BOOM… bump… thump… crash… shake… swoosh… thump... BANG! This morning we woke up to the sounds of National Geographic Endurance pushing through a field of frozen ice. Giant sheets of ice spread out like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with straight edges. The bow of the ship easily pushed the slabs of first-year ice out of the way, but not without the audible commotion that comes when tons of ice meet a ship made from tons of steel.
We began our third full day of exploring the Svalbard archipelago. Expedition leader Peter Wilson decided that the long fjords of Bellsund would be a good place to find shelter from the strong northerly winds. The fjords might also give us the chance to spot polar bears. While naturalists and crewmembers scanned the shorelines and ice from the bridge, photo instructor Michael Nolan presented a seminar on smart phone photography in the Ice Lounge.
We observed a lot of wildlife in the morning, including some walrus, king eider ducks, lots of reindeer, and the usual suspects of seabirds. Before lunch, a polar bear was visible in the distance through binoculars or a spotting scope. This left us all wanting a closer encounter.
We sailed deep into the northern fjord of Bellsund with an endless expanse of fast ice. We had a rare sighting of a bearded seal calf nursing her pup, and we observed lots of fresh bear tracks. It was promising, but no bears were sighted. At the entrance to the fjord lies a long, low island of glacial moraine. One last good search of that island produced what we had been searching for all day: a polar bear! The bear played hide and seek with the ship for a while, but eventually everyone onboard got good, long looks at this apex predator. Soon, our radios announced a second bear walking north. We held our breath, unsure what might happen as the bear walked right past a small reindeer. The two animals ignored each other, and soon, the polar bear curled up on the snow just off our beam as the reindeer moved away.
After a while, most of us moved inside. We gathered by the huge windows of the observation lounge with warm cups of tea or cocoa, and we enjoyed watching the bear until it was time to move on.