June 15, 2016
Our day started early…just after midnight. The message in Australian accent sounded over the PA system, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but a polar bear is visible to the naked eye around 11 o’clock to the ship.” I don’t think either of us had really gone to sleep. We had only returned to the room in the last hour and after I suggested to David to take a picture with his phone through the scope, he had gone back up to the captain’s bridge and had just returned 15 minutes earlier. After the announcement, David, told me he wasn’t getting up, however, I got dressed in lightning speed. I was going to see that polar bear!
I could see it with the naked eye, though it didn’t make a great picture as it was still a good distance away. It was standing by a hole in the ice with its nose sniffing near the water hoping to catch a seal. My FOMO, fear of missing out, left me very conflicted. Should I wait to see if the bear catches a seal or should I go back to bed? I dawdled around a bit with some other passengers while I enjoyed the lovely light, probably as close to a sunset as we’d see up here in the land of eternal light during the summer. The tranquil evening invited birds to glide along the placid water. For a few minutes I’d enjoy the landscape, and then I’d turn back toward the polar bear.
In the meantime, one of the guides mentioned that the mama and cub we had spotted last night were off in the distance and headed our way. Sure enough, they were almost visible to the naked eye. I was getting hopeful until they stopped. Then I spoke with Woody, and I asked, “How long will a bear wait for a seal?”
He responded, “Oh, hours. They are very patient.”
I questioned, “Likely more patient than me?”
“Oh, yes,” he said.
With that, I decided 40 minutes was long enough to wait and that I’d go back to bed and hope for another wake up call.
The next wake up call came shortly after 3am. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but there is a mama and a cub very close to the ship.” Disturb away!! We both shot out of bed. I raced up to the third deck and went out on the bow. The mama and cub wandered all the way up to the port side of the bow. They would stop and sniff the air both by pointing their nose up to the sky and by sticking their tongue out as it expands their olfactory senses. The curious bears were assessing the situation. Could they find any prey (meaning us)? They were so close, I had to contort around people just to get a picture as we all aimed our cameras straight down from the bow. Soon, an approaching male bear startled them, and they loped around the bow to the waters edge on the other side. As such, I moved to the starboard side and up a level to snap some more photos. While the mama and cub appeared to be leaving, the male bear neared the port side.
I raced over to the left side and intermittently snapped photos and admired the relaxed, lumbering bear. This bear came equally close to the ship. People were taking selfies with the bear behind them! Occasionally, I turned to my right to check on the mama and cub. They were returning! They came all the way back and soon were on the port side of the boat a little distance away from the single male. At first the mama was cautious of the single bear, until she realized it was a younger, weaker male and she could take him. Then, she shooed the male away! The young, approximately five-year old male with few battle scars went off to the starboard side of the ship while the mama and cub garnered all our attention.
Uneventful video of the mama and cub approaching the male bear before he got shooed away.
Polar bears get overheated easily, so they rest often. All that activity wore the mama out. She yawned and rested while she watched her cub. The cub frolicked in the snow and played with a piece of ice, bringing it to its mouth with its paw. Then it tested the thinning ice as he tapped it with his front paws. Next, it checked out his reflection in the water and started walking along the waters edge. The mama joined him for a bit. It was time for the cub to rest. The mama took advantage of this with a good stretch.
After the cub followed the shoreline for a while, it finally slid into the water. You could hear the excitement in the hushed whispers among all of us watching! The cub swam out toward the floating guillemots who quickly decided to find a better place, but then swooped back in to tease it a bit. It continued swimming around and occasionally dove below the surface of the water while practicing his aqua stalks. Then it poked its head above the water and spun in circles like a little kid. The mama sat on the shore lazily until she had had enough. She slid into the water to fetch her cub. It tried to climb on her back, and then they both spun around before the mama returned to shore. The cub followed, but waited at the edge of the ice. The mama continued walking with her back toward him. Her tactic finally got him to climb out, and they wandered off.
We knew the last 1.5 hours was simply an amazing experience when all the guides were out on the deck brewing with excitement and snapping photos. The cub’s playfulness was a tourist’s dream come true…it was such a ham! It’s hard to believe the polar bear is the most aggressive bear in the world. Because there is little food in the Arctic, the polar bears consider humans edible. They will not run off with the wave of an arm as the black bear generally does. Instead, they will assess the situation. If they think they can catch their prey, they will attack. If they don’t think they will succeed, they won’t expend their energy. Obviously, humans are slow and good prey to a polar bear.
