I’m cocooned in my cabin, the closed porthole blocking out the bright 2am sunshine of 24 hour Arctic daylight. The tannoy interrupts my sleep, announcing a polar bear sighting. I stumble out of bed, pull my cold-weather gear over my pyjamas, sling my binoculars around my neck and clamber out on deck, into the freezing air of Svalbard.
My binoculars scan the white skyline, searching for the fast-moving smudge of butter yellow that we’ve been told will be a polar bear. My fellow passenger nudges me, excitement bright in her eyes. She points to the water.
Moving seamlessly through the icy ocean, head aloft like a vain woman who doesn’t want to wet her hair, swims a humungous polar bear. Unbelievably, it seems to be coming towards the ship.
It pauses to heave itself up on a small iceberg and cranes its head to get a better view of us; floating voyeurs, holding icy air in our lungs, begging it to come nearer.
Slipping back into the water, it swims closer and closer, until it clambers out onto a large ice floe directly below the ship. I lean over the side and there it is. We stare at each other, this magnificent creature and I. Its black nose sniffs suspiciously and its long tongue flicks out to taste our scent on the frozen air. Every strand of its sea-slicked fur shines luminescent in the sunlight.
It is stock still, looking. We’re locked in a staring competition, two completely different worlds colliding under the Arctic sun. The sea stretches out to a seemingly infinite horizon and time catches for a moment. Silence hums.
Breaking first, the bear starts to strut up and down the berg as the cameras click into action. I watch, awe struck. The bear unselfconsciously wriggles around on the snow, drying its coat. Its huge, white bottom sticks up proudly in the air. The bear glances back at its still captive audience.
We stay like that, the bear and I, for an impossible time, until it decides it’s had enough and slopes back into the ocean to continue its journey, leaving only paw prints on the snow.
I think about that bear now and hope it survived the melting Arctic summer. I hold our encounter like a snow globe. I shake it and bring to life the fragility of being and the exceptional world we inhabit.