Our group had just returned from a rigid-inflatable boat cruise around the Samarinbreen Glacier, where we’d watched five-storey-high pieces of ice dramatically crack off the glacier face and smash into the water below. A curious ring seal had swum up to investigate our flotilla of buzzing black boats, while hundreds of fulmars, kittiwakes and glaucous gulls fed from the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the glacier.
The group was in good spirits; thrilled with our first full day exploring the wild wilderness of Svalbard and enchanted with the Arctic. We knew we were somewhere special.
With the boat at anchor, no wind and clear blue skies, our expedition leader deemed it a good day to do the ‘polar plunge’. Weather permitting, on every voyage of the 230ft expedition vessel Polar Pioneer, passengers have the option to do this: effectively a dive from the lowered gangway into the icy waters of the Arctic.
A ship tradition and a popular spectator sport, five people — three guests and two crew — had put up their hand to jump. On offer for their trouble, apart from the glory, was a shiny certificate. It was safe, it was done under controlled conditions and it seemed like a bit of a laugh, so I decided to join in.
In front of the glacier, the sea was a steady zero degrees and flushed pink from the sediment churned up from the glacier. If you listened closely at water level, you could hear the ice crackle and whisper as oxygen, trapped in the ice for thousands of years, escaped from the slush.
When it’s my turn to jump, there’s a delay as a 7ft-wide iceberg floats down into my path. Wearing only my swimming costume and a pair of wool socks, I shiver in the 4C summer air as the rigid inflatable, humming in the water just feet away, for safety purposes, nudges the block of glacial ice away. And then I jump.
The moment I hit the water, I know how foolish I’ve been.
It isn’t the cold that hits me so much as the instant fatigue that sweeps over my body. My muscles give up. My body feels slack. Instead of bouncing to the surface like I always do when I dive into water, my body lacks buoyancy. I feel like I’m sinking, like my body is a dead weight. Ripples of tiredness wash over me. Inside my head, I simply can’t be bothered telling my legs to kick up.
Weeks later, when I recount this to a friend who’s explored the Arctic, she explains I’d experienced a taste of cold-water thermal shock. “Most people they pull from the water up there die of this, and not drowning,” she tells me cheerfully.
Of course, I was in no real danger. After split second, my survival instinct kicks in. Screaming at the cold and blue from the chill, I’m up the gangway, back on deck, inside the cabin and down into the warmth of the ship’s hamman within seconds.
Looking back at the video footage and photos, I realise I’m in the water for, at most, a few seconds. However, it was a brilliant lesson for me to learn in my first days in the Arctic. This is a place where the cold can, and will, kill you within minutes if you don’t take things seriously, and I had a newfound respect for this wild and largely untamed environment. I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again, but I now know the Arctic is not a place to muck about in.
For your chance to win a once-in-a-lifetime Arctic Expedition to Spitsbergen worth £10,000, enter the National Geographic Traveller writing competition 2013!