the world. Considering the few ships that call, the personnel here were very welcoming, dressing in period costume, including a postman and a polar bear!

Polar Bear Fancy Dress

Champ Island

Another island, Champ, is notable for its geographic features, consisting of stone balls, which litter the beach. These are popular with visitors, who pose with the balls, which come in all sizes from pebbles the size of marbles to massive stones, sitting on the hillside enigmatically surveying the cold Arctic sea and intriguing scientists and touristic visitors alike.

Rock Beach Champ Island

We followed the steps of the various 19th and 20th century explorers, never seeing another ship or sign of human life, until we eventually left the islands many days later and returned to the relative sophistication of Svalbard.


The birders especially enjoyed every day, with regular sightings of common and rarer Arctic species, such as ivory gulls and various guillemots and skuas. With zodiacs, we were able to get close to nesting sites and were buzzed by screaming birds. Species included Brunnich’s and black guillemots, little auks, fulmars, kittiwakes and various gulls. These not only include the white ivory gull, prized by birders, but also more common glaucous variety. There are also Arctic terns and snow buntings, which are found on the tundra along with common eider, purple sandpiper and Arctic skua. Many of the gulls and guillemots choose to winter on the islands, rather than migrate south with other birds.

Ship Ice Mountain


The geography of each island is also quite different, ranging from flat tundra to mountainous. This attracts corresponding fauna and flora. Polar bears are the prime species and inhabit many islands. The only other significant land mammal is the Arctic fox, which is found close to bird cliffs and nesting sites. Marine mammals abound with walrus and seals as the dominant species. Amongst the latter, harp and bearded are the most common, along with walrus, which are now ubiquitous in the islands. Other marine mammals include a number of whales, notably minke and humpback, but also less common white beluga whales, which are often spotted. Fin whales, bowhead, orcas and narwhals can also be seen, if you are fortunate and have good spotting techniques!

Sea Lion Iceberg

Nature on the islands also include Arctic and sometimes unique flora, which is limited to species which can survive the conditions prevailing on the surface. This is therefore limited to small shrubs and lichens and a number of types of vascular plants, the most common of which are Arctic poppy, which grow on all islands and nine types of saxifrage. In total, some 57 species of vascular plants have been recorded or reported over the years. Common in wet areas are alpine foxtail and buttercups along with polar willow. Common throughout Franz Josef Land is lichen, with more than 100 species having been recorded.

Other natural resources include fish and less common marine species. 33 species of fish inhabit the waters on the archipelago, although none is endemic or commercially exploited. The largest species is polar cod, which can reach some 20cm in length and is very tasty!


This islands vary in size, with the largest being Prince George Land at 2741 sq km (1058 sq ml), followed by Wilczek Land, Graham Ball Island and Alexandra land. Global warming has changed the nature of all the islands and their wildlife. Until recently, all were glaciated and covered in ice for almost all of the year; but now much of the ice is melting, which affects birds and mammals alike and alters the view and appearance of islands.

The history of the islands is quite recent in modern terms, with reports of discovery by Norwegians in 1865 – this was based on reports of sealers, who did not actually report their finds – not unusual at the time since few would want competitors flooding into the area and taking their finds for themselves. It was in 1872 that the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition announced the discovery of the islands during their quest for a Northeast Passage. They drifted in the ice until they

reached this landmass, which they named for the emperor, Franz Joseph. Subsequent expeditions by Norwegian, Dutch, American and British explorers added to mapping and knowledge of the area. Nansen came to the islands in 1893 during his expedition to reach the geographic North Pole.

Subsequent expeditions followed, each adding to knowledge of the archipelago, until 1913, when the Russia formally claimed ownership by raising a flag on Cape Flora. This ownership was recognised in 1926, when the Soviet Union formally annexed the islands.


Franz Josef Land is one of the world’s last great frontiers and with cooperation from Russian authorities will become progressively more accessible – I am one of the very fortunate pacesetters!

Passengers Voyage End

If you’d like to experience an expedition like this for yourself, get in touch with our knowledgeable team today.