“I am not asking your permission to wake you up for polar bear sightings. I am telling you: I will alert you at any hour with arctic wildlife sightings,” exclaimed our expedition leader, Lucho, on the National Geographic Explorer‘s Lindblad Expedition in Arctic Svalbard. And indeed, Lucho would interrupt activity at any hour for our walrus, whale, scenic sea ice views, and 3 polar bear sightings. This entry will focus on our ice bear encounters!
#1: Polar bear with its prey
While preparing for tundra landings and hikes, Lucho announced, “Come to the bow to see your first polar bear!” As our ship slowly neared the bear, Norwegian naturalist, Karl Erik gasped, “The bear has a seal!” All 150 guests were respectfully silent, except for for the sound of camera shutters. Our first polar bear came into clear view as my long camera lens functioned as binoculars and powerful zoom (thanks for the generous support, Kohne Photography). My first view of a polar bear in the wild took my breath away.
The bear depended on this ice floe. Polar bears will use sea ice as a diving platform to grab a seal, its preferred and necessary prey. Then, they’ll drag it to the ice, as a surface to kill and eat the seal blubber. They’ll need that blubber for its sustaining energy to fatten up and survive the summer months when sea ice diminishes. Polar bears need sea ice – I saw it with my own two eyes! We watched the bear eat just what it needed and then swim away. The kittiwake (an arctic gull) will follow a hunting bear and eat the bear’s leftovers.
#2: Mom and cub!
We had just been served a fancy dinner when Lucho announced a Mother bear and her cub where nearby. Polar bears are very curious and will investigate any new item to see if it is a threat or food. To respect their habitat, the ship will not come too close to wildlife, but the mom and cub chose to come to us, right under the bow of the ship! This gave us very close views to observe the mother-cub relationship. The cub would fall behind the mother and then run to catch up to her. One time, the cub must have come too close when she was trying to hunt. She appeared to reprimand him, and the cub kept its distance for awhile.
We watched her hunting strategies as she searched for food, sniffing the air and carefully distributing her weight on thin ice.
This cub’s age was estimated at a few months. It will stay with its mom for two more years (a total of 2.5 years) to learn how to hunt.
#3: Hunting polar bear
I was half way through my treadmill run when Lucho announced there was another bear sighting. Having a suspicion this would happen, I was prepared with my camera and winter clothes.
This bear would smell openings in the sea ice for a seal. I remembered feeling sorry for the seal prey earlier, but then I felt sorry for this bear as it struggled to find food!
This time I paid attention to the bear’s unique features. Its massive paws can function as a club to its prey, and their claws can drag a 200 pound seal. These paws have bumps on them to grip the slippery terrain. Their tongues are dark black (and so is their skin)! I had read this all in a textbook, but observing and photographing this majestic creature will forever imprint a love of this species that needs our protection!
Call to Action: What actions can you take to help or to raise awareness of polar bears and their environmental struggles? Post a comment!
6/ 30 1. changed “protein” to “energy” in “Polar bears will use that blubber…. (thank you Alice Polley).
2. added “call to action”