A Big White Miracle
Text and Photos Kaisa Sirén
Our ship plows through ice towards the end of the fjord. Gradually the captain slows down, when we reach the edge of the ice, which is a good thing here in the Spitsbergen. Now we can see with the binoculars that a big white lump is lying on the ice, and we approach it a little bit closer until we can see it clearly. It is a polar bear lying next to the breathing hole of a seal, looking down.
For three days we have travelled on the ship "Origo" to the Hinlope straight, north around the Spitsbergen. In the morning, we saw bear tracks on the snow but yet, it is difficult to believe our eyes when we finally see a polar bear. I have dreamt of this.
Although there are plenty of polar bears in the Spitsbergen, one can not take seeing them for granted. It is already middle of July and many of the fjords are already free of ice. There should be less bears now than in the spring, because ice-free fjords create difficulties for the bears. Seals are the polar bear’s main food but without ice, the bears are not able to hunt them down. Because of climate change the ice melts now earlier than what the bears are used to, and they do not always understand to follow the retreating solid ice to the north. However, the bear we have encountered is fortunate, because the back end of this fjord is still frozen.
We watch this bear hunting for about three hours, and I learn how persistent it is. First it sits by the hole for half an hour, then is stands up and continues staring down the hole. At times it lies down again but its snout is always close to the hole. During those three hours it does not go further than a couple of meters from the hole. It keeps waiting for the seal to come up to breath, but this time in vain. Finally it gives up and walks towards the glacier that comes down to the fjord, and finally it disappears into the white landscape.
We move to the next fjord, where we encounter a mother bear with a cub. However, we are too far from them to get any photos. We are more fortunate in the Wihelmöya fjord, where we park at the edge of the solid ice and wait. The entire group of photographers is scanning the landscape with binoculars, and finally we are rewarded, sumptuously.
We are barely able to see white lumps on the ice, close to its edge, perhaps three kilometres from us. It is too far to photograph but we can see quite clearly with binoculars. One of the lumps is not moving and is partly covered with snow. We assume that it is sleeping. A mother bear with two last year’s cubs approaches it from the right, and we wait excitedly how the sleeping one is going to react. Not at all. We think that the sleeping one is a female because a male stranger could have been a problem for the cubs. After a while, another mother bear with two cubs appears from the left, but the lump remains motionless. That confirms that it is a female.
We remain parked for several hours and watch the bear traffic in the distance. Close by, we see a walrus, a seal, a few storm birds, and large ice sheets. When long and enjoyable afternoon is starting to turn into evening, the captain suddenly starts the engines. He has observed something interesting. A young male bear has taken off to go hunting on the ice sheets, and we follow it with the ship. Slowly we move on its trail and keep our eyes on its path. Keeping at a safe distance, the captain slowly edges closer to the bear, until we are only three hundred meters away from it.
The bear does not seem to be bothered by our ship but moves around the ice sheets with great agility and keeps an eye on the seal. It jumps from one sheet to another, swims, rolls in the snow, and climbs up the ice blocks. At times, it can not see the seal and stands up on its hind legs to survey the landscape. All of a sudden it pays attention to the ship and starts to approach us. The captains stops the vessel among the ice sheets. The bear seems to be curious about us and it comes across, as if it has seen ships and people before. It jumps from one ice sheet to antoher and approaches us with determination. The air fills with clicks, when the ten photographers let the shutters sing.
It is hard to believe what we see, when the bear comes all the way to the bow of the ship. It watches us and rolls around in the snow. It shows us its enourmous paws and demonstrates how it enjoys living in the snowy landscape. It lives here, and this is how you live here. Finally it walks in front of the bow and bows to us! We would like to applaude to the best performance of the evening but for our astonishment, we can not say a word.
Then the bear turns around and jogs towards the icefield and disappears. We are gasping for breath like fish on the ground. What a show! The bear did the show completely on its own will as if it knew exactly what we were hoping for. I wonder if they understand more than we know. It takes us another while to realize how fortunate we are in being able to watch such a performance in the middle of the disappearing arctic.