Arctic Cruise Report: Holmabukta, Northwest Spitzbergen

From the National Geographic Explorer in the Arctic, June 26, 2010

We have taken in some wonderful scenery today. Anchored under the jagged peaks that give Spitzbergen its name, we have been surrounded by incredible tidewater glaciers, multi-thousand foot peaks and textured skies the majority of the day. Then this evening we were humbled by the presence of the planet’s first and second largest inhabitants – the fin and the mighty blue whale, who we had hoped to and eventually found feeding near the continental shelf off of western Spitzbergen. The shelf drops from 100 feet to thousands of feet in a matter of meters and promotes upwelling of planktonic nutrients in addition to suitably deep habitat for the massive marine creatures that eat them.

Despite the back drop and fellow marine mammals, there was really only one show in town today – the polar bear! This has been argued as one of the most impressive days of polar bear behavior over the past thirty years of Lindblad based exploration.

Until today, I’m pretty sure everyone aboard could have gone home happy with the knowledge that they had been approached by not one, but two bears at the bow of the National Geographic Explorer, in addition to witnessing an up-close and personal feeding by three lone bears via Zodiac yesterday.

Who would have thought that today we would nearly double the trip’s bear sighting count of 12, bump that up to 20, tack on a fermenting whale carcass that drew in the eight additional bears to the same spot at the same time – three of which were cubs of the year (6 month old puff balls of cuteness)?

Who would have thought we’d witness a mother nursing her cub, see another mother fend off a lone male at the feeding site with her cub between her legs, and watch that same mother and cub feed together on a sinewy piece of whale tendon while a second mother/cub pair went off on a swimming lesson that involved the cub resting on the mother’s back as she swam a hundred meters out from shore and then swam right back?

Who would have thought we’d watch that mother come out of the water, walk with the cub on her back across the snow, and then proceed to frolic like puppies? And, finally, who would have thought we’d witness the earlier lone male work the remaining pieces of whale carcass that were hidden below the waters surface by engaging in a number of shallow dives that resulted in either his feet coming out of the water like a 5 year-old trying to impress his friends, or him coming up to the surface with rotten pieces of flesh strew across his wet face? Images any wildlife photographer could only dream of.

I don’t think the luck we have had on this voyage has gone unnoticed, as the ship was abuzz today with chatter and jubilation at our good fortune. Unfortunately most of us must return to the world of zoos and the National Geographic Channel tomorrow, but I have no doubt that these future urban encounters will hold a whole new meaning for those who have been lucky enough to share in this expedition!

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