Around 5am, we returned to our cabins to catch a couple hours of sleep before breakfast. I suppose I was too wound up as sleep eluded me! I tried napping after breakfast as well, to no avail, so instead I scrolled through the 500 photos I took! If I weren’t about to run out of space on my SD card, I probably would have snapped more, but I didn’t want to leave the scene to get another one.
Over the next few hours, we motored through rough waters. Getting to the dining room sometimes required grabbing the railing or timed steps with the rocking of the ship. The lunch room was about half-full. Either passengers were napping or tossing their cookies. I think it was the latter as the doctor on board received several visits, including one from David who was slightly nauseous. The seas didn’t soften after lunch and unfortunately there was too much ice and low visibility at our planned destination, so the captain had to change his southerly course, and return north. I have to admit the motoring along with rough seas was getting a little old, and I started feeling a little lousy. We are ready to find a sheltered spot to moor.
We finally found a place to anchor. I don’t know the name as the daily itinerary is printed assuming we don’t have to change course, and I failed to get it written down during our debriefing this evening. We will receive our final itinerary in six weeks, so I’ll have to add the name later. Regardless, it turned out to be a good location as it didn’t take long for another polar bear to visit us! This time we know it was a female because she was collared. Males are not collared because their neck is too large and the collar would slide off. It appeared this bear, numbered 13 on her rear, didn’t like her collar as she rubbed it on the snow. Generally the collars don’t bother the bears. Our marine mammal expert, Annie, thought that perhaps the collar was new to her.
To collar a bear, a helicopter flies over the area in search of the marine mammal. They dart and anesthetize them. They paint a large number on the bear so that from the air they can recognize the bear and won’t recapture it. The collar remains on the bear for 14 months and is then time released. The collar sends data about the bear’s activity to a satellite and once it falls off, it sends a VHF signal so it can be retrieved. So back to the bear…
She meandered around the starboard side of the boat. Her slow pace kept her cool. Somehow I scored an awesome spot on the fifth deck to snap photos despite not rushing out this time. I got so spoiled with our first sighting, I thought to myself the only way this could be better was if she caught a seal. But frankly, every close up sighting is special. It was just fun to watch her movements. This female was plump…a 4 out of 5 on the international fat scale which was promising. It was odd she didn’t have cubs with her as she was estimated to be in her mid years, a prime age for breeding. Without cubs, she likely would have bred this spring though Annie said it was too hard to tell whether she was pregnant.
Female polar bears breed every three years once they turn 4-5 years old. They have a delayed embryonic cycle, so they are implanted for four months and then the embryonic cycle is 4 months. Due to the short cycle, the babies are only a pound when they are born around December. They grow to 99 pounds in eight months. The cubs stay with the mama for 2.5 years while the male bears have nothing to do with them. In fact, the bears are very solitary, and the male and female only come together and mate during a two week period. The males will fight with other males in order to be with a female, so they generally need to be around ten before they breed so they are big enough to win the battle. Since females won’t mate when they have cubs, sometimes the males will try to kill them.
Females only have one cub the first two times they are pregnant. During pregnancy the don’t eat, drink, urinate, or defacate, so they have to gain 400+ pounds beforehand in order to carry the pregnancy. Once they get a little older they may have two to three cubs and upon their teen years they only have one cub again. It is rare for three cubs to survive. The mortality rate during the cubs first year of life is 40-70%. They also face high mortality rates when the mom leaves them at 2.5 years.
Anyway, this female lumbered around the ship on the fast ice until suddenly she sprinted to a hole in the ice. She smelled a seal. She settled down and patiently waited. Polar bears need 43 seals a year to survive. One seal provides about eight days of energy. The female bears tend to hunt on fast ice while male bears hunt offshore. It is harder for the bears to catch seals when the ice is more broken up because there are more breathing holes for the seals. The bears are only successful hunting a seal about 10-24% of the time. They only hunt about 25-38% of the time and sleep the rest of the time to conserve energy.
They know when the ice is going to be gone, so they will patiently wait for that seal. Should they catch the seal which is about 75% of their diet, the bears efficiently digest 96% of the seal fat. The bears rarely hunt when they are swimming. Generally, they are just trying to reach another piece of ice. Adult bears can swim up to 100 miles, and regularly swim over 30 miles. When swimming, they can spend 1-3 minutes underwater and can dive 18 feet. Their skin doesn’t get wet, so that is one reason why they overheat easily and combat this condition by walking slowly and resting. In fact, they don’t even need their ears or tail, so they have evolved to be small to keep them from heating up.
Once again, back to the bear…She was more patient than us. We decided to go inside for the cold evening while she rested by the ice hole. It was an exciting day! ETB