A true Polar Bear Special
When I look out of the window I see only ice. Floes as far as the eye can see. It is Saturday, but not your typical Saturday. This morning I woke up at 6 am and it was broad daylight and now at 11 pm it is still broad daylight. That only happens in the Arctic! How did I end up here? It all started with a Facebook message that said that the Polar Bear Special was now on sale. I had been following blogs and other messages about the yearly trips to the Arctic and I always wanted to go there. However for a poor student, they are pretty expensive trips. The discount made it just within my price range and after a quick phone call to my boss (I had already planned vacation work), I booked the trip. The anticipation is always one of the nice things about a trip, dreaming about what you are going to see without this being caught up by reality. Looking up all the sightings done in Svalbard, looking at polar bear pictures, hoping you will get one at least half as good, and so on.
After about two weeks of waiting (the benefit of booking at the latest moment, a short waiting period), I finally stepped onto the plane that brought me from Schiphol Airport Amsterdam to Gardermoen Airport Oslo. To spare my wallet I had decided to sleep on the floor of Gardermoen Airport. I arrived at 12 pm and laid myself to rest near some other cheap travelling tramps like me. I slept a total of four hours and was woken up by an awfully loudly speaking cleaning crew. After hanging around at the airport, I could finally board the plane at about 10 am and arrived in the early afternoon on Wednesday at Svalbard. A day later I got on board of the Plancius, met with all the other passengers, and after a thorough safety drill we went off to the north.
A lot has happened since then. On the same evening that we left Longyearbyen, we hit our first jackpot: blue whales, not just blue whales but BREACHING blue whales! Seeing the biggest animal that has ever lived on this planet jump out of the water makes you instantly forget all the trouble you had to go through to get there and you are just glad that you are there. This extraordinary sighting was followed by sightings of bearded seal, ringed seal, lots of Brünnichs guillemots, little auks, puffins, skuas and this was just the beginning. The real highlight of the trip would be Saturday, the day that I am writing this blog. I was on deck at about 6 am. There was quite a big field of caked pack ice straight ahead that looked promising. With some other early passengers I scoped the ice.
Suddenly a tiny yellow spot with four even tinier legs appeared in my scope view, I looked again: a polar bear was sneaking over the ice! I immediately ran into the lounge and shouted ‘Polar bear’! After this I ran to the bridge to report the bear, but this was not necessary because they of course had already picked it up and they announced the news while I was still going upstairs. As we approached, the bear gave us fantastic views and we all got to make some photos. Should this be the only polar bear of the trip, I could live with it. This would however not be the case. While we were still looking at our first bear, a second bear with a cub was found. That morning we found eight polar bears all on the same ice field and we had not even eaten breakfast! Nice interruptions for us birders were some ivory gulls and a nice adult summer plumage Long-tailed skua. Due to an incredible amount of melted ice we could pretty much go anywhere we wanted, so we set sail for another place. During the day, our starting number of eight bears would become eighteen. An extraordinary number of bears hunting, walking, climbing and rolling over the ice: amazing!
The day however was not over yet. Just after an again, excellent dinner, the announcement came through: three polar bears about a kilometre away right in front of the ship! There is no better way than this to clear the dining room quickly. Everyone took up their positions while we slowly approached the bears and they approached us. At first, we thought there were two cubs with a mother. When we looked more closely it turned out that one of the bears was an adult male, one of the bears an adult female that was still feeding an about two years old cub. The female and the cub walked away from the male while followed them, sometimes quietly howling. For the next half hour, we had the best moment of the trip. Three bears doing what polar bears do all within about 30 to 15 meters (guessing distance is really hard), all well visible with the naked eye. Even the sun broke through the clouds for the first time that day, adding a nice soft glow to the scene. The mother and cub took their time to pose for our photos. Suddenly the female got tired of the males attention and with a growl, she ran towards him. The cub followed her. It however did not come to a fight, would not be a wise choice of the female either, since the male is just way bigger. They kept growling a bit while the cub just walked around. After some great minutes they slowly walked away over the ice, leaving us very happy. Captain Levakov got a well-deserved applause from all passengers for his skilful moving of the ship. His skills served us well during this entire trip.
At last I could write my blog. What an incredible day it was, 21 polar bears all on the same day! Although this day would become the highlight of the trip, all the next days were certainly worthwhile. Tomorrow we would visit a haul out of walruses followed by a visit to Alkefjellet with tens of thousands of Brünnichs guillemots. On Monday we would see the best species of the trip, Bowhead Whale, leaving even the guides in astonishment. This would take place at 81 degrees North, while at the same time a polar bear could be seen. Just before this we had watched for two hours a polar bear eating a seal. Even the last species on the wish list, beluga, made it to our trip list. When we set foot in Longyearbyen once again, after seeing an amazing number of 26 polar bears total we could all agree: this Polar Bear trip with OceanWide Expeditions was a true success!