We were trying to put two people ashore in Iqaluit - a small and isolated settlement on the East Coast of Canada. Why we were doing that is a story for another day but while we were there, something unforgettable happend.
We were drifting amongst the ice floes waiting for a break in the weather. The engines were silent and the fog was thickening around us when the cry went up - POLAR BEAR!
As rare as they are, we’d actually seen one the previous day too. But it was in the distance, between us and our navy escort, eating a seal. It may have been the same bear but this time came much closer.
It was a few hundred meters away when we first spotted it coming steadily towards us through the maze of ice and water. It jumped the gaps where the ice floes weren’t touching in big splashing leaps and within 10 minutes it had come so close that, if we hadn’t been safe on the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, we could have touched it.
The whole crew were soon out on deck with camera’s in hand and everyone, even the old hands, was quietly thrilled to see a bear up so close. A wild polar bear. The largest land-based predator on the planet in its natural habitat and almost close enough to touch. This was once in a life time for most of us.
Arne Sorenson is on board. He’s our ice pilot and with his vast experience of the frozen seas even he’s excited to see the bear. But he was also quick to stress how real the danger is of a bear like this getting on board and eating someone for breakfast.
Polar bears can weigh up to 1,000 kilos and stand 1.5 meters tall at the shoulder. They can run up to 40 km/h and have been seen swimming 300km from the nearest land. Suffice to say, despite the cute and cuddly look they've got going on - you don't want to mess with one. Our visitor wasn’t the largest of bears and looked young and leaner than the classic polar bear post card so I’m guessing he was fairly keen for a feed. He certainly made short work of the marmite on toast someone accidentally dropped over the side in their haste to get a photo.
Our ship is drifting feely amongst ice floes and ice bergs of all shapes and sizes. They and us are continuously shifting with the current and the wind. So from one hour to the next, the whole pattern of ice and water around the ship changes. The bear finally drifted away from us on a large flat ice floe. Most of the ice floes are relatively flat, protruding from the water only a few feet or less, but every now and then a much thicker piece appears out of the mist. And here’s the thing - if our young bear were to find a nice thick piece of ice alongside the ship - it could then get on board. And that would be big trouble in thick white fur.
So once the bear had drifted out of site we battened the hatches and locked all the doors before retiring back down into the warmth of the ship.
I went to sleep in my bunk that night imagining that bear slowly paddling a nice thick lump of ice towards the ship in time for breakfast.
For me, seeing the bear in this miraculously unspoiled place really underlined why we are here in the Arctic campaigning to stop deep sea oil drilling.
Polar bears live only in the Arctic Circle and are classified as a threaten species. The Davis Strait polar bear population is estimated at around two thousand. Scientists think that its survival rate will decline due to decreasing harp seal populations and shrinking sea ice cover. The polar bear survives on a diet almost exclusively of seals and lives most of its life at sea hunting on the edges of the sea ice.
An oil spill in this area would spell bad news for the bears.
Photos 1, 2, 4 & 5 by Jiri Rezac (C) GREENPEACE / Rezac
Photo 3 by Henriette Geenen (C) GREENPEACE / Geenen