From Melanie, campaigner on board the Arctic Sunrise:
A few hours after arriving at 82.31 degrees north latitude, a polar bear was sighted wandering not too far off the ship’s port beam. As you can imagine when someone shouts out “polar bear!” a fair bit of mayhem ensues, we drop what we are doing, grab our cameras and run out on deck. My cabin mate, Faye, is on watch from 12-4 so she was asleep, but she’d given me explicit instructions to wake her if a polar bear was sighted. I crossed my fingers and hoped the polar bear would remain in sight for at least a few minutes more while I ran down below to wake Faye.
The first polar bear I ever saw was off the coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea in 1998. I’ve been lucky enough to see dozens more in subsequent trips to the Arctic. I will never, ever tire of seeing them in the wild. To me, they are the most amazing creatures on the planet.
The more I read about them, the more I am in awe of the unique way they’ve evolved from brown bears on land to marine mammals that live in the Arctic, from the way they hunt and travel to the way they regulate their body temperature. They are astonishing creatures.
What struck me yesterday is how gracefully polar bears move. We were lucky enough to have this three-year old bear meander along the ice edge just 20 feet (6m) or so from the ship for a good half hour while we all gawked and took hundreds, if not thousands of pictures. I kept snapping pictures as the polar bear walked, stopped and sat up, crouched down and sniffed the water, scooped up snow into its mouth as it ambled along, even bared its teeth at us. Every picture shows a graceful creature; none of the images show the bear off balance or looking awkward. Imagine doing that with a person walking along on uneven sea ice – you know you’d get a lot of images of the person looking awkward as they righted themselves and caught their balance.
I’m no polar bear expert but this bear looked fat and healthy, I could see the fat around its back half jiggle like ‘jello’ as it walked. Bears keep warm with a thick layer of blubber, and they depend on their blubber for periods when they can’t hunt, so a fat bear is a healthy, thriving bear. I have seen skinny bears with their ribs showing and it’s tough to watch.
As Dave wrote yesterday, one of the reasons we took the ship north to 82.31 degrees north latitude was to allow Arne Sorensen, our ice pilot, to get a first-hand look at the ice bridge that separates ice free Nares Strait from the multi-year, thick pack ice of the Arctic Ocean north of the ice bridge.
Once the ice bridge breaks, all of the multi-year ice will flow south into Nares Strait and potentially pose serious navigation hazards to the ship. After Arne had done his reconnaissance flight of the ice bridge, I was told to suit up quickly for a heli trip to see the sea ice myself.
This was a real treat, I am pretty passionate about sea ice and the Arctic environment and will jump at any chance to go to high latitudes for a fix.
At any rate, the point I want to mention is that I have never seen so many polar bear tracks in the sea ice. I’ve seen polar tracks before, but usually just one set, and days and months can go by between sightings. The sea ice I saw yesterday was literally cross-hatched with polar bear tracks where bears have wandered along the ice edge, then veered off to check out seal breathing holes and haul out zones in the ice, then around pressure ridges and then zig-zagging back to the ice edge again. It was no surprise that I also saw dozens of seals in the short flight, including the site of a recent successful hunt where a seal skeleton and skin were all that remained from a polar bear’s meal.
Seals are the primary prey of polar bears. Where you find seals, you find polar bears. I hope we see more polar bears in the next three months of this expedition, but if not, then I will be happy with yesterday’s morning visitor to the ship.
Photo: Greenpeace/Nick Cobbing
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