Polar Bear Sightings

We found ourselves positioned near Worsleyneset in Woodfjorden with a plan for going ashore after breakfast on one of the small nearby islands. Our scouting party had found a bear on the island and some people looking out from the bridge saw three or four others in the surrounding area. It wasn’t safe to land, so our excursion turned into a zodiac cruise.
It was pretty cold and starting to snow as we set out, but nevertheless, we bundled ourselves into our little boats (ten people to each zodiac) and headed off into the murk. After a few minutes we came across our first bear. It was walking over a ridge towards  a patch of snow. It stopped about 300 metres from us and lay down in the snow. We understand that bears get over heated after a lot of activity and lying in the snow is their way of cooling down again. (Here were we, on the other hand, wanting to warm up!). We sat as close as we could to the edge of the ice waiting for it to move or do something interesting, but it seemed to just be sleeping. Occasionally, it would lift its nose high into the air to see what it could smell. Apparently, bears can smell a seal over five kilometres away. Actually, the idea of not being able to see a polar bear in a snowstorm isn’t true. These bears look the same colour as a cafe latte and stand out quite distinctively.

Someone soon spotted another bear on an island about a kilometre away, we so we all headed over in convoy for a look. This one was heading overland and came down to the shore and walked along it at quite a reasonable walking pace. By now it was snowing heavily and our view was interrupted by large fluffy snowflakes. It was quite gloomy and the horizon, sky and sea had all merged into one grey colour. It was quite ethereal being out on the water. Occasionally, we could get a glimpse of the bulk of the ship in the distance. It’s hard to see a white ship in a snowstorm.

We headed back along the beach, in our zodiacs, for a closer look at a trappers hut that we had passed as we followed our second bear. Arctic Fox are still hunted here and a re not endangered. The Svalbard government has strict rules that protect everything else, and if we ever had to kill a bear, it would start an investigation as intense as one into a murder.

Before lunch, we headed back to where we had sited our first bear and it was still snuggled down in the snow.  Perhaps we disturbed it, although we were careful to stay a long way off, but it got up and began to walk to the top of the ridge. We were all able to get a picture of that classic scene of a polar bear on the skyline, even though it was only a pretty small dot in our pictures.

 

We were back on the ship for lunch and while we were eating, the Captain repositioned us at a nearby area where there was a large trappers hut and a small bay. It was still snowing and about 25 people decided not to venture out on our afternoon landing. As it later turned out, this was very much to their disappointment.

We could see three bears in the surrounding area, but it looked safe enough to land on one small section of beach. We had sentries posted, and we went ashore near a frozen pool on which there were six or seven seals. There were some wonderful reflections of the mountains’ in the glass smooth water. We started walking along the beach, finding a few pieces of driftwood but not much that was very interesting. Suddenly, we saw a polar bear on the ridge on the other side of the bay. It was walking across a flat headland and descending down to the beach – heading our way.

 

 

A few of us asked if we take a zodiac to have a look at it and just after we were on the water, our expedition leader decided that as the bear was getting closer, it was too dangerous to stay on the beach. Accordingly, we everyone was quickly bundled into zodiacs and joined us in a conga line to see the bear from the water.  We sat about 40  metres off the beach and watched spellbound as the bear walked along from our right to our left and stopped right in front of us.
I must have taken 100 photos from every angle as it sat, looked, sniffed and shuffled around. I will be quite happy if we don’t see another bear on this trip as this one gave us a very good ‘up-close’ view. Polar bears actually have black skin which is covered by two layers of white fur. The black skin helps absorb heat. We could see this bear’s black skin around its eyes, nose and on the bottom of its feet. After a while, the bear was giving a few signals that it had had enough of us looking at it (yawning and shuffling) so we moved off.

Before reaching the ship, we passed a rather elaborate trappers hut which was made from driftwood logs that had washed up on the beach.  Near the hut was a tall tower that was built so that the trappers could dry seal skins out of reach of the bears. We had contacted the hut byu radio to see if we could land there, but the two people who were caretaking didn’t want us to land. (The trappers had left a few days ago). They didn’t want top be disturbed as just near the hut was a breeding colony of Eider Ducks and they were collecting down from the nests.  Just near the hut, we saw a bear with a cub. I think that brought our total number of bear sightings form the day to eight.

After dinner, we had a very interesting talk from one of the photographers about the way he processed his photos on his computer. He had a much more simple series of steps than I would have used to get some very stunning results.

Overnight, the Captain tried to trvavel in a north easterly direction. Apparently we collided with a large chunk of ice at about 4.00 am, but I was to sound asleep to hear, or feel, it. This morning (Wednesday, 1 July) at 9.40 am we crossed the 80th degree of latitude. We all gathered at the bow for a celebratory drink and the Captain nearly frightened us enough to jump overboard, as he blew the ship’s horn to denote the exact point. I was looking for the blue dotted line on the water (it was there on the map!) but I couldn’t see it. Perhaps it was under the sea ice.

At the moment we are heading north towards Moffen Island and weaving through the ice. Every now and then we can hear, and feel, the bow thrusters operating  to provide a tighter turn and more manoeuvrability through the ice. The ships GPS chart shows a complex series of turns as we tried to navigate.