We move away in our zodiac and within seconds the ship disappears from view. I strain my eyes but the fog that has drifted in has covered everything within its path. The time on my watch tells me the sun has started to rise, but the scene above me is the same as that around me. I see nothing.
A few hours earlier, our ship had reached the entrance of Scoresby Sund, the world’s longest fjord and most anticipated part of our journey. But instead of turning right into the ice-choked passageway, our Captain and Expedition Leader made the decision to continue south.
We are now in unchartered waters, our ship having anchored overnight in an exposed area that is unlikely to have received any passenger ships this season (or possibly longer). Our zodiac is slowly making its way towards Stewart Island, a small piece of land that is still shown on many charts as a peninsula connected to land by the ice of Milano Glacier, not yet updated for the retreat of ice that has revealed it as an island.
The purpose of our detour is to increase the chance of spotting a polar bear on this trip from 0.01% to 1%, based on word-of-mouth from locals. Polar bear sightings in East Greenland are not unheard of but the vast landscape and presence of hunting in the area makes it unlikely. As the fog shows no sign of lifting, I feel our chance of a sighting has fallen back to 0.01%. But as I arrived on the ship with little to no expectations of wildlife sightings, I am not deterred, and appreciate the opportunity to explore an area many people do not reach.
We move closer to our destination and the rugged coastline of Stewart Island reveals itself. With the conditions hiding its true form, my imagination runs wild and for a small moment I feel like an explorer, adventurously arriving at undiscovered land in a harsh and inhospitable environment. I then look down at my warm layers, notice the zodiac driver consult her GPS and the moment passes…
We sail along in silence, adding to the eeriness of the dense fog and I notice the man sitting opposite me look at the island with sudden interest. For an excited second I think he’s seen a polar bear, but then I remember with a smile that he is the expedition crew’s geologist.
A shadow appears ahead of us and as we sail closer it reveals itself as an iceberg. The foggy conditions create the illusion that it is heading towards us instead of us towards it. We sail past the iceberg towards a guillemot that reacts to our arrival with a quick exit. On my right, the outline of two old hunting shacks come into view on the island.
We reluctantly turn around to begin our journey back to the ship. And although we are re-tracing our steps, the scene is changing. The sun is winning its battle with the fog and rays of light force their way into our view, revealing aspects of the landscape we had previously missed.
We return to the ship without seeing a polar bear. I’m not disappointed – it was a long shot. But by making the attempt, we enjoyed an unexpected and magical start to the day in diverse and spectacular East Greenland.
About Stewart Island
(source: Quark Expeditions)This small island (roughly 4 nm by 1.5 nm) lies on the southern coast of Volquardt Boon Kyst to the southwest of Kap Brewster, on the southern entrance to Scoresby Sund. It was named by William Scores by Jr. in 1822 as Steward Island, after Charles Steward of Yarmouth, a companion on one of his earlier voyages to the whale fishery. A house was built in a bay on the south side of the island for bear hunting in 1971 on the initiative of Jakob Sanimuinaq, and a second house added in 1972.