Polar Bears

Bear #3

Bear #3

(Alex) For as long as I can remember I have been in love with polar bears. My best guess for a reason why: since I was a baby my favorite stuffed animal has been a white bear. When we were younger, we visited zoos around the Boston area and my favorite exhibit was always the polar bear. Watching these giant creamy-white creatures seamlessly walk from land into their water pools made me want to actually see them in their natural habitats and not in some enclosure thousands of miles south of where they are meant to be.

I used to beg my mom to bring me up to Churchill, Canada – a place that’s known for having a decent polar bear population—before it was too late to see them in the wild. Through overhunting and a lack of food when the ice melts, the polar bear populations around the world have severely suffered. So, when my mom told me that we would be headed to Svalbard, Norway for a few weeks of the summer, I was so excited.

Polar bears are pretty tough animals to find in the arctic regions for a few reasons. Bears travel solo (except the mother and her cubs) and only really overlap during mating season or if there is a plethora of food in a particular area. Second, their movements are unpredictable – some follow the retreating pack ice up towards the North Pole during the summer to be closer to seals (their main food source), while some decide to conserve energy and stick around the arctic islands with little food for many months. And of course, a huge reason why polar bears are so elusive is that they blend into the scenary. Their cream colored fur is just barely differentiable from snow, so a white dot in the distance could be 1) a patch of un-melted snow, 2) a white polar bear-shaped rock, or 3) a real polar bear. Luckily, we were pretty fortunate with our bear spotting abilities.

Bear #9

Bear #9

Our first and second polar bears were a mother and cub, so far in the distance that we could barely make them out with binoculars. The third bear was pretty close to the shore, so the call came over the intercom to hop into the zodiacs to get a closer look. Fortunately, he was conserving his energy, so we watched from the zodiacs as he tossed and turned in his sleep. The next bear had about the same activity level. Bear #5 and bear #6 were pretty close to one-another as there was a dead minke whale on shore (definitely enough food to feed two hungry bears), and we watched as one healthy female dug into a huge meal of rotting remnants. Our next two bears were definitely important ones as we received a 3AM wake-up call over the intercom that there were bears on the ice near our boat. They never came very close, but there was plenty of light to watch them through binoculars as the sun never sets this far north in the summer. The next bear was also on the ice (closer than the other two) and kept sticking his head up in the direction of our boat and the people snapping pictures, but seemed pretty unconcerned by our presence. We kept hoping that he could get curious and come check out this big floating metal thing; no luck.

Dana and Bear #10

Dana and Bear #10

Our most special bear was definitely Bear #10 (which Greta and I affectionately named Bradley) because she was up close and personal. We set out on our zodiac in anticipation for a relaxing kayak paddle when we got the call that there was a polar bear sighting on the opposite side of a large hill. We figured it was not a big deal and we unloaded into our kayaks when over the ridge came a little white dot. Then the dot came closer, and closer, and closer, until a young female polar bear was right on the water’s edge just 20 meters from our flimsy kayaks. She walked out to the water and while everyone else was excited about how close she was, Greta (who was in the kayak with me) and I begged her not to come in for a swim… but sure enough she did. She slowly swam across the fjord and even though she was not coming after us, there was a massive sigh of relief from the kayak team that everyone was alive and well. It was an incredibly surreal experience being so close to such an amazing creature.

Overall, 10 bears is definitely an accomplishment. Right now, the polar bear population is expected to be stable, and even increasing, until around 2040 when ice cap coverage is projected to drop dramatically. Polar bears are extremely curious and creative animals, so it is imperative that we make serious efforts to protect our polar regions so that future generations can be lucky enough to see bears in the wild.

Thanks to fellow traveler and professional Hong Kong photographer, Hung Tsui, for these amazing photos!
Hung Tsui021-DSC_0006 Hung Tsui023-DSC_0532

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!