From the National Geographic Endeavour in Arctic Norway
Aug 05, 2005 - National Geographic Endeavour
South end Hinlopen Strait
Today’s twenty-four hours of daylight will be remembered most remarkably for the saturation into our beings with polar bears. We had the true privilege and good fortune of having multiple high-quality close encounters with these most mythic and iconic creatures. Meeting fourteen such denizens of Svalbard’s icy floes today propels us at a record-breaking pace of sightings. However much the day was of the ice bear, we must consider all things arctic experienced.
Just after midnight we found ourselves along a 100-mile long shoreline of uniform ice cliffs. Here Nordaustlandet’s massive ice cap enters the sea having overrun the island’s southern coast. Captain Karl Lampe nosed the National Geographic Endeavour into the soft blue ice shelf beneath a raging meltwater waterfall. Most people enjoyed this spectacle and still got a full two hours of sleep before the hushed voice of our favorite somnambulant insomniac, hardworking Expedition Leader Bud Lehnhausen, announced the presence of a polar bear approaching the ship.
The white wonder neared, leaping over leads of open water between icy floes. Overwhelmed by his own curiosity, he padded up to within feet of the ship, to the amazement of stunned onlookers at the rail and peering out their stateroom portholes. It was as if your heart stopped as you anticipated his approach. This was the first of what would be a series of close encounters.
After breakfast we set out on an adventure of another kind, landing at Torellneset, a small bit of terra firma that escapes Nordaustlandet’s encompassing ice cap. Here, we approached in near combat crawl to within a few yards of a hauled out mass of walruses. These wonderfully tusked beasts were piled up together, molting and resting enmasse.
We toured aptly-named Bear Sound discovering more bears deep in the pack of the bay, as well as a group of ivory-white belugas swimming alongshore. We left the glaciered sound for nearby Cape Weyprecht, passing another swimming ursine, before realizing the landing was obstructed by ice. Our consolation prize was a mother polar bear with two cubs of the year. The two too-cute cubbies faithfully followed their mother over the broken rafts of frozen sea. Incredibly, this adorable family made an inquisitively close pass to our bow before settling down on an icy pyramid for a nursing session as we watched.
Meanwhile, we spotted a larger bear farther down the ice and pulled away to not draw attention to the little cubs. Two more bears were sighted and we repositioned the ship to attempt a better look. As evening recap ended with the musical telling of the walrus’ oosik, Bud announced that there were now six polar bears close around the ship. One swam immediately to the stern and climbed out on the ice to walk right alongside the ship. Another ultimately made its way directly to the ship as well, providing us with an indelible impression of the long and intimate visit. Needless to say, sawdust was accumulating on the carpet where we notch the helm station with each sighting.
Our evening nightcap consisted of a swimming mother bear slipstreaming two small cubs, groups of high surfacing harp seals (that once started as those famous white pups), and a huge walrus on ice, beautifully reflected in the water colored by the low midnight light.
If you could wish for one day of exposure to one of the most famed and extreme creatures on Earth, our polar bear experiences today would surreally surpass your wildest imagination.
Steve is an international science educator, expedition naturalist and whale research associate. He has worked a range of polar to tropical destinations for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic since 1999.