Late at night, out of nowhere he appeared. The polar bear, or the great wanderer as the Inuit call him. The first sighting was one of many milestones on our journey, and a definitive highlight so far.
While preparing the boat this spring, I dreamt about standing on Barba´s deck and seeing a polar bear. And since making landfall in Svalbard, we have spent hours looking through our binoculars for the king of the Arctic. We have come close many times. Footprints on the beach, sightings the day before we arrived at Cape Starostin and polar bear droppings on the beach. Then it happened in the evening Barba time, or 4 AM real time. Barba was at anchor at the old whaling station and launch site for numerous polar expeditions, Virgohamna. Daniel had just completed dinghy training (handling the outboard for our inflatable boat) and I was about to retreat to the captains cabin. As I was closing the cabin hatch, a white figure appeared on the hill 300 meters from our stern. The great wanderer had graced us with his presence.
Hectic activities followed. We started admiring the great wanderer through our binoculars and tele-lenses. It looked like an adolescent male. A healthy bear, but a hungry one, as they usually are in the summer when food is scarce. He disappeared behind a small mound. As he reemerged about 200 meters away, he spotted Barba. The creature stopped for a few seconds, sniffing into the air, then continued his stroll, seemingly unaffected by our presence. He walked along the beach with about 100 meters of open water between us. He was heading for a seal colony closeby – and, as fate would have it, the rest of the Barba crew. Jon, Ivan and Terry had decided to spend the night on land in a trappers cabin on a small island in the bay. And the bear was headed their way.
The cabin was about 3×3 meters, and a determined bear could potentially knock down the door. Daniel and I started the dinghy outboard equipped with the rifle, the flare gun and flash bangs as well as cameras. The bear, now about 150 meters away, took little notice of our presence. As we motored toward the small island with the cabin where our Barba comrades were slumbering, we saw the bear sljp into the water. Then we lost sight of it behind the island. We ditched the dinghy beachside and Daniel and I ran the 30 meters up to the cabin. I was wearing my thermo underwear pants and a jacket, the rifle in my hands and a flash bang tucked into my boxer shorts. Still not knowing if the bear had landed on our holiday retreat island or was still swimming offshore, I knocked on the cabin door, and said the magic words, ”polar bear.” The cabin immediately came to life. Jon, the soldier, grabbed his revolver. Ivan jumped down from his top bunk and Terry looked as though the polar bear was about to enter the cabin. I was later told that they thought the bear chased me and I was trying to get into the cabin for safety, so I guess the concern was warranted, with that in mind.
4 AM, action time. Jon all dressed up, Terry looking slightly frightened and Andreas in the Barba night time uniform a bit uncertain about the situation. By Daniel Hug (Hyperlink : terragraphy.de)
As the Barba crew put on their jackets and boots, the bear came into sight again, swimming in the bay about 100 meters from our outpost. With the situation under control, we could enjoy witnessing about 10 minutes in the life of a polar bear. He swam in the bay, where a seal colony of about 20 individuals had been resting on the rocks just minutes earlier. They were now playfully swarming their foe from a safe distance. We were cheering for the bear of course, but unfortunately the seals knew what they were doing.
After a few minutes of swimming around with the seals, he admitted defeat and continued his solitary march along the beach. He effortlessly walked on like a gentle ballerina over the rocks before disappearing behind the next hill.
Things were back to normal. The water was dead calm, and we all withdrew to Barba. The cabin was safe but our floating home was deemed more so. Having just seen our potential nemesis swimming so efficiently through the waters around Barba, we decided to rig our improvised polar bear alert device (a string tied to a flare), to the stern and went to sleep, happy to have finally seen the great wanderer in his natural environment. A first time for all of us. Except for Ivan that is, who once spent a few hours on a rooftop in Novaya Zemlya in the Russian Arctic with a hungry polar bear patrolling under him.
When not running around in our underwear with polar bears close by, we are continuing our journey as planned. We sail from one natural harbor to the next, where we anchor for the night, and go for hikes on the nearby hills. We caught about 20 kilos of cod a few days back, some of which is now hanging to dry on Barba´s railing. I had my first Arctic dive a few days back, and managed to find the smaller cousin of the Atlantic scallop but equally good-tasting Haneskjell (no internet, so no English name unfortunately). Boat and crew are doing well and the journey continues.
Featured photo: A dispirited polar bear looking at a joyful seal, the meal that slipped away. By Daniel Hug (Name hyperlinked terragraphy.de)