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Meeting the King of the North

There are 19 species of marine mammals in Svalbard. 3 species of terrestrial mammals. And a whopping 237 species of birds.

That’s a fair bit, but make no mistake, the one species that we were willing to drop everything for, was – the polar bear.

What’s the big deal about a polar bear ?

It is the world’s largest and strongest carnivore. It has no natural predators – other than man. They are sitting right on top of the food chain, an apex predator like no other. Their habitat adds to the aura around the polar bear. Large, impossibly wild, utterly desolate and totally inhospitable places.

I find it fascinating that they are such loners, spending their lives mostly alone in their large, desolate habitat. One would have thought that in such a land, you would yearn for some company, huh ?

But they aren’t easy to find.

They are loners wandering over huge distances, often from one island to the other ( they are excellent swimmers), so unless there is a mother with cubs, they are not normally in love with a small, familiar territory.

And if you are photographing them from a Zodiac, which is usually the case ( Zodiacs are inflatable rafts, with a seating capacity of 6-8, used to go closer to land ) it becomes even more challenging. The raft is constantly bobbing up and down and the current is always pushing it this way and that. You often have to take you eye off the camera to figure out which way you are pointing now and where the subject is !

Thankfully, we were lucky. We saw 17 bears and, boy, did we get some marvelous photo opportunities too !

I had talked about the bear that went fishing and came back with a seal earlier. Not a bad way to get your very first polar bear sighting.

Our luck continued. We came across a mother and her two cubs feasting on the remains of a whale carcass shortly after that. It was a typical Svalbard day. Cold, windy, choppy seas and a wild, desolate, wide open landscape. Right in the middle of this stark landscape, there was this family contentedly focused on polishing off what remained of the carcass. They were in no hurry and often the cubs would just snuggle upto the mother in what is such a universal demonstration of both affection and security.

The whale carcass has been feeding bears and birds for more than a couple of years, getting washed from shore to shore. Not much remained.

Awww ! She had just relieved herself and seems embarrassed at having been caught in the act

Idyllic. Meal over and the family cuddled up for a snooze in these gorgeous surroundings

A day or so later, we had yet another of those experiences that underlines the essence of wildlife photography – patience and perseverance.

It was a terrible night. It was bitterly cold, the winds made it worse and the sea was choppier than ever before. Quite a few of us were seasick and I had thrown up at least once into the seas from the Zodiac.

And there were no bears in sight. Not one.

It was just us being tossed around in our Zodiacs. We were huddled, wet, cold and miserable and when we got the news from our ship that they were calling us back for a midnight birthday celebration, at least, I felt glad.

However, once the birthday celebrations were over, we had a choice – get back into bed and cuddle under a warm blanket or get back into the Zodiac. It was tempting to succumb to the lure of a warm blanket, but the lure of the unknown beckoned and some of us trooped back into the rafts.

The fickleness of weather is always amazing. Back in the Zodiacs, we found that the cold had reduced, the clouds had cleared and soon we were bathed in the most brilliant, soft light we could imagine.

And, right in front of us was an exquisite female polar bear who was, unlike most bears, in a most active mood. She walked on the ridge, with the stunning glaciers as the backdrop, she came down to the beach to sniff around, and just in case you had missed out earlier, she walked on the ridge again.

Honestly...isnt she just so beautiful ?

She gets off the ridge to come on to the beach

Utter bliss.


Large. Stark. Bleak. And home.

How do bears hunt ?

Polar bears love to eat seals and hunt them in two ways. First, when the seal comes up a hole in the ice to breathe. A bear can smell a seal’s breathing hole from more than a kilometre away and once they locate the hole, they patiently wait, sometimes for hours on end for the seal to pop up.

The second way is to ambush the seal when they are basking on an ice piece.

We hadn’t seen a hunt and we also hadn’t got a single image of a bear on ice, the latter simply because there isn’t much ice these days.

The Gods often conspire to do good :)

We had spotted a polar bear walking on the shore ( how on earth, that bear was spotted shall forever remain a mystery to me…these huge animals are just a dot in these massively open landscapes ). As always, the Zodiacs were lowered and we were off.

As we maneuvered around the small ice pieces, trying to keep an eye on the bear as it kept vanishing behind rocks and into sand depressions, we noticed something.

A seal was lazing insouciantly on an ice piece in front of the glacier.

The bear was heading towards it.

The rules stipulate a minimum distance with the bears and we also didn’t want to spook the seal. It will take to water in a second. So we positioned ourselves as best as we could and got our biggest lens out.

We could see that the bear had taken care that the wind was blowing towards him. There was no chance of the seal smelling him. He walked right up to the edge of the glacier and then gently slipped into the water and was silently swimming to the quite clueless seal.

Will we see a successful hunt ?

We could occasionally see the snout of the bear through the moving ice floes but we couldn’t be sure. There were too many moving pieces, our Zodiac being one of them.

I think, the moment the bear emerged out of the water onto the ice was exactly the moment when the seal, possibly through some sixth sense, felt danger and slipped into the water.

The bear stood on the ice piece, looking rather bummed.

We got our much desired ‘Polar Bear on Ice’ shot though.


The only shot we got of a bear on ice...impact to habitat is a serious worry

Polar bears are such amazing animals, designed to survive in these harsh climes. Its depressingly worrying to see them try to adapt to changes that are man made. In a frantic bid to survive, the polar bears are changing their diet, their habits and while the big question is if these will be enough, the bigger question is…should they be changing these in the first place ?


What lies ahead ?

 

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2 Comments


Lovely article and well written.

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Thanks a lot...glad that you enjoyed it !

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