A Travellerspoint blog

6/14 Seen Lions & Tigers, Now Walrus & Bears

Oh my

sunny 32 °F

01IcePatterns.JPG02FogBank.JPGAfter Elke’s dire warnings last evening, I was prepared for an unpleasant night and day ahead. Instead, I woke to clear sky illuminating snow covered ice flows atop calm sea. Beyond the ice lay mountains covered in snow, obscured by hanging fog from sea level to, perhaps, 300 feet above sea level.

My practice has become to visit the lounge and brew a cup of coffee—or two—and slowly begin my day. I am joined this morning by Jonas, a young Swede who has earned his way aboard this voyage by winning an incentive trip—along with ten other young people. They are apparently very good at selling lottery tickets.c35abf40-9264-11e9-a979-ffb2cdfedbd6.JPGSoon Elke is on the PA letting us know that we will be boarding Zodiacs in half an hour. I join her in Zodiac #2 along with a wonderful Swedish family: Stefan, Petra, Ludvig (19) and Bella (13). [
c377bd20-9264-11e9-a6d8-f7c78474b2dd.JPGvideo provider=vimeo videoid=343162272]

They adopt me and we enjoy zipping in and out of ice flows, between narrow ice channels and occasionally bumping into the ice flows once or twice in search of whatever we can find. Lone walrus are discovered offering the chance for a photograph or two.

11PaulOnIce.JPGSoon, and unexpected by me, we toss an anchor onto one ice flow and disembark our Zodiac. Photographs are taken and a snowball fight—all friendly fire—ensues; we are a convivial group. Back aboard M/S Quest (greeted with hot chocolate), I download some photographs, meet Nancy and Bill, the only other Americans aboard, for conversation in the lounge and prepare for lunch. Stefan, Petra, Ludvig and Bella invite me to join them and I do. Stefan and Petra are both filled with technical expertise, she as a cell biologist and he as a physicist and computer scientist; they lived for a time in Palo Alto. Ludvig will be doing a year’s mandatory military obligation soon and Bella, still in high school, is a riding champion aboard her horse, Shamrock. The food is very good aboard M/S Quest but the conversation is even better—at least among those who are happy to communicate in English.

After a rest of about 45 minutes, we are off on a second Zodiac outing so I again dress accordingly. That means waterproof calf high boots (rented for $40.00 in Longyearbyen for this week), waterproof insulated winter pants—suspenders help keep them up—a long-sleeved ski t-shirt under my puffy down-filled hoodie under a ski jacket that I’ve owned for 30 years. A neck gator and stocking cap finish off my body. My hands are covered with glove liners and then ski gloves—also from 30 years ago. I am toasty warm even with the windchill created by the fast-moving Zodiac and other complications from spray created by our bow. Sunglasses protect my eyes. I’m completely warm and dry.14PaulReadyToBoardZodiac.JPG

We depart for a phenomenally dull afternoon. We disembark on an island and get a way-too-long lecture about the turn of the century whaling and the whale-oil business here. For a man (me) who made a living by distilling the message into as few well-chosen words as possible, the wordy and overlong presentation was agony. Plus, we all came here to see polar bears. My impatient mind screams: Why are we listening to this when we should be bear hunting!
Back on the Zodiacs we search and find nothing. Finally, a couple of walrus are spotted so I take countless walrus photos and then we head back to M/S Quest.
In the lounge before dinner, Elke does a “recap & planning” presentation where she is preparing us for bad weather tomorrow. You can feel the stress she is under and my heart goes out to her. After her presentation everyone leaves for dinner and she and I remain for a bit to chat. She needs us to get a bear sighting. She is more anxious about it that I am and that’s the whole reason I came all this way.

I’m off to dinner and join Nancy and Bill and an elderly Scandanavian man who speaks nearly no English. We enjoy our soup. Coincidentally, we all ordered the pork loin which comes out hot and delicious. Three bites into our main course, the PA crackles. There is a polar bear on shore, 500 yards of so off our bow. We’re launching the Zodiacs. Get dressed. It’s about 8:15.

12PolarBearToShore.jpeg13ZodiacLaunch.JPGThe dining room empties faster than the air from a popped balloon. Half eaten food is abandoned. The wait staff tells us to not worry about it; they know we didn’t come for the food. We quickly re-dress for the outside and line up to board the Zodiacs which the ship’s crew has hastily re-launched. That requires hooking them, one by one, to a crane and gently lowering them, guide and rifle already aboard, from the top of deck five to the water, unhooking and then repeating the process five times.

Before they can get the hatchway open—through which all of us board the Zodiacs—the announcement comes: “The bear has entered the water and is swimming.


By law, we cannot view a swimming bear because the proximity of Zodiacs could stress the bear and cause it harm. We will monitor the bear’s progress and, when it returns to shore, we’ll let you know. You should return to the dining room and finish your dinner.”

