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Trip Reports

Svalbard Arctic Adventure: Part 2

written by Monique Fallows

Polar bear trip to Svalbard

Posted on Monday, 1 May 2017

A Celebration of Polar Bears!

On leaving Longyearbyen we had headed to a Fjord system just to the south and the modus operandi was to search the various protected fingers of the fjords.

We moved into the next fjord system overnight and already from early morning things were looking more promising. We spotted a few walrus’s on ice-floes, a group of harp seals and a number of bear tracks in the various slopes.

At midday we were scanning the front of a glacier through a veil of sea mist when 2 yellow rock-like features turned out to be our first Polar bear sighting. Very fortunately they were close to the edge of the ice and once the boat was parked in the ice they were only about 150 meters away from us.

I couldn’t believe it… a real polar bear!

I was immediately struck by their creamish colour contrasting against the brilliant whiteness of the ice and snow.

There was a mad scramble to gather and dress in all the gear, no easy feat, and we all as quickly as possible rushed out onto deck.

Because the one bear was quite a bit smaller than the other it was assumed they were a mother and cub. The cub appeared to be extremely tired and had curled up asleep in the crook of a piece of ice. It seemed to be dominating the movement and actions of the mother who appeared restless and wanting to go on the move. Each time the cub awoke it would run around a short while with mum assumedly playfully chasing it. These short periods of activity were followed by long periods of sleep.

The mother bear didn’t seem as keen on sleeping and would constantly raise her head and have a good scout around.

With the extremely beautiful pastel colours of a polar winter sunset we hoped in vain for the polar bears to stroll along the ice edge and throw beautiful reflections into the now completely flat calm sea. It was not to be but the good news was that they settled themselves down for the night and there was a good chance we would see them again the following morning.

 

At 4.55am the next morning we were woken to the booming voice of our Swedish guide, Martin as he bellowed through the sleeping quarters of the boat in his sing-song Scandinavian accent: “The bears are at the boat! The bears are at the boat! Wake up! Waaake uuuup!”

Although waking suddenly from deep sleep adrenalin took over as I put on all those layers of clothing in record speed. Chris was taking more time and not wanting to lose the opportunity I sprinted up on deck without him.

They sight that greeted me at the back of the boat was of the cub running along the black-ice flanking the now frozen sea ice around the boat.

Overnight the wind had completely dropped and the temperature was now at a record low of -29C. The stillness and the frigid temperature had allowed the sea-ice to form around the boat and it now spread a few hundred meters behind us.

The cub reached the back of the boat and stood and stared up at all of us. We all stared back in awe and wonderment. The mum stood anxiously next to her. Some polar bears can be extremely curious and it is not unusual to have this kind of situation.

It was exactly what all of us had been hoping for. My breath caught in the specialness of the moment and I just tried to take in all the features of the two polar bears that were just a few meters away.

At almost the same time I had the thought that I should probably have a camera with me. I ran midships to where our camera bag was, grabbed the 70-200mm and the wide angle lens, got back to where the bears where and realised that neither camera had batteries in them!

Each night we would need to bring them in in order to preserve their battery power from the cold.

I also realised that Chris was still not out on deck and in my desperation for him to not miss this special moment I sacrificed what I was seeing to call him to hurry up.

As luck would have it I missed him emerging onto to deck as I went back down to the cabin to call him.

He then couldn’t find our cameras, as I had them, and in all the panic we both missed the best moments. I was terribly disappointed and it is a lesson well learnt that sometimes experiencing the moment is more important and much more valuable than any photograph.

Despite the chaos I did still get a precious few moments of an up close polar bear. The mum was not as comfortable as the cub close to the boat and let out a series of gruff growls. I sat staring transfixed as the two bears started to move off.

 

A Courting Pair of Bears

When we all looked up we became aware of a third bear hanging back in the distance and the true story began to emerge. It was not a Mother and cub we had been watching for the past day, it was a courting pair of polar bears with an additional male challenger now on the scene.

Erik, our naturalist on board began to piece together the situation by watching the unusual behaviour. His new theory was confirmed a while later when the larger bear rolled on his back exposing the vital clue!

