Svalbard Adventure: First Polar Bear

7/25/2011 7:09:07 PM

Svalbard Adventure: First Polar Bear

Polar bears feasting on whale carcass

Two years ago on my first trip to Svalbard, we found a dead whale floating in the waters of Holmiabukta. It was partially beached, the underside of its large, bloated carcass coming aground on the bottom of the fjord, 50 feet or more from the gray, rocky shoreline recently void of ice. During our original visit, we spent several days photographing the nearly dozen or so polar bears that were feasting on the cetacean's rotting flesh. It was a surreal sight, with sometimes four polar bears distributed the length of the whale, standing their ground, teeth tearing at the hide of the ghastly, bloated corpse. A young ice bear, maybe three to four years old, gorged itself as a mother and two cubs came swimming from shore. The moment the mother boarded the bobbing smorgasbord of blubber, skin, and barnacles, the feasting young bruin went sprinting down the carcass length, diving off the other end, and leaping into the water in a full racehorse gallop. Gulls scattered in every direction, lifting off to hang in the gusting winds blowing from the glacier. There in the midst of darkest death were the angelic-like wings of an ivory gull, as pure white as its name describes, a bird of such beauty in this scene of death.

Ivory gull

So here we are two years later, the same bay, fewer bears, and much less flesh on the massive creature who succumbed to unknown causes.. We can see a rib bone lying in the rocks just short of the water line. Below the surface is the skull - gelatinous material hanging from the remaining bones. We're told the bears are still coming and going, diving down to gather what's left of the old whale a few meters below the surface. We anchor the ship and hunker in for the night. Before heading to bed, we make our list for our first bear watch of the trip.

Joanne takes the first one-hour shift starting at 10:00 p.m, Andrea signs up for the spot from 12:00-1:00 a.m. I jump in at 3:00 a.m. and so the hours pass, one person on duty per sixty minutes. All through the night we watch; all through the night no bears come. At around 2:00 a.m., Captain Mark jumps from his bunk to ignite the engine. The wind is howling and in the process of blowing us to shore, so he begins the process of repositioning the ship. Satisfied we're safe for the night, the engine dies and the boat falls silent. It's back to a partial night's sleep.

The morning dawns with blowing winds and spitting rain. It's not the beautiful blue skies we've seen in recent days. No, it's back to the typical arctic weather I'm normally familiar with at this time of year. Our plan for this day was to head for the pack ice, but with the high winds I'm guessing that's not going to happen. Captain Mark makes his way slowly from his berth at the front of the ship, reaches for a warm beverage, and sits down at his desk of radio and charts. I give him some time before making my presence known and asking the obvious. "Good morning, Captain, what do you think about these winds as far as getting to the ice goes?" I ask. "Well," he replies, "I don't think it looks too good." I respond with a quick nod of my head and turn slowly away. That was pretty much the thought I had. The obvious answered from an experienced seaman.

Polar bear mother feeding her cub whale blubber scrapsA couple of hours pass and after we all eat breakfast, the boat pulls anchor. We set off, heading towards the mouth of Holmiabukta. Not a half a mile from our anchorage on our way out to sea, a mother polar bear and her cub of the year appear along the shoreline. The mother beelines towards the whale bone as Laura calls out the discovery. The captain makes an about-face with the bow of the ship and back we go. The mother polar bear dives underwater as we reposition in a spot just offshore, far enough away not to disturb her. We watch her dive down to the whale, bite off a chunk, and then return to the surface. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a picture of this interesting behavior, but I was grateful enough to have seen it firsthand. She would swim back to shore with a chunk of blubber in her teeth, her cub waiting in excitement. They shared the spoils, and we all got a chance to shoot a few pictures. When finished, off she went over the saddle in the ridge that led to the backside of the gray, lifeless mountains. It lasted all of about 15 minutes, but we finally saw our first polar bear of the trip.

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