Add a notch to the bear count. Actually, add two.
We’ve been tootling around Svalbard for the last three days looking for wildlife, taking zodiac cruises, and hiking along the rocky shorelines. Today, the captain steered us into Nordaustlandet, the second largest island in the archipeligo. It prime polar bear habitat because of the fast ice surrounding this island. Polar bears love this kind of ice because that’s where there favorite food source, the ring seal, is often found.
There is a problem with fast ice and looking for polar bears though. A ship, even an ice-rated one like the Explorer, can’t break through it. There are no leads to maneuver the ship through, so we found ourselves slowly cruising through the pack ice.
There were fifteen of us on the bridge, and conversation was light. The naturalist were discussing the latest bird species they had spotted. The officers were plotting our course for the next few days . I was just giddy to be in the Arctic at all. We all had at least one eye on the horizon, scanning for any signs of life.
After a bit, the captain, without binoculars mind you, points to the horizon and says (a lot more calmly than I would have), “There. Polar Bear.” Spotting scopes, binoculars, and long telephoto lens immediately snap in the direction he’s pointing, and I’m thinking, “There is no way that he sees anything.” But sure enough, probably over a mile away on a patch of fast ice, was a young male ambling his way towards us.
Don’t doubt the captain.
Then, a lot of things happened at once: The captain put the ship on a slow heading towards the bear. Most of the people on the bridge scrambled out the door, and down another deck, in order to have a better look from the bow. Stephanie, our expedition leader got on the ship’s PA system and quietly broadcasts, “There has been a bear spotted off the bow. Please QUIETLY make your way to the front of the ship in order to get the best possible view.”
From my vantage point on the bridge, not only could I see the bear, but I also got to witness what was quiet possibly the quickest (and quietest) stampede of camera-laden humans the Arctic has ever seen. Over 100 people crammed onto the front of the ship waiting for “the shot”
The explorer nudged it’s way into the fast ice ever so slowly, and then the captain killed the engines. We ground to a halt. Not as sound, except for the cameras. As the bear approached, the scientist in me noted that there was a direct relationship between the distance of the polar bear, and the number of camera clicks/sec. The closer he got, the more constant the clicking chatter.
While the clatter became quite constant, it wasn’t that loud. Not loud enough to scare away our new found friend anyway. Every so often, he would stop, sit on his haunches, and sniff the air. I suddenly realized that we were upwind of him, and he likely smelled the bacon and sausage from our breakfast.
Finally, after an hour of hopping over pressure ridges and pack ice, he stopped about 100ft. from the ship. He was so close that I could almost make out the individual hairs. I could certainly hear the crunching snow under his snowshoe like paws.
The icing on the cake? We saw another one an hour later!
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