There’s something breathtakingly riveting when you encounter a wild animal in its natural environment … whether you are in the Arctic, Antarctic or Galápagos.
By Greg Grainger
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a polar bear in the wild. I’d been travelling for a day along the coast of the stunning archipelago of Svalbard, midway between Norway and the North Pole. We’d encountered big herds of Svalbard reindeer and plenty of seals, but not a single bear.
That’s the way it is with genuine wildlife sightings. You go for long periods with nothing. And then just as you think you’ll never see anything, there it is, very much alive and active. It’s a sensation that is always absolutely exhilarating.
And certainly in Svalbard, my heart beat faster as we closed the distance between the bear and myself.
My mind was racing. What a magnificent creature with its glistening fur lumbering across the ice. This bear was in the prime of his life, a young male actively hunting for seals. Clambering over ice formations. Leaping onto its hind legs to crash down onto the ice, trying to break through to reach a seal.
We observed this bear for an entire day, following its every step. And at day’s end, just as we were preparing to head for our shelter, it emerged from the water blood red. It had made a kill, the seal still thrashing in its mouth. For the next hour we watched it devour its prey. An experience I’ll never forget.
Svalbard and its Arctic neighbours are home to whales, walrus, seals, reindeer and polar bears. Then there are the many birds, including Brunich’s guillemots, kittiwakes and glaucous gulls.
The only way to experience this global outpost is on an ice-strengthened ship. Every day, we would travel ashore in inflatable rafts, exploring the shoreline, visiting old whaling stations, and photographing the magnificent ice formations and wildlife that abound there. It is a thrilling experience, from the moment we landed in the quaint Svalbard settlement of Longyearbyen.
Heading south … way, way south
If you like ice with that, it’s not all about the Arctic. For me, the Antarctic is equally as awesome. It’s like travelling out of this planet into another world. Amidst the stunning ice formations, are encounters with wildlife that will stay in your memory forever. I certainly will never forget when a beautiful humpback whale popped its head out of the water, and eye-balled me within arm’s reach. I really felt like it was communicating with me.
These Antarctic trips take place on the ice-strengthened vessel, the Ortelius, a platform of safety and comfort that allows us to go ashore many times every day, either on one of its inflatable rafts, or on one of the two helicopters on board.
Watching the Ortelius slice through the sea ice is mesmerising. On either side huge icebergs, are blanketed with penguins and seals. On shore, we experience new encounters every day with wildlife. One day, we spent hours watching a colony of Adelie Penguins. One by one they’d jump into the water, dolphining as they swam, then propelling themselves up out of the water onto the ice shelf, right beside us.
On one occasion, we were treated to the sight of dozens of orcas, swimming exhuberantly around the bow of the Ortelius in formation. It was such an impressive sight, our seasoned Russian skipper took out his own video camera to capture that magic moment.
The highlight of our adventure was the emperor penguins. The helicopters ferried us to within a kilometre of a colony of them. Not so close as to frighten them, yet allowing us to walk the final steps to get ever so close. And what impressive creatures they are, standing tall, preening their magnificent feathers, and watching over their down-covered chicks.
In the Galápagos Islands, we follow in the wake of explorer Charles Darwin, sailing to new islands every day and going ashore for new wildlife encounters. These islands straddle the equator and are teeming with wildlife, from penguins and iguanas to giant land tortoises and colourful booby birds.
It’s a treasure trove of endemic species, a real naturalist’s paradise. And all conducted from the luxury of a powerful motor cruiser. •
Greg Grainger is an award-winning producer of wildlife documentaries, screened on National Geographic and Discovery Channels internationally. Photography courtesy Adventure Associates
The 11-day ‘Weddell Sea – Emperor Penguin’ voyage in Antarctica, led by Greg Grainger, departs Ushuaia on 26 November, 2015 on board the Ortelius.
The 14-day ‘Spitsbergen and Franz Josef Land’ Tour will depart on the M/V Sea Spirit from Spitsbergen on 7 July, 2016.
The eight-day ‘Galapagos In the Wake of Darwin’ tour departs San Cristobal on a luxury motor yacht on 11 September, 2016.
In partnership with Adventure Associates, Greg Grainger Adventures also offers trips to Maria Island in Tasmania, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Bhutan, India, Botswana, Iran, Madagascar and the Himalayas.
Greg Grainger Adventures: 1300-959-189; greggraingeradventures.com