Arctic jewels: polar bear dreaming

By Ken Eastwood 7 November 2013
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The Arctic’s top land carnivore – the magestic polar bear – is another critter Ken Eastwood ticks off his list.

Regular Australian Geographic contributor Ken Eastwood spent 14 days sailing around Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen on an AG Society expedition in September 2011. Read the full story in issue 106 of Australian Geographic and find more details about going on the 2012 expedition below.

POLAR BEAR. Just the name sends most wildlife lovers into a spin as they dream of seeing the world’s biggest land carnivore in the wild. Our dream has become reality.

Svalbard is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears – they have been protected in these Norwegian islands since 1972 and their numbers have risen from about 1000 to more than 2000 (out of an estimated worldwide population of 20,000-25,000). In fact, there are now more polar bears in Svalbard than there are humans, so our expeditioners have to be alert at all times.

All our land expeditions are conducted with extreme care. The areas are searched first for signs of bears, the group sticks together and all guides carry flares and rifles.

“There’s a large population of polar bears on the east coast,” says our assistant expedition leader Amanda Till. “They catch the sea ice that coming down the coast of Spitsbergen. It gets caught up in the Gulf Stream and sweeps back into Hornsund – they catch it in, then they have a route that goes back over the land.”

Harbour seal

launch gallery

Predator-prey encounter in the high Arctic

Polar bears can go without food for up to eight months, and on land over summer they often get hungry and grumpy – with little more than a few eggs or dead birds to eat. They prefer to be out on the sea ice among the seals.

This morning, with great excitement, we spy a scrawny bear on land. It wanders along the coast for a while, then lies down and tries to ignore us. During the summer they can go into a state of semi-hibernation, sleeping nearly 90 per cent of the time if needed.

Eventually our attention is drawn away from the slumbering bear and across the moraine to two reindeer – a  mother and calf – heading  toward the carnivore. Polar bears don’t usually eat reindeer, they prefer to wait on the winter sea ice to snatch blubber-rich seals. Younger bears eat the whole seal, including the protein-rich muscle, but older bears just dine on the abundant blubber.

“Svalbard is the only area where polar bears can catch reindeer – special reindeer – big animals with short legs, so some polar bears [are fast enough to] hunt them here,” says Dmitri Banin, our Russian onboard naturalist.

I was hoping to see an exciting predator-prey encounter here, but the reindeer walk safely past, at a respectful distance.

Polar bears are superb swimmers

Polar bears are so well adapted to the cold (very little heat escapes from their bodies, and mostly at the nose, lips and eyes) that in the summer months they need to be careful not to overheat. An ambient temperature of 10ºC is enough to put them at risk of overheating, with their 5-10 cm layer of blubber.

The blubber also helps them float while swimming. Using 30cm-wide paws, they can paddle at almost 10km/h, faster than their average walking speed of 5-6km/h. Walking costs them about 13 times as much energy as resting, and so a big sleep of 7-8 hours a day, plus multiple naps, is the norm.

In parts of Svalbard, the density of polar bear dens is greater than the more famous Hudson Bay in Canada. This is despite the fact that in Canada, the bears typically have 2-3 cubs in each litter, compared to just the one in Svalbard.

Our best sighting of a bear so far was a few days ago, on leaving the Greenland coast. We were four nautical miles off the coast, watching a dozen or so seals playing in rough water as an increasingly lumpy sea washed around drifting sea ice.

And then, out ahead, of the ship, lay a stunning cream-coloured bear, its nose overlapping the ice, watching for seals. On the bow of the ship, I was within 50m of this magnificent creature. Then, with the nonchalance and self-assuredness of a top predator, it sauntered calmly over the ice, then splashed into the water for a swim to another patch of ice, completely at ease.

Learn more about how to sign up to the 2012 expedition and find detailed information about the itinerary here.