Added to this he thought these were the same 2 bears seen the week before. On that sighting the male was somewhat further away from the female as he pursued her. When we came across them a week later she seemed almost at the point of accepting him. There was no telling how long she had been chased for (it could have been weeks) and she now appeared utterly exhausted, hence the hours and hours spent sleeping and the obvious lack of desire of the male to leave her.

Looking back on the behaviour we had seen the day before the “playfulness” we thought we had been watching was actually the female trying to break away from him. With the male now so close in his conquest of her he was not letting her get away. It was an act of very subtle dominance that was fascinating to understand and now start to observe more closely.

 

In the pre-dawn the crewman who was on watch observed the 3 bears coming together just moments before the bears approached the ship. When this happened the 2 males fought and came to blows. Both males were injured and were now showing blood on their shoulders and faces. While the 2 males were busy fighting it out the very curious female took her opportunity of running towards the ship. That was the moment I stepped out on deck. We think the only reason the dominant male came as close to the ship as he did was due to him not wanting to lose his hold on the female once he had chased off the intruding male.

It was a tremendous shame that this show of extremely interesting behaviour took place while we were all sleeping but at least we now knew what the situation was.

Before moving off the second male was gracious in his defeat by walking away beneath the back drop of a blue glacier. It is an image that says everything it needs to say about polar bears existing in the Arctic environment. It perfectly sums up the feeling of being out there in the winter wasteland that the Arctic is, combined with a brief but extremely special moment with one of the Planet’s great animals.

He continued his retreat up a mountain slope. Deep in the snow he made himself a comfortable bear bed and settled down to sleep away his wounds and defeat about 2km away from us.

The female also went back to sleep, again cuddled up in a piece of ice about 80 meters away from us, the persistent male again faithfully by her side.

 

Over the next 24 hours we were to witness fascinating behaviour that is very rarely seen… the courtship of two polar bears.

As the hours of observation mounted I began to really like the male. He was now being allowed to come a little bit closer to the female but he was still extremely respectful in his advances. Once he was close enough he was very gentle with her and on many occasions we observed soft, gentle head muzzling, tender grooming with his paws and at times it appeared as if he was hugging her. If we were to assign a human analogy to his actions we could have said he was wooing her.

He did have a somewhat darker side though. The moment she tried to leave him and his affections he blocked her and there was no way she could escape him. He was dominant in the most subtle of ways. In fact the perfect description of him was a sort of gentle-hearted kidnapper.

 

When it was our bedtime they were yet again curled up asleep on the ice. The next morning we woke at 4.30am hoping for a similar burst of action as the morning before only to find the two bears asleep up the mountain slope in front of the ship.

The female had hollowed out what looked like a super comfortable bed deep in the snow and the male had his own quarters directly below her. There was no mistaking his intentions of not letting her escape down the slope in the night.

After a flurry of activity consisting of stretching and yawning the female started running across side of the slope. The male immediately gave chase and as such she lay down again.

As a last ditch effort she got up again and bounded past him and quickly made her way down the slope. It looked as if she was headed for our ship again and this time we were all ready!

Unfortunately for us, and perhaps the female too, the male caught up with her, got in front and successfully blocked her path. There was no way out for her and with this in mind polar bear cubs in the not too distant future will most likely be a certainty!

 

When the bears lay down again our expedition leaders had to make a decision on what to do. It certainly isn’t easy to leave 2 polar bears but with a vast area of Svalbard still to explore this was perhaps the correct course of action.

 

I have written in detail of our observations over the 48 hour period spent with these polar bears and this was not just because they were the only bears we were to see on our 8 day trip. Polar bears involved in courtship have not been witnessed by too many people.  In fact, our guides who had been working in Svalbard for 17 plus years have never seen it before. I was completely captivated and realise what a privilege it was to witness this special and endearing event.

Unfortunately due to the distance the bears were away from us there were no great photographic images to be had but it is certainly something I will remember for the rest of my life.

Part 3 to follow...

Part 1...

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