8/4/2012 7:55:39 PM

Under a Midnight Sun

Svalbard's melting summer sea ice
My eyes began to droop and the world softened as I surrendered to my body's desire to rest. I stood up and gathered my things.

"Where are you going?" Norbert asked me. "You're not going to bed are you?"

"I'm tired." I responded, confused by the inflection in his voice.

"No, no, no. You don't want to do that. You have to stay up. We're all going to stay up." He motioned to the handful of people left in the bar on the top deck of the Ocean Nova.

"Why?"

"At two o'clock the boat is going to head towards the ice ... and after that it's only three hours until we reach the waterfalls. We're going to stay up all night."

"All night?"

"Yes. You must join us." And with that Norbert walked towards the bar to order a drink. It was 11 p.m.

Svalbard's melting summer sea ice

The week prior we had visited the same location, Hochstetterbreen, a large bay on the southwest end of Hinlopenstrete. Here, a large glacier front meets a sheet of ice, providing habitat for over 25 polar bears. Although many bears could be seen through binoculars they were all a great distance from the ice edge. To me, Hochstetterbreen seemed like a favorable bear habitat, but Frank informed me that the ice there would soon be gone and the bears forced onto land.

June 2012 set a record for the largest sea ice loss in the northern hemisphere, surpassing the previous record low in 2007. Thin snow cover and warmer than average temperatures are said to be the cause of the extreme melting. According to Climate Central, the Arctic lost a record 1.1 million square miles of ice this June—456,000 square miles more ice loss than the 1979-2000 average.

When we returned to Hochstetterbreen just one week after our first visit, we discovered that the wind and the sea had broken up over 80% of the ice in front of the glacier. We maneuvered through the rough sea to the ice edge. A mother and cub slowly approached, curiously smelling our group. The cub's ribs could be seen from 50 meters away. Upon discovering we weren't a food source, they quickly retreated from the ice edge.

Mother and cub on ice

The waves made imagery nearly impossible and the cold wind encouraged a quick retreat to the comfort of the ship.

Now, a few hours later, the sea came to perfect stillness and the sun began to peek through lifting clouds. I quietly made my way through narrow hallways and down two flights of stairs. Standing in my cabin I pulled on my cozy pants and stood for a moment, "How many times in my life is photographer Norbert Rosing going to ask me to stay up all night to photograph bears with him?" I asked myself. The answer was obvious. I pulled my skirt back on over my long johns and grabbed my big lens. You only live once.

Two a.m. approached as I sipped on my second cup of coffee. The anchor began its rhythmic clunking. Everyone was suddenly alert, an excited anticipation buzzing amongst the half-dozen people still stirring.

The soft pink light danced between floating pieces of broken ice. The water reflected deep green, turquoise, and soft blue hues. We slowly drifted towards the ice edge.

Another mother and cub wandered towards the ship, this pair was much healthier than the pair we had seen earlier that day. As they got closer they began leaping from one floating ice sheet to another. The cub, courageously following its mother, struggled with some of the jumps, stumbling comically into the water and scrambling out.

Leaping from floe to floe

The cub paused to dry off less than 10 meters from the deck of the ship, rolling and scooting, sticking his little polar bear rump in the air while stretching and massaging his neck and chest.

Cub drying off

We followed the duo as they made their way around the ship. On the far side the ice was scarce. They paused basking in the golden light, then slid into the luminescent sea and swam a few meters to the next slab of ice.

Swimming from ice slab to ice slab

Once again on the starboard side of the ship, the mother bear began to dry herself. The cub watched intently and then mimicked each roll.

Mom and cub dry off by rolling in the snow

Watching their interaction I couldn't help but think about how similar animals are, how we all crave the same things: companionship, a full belly, and a nice place to sleep. This little cub was learning the ways of the world in the same way we do, one step at a time, except his way, we hope, is on sea ice.

At this point nearly all the passengers were awake and standing on various decks of the ship. Everyone was stunned into silence.

Mother and cub

With one last glance towards the ship the mother bear led her cub away towards the glacier. The ship lurched into steady forward motion. What had seemed like five minutes had been nearly two hours. I remained on the deck of the ship a bit longer basking in the midnight sun, allowing the wondrous experience to linger a while longer.

Mother and cub heading toward glacier

Special thanks to photographer Norbert Rosing, who took wonderful care of Henry Harrison and I during our trip to Svalbard to gather photos and film footage for PBI. I cannot express my thanks enough! Be sure to check out his work at www.rosing.de. We also wish to thank Polar Kreuzfahrten and Frank Fietz for making the experience possible.

Photos copyright Kt Miller/Polar Bears International.

 

 

 

 

 

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