I’m cocooned in my cabin, the closed porthole blocking out the bright 2am sunshine of 24 hour Arctic daylight. The tannoy interrupts my sleep, announcing a polar bear sighting.
I stumble out of bed, pull my cold-weather gear over my pyjamas, sling my binoculars around my neck and clamber out on deck, into the freezing air of Svalbard.
My binoculars scan the white skyline, searching for the fast-moving smudge of butter yellow that we’ve been told will be a polar bear.
My fellow passenger nudges me, excitement bright in her eyes. She points to the water.
Swimming Polar Bear
Moving seamlessly through the icy ocean, head aloft like a vain woman who doesn’t want to wet her hair, swims a humungous polar bear.
Unbelievably, it seems to be coming towards the ship. She seemed as interested in us, as we were in her. Knowing that polar bears can swim for days at a time if they need to, it really is a privilege when a polar bear interrupts her day to swim closer to investigate us.
It pauses to heave itself up on a small iceberg and cranes its head to get a better view of us; floating voyeurs, holding icy air in our lungs, begging it to come nearer.
Slipping back into the water, it swims closer and closer, until it clambers out onto a large ice floe directly below the ship. I lean over the side and there it is.
We stare at each other, this magnificent creature and I. It’s black nose sniffs suspiciously and its long tongue flicks out to taste our scent on the frozen air.
Every strand of its sea-slicked fur shines luminescent in the sunlight.
The Latin name for a polar bear is Ursus Maritimus, meaning sea bear, and while admiring her grace in the arctic waters it is no wonder, it was clear that this is her domain and she was looking at us, the newcomers.
It is stock still, looking. We’re locked in a staring competition, two completely different worlds colliding under the Arctic sun. The sea stretches out to a seemingly infinite horizon and time catches for a moment.
Silence hums. A wonderful moment in time and so memorable.
It is known that polar bears do come closer to humans than previously recorded, probably due to changes in their environment and due to the sea ice that they need for hunting their usual prey such as seals, is retreating and thinning more and more in recent years.
Maybe she was hungry? Tasting the air anticipating a feed. Some of the reasons for the bear encounters becoming more prevalent will be due to environmental factors and partially learned behaviours.
One thing is sure, when they visit arctic communities, they can wreak havoc.
Often the sea ice will retreat faster than the polar bear anticipates, they can then become too malnourished without a hunt that swimming can become too strenuous, therefore becoming stranded.
Sea ice is their natural hunting ground and the arctic ocean their home.
Dangers of Polar Bears
Programs are being put into place throughout arctic communities to help educate people on how to avoid a polar bear attack, and of course quite importantly, how to find ways to live in a way that doesn’t attract their presence in the first place.
Disposing of garbage and carcases from towns in a well-managed way and finding best ways to store food. Polar bears will also attack the sled dogs too because they will see them as prey.
They are an apex predator, and this must not be forgotten, they still see us as a food option if they become hungry enough. Recorded attacks have become much more prevalent over the recent years.
They have a fantastic sense of smell and can detect a food source for miles, for instance they are able to smell a carcass from around 20 miles away.
Watching the bear behaviour
Breaking first, the bear starts to strut up and down the berg as the cameras click into action. I watch, awe struck. The bear unselfconsciously wriggles around on the snow, drying its coat. Its huge, white bottom sticks up proudly in the air. The bear glances back at its still captive audience.
We stay like that, the bear and I, for an impossible time, until it decides it’s had enough and slopes back into the ocean to continue its journey, leaving only paw prints on the snow.
They are strong swimmers and have been noted diving down and staying submerged for up to two minutes at a time. They can dive down and cruise along for up to 15 metres under the arctic ocean while hunting. They will close up their nostrils and flatten their ears while swimming under water.
When they emerge from the icy waters, they will vigorously shake off the excess water similar to a dog, which I think we’ve all witnessed. They then roll in the snow and scoot along in what we might see as quite a comical way, they do appear to enjoy themselves doing this, it has to be said.
After a long swim this would be important. They can swim for up to sixty miles at a time without a rest, doing about 6 miles an hour, and getting dry afterwards is a rewarding ritual. They have two layers of coat, and the hair shaft is actually hollow, this makes the fur reflective in the sun and can look white mostly or yellow at other times.
Polar Bear Diet
They eat mostly ringed seals especially at times when they are abundant but will eat other seal species.
They have been known to hunt and eat narwhales, beluga whale and even an adult walrus. At times or hardship, they’ll eat seaweed on shore or hunt reindeer or muskox.
Berries are also on the menu as are small rodents, birds, or shellfish. They really need rich fatty foods such as the fatty richness of seal meat especially when the mothers are suckling young cubs.
Polar bears are classed as a vulnerable species and only around two percent of their hunts are successful.
I think about that bear now and hope it survived the melting Arctic summer. I hold our encounter like a snow globe. I shake it and bring to life the fragility of being and the exceptional world we inhabit.