Wow! What a day!
It started early with a wakeup announcement from expedition leader Stefano shortly after 6:00 a.m. He softly woke us to announce the presence of not one but two polar bears ahead of the ship – a mom and a cub! He encouraged us to put on our gear and head for the bridge and upper deck 8! There was also a minke whale. We raced outside, cameras in hand, into the cold wind of Hamiltonbukta. At 79 degrees north, icy mountains surround a small bay with fast ice clinging to the shore. We scanned the water and the spit of land ahead of the ship. Farther ahead, the thin ice suddenly broke open from below, and the head of a polar bear popped up, followed by a second – the juvenile cub. What a sight to see! The mom seemed to call to the cub in front of her, who began to climb out of the thin ice before disappearing below. The cub started hunting behavior. It pounced on the ice as if to grab a seal just under the snow. The mom resurfaced with a mouthful of meat. There must have been a carcass below! We watched for a good hour as the mom and cub continued with their behavior before they took off down the shore to another carcass at the edge of the spit. How incredibly lucky we were to witness such behavior on our first polar bear sighting!
After breakfast, naturalist and marine biologist Jim Coyer gave a fantastic presentation on polar bears. For the remainder of the morning, we continued sailing around the northwestern spit of Spitsbergen, heading for more fast ice with hopes of more wildlife encounters. To our surprise, though, the fast ice was gone, so we continued sailing north until we hit a large swath of drift ice at 77.55 degrees! The captain pushed the ship into the floe, and ice scraped along the length of the hull. We pressed on through lunch and then the ship came to a halt! Stefano announced a special activity – a walk on the ice! We filed out of the ship’s “Penguin Door” and stepped onto the frozen Arctic Ocean, miles from the nearest shore! What an unexpected and mesmerizing experience to walk out on the fast ice, like the great polar explorers of the Historic Age! In our short time on the ice, we had drifted over a mile from where we first stepped from the ship!
We returned to the ship at teatime and continued our sail north. It wasn’t long, however, before Stefano came onto the PA system again to announce that we had come upon another polar bear. Back to the decks we went, and we found a spot of yellow curled up on the ice floe directly ahead of us. The bear seemed indifferent to us from a distance. The captain slowed National Geographic Endurance, and we crept ever so slowly forward. After nearly an hour of getting ever closer, curiosity got the better of him, and the bear stood and lumbered towards the ship! It continued until it was in front of the bow as camera shutters snapped in staccato across the forward decks! We were so close! He soon grew bored and walked away, but the captain kept the ship in place. After a few minutes, the bear returned to check us out again, coming even closer this time! What a rare encounter! The bear finally moved off toward the starboard side and up the edge of the fast ice before jumping into the water and slowly swimming away.
Truly a remarkable day!