Searching for polar bears in Svalbard
On the third day of our Svalbard cruise, we were sailing the sea ice north of Spitsbergen. In the morning, we had observed fog and very broken-up ice before the conditions slowly improved. A myriad of black-legged kittiwakes followed in our wake, with Plancius stirring the water, pushing aside the ice floes to reveal the tiny dark polar cod underneath.
Shrieking and wildly flapping their wings, the kittiwakes dove time and again to catch their favourite meal. Fulmars were gliding past, mostly ignoring the feeding frenzy at the stern of the ship. There was the odd ivory gull and quite a few pomarine skuas.
We saw bearded seals in the distance, dark sausages on the ice, and harp seals splashing around every now and then. But no polar bears so far.
The beauty of the Spitsbergen ice
It was an incredible day in the ice, calm and serene. We marveled at the scenery, taking in the unbelievable vastness of the icy realm expanding in all directions. Never before had we seen anything like this. We watched the floes getting pushed aside by the ship’s bow, creating yet another crack for the kittiwakes to dive into.
We took a gazillion of photos of the feeding, flying, or resting birds. There were young ones as well, distinguishable by the black markings on their head and on the upper part of the wing. Still, we were hoping for that bear to appear.
While our expedition team was scanning the area from the bridge, many of us joined the search from the outer decks or the panorama lounge. But it was so hard to not get distracted by the beauty of the ice surrounding us!
One bear, two bears, three polar bears…
Suddenly, we heard the announcement by expedition leader Rinie van Meurs, and we could easily tell how excited he was: Bears had been spotted – yes, not one bear but three bears! Everybody who was not outside or in the lounge yet rushed to their cabins for warm clothing, binoculars, and cameras.
When we slowly approached the position where the bears had been found, it became obvious that in fact it wasn’t three but four bears, and they were very close together!
Dancing Svalbard polar bears
Our captain skilfully inched Plancius closer, when suddenly two of the bears started sparring – a behaviour rarely observed in the Barents Sea. Breathlessly we watched them wrestling each other, eventually standing up, balancing on their hind legs like they were in some strange kind of dance.
At the same time, the fog that had begun to settle in gave way to some sunlight, and the cameras staccato’ed away at the backlit bears, the outline of their bodies glowing.
A feast for the ivory gulls of Spitsbergen
Obviously, the two bears sparring were young males. The third bear – another young male – decided to curiously approach Plancius, but then he seemed to be hesitant, hiding behind a lump of ice with just his head sticking out.
The fourth bear, an old male, had had enough of the youth club already and retreated a few meters. More than 60 ivory gulls either sat on the ice, waiting patiently or pacing back and forth between the remains of what had once been a bearded seal.
Only skin and bones were left, but that was more than enough for the birds, among which were quite a few young ones with their polka-dot plumage.
Here comes polar bear number five!
While we were busy watching what was going on, we almost missed a new addition to the scene: In wandered the fifth male bear, sniffing, attracted by the scent of the kill.
He approached cautiously. None of the other bears seemed to mind, as they let him wander closer and closer until he finally reached the carcass. There was not much left to nibble anyway, but our Svalbard expedition provided us an outstanding experience to see five bears at the same spot. It was even possible to have all of them in one photo.
A great polar bear trip indeed!