"I was on board the Hanse Explorer earlier this year, sailing around Spitsbergen, the main island of the archipelago of Svalbard, which is about 600 nautical miles from the North Pole. Looking around for polar bears in the regular spots where they usually hunt along the shore was proving fruitless – but then again, the ice situation was unusual; in the previous few weeks the sea ice had receded and, we assume, took a lot of bears with it. There was even a whale carcass washed up in one spot that normally attracts a lot of bears, but there was nothing even around that.
As part of the trip we visited Hinlopen Strait, and stopped at a place called Alkefjellet – which is a huge, spectacular bird cliff. There are several tens of thousands of birds there – Brünnich’s guillemots, Black-legged kittiwakes – and other seabirds. It’s a really spectacular sight. Occasionally, you’ll hear stories of bears stranded on land and waiting for the ice to return, trying to get to the birds so they can have some sort of food. There are often mothers with their young cubs in this area, and sure enough, while we were waiting for the guests to get ready for a Zodiac cruise at the base of the cliff I spotted, at the very top, a little, tell-tale, creamy-coloured lump.
When you’re looking for polar bears, you’re not looking for white; you’re looking for cream or the colour of vanilla ice cream. This bear was right on top of this 100 metre high cliff. She started walking along the ridge, followed by her cub until she eventually found a spot where she could climb down and off she went, with the cub trundling along behind her. As we got closer, we could see that she was still quite skinny – bears like to have a big, round rump – it is a fat reserve to see them through the lean summer months. So she wasn’t in great condition, but regardless, they got really adventurous and started to climb and move in ways that you might not expect from bears.
We could see her getting more and more excited about getting closer to the birds. At one point she disappeared for a few minutes and then popped up again, all of a sudden, coming down a new part of the cliff, looking right down onto these guillemots a few feet below. With one big reach of her paw, some of the birds were off, but this one must have been dozing and she managed to just plant a paw on the bird and grab it. A bird is not the most substantial meal for a bear – ideally, she would want to be eating a nice, blubbery seal once a week – so this was more of a snack. The bird was carried away in the bear’s jaws and taken to the top of the rock tower. The next time we saw the cub it had a red stain around its muzzle.
It was a such a spectacle seeing this animal which you normally associate with sea ice and seals – it was completely incongruous seeing a polar bear moving up and down an almost vertical surface, climbing like a rock climber, using all four paws. Never mind the guests, we were all grinning like idiots. Whenever you see a nature documentary where a poor, hapless animal ends up in the jaws of a predator you kind of feel excited but sorry at the same time. This was the same. Before we knew it we’d spent two hours watching the whole thing. Of course, we were welcomed back on board with hot chocolate with a tot of rum and set sail again.”