After some waves and wind over night, I awoke to find some of my things rearranged, drawers and cabinet doors open and swinging about in our cabin. However, we were now in smooth seas, surrounded by shore ice stretching for miles before colliding with the mountains and islands in the distance. Seals were hauled out on top of the ice, their round bodies looking awkward out of the water. We had a busy morning scheduled – breakfast, a guest lecture by Greg Stone, a marine scientist traveling with us on the Explorer, and photography breakout sessions with National Geographic photography instructors. While some of the sessions focused on the more technical aspects of photography, I chose to attend a session on photo composition with Kim Heacox, a National Geographic photography who lives in Alaska and has published several books on his experiences working as a naturalist. Kim discussed things like choosing a background, foreground, or setting for your subject, what to include in a frame, and using other photographer’s work to decide what we find makes a picture interesting.
As we finished our breakout sessions, Bud’s voice interrupted with a new announcement – a bear had been spotted off the bow, and it had a seal kill. We ran downstairs, grabbed our gear, and headed out onto the deck of the ship. At first the bear had its back to us, and it was hard to see what it was eating, though it was obvious that the bear was eating something. Eventually, the bear became aware of our presence, and turned to face the ship. We could now see that this bear had a radio collar on, to track its movements throughout the arctic seas. Only female bears can be collared, as male bears store a large amount of fat in their necks. This female was definitely smaller than the bear we had seen feeding the previous day, though she was tossing the ring seal back and forth with a great amount of strength as she fed on its blubber. Polar bears feed almost entirely on ring seals, which are typically caught on shore fast ice that is floating far from land. This bear was miles from shore, and she made it obvious why polar bears are considered marine mammals, and not terrestrial. Ring seals are only found on ice and in the water – they are very slow and clumsy on land, unlike the sea lions we have in California. Polar bears hunt these seals by patiently waiting on the ice near their breathing holes. Ring seals are very busy during the winter, as each seal may maintain three or four breathing holes. As the weather gets colder and the ice gets thicker, the seals travel from one hole to the next, using the sharp claws on their front flippers to scrape through the ice. These seals are also smart, and know that surfacing to breathe can be a dangerous activity. Before they surface, the seals blow an air bubble towards their breathing hole, and wait to see if a bear makes a move towards their hole. Despite this, many seals are killed either at their breathing holes, or while denning and giving birth to seal pups.
After leaving the feeding female bear, the other teachers and I headed up to the chart room, where we were using maps to chart our course, and mark our wildlife sightings. Many of the guests on board had purchased maps of their own, and came with us to track our voyage.
However, we didn’t get very far, as the ship was now entering very thick ice. Our ship has an icebreaker on the front, and we were breaking slowly through the ice, always on the lookout for bears, as this is where they hunted. Sure enough, two bears had been spotted, a mother and her young cub. They were sniffing out an abandoned kill site that was swarming with gulls, and looked hungry. It is difficult for mothers with young cubs to hunt seals, and often mother-cub pairs scavenge old kill sites left by male bears after they are done feeding. The cub was very interested in the kill, and also was looking curiously at our ship, trying to come closer. The mother bear was weary, and beckoned for the cub to come back towards her. The two bears turned and left, abandoning the kill site for one that would be more private.
After lunch, our ship anchored off shore at Kapp Lee (Cape Lee) for a hike. We had now left the largest island in the archipelago, Spitsbergen, for the smaller EdgeØya. Our ship is too large to come to shore, so we anchor in deeper water, and they use a crane on the top deck of the boat to lower small rafts called zodiaks into the water. We load into the zodiaks, 10 or 12 at a time, and cruise towards the beach. Before entering the zodiac, we each dip our boots into a decontaminant, so we do not risk brining invasive species into the archipelago. At this time of year, much of the ice and snow on the island is melting, and so the tundra is wet and muddy. Permafrost beneath the surface never melts, so the top layer of tundra feels like walking on a sponge – your boat sinks into the surface, and then the ground rebounds as you lift your foot to take your next step. This island is known for having walrus, and their bones litter the beach. During the 19th century, the walrus here were hunted for their ivory, and the skulls that we find all have a crushed face, the tusks having been removed. Their skins were also used to make conveyer belts during the Industrial Revolution. It is hard to imagine that so many walrus were killed here that their bones have become a part of the rocky beach itself.
On our hike we have several close encounters with the Svalbard reindeer, which are very curious and come close to our group when we stop and quietly watch. At this time of year, the male reindeer are growing large antlers for mating season. They will actually lose their antlers after mating in the fall, and the females then have larger antlers during the winter season to help protect their young. This means that Rudolf was actually a Rudolfa – male reindeer do not have their antlers at Christmas time.
At the end of our hike, we go to see a large group of walrus hauled out on the beach. They are all juvenile males, with large tusks and fat, round bodies. Walruses eat mostly benthic bivalves, and despite the sometimes-barren appearance of the arctic landscape, these waters are teaming with life, each walrus thousands of these mollusks every day. To cool themselves, as it is easy to overheat with so much blubber, they force their blood vessels to the surface of their skin, giving their body a sometimes pink or rosy appearance. The whiskers on the walrus’ face can be moved individually, and are highly sensitive, allowing them to search the sea floor for their prey.
The evening back on the boat is sunny, with clear skies – an unusual sight for this time of year, as the warming land usually causes there to be a lot of fog and grey skies. I decide to stay up late and try to get a glimpse of the midnight sun. I expected the sun to rise and dip in the sky as it does back home, even if it never fully disappears beneath the horizon. I was quite surprised to find that the sun remained relatively high up in the sky, even in the earliest hours of the morning. Midnight looked like three in the afternoon. Having a bright sun all night was a bit disorienting – it was hard to feel tired, or go to bed, when it felt like the day would never end.