Journal from the Arctic
I recently returned from a trip to the Arctic, where I spent several weeks aboard a vessel in search of Polar Bears in and around the pack ice to the north of Svalbard. For those of you who have never heard of Svalbard, it is a territory of Norway but it has its own sovereignty, similar to Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. At our northern-most point, we were roughly 500 miles from the North Pole!
After 4 flights, the “real” trip began in Longyearbyen, the port town of Svalbard. After we boarded the ship, I took a 360 photo of our view from the ship using my iPhone 6s+. (For a better view, click on the photo.)
As we set sail, I grabbed my Canon. The scenery was gorgeous, with snowcapped mountains and beautiful colors reflected in the water. We passed the Tall Ship, Antigua, and I couldn’t resist a quick snap.
We had a long sail to the pack ice and we were going at full steam to try to minimize our travel time “en route”. Although the ice had retreated very far north – another record year for ice melt – we did have the opportunity to see some great bird life on the way.
When searching for polar bears, it’s important to keep on the lookout for other mammal life. Seals are a Polar Bear’s primary food source; where there are seals, there are likely polar bears. The first mammal we encountered was indeed a bearded seal. At first it looked like a lump, although when I zoomed in closely onto the seal’s face, I noticed that its beard had the most endearing curly cues. I was told that they their whisker’s curliness trends with age – the older, the curlier!
Shortly after we encountered the adult bearded seal with the curly beard, we spotted a juvenile bearded seal. How different they look!
In fact, we did see a Polar bear that same day. With a stroke of luck, the sun made a short cameo, gloriously illuminating the bear before retreating back behind the clouds.
After the sun went away, however, the scene was still pretty incredible, especially as the bears came closer.
For 2-3 days, we had nothing but fog. This is sometimes “how it is.” This made finding the animals a real challenge. However, we would have moments of brilliance where the fog would temporarily subside, revealing some gorgeous landscapes.
In an effort to find some wildlife during the period of persistent fog, we returned south to land at Torellnesset Beach, a location where walruses are commonly seen. Normally, male walruses are quite approachable, although when we arrived, we were greeted by a colony of females with calves. The cows are much more skittish, especially when young are present. Unsurprisingly, they ran for the safety of the water, although over time a few brave ones came towards us and appeared to actually “check us out”.
After this nice little diversion, we headed back up to the ice, and were graced with an encounter with a female and her two cubs.
My favorite moment from the whole trip was an extremely rare event when the mother sat down right in front of our ship and started nursing the cubs. In an entirely relatable scene, one of them had been crying incessantly for milk, and she finally gave in to its demand, despite the disadvantageous location.
The next day, we were treated to a bit of drama as we came across a small male bear eating a seal. Soon after we arrived, a much larger male bear came to the scene and sent the smaller one running. It was a clear day, and we watched for several hours as this larger bear devoured the remainder. After it had finished, it walked around the exterior of the ship, and I got some great portraits of it up close, looking at its reflection, jumping from one ice floe to another, and simply doing what bears do.
The following day, we started heading back south towards Longyearbyen. We stopped on the north end of Prins Karls Forland, where a herd of male walruses were sleeping on a beach with some mountains in the background. The angle was a challenge, but it was great to witness it first-hand, regardless.
Finally, the photography ended with a zodiac ride alongside a calving glacier! Look at all those Kittiwakes scatter as the ice comes crashing down! (You might have to look closely since they are so small compared to the face of the glacier.)