Greenpeace's Dave Walsh writes from the Esperanza, currently off the coast of Svalbard as part of the Arctic Under Pressure expedition 2010.
Early afternoon, Sunday: the Esperanza is at anchor in Woodfjorden, northern Svalbard. Sharp-eyed Erik was scouring the coastline from the Esperanza’s anchorage, looking for bears. He found one too, making its way along a small cliff above the water, a kilometre so away. The crew gathered on the bridge to watch the bear through binoculars as made its way down to the beach, sliding headfirst, then backside first through the snow.
For many of the crew, this was their first glimpse of the Great Wanderer, the ice bear, sea bear, polar bear, something that the “old hands” on board had promised for weeks. It looked small in the distance, but this marine mammal, at its most content on drift ice, manages to be the largest predator on land (along with its cousin, the Kodiak Bear).
Although they are capable of immense bursts of speed, polar bears don’t like to hurry; under the polar summer sun, staying cool is difficult enough without generating any more heat. This bear looked like it had all the time in the world, swaggering along the beach, before vanishing into an iced-over lagoon in a nearby bay, where Krsto and Fred had seen bearded seals the previous night.
Late on Sunday evening, from our inflatable boats we spot not one, but two bears near that same lagoon. The larger bear was leaving, making its way towards Mushamna, site of a small hut (translation: “Mouse Harbour”). It was wearing a collar, presumably containing a tracking device, and not, as some wit proposed, a magnet for a catflap. The other bear, still a golden dot even with binoculars, appeared to be snoozing on the sea ice.
We had been ashore the previous evening to Mushamna, and had noticed the fortifications made to the house, in order to keep bears out. This time we kept well offshore, both for our own safety and the wellbeing of the bear, as advised by Auden, our Svalbard guide.
We watched the bear slowly and carefully investigating the locked door and shuttered windows, before it ambled back to the shoreline. We had noticed that terns had laid eggs on the areas bare tundra not covered by snow, and it was up and down these the bear paced, looking for a snack.
Seals are the preferred food of polar bears; however, if seals are unavailable, they’ll make do with eggs, and will pick their way up steep cliffs to get them. In the past week, I’ve seen news reports suggesting that as climate change lowering the amount of summer sea ice around Svalbard fjords for seals pull up on, the bear’s nest-raiding is having a negative effect on some species, including the barnacle goose.
Pressure on the Arctic ecosystem is having other effects on the bears; pregnant females are having to change denning locations to ones they can reach, bears are having to swim farther between locations, and the mortality rate of cubs has increased. Polar bears are top of the food chain, and consume mostly the blubber of seals, where PCBs and other toxins accurate, is causing reportedly fertility issues, birth defects and immune system deficiency. Future oil drilling – and spills - in the Arctic would also affect the bears – oil in the fur reduces insulation, and licking it off would basically poison the bear.
We left the collared bear and made our way down the coast, and spotted the second bear, awake on the move. Again, we stayed well offshore, with the engines off. Audun reckoned that first bear was an adult female – they have slimmer necks than the males, which facilitates the fitting of collars. The second, he suggested, was a young male, a couple of years old, following his mother around; she, for her part, was attempting to cut him adrift, and let him gain some independence.
He sauntered by, pausing to give the humans, in their orange suits and rubber boats a couple of inscrutable stares, before returning to his meticulous beachcombing.