It's been called one of the most hostile places on earth. Svalbard, an island archipelago about the size of Ireland is located midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Sixty per cent of its surface is covered by glaciers, the permafrost is half a kilometre thick, and polar bears outnumber its human inhabitants. But its sinuous valley glaciers, sharp-crested mountains and ice-filled fjords possess a stark, primordial beauty that can only be found in the earth's most remote corners where man has not yet interfered with nature. Many people may see it as a lonely, hostile place but our week on Svalbard was definitely the highlight of our Norwegian adventure.
A few intrepid Scandinavian fishermen and hunters may have visited the archipelago as early as the 12th century but it was not officially "discovered" until 1596 when the Dutchman Willem Barentsz stumbled across it while searching for a northern water route to the Orient. He never found a Northeast Passage but Svalbard became a lucrative base for fishing, hunting and whaling that continued to thrive until the 1830s.
From Tromso in northern Norway our ship, the M/S Expedition, took two full days to reach the southern tip of Spitsbergen, the largest and only inhabited of Svalbard's islands. Near the end of our first day we passed tiny Bear Island, a precipitous pimple of basalt inhabited by thousands of nesting sea birds and nine people who tend one of the world's most remote weather stations and give ships like ours up-to-the-minute reports on sea and ice conditions.
After a second day at sea we saw the mountains of Svalbard looming against the northern horizon and an hour later our ship pushed her way through a band of ice flows and slipped into an open lead in Hornsund. The Expedition is not an icebreaker, but her hull is "ice reinforced," allowing us to push through fairly heavy pack ice and giving us the freedom to explore beyond the open water.
We spent most of our first day in Hornsund, working our way slowly through the pack ice in a futile search for polar bears. But, though no one saw a bear, there were plenty of other equally fascinating animals — ring seals and a variety of birds on the ice, an arctic fox and several small groups of reindeer on shore and — at the head of the inlet where the sea ends abruptly against the precipitous cliffs of a massive glacier — a pod of beluga whales appeared to be romping in the shallow water at the toe of the glacier. "They're rubbing themselves on the rocks," explained Tom, a zodiac driver with a Ph.D. in marine biology, "getting rid of their old winter skin."