A polar bear dwarfed by a towering glacier in the background.

Dwarfed by a towering glacier, one of the world's largest carnivores seems small and fragile in the vastness of the Arctic.

© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

6/21/2019 7:47:12 PM

The Polar Bears of Summer

By Kt Miller, Media and Outreach Manager

Many of the guests on the Quark Expeditions boat were busy settling into their rooms and sizing their parkas as we started our voyage in Svalbard. But when I started to see sea ice, I knew that meant we might see polar bears, so I grabbed my binoculars and made my way up to the bridge. We had only been on the boat for three, maybe four hours when we spotted a small yellow dot in the distance. As we began to get closer, it became more and more visible—it was a polar bear, casually walking along the edge of a small bay filled with sea ice in front of a huge glacier.

As the bear lumbered along, a pod of beluga whales passed back and forth, mere meters away. The polar bear paused every now and then, watching the belugas with keen interest, seemingly tempted, possibly waiting for the right opportunity to jump. It was a delight to observe this natural behavior, a beautiful polar bear, teased by beluga whales, with shimmering plates of sea ice in the foreground, and a massive glacier gleaming in the distance. It felt wonderful to be in the Arctic, and exciting to see, not only a polar bear, but so much ice!

Beluga whales swim near a polar bear.Two beluga whales pass tantalizingly close to a polar bear. Polar bears are more likely to be successful hunting belugas when the whales get stuck in the sea ice at a fixed breathing hole or in shallow waters where there is a platform from which the bear to hunt.

While it is difficult for polar bears to catch prey while they are swimming in open water, polar bears do occasionally hunt belugas. Ringed and bearded seals are a polar bear’s main prey, but we know from fatty acid analyses and observational data that some polar bears occasionally eat belugas (although the extent to which this happens varies across the polar bear’s range). Any polar bear will scavenge already-dead beluga whales, but in cases where polar bears are known to have caught a live beluga it tends to be an adult bear (or two) catching a calf or subadult whale. An adult whale would be difficult for a polar bear to take on its own, especially from an ice floe. 

After our incredible bear-viewing we ventured north, eventually arriving at the northwest corner of Spitsbergen, where we entered an ethereal world of fog and ice. This time the sea ice was pack ice, characterized by thicker plates and chunks floating south with the wind. We spent a day searching in the fog, spotting wildlife through windows of light emerging for a moment here and there among the clouds. Ultimately, we couldn’t stay long as fog and ice can be a dangerous combination, and the ship turned south towards safer waters. We spend the rest of the voyage exploring fjords on the southern region of Spitsbergen Island, catching incredible views of a number of glaciers, whales, birds, fox, and walrus.

A polar bear on the pack ice near Svalbard.

One might say we were thwarted by too much sea ice—a big change from 2018 when ships were circumnavigating Spitsbergen in early June. While such differences are part of inter-annual variation, scientists look at long-term trends. These show that Svalbard’s sea ice is far below the historic average, and most important, the ice is now much thinner. At the same, other parts of the Arctic—including the Bering, Chukchi, and Southern Beaufort seas—are experiencing historic lows, and the May Arctic sea ice extent was the second lowest in the satellite record.

Sea Ice Maps April 1984 to 2019

We finished our voyage with a second stunning polar bear sighting. This view gave us the opportunity to observe a polar bear on a small flat island, set aside as a bird sanctuary. Purple saxifrage flowers painted the small landmass and vast numbers of eider ducks and barnacle geese sat atop their nests. Although polar bears need high-fat foods, like seals and whales, to sustain them (I like to think of a goose egg as equivalent to a skittle for polar bears) who can resist a little snack when the opportunity arises? 

The mountainscape behind the island made one of the largest carnivores in the world seem small and fragile in the vastness of the Arctic. As I took in the scenery near the end of our voyage, I couldn’t help but wonder how many years that polar bear would overcome the increasing challenges of life in a warming Arctic.

Special thanks to Quark Expeditions, a long-time sponsor, for their support of our conservation outreach.

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