Polar bears and walruses

By |Published On: July 12, 2023|Categories: Europe, Svalbard|1368 words|10 Comments|

So far, other than in Longyearbyen we had not been on land in Svalbard, what with polar bears being around and not having the required weapons during our first couple of days. But we had decided that at Farmhamna, our next anchorage, we would be going for a bit of a wander ashore. This was a nicely protected bay of about 1 km diameter with low beaches and headlands on three sides. David pumped up the dinghy, we assembled all the different bits and pieces of our new electric outboard, and gathered all the gear required to go ashore for a walk in polar bear country.


First though, we had to get to Farmhamna. It was only a short sail, about 25 nm, and there were light winds. Feeling lazy and sailing downwind, we only put up the genoa and pottered along at 4.5 kn below the bird cliffs, enjoying the views.


Before not too long we were being overtaken by a far more serious crew onboard SY Nina Soraya. She was carrying 3 full sails and going a respectable 6 kts. This was almost enough to push us out of lazy mode, so much so that we very briefly considered hoisting the main. Briefly. But then that just seemed like so much effort on such a lovely grey day, so we kicked back and ghosted along as we were. This would have remained a secret, had SY Nina Soraya not secured photographic evidence of our indolent approach to this sailing business.

Yuma lazy sailing towards Farmhamna (photo courtesy of SY Nina Soraya)



Nina Soraya was already well and truly anchored in Farmhamna by the time we came moseying happily into the anchorage. As we were preparing to drop the anchor we got a radio call from them. We thought initially that they were going to give us a hard time about our lazy sailing, but instead, it was to tell us that there was a a polar bear directly ahead of us on shore!

Nina Soraya and Yuma at Farmhamna


Very exciting news!

We quickly anchored up, grabbed our binoculars, and got started polar bear watching. What a treat!

This was one relaxed bear. It spent most of its time rummaging around, first on the slopes above the beach but then coming down to work along the shore line. At one point it disappeared under a snowbank where it seemed to curl up in a nice cool spot. It then climbed up into the tundra above the beach and crashed out for a wee nanny-nap, legs sprawled out behind and head resting on a rock. Perhaps 50m away a reindeer grazed unconcerned.

Polar bear taking a nap while unconcerned reindeer grazes contentedly nearby.


Power nap over, our bear then wandered back down to the top of the drop-off into the water. There, from a crevice under a rock, it retrieved something that looked like the entrails of a seal and settled down for a bit of chewing on this tasty morsel. This was nice to see as it suggested that this polar bear was unlikely to be hungry enough to be interested in two grotty sailors. Nevertheless, it seemed wise to shelve our plans for a walk at Farmhamna and content ourselves with a bit of bear watching from the boat.

After snacking on its seal morsel, the bear wandered south along the beach and eventually crossed the moraine and moved out of sight. David’s comment was: ‘I bet it is going to walk around that inlet behind the rocks there and will come back out on the headland behind us in a couple of hours’.

I didn’t pay too much attention to this prediction, but a couple of hours later I looked out of the companionway and, low and behold, there on the headland behind us was the polar bear. Holy crap! It walked back and forth peering out in our direction (I kept thinking ‘is it looking for the best entrance into the water to swim to our boat?’) and sniffing in the air (‘Is it smelling my cooking, or us?’).

“Should we get the guns out?” I asked.

“Don’t be silly”, said David, “you don’t have to worry about any of that until it gets into the water.”


No sooner had David said this than polar bear climbed down the rocky drop-off, got into the water and started swimming towards us. Yikes!

Quickly we got all our noise-making devices out into the cockpit, including my trumpet, our fog horn, pots and pans, the signal gun, and a fire extinguisher. I also made a radio call to our neighbours, one that I had never even imagined I would make: ‘Nina Soraya, Nina Soraya, this is Yuma. A polar bear is swimming straight to you!’. No answer.

As the bear swam on it became clear that it was swimming across the bay, not to us, and would pass along the other side of Nina Soraya. I radio-ed Nina Soraya a couple more times, but still no answer. Later it appeared that they were all deep asleep, except for one woman on watch who didn’t know how to use the radio and just locked the boat up, uncertain as to where the bear actually was. So, they missed seeing a polar bear swimming right past their boat; luckily we got a photo for them.

