||81°30.5’N / 019°10.2’E
Having sailed northwards all night, we made our way into the pack ice right after breakfast on this wonderful autumn day in the Arctic. For many of us it was the first time to see this very special icy environment, frozen ocean water, an endless changing landscape. Plancius was followed by a big flock of kittiwakes flying above the sea, always on the watch for something to eat. The ship exposed some small polar cod and crustaceans as it turned the ice floes. The birds quickly pitched down in the water with their sharp bills and often successfully caught something to eat - what a show! Northern fulmars were gliding around the ship and also a couple of Pomarine skuas, (dark morph) were seen. In the morning the fog was coming and going, creating a mystical atmosphere around the ship.
From Barbara`s mid-morning lecture we learned that underneath the ice is a highly productive area with a lot of marine life. In early spring an algae bloom (mostly diatoms) on the bottom of the ice starts off the food web. Many animals live in the ice and underneath it, eating the algae. Who would have guessed that this apparently icy desert conceals so much life?
From time to time some seals raised their heads out of the water, but they dove down quickly when they heard the ship. So we had perfect ice floes, many birds and some seals, but where was the animal at the top of the food chain, the king of the Arctic?
After lunch a Bowhead whale was announced and later on two more. This very rare, ice-loving whale species has no dorsal fin and is therefore easy to determine. Only some of us saw the blow and the back of this very shy animal, as they disappeared quickly.
In the afternoon the weather stayed clear, with the sun beaming down with virtually no wind – superb conditions for being on deck, enjoying the surroundings and experiencing the beautiful sea ice. At around 3 pm Rinie our Expedition Team Leader made an announcement over the loud speaker; he sounded very excited and a bit breathless:- “Far in the distance at 1 o`clock ahead of the ship, there is a polar bear!”
Most of us were already on the outside decks and we all looked in the right direction, but could not see anything yet. With the help of our guides and binoculars we then saw a yellowish blob. As the ship approached closer we saw not only one yellowish blob, but two….no wait, three or even four? Many birds were flying in the sky next to the bears, mostly Ivory gulls and kittiwakes. They are not easy to spot when they sit on the ice as they are, when adult, completely white and you can only see their black feet. Ivory gulls are scavengers, thus only eating dead animals - a good sign that there might be a bear on a kill around. It turned out to be FOUR male bears on a kill, only the skeleton and the skin left, the snow spotted with blood. One of the bears had caught an unfortunate Bearded seal, but who was the culprit-bear?!
Two young polar bears, probably siblings, were measuring their strength against each other, playing, biting and nuzzling. Both were the same size, but one had a long scar on its left hind leg. Another bear, much fatter compared to the other ones, was snoozing near the seal carcase. The light was perfect for taking pictures and it was wonderful to see these great animals in their natural habitat, running and jumping and going about their beary business.
The whole scene did not feel real, especially when a fifth male bear made its appearance. We were in a fever of excitement, as these bears even became interested in our ship and came closer. Thousands of pictures and video films were taken on this day and we will all remember this moment forever, a unique experience for all.
And of course this afternoon we also reached the northernmost position of our journey (81°47.35`N)!
In the evening during our daily recap, Rinie told us more about the bears and their hunting techniques. With happy faces and all bear-questions answered, we went to enjoy our dinner, which was (unusually) a BBQ served on deck, with drinks on the house and dancing afterwards. What a great ending to a perfect day!