Svalbard, Norway Post #2: Polar Bear Sighting

July 23, 2012

Polar bears feeding on the carcass of a Fin Whale. Svalbard, Norway

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 working the nearly dozen or so bears that were feasting on the Cetaceation's rotting flesh. It was a surreal site, sometimes four polar bears distributed its length, standing their ground, their teeth tearing at the hide of the ghastly, bloated corpse. A young ice bear, maybe 3-4 years in age, gorged itself as a mother and two cubs came swimming from shore. The moment she boarded the bobbing smorgasbord of blubber, skin and barnacles, the feasting young bruin came sprinting down the carcass length, diving off the other end, leaping into the water in a full race horse 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 was the angelic like wings of an Ivory Gull as purely white as its name described, a bird of such beauty in this scene of death.

Ivory Gull in Svalbard, Norway.

So here we are two years later, the same bay, fewer bears and much less flesh on the dead whale at Holmiabukta. There is 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 that are coming are diving down to gather the protein still lying on the bottom. 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 took the first one hour shift starting at 10:00pm, Andrea signed up for the spot from 12-1am. I jumped in at 3:00am and so the hours passed, one person on duty per sixty minutes. When we arrived yesterday afternoon we spoke to Heinrick, my guide from two years back and who was now guiding others. Heinrick told us that bears were coming and going, some diving down to what was left of the old whale a few meters below the surface. When we first found this unfortunate animal, there were more than a dozen bears in the area, all of them wanting a chunk of this massive creature who succumbed to unknown causes. All through the night we watched, all through the night no bears came.

At around 2:00am the captain jumps from his bunk to ignite the engine. The wind is howling and in the process of blowing us to shore, so Captain Mark begins the process of repositioning the ship. Satisfied we are safe for the night, the engine dies and the boat falls silent. Its 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 for 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.

A 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. She beelines towards the whale bone as Laura calls out announcing the discovery. The Captain makes an about-face with the bow of the ship and back we go. Mother polar bear was diving when we repositioned in our spot just off the shore and far enough away to not disturb. She would dive down to the whale, bite off a chunk then return to the surface. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a picture of this interesting behavior, but I was grateful enough to have seen it first hand. Back to shore she would swim 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 bear of the trip.

Join us on our 2012 Svalbard Photography Expedition • July 22 - August 5, 2012

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