As quickly as the adrenaline pumped, it stopped. We were dressed for the cold, not for dining. The food we left would no longer be hot. The vibe turned sour. But then, as many of us went to the bow to watch this swimming bear from afar—its head was a mere dot in the waves—it quickly became clear that it was heading away from land rather than back to shore. It remained in the water, swimming from left to right around 200 yards from shore, for well over a mile—taking nearly an hour to do it.

Then, however, word came that the bear had turned and appeared to be looking at land. We were instructed to prepare to board the Zodiacs…which we anxiously did. It takes about as long to load five Zodiacs as it does to board a Southwest flight. It just takes time. I was the last to board. I was in Zodiac #1 with Erik as guide. Four Belgians (delightful people to be sure), two Swedes and the elderly gentlemen who had been sitting across from me a dinner made up Erik’s charges. “Erik to bridge,” he spoke into his radio, “I have eight passengers and an unloaded rifle and am leaving the ship.” (This communication is routine at each Zodiac departure and return) The announcement made it real: I’m about to get up close and personal with my first polar bear in the wild.

15PolarBearBetweenRocks.jpg16PolarBearCheckingUsOut.jpeg17PolarBearSlidingJPG.jpeg18PolarBearSlidingOnBack.jpeg19PolarBearOnRocks.jpg20PolarBearDarkBackground.jpeg21PolarBearYawningOnRidge.jpg22PolarBearLastShot.jpegI’ll let the photographs tell the story other than to say that we spent nearly an hour with this bear. I am flabbergasted at the quality of the photographs I got given the fact that we were in low light aboard a rocking Zodiac, off shore and the bear was, well, see for yourself. The evening’s entertainment was top drawer.

We were all giddy.

By the time we got back to M/S Quest, it was 10:30pm in this land of the midnight sun. Poor stressed Elke was stressed no more. The announcement came: “Breakfast is at 7:45. There will be no wakeup call. We won’t make an excursion before 9:00.” A cheer could be heard.

Is this opportunity going to be available forever?

BBC America airs some of the best, most creative programming available. Killing Eve is amazing; Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer redefine who women are. One of my favorite actors, Amy Adams brings a Missouri-based story to Sharp Objects. However, coming to mind on this trip and on the nature front, there is Planet Earth: Blue Planet II


narrated by David Attenborough. An impactful episode of that series is ‘One Ocean’ which originally aired January 20, 2018. That episode hooked me.

I cannot improve on the script writers' words nor on Attenborough's dignified reading of them. So, with full attribution, here is his script:

"There are now worrying signs that conditions in the oceans that have remained relatively stable for millenia are changing radically.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arctic. Here in the past 30 years, the extent of the ice in summer has been reduced by 40%. This sudden warming, most likely a consequence of human activity, is having a profound impact on its wildlife.

Walruses are among those most seriously affected. Every adult female needs to find a safe place where her 80-kilo pup can rest. The sea ice is retreating from much of the walrus’ traditional range so they now have to haul out onto dry land. But a herd of hundreds of quarrelsome walrus, some weighing almost a ton, is not an ideal nursery.

Walruses on land stick together for good reason: polar bears. A full-grown male walrus is gigantic, too big for even a polar bear to tackle. So, the bear is looking for a walrus baby. The scent of the bear spreads alarm through the colony. The walruses retreat into the sea. The bear knows it won’t be able to catch them there. But she too has young ones to feed. What is a mother to do?

A mother walrus still needs to find a place where her young can rest. A melting iceberg might do but she is not the first to find this one. Suitable places are already taken. Other mothers don’t want to share. They too need a patch of ice where they can protect their young. The desperate mother has no choice but to barge her way in. So, this time everyone loses. Finding the right place on these melting shores gets harder and harder. Solving these problems together helps create a bond so strong that the mother will stay in contact with her young for the rest of her life. But who knows now what their future will be?

As we understand more about the complexity of the lives of sea creatures so we begin to appreciate the fragility of their home: our blue planet."

Those are, of course, only the words; the pictures make the presentation all the more rich and moving. Do yourself a favor and watch this episode. Perhaps you too will be motivated to come here and see it for yourself. So far, I have seen no baby walrus; only adults. I don’t know what our polar bear was looking for during the long swim but one thing I noticed, verified by Erik: the bear was skinny.

Posted by paulej4 19:12 Archived in Svalbard

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This is wild...

by ToddP

Got the Great Pics and Blogs today from June 13th and 14th...exciting and sometimes stressful with weather warnings.....I'll take the Sea Lions on the back of the boat in Cabo! Thinking you have left the Artic by now? Where (in the world) to next?

Keep the blogs bountiful!

CC & Jc

by Chuck

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