From three decks up, the sea ice surrounding our ship looks like so many Styrofoam picnic plates bobbing on a dark blue pool.
Some plates are big enough to contain a suburban house and yard; others have barely enough space to park a bicycle. Many are almost perfectly round from jostling against their neighbors in the wind. Tiny tracks crossing one plate look birdlike from my perch, until I check them out with binoculars and realize that this is the trail of a polar bear.
I’m standing aboard the Ocean Nova, a converted ocean-going ferry that’s home to me and 60 other passengers for 11 days while we explore the coast of Svalbard, one of the most remote — and northerly — places in the world.
Svalbard lies due north of Tromsø, Norway. At the archipelago’s far-northern end, where we’re exploring the sea ice in hopes of spotting a polar bear, we’re less than 700 miles from the North Pole. The Nova noses slowly but steadily along the rocky coast, its reinforced steel hull reverberating like a gong as it pounds the pack ice.
It was from this barren collection of islands that hopeful adventurers set off a century ago — sometimes never to return — to be first to reach the North Pole. In that golden age of exploration, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 had become the first human to reach the South Pole, disappeared in a plane in 1928 while searching for six members of an Italian expedition that had headed north from Svalbard in a dirigible.