Polar Bear Sightings in the Arctic!

curious cub approaches National Geographic Explorer. photo credit: Brenda Whitmore

“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.

We watched this polar bear eat the blubber from this seal!
We watched this polar bear eat the blubber from this fresh kill!

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.

Polar bear dives into the Arctic Ocean after devouring only the seal's blubber.  The rest is left to the birds and other scavengers.
Polar bear dives into the Arctic Ocean after devouring only the seal’s blubber. The rest is left to the birds and other scavengers.

#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.

Was this mama bear reprimanding or playing with her cub?  Photo credits to:  Dan Amatuzzo and George Chandler
Was this mama bear reprimanding or playing with her cub? Photo credits to: Dan Amatuzzo and George Chandler

We watched her hunting strategies as she searched for food, sniffing the air and carefully distributing her weight on thin ice.

Careful mama on thin ice! Photo credit: Brenda Whitmore

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.

Polar bear cub follows its mom closely to learn how to hunt.  Photo credits to Dan Amatuzzo and George Chandler
Polar bear cub follows its mom closely to learn how to hunt. Photo credits to Dan Amatuzzo and George Chandler

#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.

Great treadmill view as the icebreaker ship traveled through sea ice!
Great treadmill view as the icebreaker ship traveled through sea ice!

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!

Polar bear seeking food in the vast arctic
Polar bear seeking food in the vast arctic

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!

The magnificent polar bear - Ursus Maritimus
The magnificent polar bear – Ursus Maritimus

Call to Action:  What actions can you take to help or to raise awareness of polar bears and their environmental struggles?  Post a comment!

edits:

6/ 30  1. changed “protein” to “energy” in “Polar bears will use that blubber…. (thank you Alice Polley).
2. added “call to action”

5 thoughts on “Polar Bear Sightings in the Arctic!

  1. Alice Polley

    Great pictures!

    One comment: I think I heard that the adult polar bear with kill only ate the blubber, which is fat, to store up energy for the long summer without much food. The meat is protein, and if the mama bear had caught it, she would have eaten the blubber and the baby would have eaten the protein to promote growth. The adults just need to get fat. Such a life!

    Also, the naturalist that I was standing near suggested that the bear might well have “snuck up on” the seal while it was resting on the ice floe. Bears can approach downwind and quickly thrust themselves up out of the water and grab the surprised seal. In the water, the seals can out swim the bears. One other point is that the bears have webbing between their toes on their huge paws to help them swim. That’s one of the adaptations to the Arctic that polar bears have made.

    The mama bear has been tagged with a radio frequency collar so that scientists can learn more about her behavior. Preservation of this protected species is a priority in Svalbard.

    Thanks for these terrific postings, Laura!!

    Alice Polley

    865 Central Ave, M203

    Needham, MA 02492

    781-400-2684

    617-921-8184 (cell)

    Like

  2. Donna Myers

    Wow! This is amazing! I met one of your fellow adventurers a few days ago. Didn’t get his name, but he was wearing a Manchester University shirt. That’s where I went to college. Small world!

    Like

  3. Lily

    All of the pictures are really detailed and cool! I especially like the pictures of the cub standing on it’s hind legs and the mom bear playing with the cub! They are so cute!

    Like

  4. Mycalia

    I love the little cub. I wish I could have been there too. What kind of ship trip did you go on and when? I would really like to take a cruise there.

    Like

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