Arctic Documentary Project: Bear, Bear!

8/10/2011 1:41:21 PM

Arctic Documentary Project: Bear, Bear!

This morning is cold. Most definitely the coolest we've experienced. DanskÌüya Island is on the northwest part of the archipelago and is on the edge of better polar bear habitat. The ice is nearly 80 miles offshore, so any bears that are stranded on the Islands of Svalbard migrate towards the top getting as close to the ice pack as possible. Mark tells me that, "Typically the ice is 15-20 miles offshore, but this year is unusual." Surprising how often I keep hearing something similar to this year is unusual from people that work in the Arctic. That's been the description for hotter than normal temperatures and the varying climatic changes they've caused. Equally amazing is that I first started hearing people talk about the "unusual year" over ten years ago. My wife, Tanya, is stepping in here to describe our morning and the rest of the day as we head further north and east.

Polar bear on snowy rocks, Svalbard
A polar bear wanders on the snow-covered rocks in Holmiabukta, Svalbard, Norway.

This morning we awoke to a winter wonderland of fluffy white flakes falling down... snowy mountainsides and glaciers surrounding us. What day, month is it? Who cares? As I bring my steaming hot coffee outside to the stern of the boat, I sit down and enjoy the tranquility of this distant barren land. This is one of those times in your life where you just enjoy the moment.

Despite wishing for warm sun and bluer skies, our group has been very patient with the weather, a natural uncontrollable factor of the trip. We have decided to do most of our travel to the northeast part of the island during the colder, darker days in hope of better weather on arrival.

After breakfast, we pull up the anchor and start to motor slowly through the fjord. From the corner of the binoculars someone spotted something moving: Yes, a polar bear!

Polar bear on bone pile, Svalbard
A polar bear explores the two-year-old remains of a dead whale in Holmiabukta, Svalbard, Norway.

"BEAR! BEAR!" Marianne shouts down from the top deck. Everyone starts to scurry, gearing up and rounding up their cameras. We watch the lone bear walk along the snow-covered rocky beach heading in the direction of a whale bone pile, the favorite local diner for polar bears. As he reaches the tip of the spit of land, he leaps into the rough waters and swims across the fjord in front of our boat to reach the whale carcass. Since part of the whale is sitting on the bottom of the sea, the bear dives down, over and over, only once coming up with a little breakfast. The bear shakes off, climbs up on the rocky hillside and continues on with his morning stroll. A really nice photo shoot we almost missed.

Polar bear in water
A polar bear swims above a dead whale on the bottom of Holmiabukta in Svalbard, diving down to bite off chunks of meat.

As we head out into the big waters outside the fjords the winds pick up, a perfect day to throw up the sail. Choppy waters but oh-so-quiet without the motor. Off in the distance we see at least four whale blows and a spy-hop, possibly humpbacks, however, there were sightings by another boat of blue whales earlier in the same area. A little too far out to identify. You think in this vast sea you are all alone but beneath the water's depths the gentle giants live. You might only catch a glimpse of them but they are there. Another good reason why you need to always have your binoculars out on this trip.

Sarah Street steering the boat
Sarah Street at the helm, sailing the waters of Svalbard.

Our guest, Sarah Street takes over steering the boat. She sailed regularly with her family in England as a child. Despite the cold air and winds Sarah endures. Many guests join her on top deck outside, photographing the northern fulmars in flight while traveling. Hot chocolate with Bailey's Irish Cream helps control the chill and creates smiles. Engaging conversation and laughter amongst the group. Another great day amongst the islands of Svalbard.

Tanya Cox


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