From the National Geographic Explorer in the Arctic July 21, 2010
To be in the High Arctic in the later part of July does mean that day and night blur together in our usual way to measuring time. With 24 hours of daylight through the summer it is, in fact, endless day between May to late August. Some of us had a hard time departing from the bridge in the very early morning as the scenery was breathtaking. Still we knew from the evening’s briefing about the next day – it would be in ice and the program was TBA.
During the early hours of July 21 the ship sailed south and by 6 AM we were in sea ice off the southeastern side to Barentsøya, ideal for watching wildlife. The area is named Olgastretet after the queen Olga of Würtenberg. Two different German expeditions sailed into the High Arctic waters in 1868 and 1870 and Dr. Petermann, a German cartographer was behind the scene, to use the results and put several German places names on the map to Svalbard.
By 6AM the first call came through the PA system and soon we had three different polar bears near the ship. This announcement was later to become more or less ever repeating itself, “Three polar bears”…“THREE POLAR BEARS”…
Before breakfast we made a closer approach to one bear and, right after, made a second approach to more bears. In fact, before 10AM we had already seen 5 different polar bears, although not every one close up, but still a magical start of a great day to come.
The setting over the Olgastretet was almost perfect. Yesterday, a cold northern wind had blown crystal clear air from the frozen ocean further north. The ocean we sailed in was cluttered with drifting pack-ice and, for keen photographers, we had clouds, no wind and crisp air. Blue sky with sparkling sunshine is not the perfect conditions here on these far north latitudes for any camera. It is just too much light!
As our day made progress we continued to move the ship slowly through the pack-ice, more or less going from one bear to the next bear. By 6PM, the official list of polar bear sightings had reached 21 and we had, throughout the day, sailed about 21 nautical miles north! Almost one polar bear per every nautical mile north!
Just as recap was to be announced, three more were spotted. Our Captain and his bridge officers really had a busy day to navigate through thick ice and also approach bears. Huge thanks to them for making this day outstanding for polar bears sightings!
One of the more remarkable sightings was a female with a cub of this year, resting on the ice. Suddenly as the ship approached, both jumped up. Maybe many onboard thought it was us scaring the bears? This was NOT the case. Having a young cub of this year, any female polar bear always has to be on high alert. Large male polar bears do sometimes try to attack the female with the hope of killing the cub.
This time it was a younger male polar bear approaching her kill and of course catching her attention. As soon as she saw it was a younger male she relaxed and fell to sleep again after her large seal fiesta. The young male had to try to get out the last remains of the seal.
The magic number “three” tells us there has been a remarkably good survival rate for cubs over the last year. Many of the females had two cubs, one year old. In fact, near the area Olgastretet, you find one major breeding area for polar bears, Kung Karls Land but also the eastern slopes at Edgeøya and Barentsøya.
In the very late afternoon between polar bears, our Expedition Leader at last was able to squeeze in a nice photo presentation by National Geographic Photographer Norbet Rosing.
As dinner was announced the ship had slowly, through this magical polar bear adventure, made it north to Nordaustlandet. During dinner we still continued to see polar bears as we were trying to recharge our batteries.
Right after dinner it was time to try to focus on the great ice-cliff made by the glacier Austfonna along the south coast to Nordaustlandet. The ice-cliff runs for more than 100 nautical miles and along the edge you find large waterfalls spouting out tons of water. The setting is almost surrealistic!
Of course we saw more polar bears on ice flows along the icecap. Also our hotel department had set up a wine glue station at the bow for anyone who got cold.
As we slowly sailed west along Austfonna and the midnight sun reached its lowest elevation, we still saw more polar bears on the iceflows but also walrus and bearded seals. To summarize the day is easy, polar bear, Polar Bear and more POLAR BEAR! Exactly how many is hard to tell. We can at least arrive home and tell our friends we saw a few and will remember this day as the polar bear heyday.
It is time for us to do like many of the polar bears, catch some sleep to be ready for new Arctic adventures.