Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A polar bear frenzy in the Arctic


 I think anyone would be lying if they said they weren't going on an Arctic cruise in the hope of seeing polar bears. These powerful yet cuddly-looking animals are the basis on which many cruise companies sell their trips, and were the main topic of excited conversation amongst our fellow passengers as we all boarded the ship on day one. Our expedition leader was spot on when he noted during his introduction speech that he could wax lyrical about the flora of the Svalbard archipelago, talk about its history or even point out seals swimming through waves, but passengers tend not to become truly excited about these things until after they spot their first bear. In fact, he went on, he always hopes that a bear will show up in the first day or two, for the simple reason that the whole boat is on edge until that moment when the first elusive white fur ball is spotted. Despite not making promises, the pressure on the crew to deliver is high.

Our first bear - so far away. We had no idea what was coming...
It's a very different feeling to being on an Antarctic cruise. There, the main wildlife draw, penguins, are pretty much guaranteed. With an Arctic cruise, there are no such promises. On our departure day, we had some time to kill in the early afternoon before being allowed to board. We settled ourselves in a cafe for lunch and couldn't help but overhear the discussions of the table next to ours - a group who had just disembarked that morning from the very ship we were booked on. They were sharing experiences, recalling particular moments and wistfully looking back over their past few days. Of course, the conversation soon turned to bears, and they were discussing how fortunate they'd felt at seeing a bear towards the end of their trip. F and I just hoped we'd be that lucky. "One bear", I murmured as we left. "That's all I want - just the chance to see one".

I got my wish on day two of our trip. Bursting with enthusiasm, it seemed that every single passenger was out on deck day and night, peering out. As we drifted towards land in the afternoon, the tannoy announced a spot - a polar bear far in the distance. We got as close as possible, thrilled as the white blob in front finally became recognisable. It was still a long way away, but I pulled out my zoom lens and took close to fifty pictures, just in case this was my only chance.

It wasn't.

Over the next couple of days, we saw a few more bears, still too far away to make out in any real detail. One afternoon, our expedition leader called us into the lounge. We were sailing at the end of the season, and the ice was retreating fast. Our chances of more polar bear encounters were reducing, and they needed to make a decision. We could continue our planned route around the archipelago, or we could head much further north along the pack ice. They'd scanned the route, and the presence of a couple of boats was optimistic. Which direction should we take?

Naturally, the pack ice won out, and we moved ever higher into the Arctic circle, ice sheets floating around us. We reached what became known affectionately as 'The Ice Blob', a dense section of the pack ice, and there experienced the frenzy. There were polar bears everywhere. First ten, then twenty came into view over the next couple of days. One female was so interested in our boat that she carefully crossed the ice over the space of a couple of hours, until she stood right next to us, merely metres below where F and I stood. Another lay lazily on an iceberg, his half-finished meal picked over by birds below. Others still leapt the gaps between ice sheets to come closer to us, noses high at our unfamiliar scent. It was incredible and absolutely magical. We stood for hours, fingers and toes numb, astounded by our luck.

Eventually we were forced to leave the pack ice in order to fulfil our hope of circumnavigating the archipelago, but the sightings didn't stop there. Day after day we saw more bears - in fact, they eventually became a bit of a nuisance for our expedition crew, who needed to cancel a couple of landings and find alternatives when we encountered a bear on the shore during reccies. On one such occasion, a couple of members of the team waited a little off-shore in a zodiac, hoping that the bear would leave if we waited it out so that we could land. For an hour or more we all stood on deck, watching, when suddenly the bear, spotting some birds, ran across the beach at a speed I didn't think could be possible for its size. The zodiac reluctantly returned to the ship, and we all now truly understood its caution.

The final highlight came towards the end of our trip, when we saw two bears swimming in the water, and one catching and devouring a bird at the base of a cliff. It was an amazing finale to what had been a combination of luck and the skill of our crew - around thirty bears in total, some very much in the distance, others just metres away. Watching them was a privilege, and one I will never forget.

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