Svalbard Adventure: A Trio of Polar Bears

7/29/2011 5:00:00 AM

Svalbard Adventure: A Trio of Polar Bears

We awake this morning with eager anticipation: are the polar bears still in the area? The wind has calmed and the waters are peacefully still, perfect for photographing from our Zodiacs. Our first priority is to circle the island where we saw the polar bears the evening before. It doesn't take long for the excitement to begin: just halfway around the rocky refuge we find the trio of bears. They're up and moving, walking the shoreline, scavenging for what they can find.

Photographing polar bears from the Zodiac

The excitement is palpable as we ease the Zodiacs one hundred or so yards out from shore. The mother bear seems completely oblivious to our presence as we quietly maneuver, positioning our craft to give everyone an opportunity to shoot. At one point she lifts her nose high into the air, then walks down to the ocean's edge and plucks something from the icy waters. As she pulls it ashore the cubs come running. It's not large, and as I look through my lens it becomes obvious it's a bird. A dead bird, possibly a gull that has washed to the sidelines of the Arctic Ocean. She tears at the carcass, removing the feathers as the cubs anxiously watch, squalling loudly, begging for a bite of this decaying chunk of nourishment. One cub tries grabbing the forage from its mother and she swiftly lashes out with her teeth to the back of his neck. He bellows profusely, even as she returns to the miniature piece of decomposing fodder. Though small, this may be the largest source of food she has encountered since the ice retreated many weeks earlier.

Mother bear feeding on a dead seabird

To the untrained eye, reprimanding a cub for trying to eat seems unexpectedly harsh. However, it's essential for a mother polar bear who is still nursing. She needs all the nourishment she can get to make sure she has enough energy to continue providing milk for her two growing offspring. If she is malnourished and can't nurse, her cubs will die. It's as simple as that in the far reaches of the harsh arctic ecosystem. 

We spend the next two hours quietly following this family of bears, never too close and always at a distance so as not to disturb. Our two hour window documenting their lives shows some amazing behaviors. At one point the mother bear comes down to the water's edge, slips into the ocean and begins diving beneath the surface. We have no idea of what she is actually up to, but based on seeing similar actions on the dead whale earlier in the trip, it suggests she's either finding some sort of food or, at the very least, searching. As the mother bear works beneath the surface, the two baby bears sit perched on the rocky ledge above, all eyes on their mother below. It's obvious they are taking it all in, learning the ways of becoming a competent polar bear. Every ounce of knowledge they gain by learning from their mother puts them at a greater advantage of surviving in this difficult environment.

The mother bear slips into the water in search of food.

The family of bears crosses from one island to the next, sometimes swimming, sometimes walking, picking their way over half-submerged boulders that give them dryer access. Quietly they wander from the water's edge to the rocky summits. More than once I think of my work with mountain goats in the Rockies as the mother bear searches the tops of the craggy, vegetation-free islands against backdrops of mountain peaks and glaciers. This is definitely a land of extremes with scenery drastically different than the coastal areas of Alaska and Manitoba where I've done most of my prior polar bear work.

Mother bear against dramatic mountain backdrop.

Eventually the family of polar bears returns to the water's edge. This time mother bear pauses briefly with one foot in the water. Lifting her nose to the air, she sniffs the wind, her head moving from side to side. The scent she smells seems to be coming from the head of the bay of Liefdefjordan where very possibly there are seals. She takes another step and soon her body is floating; the cubs quickly follow. Off they swim, just the top of their backs exposed along with their ears, nose, and eyes. You can barely tell that they are bears.

A cub leaps into the water to follow its mother.

The excitement is finished for the day. We all watch as they swim into the distance and eventually disappear. I turn my back on the Zodiac bow, reaching for the outboard starter cord. With a solid tug the engine fires and we begin our journey back to the ship. On the way back hardly a person speaks; we are all still mesmerized by the experience of an up-close and personal view into the lives of these amazing animals.

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