When I woke up in the morning, the sun was still shining, and the sea was absolutely still. The mountains and ice cast beautiful reflections in the water, and in every direction I could see ring seals and walrus hauled out on the ice.
We were one of the first ships of the season to come this far north, and our experienced captain had taken advantage of recent openings in the pack ice to bring us to a part of the Barents Sea that was mostly still frozen – the perfect place to spot bears and other wildlife.
The first stop of the morning was the bird cliffs of Kapp Fanshawe, known as Auk Mountain. Auks are birds found in the Arctic regions, such as puffins, that are well adapt at swimming as well as flying. This particular bird colony consisted of Brünnich’s Guillemot, black birds with white markings that look somewhat clumsy in the air, but are graceful swimmers. As there are no trees, and only very tiny plants, in this part of the world, these birds do not build a nest, but instead lay their eggs directly on the rocks of the cliff side. This is obviously very risky behavior, and their eggs have evolved to be pointed instead of round, so that they roll in a circle and are less likely to fall off the edge.
Another unique adaptation of this bird is that unlike other birds, they do not have hollow bones. Instead, their bones must be solid and dense so they are capable of swimming and are able to sink easily in the water. The cliffs ahead of our boat had over 100,000 guillemots, and it seemed that everywhere I looked, there were birds – on the ice, on the cliffs, in the water, and in the air. From a distance, these birds standing on the ice resembled tiny penguins, but there are no penguins in the arctic.
After the bird cliffs, I met the other teacher fellows and some of the students on board for a tour of the engine room with the ship’s engineer. Our ship produced all of its own freshwater from seawater, as well as treating and disposing of our own waste. The ship actually had several engines, lined up in rows, loud and hot in the belly of the ship. Our engine tour was interrupted for a sighting of a polar bear, not surprising considering the amount of ice and the number of seals surrounding our ship.
I had thought yesterday’s bears were far from shore, but this bear was truly out to sea. There was nothing but ice as far as we could see, and while this bear was the closest to the ship, with a good pair of binoculars you could actually see several bears on the surrounding ice. This bear was hunting, and stuck around for a while to watch our ship before heading off on the ice to find a new spot to look for seals. Based on the number of seals we had seen already, I didn’t think he would have a difficult time finding a meal. Most polar bears need a minimum of about 50 seals a year to survive, but most of the bears we had been seeing looked large, healthy, and well-fed, and were probably consuming more than the average one seal per week.
Soon, two additional bears were spotted on the ice, and we headed towards the action. One large male bear had a seal kill, and a thinner, older bear was nearby, nose in the air, longing for a taste. Both bears seemed rather unaffected by the presence of the ship, and we silently drifted closer and closer to the kill site. I wanted to watch both bears, but soon our ship was so close I had to choose a side, and I migrated towards the right side of the boat to watch the bear with the kill.
To everyone’s surprise, the second bear came closer to the ship, so close that he crossed the front of the bow, towards the right side, and disappeared under the ship. I had to lean far over the rail to see him on the ice underneath us, and the ice, weakened by our ship, soon broke, and the bear plunged into the cold water.
He clumsily pulled himself back onto a piece of floating ice, shook the water out of his fur, and slowly approached the bear eating the seal. The bears faced each other in a stand-off, and it was clear the older bear was no match for the younger, larger male. He retreated, lay down on the ice, and watched the large bear finish his meal.
That night, after dinner, the captain announced that he had parked us in a solid, land-locked piece of ice for the evening. We wanted to stay in this location at least one more day, as our wildlife sightings had been such a success. Looking out the window gave the appearance of our ship being stuck, stranded like some of the unfortunate early whaling expeditions to this region.