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Death by Walrus: an adventure in the arctic

Death by Walrus: an adventure in the arctic

Walrus courtesy of jonathan cooper/unsplash
Walrus Hinlopen Strait Svalbard L Lee
Walrus, Svalbard. Image courtesy Aurora Expeditions and L.Lee

Death by Walrus: an adventure in the Arctic

In the frostbitten embrace of the Arctic, an array of fates lurk, each more bizarre than the last. Among these, succumbing to a walrus, a creature armed with formidable tusks, is perhaps the most extraordinary. Imagine being ensnared by this gargantuan mammal, its mouth forming a gaping ‘O’, as it inverts you in a ghastly dance of death, reminiscent of the fates befalling clams and other sea dwellers.

In the stark and icy realms of Svalbard, a land under Norway’s distant watch, more mundane yet equally grim exits await the unwary traveller. Erik Gronningsaeter, a former sage of the wilds with Aurora Expeditions, imparts wisdom on the two most common demises: the icy embrace of the waters through drowning, or the relentless, creeping chill of hypothermia.

Silversea Arctic Luxury Cruises - Polar Bear
Image courtesy of Silversea

The treacherous beauty of calving glaciers poses a watery grave for those who dare too close. The violent birth of icebergs can unleash waves with the might to drag you into the abyss. A cautionary tale, indeed.

The daring ‘Polar Plunge’

Skye Marr-Whelan, a seasoned leader with Aurora Expeditions, echoes this sentiment. She recounts the daring ‘Polar Plunge’, where intrepid souls brave the icy waters for a fleeting moment, their reward an ‘I survived the Polar Plunge t-shirt.’

Arctic Surf in Unstad Bay, Norway
Image courtesy of Just Luxe

Another, more violent end, is to fall prey to the Arctic’s apex predator, the polar bear. Despite their deceptive cuddliness, these beasts are ruthless hunters, capable of transforming a serene landscape into a scene of carnage, as they do with unsuspecting seals.

John Kirkwood, a naturalist with Aurora Expeditions, notes a chilling evolution in polar bear behaviour. In Russia’s Wrangel Island, these solitary hunters have begun banding together, targeting walruses in a stark shift from their known habits.

Photo of the Great Ice Gear Adventure from Churchill Wild Polar Bear Tours

In Canada’s Churchill, polar bears demonstrate remarkable adaptability. Once drawn to a local landfill, a veritable fast-food joint for bears, they continue to linger even after its closure, lured by the promise of easy meals amidst the tourist throngs.

Polar bear prison

Yet, for the bears in Churchill that stray too close to human settlements, a grim fate awaits. Much like inmates in a high-security prison, these ‘problem bears’ find themselves confined within the Polar Bear Holding Facility, a place where their freedom ends, but their care, ostensibly, remains a priority.

When I embarked on an Arctic odyssey, I found myself in the enigmatic town of Longyearbyen, a bastion of the polar bear and a land where the notion of death takes on a peculiar twist. In this frost-kissed town, nestled within the Arctic’s icy grip, an unusual decree reigns: dying is prohibited. Should the icy fingers of fate grasp you too tightly, expect a swift evacuation to Norway’s less frigid regions to meet your end.

Arctic Seal
Arctic Seal image courtesy of Ponant

However, if misfortune or illness ensnares you in its cruel embrace, do not expect the earth of Longyearbyen to be your final resting place. Here, the graveyard has been closed to new entrants for over seven decades, a morbid testament to the permafrost’s preservative powers. The frozen ground, refusing to yield to decomposition, has turned its inhabitants into a tableau of eerie preservation. Scientists, driven by a mix of curiosity and reverence, have exhumed tissues from these icy vaults, unveiling secrets of past epidemics locked within their frozen embrace.

No more graveyards for Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen’s stance on death is as much a result of its isolation as its climate. Situated at a formidable 78 degrees north, on the Svalbard archipelago, it is a frontier between the world of man and the realm of the polar bear. Here, a small community huddles in wooden shelters, partly shielded from the Arctic’s howling winds by the surrounding mountains.

Svalbard courtesy of S Himmel/Unsplash
Svalbard courtesy of S Himmel/Unsplash

In this town, where the wild reigns supreme, university students are schooled not just in academia but in survival; their first lesson being the art of bear defence. “Aim for the chest,” if you have a gun, they are taught (although it is illegal to shoot a polar bear, except in self-defence.)

Should you find yourself unarmed and facing the might of a polar bear, the advice is to sacrifice your gloves to the snow to distract the beast. But beware, if the bear snaps its teeth, an ominous prelude to a hunt, you may find yourself pondering whether this bear might somehow honour Longyearbyen’s bizarre municipal mandate.

Arctic cruise, anyone?

polar bear
The mighty Polar Bear

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