At first, we saw the gulls. Dozens of glaucous gulls, circling above the bright white pack ice. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, our faces were gleaming of joy and sunscreen - it already felt like a perfect morning. Soon, however, it would turn out even better.
As Ortelius slowly made her way through the pack ice, near the northernmost part of Svalbard ('Sjuoyane', or: 'The seven isles'), we discovered an off-white, almost cream coloured spot next to the birds. A polar bear. A very happy polar bear, by the looks of it, because it was bending over a huge piece of meat: a freshly caught bearded seal.
The bear had already started to strip off the seal skin, and began to eat the blubber: very rich in calories. A bearded seal can weigh up until 300 kg, and this one was indeed quite big, so after a while, the polar bear dozed off for a while. A power nap to digest the blubber...
When it woke up again, it continued eating. So did the glaucous gulls. Every now and then, they snatched a small piece of the seal, but they were clearly intimidated by the presence of the polar bear. Even more modest were the ivory gulls - their feathers so pristine white that you could hardly see them against the icy background. In fact, they looked like a mere collection of black sticks (their legs), black dots (their eyes) and yellow stripes (their bills), while you couldn't discern their bodies.
A rival shows up
The polar bear was enjoying his meal; the snow as well as his face were colouring red because of the blood. And while we watched him eating, our own stomachs started to rumble. Time for lunch.
A quick lunch, as it turned out, because as soon as we sat down, an exciting announcement was made: a second polar bear was approaching. A bear to fall in love with, to be honest. A strong, well-fed male was coming out of the water, a couple of hundred meters from the other male bear.
While this handsome bear was shaking off the water from his thick white fur, cameras were clicking, and women's voices could be heard on deck: 'Look at him... Isn't he attractive?' Meanwhile, the excitement grew. This newcomer was clearly attracted by the smell of the killed seal. Was he going to steal it from the other bear? Would there be a fight?
Sharing a seal meal
At first, the newcomer seemed to ignore the fresh meat completely. He just walked past the bear and his kill. But then, after a while, he suddenly turned around and approached the feast. As if he had gotten an invite from the older male, he started to eat. There they were, the two of them sharing the food, the white fur on their heads and their front paws stained with seal blood.
After about fifteen minutes, however, things changed. All of a sudden, the male who had caught the seal suddenly left, as if the prey didn't belong to him anymore. Walking away, he looked back over his shoulder a few times, seemingly jealous of the bear who had now stolen his kill. With his back turned towards him, he decided it was time for another afternoon nap.
The second male was sticking out his tongue while chewing on his meal - as if he made fun of him. He continued feasting on the seal for about an hour, and then decided to pay his slumbering neighbour a visit.
Fish and ships
Our hearts were pounding: what would happen now? Would they have a friendly chat with each other, talking about the weather and this strange vessel full of human beings? Or would they maybe discuss whether to have fish and ships for dinner tonight?
As it turned out, they were not interested in us at all. They were just facing each other (the sleeping beauty woke up as soon as his rival approached). Then, they both opened their maul, as if to compare who of them had the sharpest teeth. They were seizing each other up: who would win, if it came to a fight? It seemed to be an equal match, or maybe the bearded seal just wasn't interesting enough to fight over. When there's enough food around, there is only one situation in which male polar bears tend to be really aggressive towards each other: Now, however, there was no female around that had to be seduced.
Therefore, they both closed their mauls and walked away. Then, a couple of meters away from each other, they both dozed off again. Dreaming about their next meal, maybe...