Arctic Documentary Project: Polar Bear on a Seal Kill

8/16/2011 1:08:22 PM

Arctic Documentary Project: Polar Bear on a Seal Kill

After our night off the shores of Moffen Island we motor for another three hours heading for Woodfjorden. It's a beautiful day with calm seas, mostly cloudy, shafts of sunlight penetrating the broken clouds to reach the placid waters of the Arctic Ocean. About 2:00 p.m. we arrive near the mouth of Liefdefjorden and there on one of the several small islands we see a polar bear. It's a huge male hunkered down behind the topmost ridge.

As we move our ship in for a closer look the bear keeps raising his head. He gives a quick glance just before his eyes and ears drop down behind the berm. Up, down, up, down, our eyes connect for milliseconds as his gaze breaches the terrain that hides his exploits. As we slowly approach, he's fully aware, yet not concerned. His behavior is a bit strange. To get a better view we trace our imaginary tracks in reverse, turn the boat to the east and make our way to the other side of the island. There at the feet of this massive carnivore is a bearded seal, a chunk of its neck missing and in the beginning stages of consumption. It's obviously very fresh. We've possible just missed the hunt by only minutes, maybe a couple of hours.

A polar bear peeks over a berm
A large male polar bear looks over a berml in Liefdefjorden, Svalbard, Norway.

This is the second kill scene we've witnessed this month. More importantly it's the second kill we've come across that has taken place in an area completely free of the normal ice pack I've been told polar bears need for hunting. How are these bears killing seals? Is it happening as the seal is caught unaware, laying on the sandy beach, taking a snooze? Are bear and seal swimming leisurely along and running into each other? It seems likely the seal's life is ended in one of these two ways but without an actual witness, who can say for sure? What is certain is the fact two very white, uncamouflaged polar bears have somehow been successful on land, capturing their normal prey, with the ice pack fifty miles to the north.

We spend the next several hours documenting this large male polar bear consuming his feast. It's not pretty but it is interesting. I had always heard that polar bears typically eat just the blubber and from what we observed, the seal's fat seemed to be his highest priority. Tugging with his teeth he started from the neck at the point of the original gaping wound. From there, each bite and pull of massive paw drew the hide of the seal closer to its rear flippers. Someone made the comment it was like "peeling a banana" and actually that wasn't far from the truth. To me it was more like rolling down a turtleneck. Either way, shucking the hide to expose the nutrients was the technique he was using.

Polar bear feeding on a seal
A large male polar bear feeding on a bearded seal in Liefdefjorden, Svalbard, Norway.

I've seen many bears eat and it's never as frantic as our nightmares suggest. Quite the contrary. Each time I've been fortunate enough to observe this behavior, whether it's black, grizzly or polar bear, eating has always been very slow. Never have I seen a bear "wolfing" its food, a very appropriate description for the bruin's true wilderness brother. No, "wolfing" doesn't describe any bear's eating habits that I've been witness to and that has always surprised me. Bears are more what I would characterize as dainty, tearing off small chunks of flesh with their front teeth, chewing a few bites slowly, licking the tidbits from their paws, always alert, checking their surroundings for intruders. This big old bear was the same as all the others, doing what polar bears have done for more than a couple hundred thousand years. Quite simply he was just making a living. Nothing different than what we all do in our own daily lives. In the bear's world there are no middle men who take care of our dirty but necessary deeds. No, we've circumvented the system by paying others to create meals. It's cleaner that way. No blood on our faces or our hands. No need to lick our paws when virtually everything we eat comes wrapped in cellophane.

A large male polar bear heads off for a nap
His belly full, the bear heads off for a nap.

The day extends into what normally would be night, but here in the arctic the light is just getting good. We shoot until we all decide we've had enough. The bear wanders off for a nap. Mark and I discuss the options for our nightly anchorage and the Captain agrees that it's calm enough to stay where we're at. As I collect my cameras I think to myself, "What a bonus day," a favorite phrase used to remind myself how lucky I am to witness such incredible natural wonders.

Photos ©Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures.

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