Woken up as usual at 7.30 for breakfast and cleaning, I’d had a shower and was getting clothed when someone said 'polar bears outside.' I said to Ethan, the assistant cook who is also my roomie, who has been aboard two weeks already. 'Wow, they're saying there's polar bears outside.' He replied, 'Nah, there isn't man. They're just saying that to get us up.' 'Well, I'm popping outside to check.'
Sure enough, about 300m away from the ship - a mother bear with her cub. Watching them from the deck, we noticed just perhaps three metres from the ship's edge, on a piece of ice floe, were also giant paw prints in the ice - clear as day. They had visited the ship during the night.
Mouth wide open, staring through the binoculars from the deck, and not believing my luck – we saw two other big ones approaching in the distance. These were either another larger mother and cub, or perhaps two adult males. It was difficult to tell. Anyhow, the first mother, closer by, got nervous for her cub, thinking the others were probably hunting it. (They almost certainly were.) This in turn prompted her to take her cub and swim and walk across the ice until they were literally just beside the Arctic Sunrise. There they stood up, slid through the ice, played, before finally swimming around the starboard of the ship - and all just, literally metres from us. We could look them straight in the eyes.
Finally, as the second big pair followed them, they quickly sped up and swam and walked off as far from the second two as possible and into the distance until their perfect pure white coats had them blending in to the ice scape perfectly.
By this point, the second two were just next to us as the first ones had been. And as they swam, literally directly next to us, one of them gave a loud roar! Now, those who know me are aware I am prone to exaggeration, but this is no word of a lie! Just as I thought I couldn’t be luckier, and by which point we were all freezing our arses off on deck, we saw splashing about 100m away and there were seals jumping up and down. So the bears headed towards them to chase them into the distance. Having observed them for over an hour we headed inside for a cup of coffee and some breakfast, and everyone aboard smiled for the rest of the day.
Yesterday afternoon, after the bear watching, there were a couple of hours when there was a crisp clear panoramic view of the sea ice in all directions all around us. Standing on the bridge of the ship alongside our experienced ice pilot and Captain, the sky was blue and you could see for miles. But for much of the rest of the day, the ice was shrouded in fog, and you knew that if a bear did appear again it would be pretty close before anyone would spot it.
After dinner, around 8pm, having sailed further into the ice, the call out came over the ship tannoy that another – or perhaps the same? – mother and cub had returned to the ship. Standing in the drizzle on the heli deck, surrounded by ivory gulls – a beautiful snowy white bird only found in the High Arctic – we spent another couple of hours watching the bears again wandering around us hunting.
With the prospect of this area of sea ice declining to one of it’s lowest ever levels, it was encouraging to see these polar bears looking in such a healthy state. Sadly, the same cannot be said of their habitat. Last week, the director of the US-based National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), the main institute studying this floating ice cap at the top of the world, reported that the sea ice has already shrunk to the third lowest level on record and it could melt yet further between now and the end of September. More on that in my next post.
Joss Garman is the communications officer aboard the Arctic Sunrise currently positioned in the Fram Strait at 80 degrees north.
Photos: © Greenpeace/Nick Cobbing