Standing on the outer deck of Plancius as we sailed out of Longyearbyen, I looked down to see a puffin staring back at me. It was bobbing next to the ship, sunbeams glittering on its sleek body, which it lifted up and skimmed over the water in the direction of something on the horizon.
I shielded my eyes to get a closer look and discovered dolphins wave-riding against the setting sun.
Well, this is a good start, I thought. Once they’d departed, I headed into the dining room for a three-course dinner.
The guests on board the Plancius voyage to North Spitsbergen varied from 18 years to elderly, attracting a plethora of interesting and open-minded people. Mealtime conversations were fascinating every single day, so much so that I sat at a different table each morning to hear more stories of adventure.
Not only that, my fellow guests made up a combined 22 nationalities!
I hadn’t thought much about shore landings, so I was pleasantly surprised when I was handed a sturdy pair of boots. I joined expedition guide Gérard Bodineau’s hiking group around Spitsbergen, which changed in texture and scale at every destination.
There was so much to see, I only read one chapter of my book in eight days. I blame Svalbard.
I’d done plenty of research into eco-conscious companies offering polar bear-viewing voyages, so I was more than impressed by Oceanwide in practise as well as on paper (well, the internet) in every respect.
There was an AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) representative on board, invitied by Oceanwide to monitor their wildlife interactions.
I learned more about how Oceanwide reduces its footprint on Svalbard. One of the ways is the special electric engine fitted to Plancius, which makes the ship almost silent and much more environmentally friendly.
We enjoyed a blue whale fluking at sunset right next to the boat, because the engine noise didn’t disturb her. We also saw several polar bears close to the boat for the same reason.
Human interest in viewing wild animals is part of what funds wildlife protection nowadays, and making our visitations as unobtrusive as possible is a priority that Oceanwide takes very seriously. It was a pleasure watching Oceanwide expedition staff at work, ensuring the safety of the animals we were viewing as well as the safety of the guests on board.
Not expecting much luxury from an ice-strengthened vessel, I was again surprised at the light-filled observation deck. There you can rely on someone to spot the next encounter almost hour-by-hour.
The area is filled with books and board games – not that we found time for them between the lectures and activities, all carefully planned by the expedition staff on board.
The outside spaces on Plancius are plentiful, and many of them are sheltered. When we found the pack ice at 82.46 degrees north, for example, I could stand outside for a long time and marvel at the surrounding sun halo.
I enjoyed visiting the bridge, where I could watch Captain Alexey work while his crew scanned for polar bears. One of my highlights on the trip, in fact, was standing in the bridge when a mother polar bear and her cub were spotted. I watched the crew leap into action to ensure her safety (and our perfect viewing position) long before we approached her.
We were always prepared for wildlife and kept well informed by announcements whenever any animal was spotted. Rolando Garcia, the Plancius bartender, was unstoppable.
He was also a good sport for chopping up all the fresh ice we brought back from a glacier for evening cocktails. There was always someone to chat with or just stand beside and watch the waves go by together.
I have so many fond and joyful memories from the trip. I became part of a little Arctic family of guests. Since a love of the planet brought us together, we spent each day astounded at how truly diverse and heavenly the Arctic is.
We sailed straight into the open arms of the legendary Polar Bug.
This feeling certainly took a firm hold of me: The following week I was on board another Oceanwide ship, Rembrandt Van Rijn, to sail the fjords of East Greenland. I’d love to say that this scratched my polar itch, but I think it’s set me on fire even more.
I may have to head north to cool off.