When I wake up and peer out the porthole, I see mountain peaks rising high up into the clouds, and large blue glaciers frozen into the valleys between them. Three days and three flights after leaving Los Angeles, I now officially feel like I am in the high arctic. For breakfast, Lishawna and Ally, the two other educators on board, join me and some of the staff for coffee and eggs. Many of the naturalists on board were born and raised in Scandanavia, some in Norway, others in Sweden. Ken entertains us with stories of over-wintering in Svalbard, in a trappers cabin, with just his dog sled team and his fiancée. Before winter ended that year, they flew a priest in by helicopter to perform a wedding ceremony, and then spent their honeymoon riding the dogsled back to their trappers cabin in the arctic wilderness. I haven’t even finished my morning coffee when our expedition leader, Bud, gets on the speaker system to announce that there has been a bear spotted off the bow of the ship.
We all rush downstairs to gear up – fleece, down jacket, hat and gloves, camera and binoculars – and head outside to view our first polar bear. We have been repeatedly reminded of the importance of being silent while out on deck – no talking, no slamming doors, no camera straps clanking against the rails of the ship – and so we tip toe towards the bow and peer out over the ice-covered fjord. As I raise my binoculars and look out over the ice, I see…nothing. Whispers on the deck said to look for a red spot on the ice, as the bear had a kill. Finally, in front of a cracked and calving glacier, I see ice stained red with blood, and large glaucous gulls circling overhead, waiting to scavenge on what is left of the kill when the bear has had its fill. The bear is resting on a floating piece of ice in front of the glacier, and initially was lying down behind a large, and yet unidentifiable, kill. Slowly, cautiously, the bear rises, stands, and stares at our ship head on. As we compare photographs and whisper excitedly on the bow, we soon realize that this bear is feeding on a juvenile beluga whale.
The fluke of the whale is visible just over the tip of the ice, and as the bear turns to continue feeding, the head of the young whale comes into view. These bears feed almost exclusively on the blubber of marine mammals, and leave the remainder of the kill, such as the muscle, almost untouched. We can see that the bear has been feeding only on the fat deposits on the sides and back of the whale. When he is finished, gulls, arctic fox, or even young cubs will make a meal out of the remains. After nearly an hour of watching, in awe and silence, I can feel the boat slowly start to pull away from the kill. As we drift quietly out of the frozen fjord, and pull back into the open sea, I am amazed at how small the bear looks against the backdrop of the vast expanse of ice.