Polar bear behind SY Nina Soraya


After a while the polar bear had reached the other side of the bay, climbed out and wandered off. It didn’t look like it had been a hard swim for the bear even though it swam against the wind, in waters of 5°C. What was very apparent to us though was that in anything other than flat water it would be incredibly difficult to see a swimming polar bear from a dinghy, with only the white head and back, and sometimes only the black nose, showing above the water. Ever since then, we have been on black nose watch when motoring around in our dinghy.


The polar bear party wasn’t yet over though. The next morning, out on the shore, there was not one, but two polar bears! This was crazy! They were amiably wandering around together, hopping into the water, climbing up onto the tundra, or sitting side by side on the cliff looking down into the water. Every now and again they would begin to wrestle, rolling over one and another, biting and grappling, or standing on their hind legs and trying to topple each other.

Swimming party




The bears were about 500 m away, so after chatting with our neighbours on Nina Soraya we decided to launch our dinghies and get a little bit closer, to about 200-300 m.

Teamwork to get the best shot (photo courtesy of SY Nina Soraya)


From that distance, we observed them for about an hour, an absolutely incredible experience and one that we couldn’t have imagined we would get the opportunity to see. Our new electric engine came in to its own here, being almost completely silent and without the stink of exhaust, it let us observe from a safe distance without attracting bear attention.


Eventually, the two bears wandered off out of sight, so, we motored back to our boat, and got ready to move further north.


The next leg took us north through Forlundsundet, a waterway between the island of Spitsbergen and the island of Prins Karls Forland.

Prins Karls Forland

Glacier on Prins Karls Forland


Part-way along the east coast of the latter, at Poolepynten (from ‘Pool’ = freshwater pool and ‘Pynten’ = point), there is a well-known walrus huddle that we were keen to visit. If the weather there was settled enough we wanted to anchor and go ashore.

Arriving at Poolepynten, the walruses were there, and the weather was calm enough for us to anchor.

What a life!




What we had not really appreciated until then, was how very curious walrus are. As soon as we approached a small group swam out to Yuma to inspect us. Seeing these enormous animals with sharp tusks next to Yuma made quite an impression and their curiosity made me uncomfortable about launching our small inflatable dinghy.





So, we stayed on Yuma and drifted around close to shore enjoying the walruses’ company from a distance before heading off towards our anchorage at Engelsbukta at the other end of the Forlundsundet.

Yuma on her way to Engelsbukta


  1. Matt August 9, 2023 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Fantastic photos and writing or should I say journals, looking forward to the next ones 😁

    • Frederieke August 21, 2023 at 5:13 pm - Reply

      We try to keep them coming. Weeks without internet in Svalbard put us well behind, but we’re catching up.

  2. Caro Imming August 9, 2023 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    Oh en ah. 🙂 Dit is toch iets anders dan Wildlands. Bijzondere ervaring!

    • Frederieke August 21, 2023 at 5:16 pm - Reply

      We hebben toch wel een paar keer gezegd ‘Oh, net als in de Emmer dierentuin!’ Maar toch wel ‘n beetje anders.

  3. Meaghan Kelliher August 10, 2023 at 4:14 am - Reply

    Keep the blogs coming guys – great to travel along with you Mx

  4. uli August 12, 2023 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    So amazing…what a brilliant journey you are on. Enjoy every moment

  5. Jaap August 20, 2023 at 5:00 pm - Reply

    Fantastisch! Geweldig! En meer van dat soort woorden. Ongelofelijk ook nog. Wat een ervaring. Ik waardeer ook de levensgevaarlijke situaties die jullie opzoeken om ons blij te maken met spectaculaire fotos. Wat voor geweren trouwens?

    • Frederieke August 21, 2023 at 5:24 pm - Reply

      Voor ons geen moeite teveel om de armchair mede-reiziger zo goed mogelijk te vermaken :-). Er komt trouwens nog meer, je hebt er al n beetje van meegekregen via Facebook. We hadden een signal gun en een geweer (Mauser .306, met led-tipped bullets). We hebben uitmuntende schiettraining gehad in Nld, een verhaal op zich (wat nog niet op de blog staat).

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