Polar Bear Quest: A Voyage through Svalbard, 2011
Today’s planned two-hour afternoon Zodiac cruise into the lovely Smeerenburg Bay produced not one, but two, separate, but ultimately combined, polar bear sightings. “Sightings” implies a glimpse in the distance, or a whiff of a passing glance, but we collectively achieved a rich interface among and with Nordic polar bears today that will be forever etched into our minds. Unbeknownst to the guests, Mats Forsberg knew where to find the exact same whale remains photographed in this month’s issue of National Geographic magazine—in an article about the polar bears of Svalbard. Our first visit to the site did not produce a polar bear; we were instead treated to an unusually patient and thoroughly gorgeous ivory gull, who let us all take turns photographing it. Undaunted, Kevin Clement pointed our Zodiac towards the next bay over. As we zipped towards a bright orange buoy, one of our guests spotted a giant polar bear playing with the buoy, precisely like one might see a zoo-kept polar bear playing with a ball in its enclosure. Phenomenal! Mike Moore’s Zodiac was nearby, and both of us safely paralleled the bear as he elegantly swam towards the shore, pausing to try and engage in a bit of play with some guillemots. Once ashore, the bear shook off and ambled along the shoreline. Kevin told our Zodiac that Norwegians have nicknamed the polar bear ‘The Farmer,’ for its tendency to meditatively wander a shoreline, much like a farmer walks his or her land.
Being blessed with a gigantic stride (though really, all things polar bear are gigantic, yes?) we were surprised at how diligently we had to maintain speed in our Zodiac just to keep up. Mike and Kevin alternated turns zooming forward to allow for facing-shots of the oncoming bear, until he made a turn and headed towards the remains of the whale. When we arrived back at the original bay, several Zodiacs were observing an extremely adorable sleeping polar bear! Occasionally opening his eyes, we all took turns capturing video and photographs of this fuzzy lump of cuteness. Almost at the same time, original bear number one showed up at the whale and deftly plucked what looked like food, and somehow managed to extract a morsel of gristle. All of this accompanied by the sound of electronic shutters clicking and whirring away.
Finished with his morsel, the polar bear proceeded along the shore towards the sleeping bear, casting pristine reflections of himself in the water. I followed his path with a video camera, right as he saw the sleeping bear and immediately bolted to chase it up a shear snow-covered precipice. Video gold! But we were not done. The bigger bear left the smaller, formerly sleeping, bear, silently entered the water, and navigated toward two ringed seals lounging on fast ice below a monumental glacier. Like a big white furry aquatic Ninja! Unfortunately for the bear, but fortunately for the seals, the bear did not have success in hunting, and we had to wrap up our now three-hour-long Zodiac cruise to get back to the ship, and to give this exceptional bear a chance to dine alone.