Nanook of the North
Friday, July 10, 2015
This morning, I awoke at 6:45 a.m. to discover Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer was stopped in the middle of the ocean. Surrounded by fog with a visibility of maybe half a kilometre on either side of the ship, I figured this morning’s scenic cruising was scratched.
At breakfast, the fog lifted. We could see the shore, but it was off in the distance. We were sailing in the middle of the channel in a wide, expansive fjord bookended once again by the ubiquitous snow-covered hills and mountains that have become the staple scenery of our Arctic expedition.
As I chatted with some other guests at breakfast, I noticed we were moving, but just barely. Calling our forward motion two knots would have been generous. With nothing to really miss, scenery wise, outside, I figured our chances of reaching Longyearbyen with our livers intact had just dropped considerably.
Just as breakfast was wrapping up around 10:00 a.m, Silver Explorer’s screws started to kick over. The dining room shook and my cup of coffee rattled noisily on its saucer. We were clearly pouring on the speed for something. The Bloody Mary’s would have to wait.
Ten minutes later, Expedition Leader Juan came over the public address system: the scout boat had spotted a polar bear, about half an hour’s cruising ahead of us. Plans immediately changed: we’d proceed directly to the spot and drop our Zodiac rafts in the water for a closer look. Disembarkation would be collective, but staggered by group number to ensure crowding isn’t an issue. Group 1 would be called at 11:00 a.m., followed immediately thereafter by groups 2, 3 and 4.
Humans have an interesting history with polar bears. In many First Nations cultures in Arctic Canada, the polar bear is considered a sacred, almost sentient being. It’s often referred to in Inuit culture as Nanook. Here in Svalbard, the Norwegians would call it Isbjørn – the Ice Bear.
Early Arctic explorers, eager to get away from their miserable diets of pemmican and salt pork, would hunt polar bears as a food source. Nowadays, at Christmas time, Coca-Cola shows them in advertisements as cute, cuddly dwellers of the north, hanging back and popping the cap off of a cool, refreshing bottle of Coke.
Unlike the Antarctic penguin, which is as docile, cute and cuddly as you might well expect, the polar bear is really not an animal you want to see unless viewed from a safe distance. While it may lumber along slowly, it can run at speeds topping 40 km/h (25 mph). In the frigid water that would mean almost certain death for humans from hypothermia, it propels itself along at 10 km/h (6 mph).
Polar bears are predatory hunters. They are fearless in their interactions with humans, and are typically hungry. And that makes us a tasty snack moving clumsily around in red jackets. We fall down. We can’t survive in the water, and we certainly can’t walk in ice floes. We are, as the saying goes, low-hanging fruit.
Now, obviously Silversea takes all necessary precautions around polar bears, and I have been impressed at the level of skill, knowledge, and preparedness our Bear Guards have. But I fear their cautionary tales haven’t quite filtered down to the majority of the guests who are, understandably, hell-bent on seeing a polar bear. I’m quite happy to see one from a distance on a Zodiac, or from the ship as I sip a cocktail. I do not, under any circumstances, wish to run into one on land!
Our excursion to see the bears – two of them, on two separate pieces of land – was nothing short of astonishing. I have to admit: I didn’t come here to see the polar bear. I came to see the desolate, astonishing, and quite often beautiful landscape of the High Arctic. But having said that, there is something magical about seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat.
I can see why the Inuit peoples from Canada to Greenland and beyond felt that these bears were spiritual. They move in a certain way. They crane their necks, which are rather long, in a way that most bears can’t. A grizzly bear, for example, really has very little neck to speak of. But the polar bear is adapted well to its environment: its neck is elongated so it can snap at seals that come out of deep recesses in the ice.
But the polar bear’s almost humanlike movements have another interesting parallel: like early Arctic explorers, starvation is a constant threat. A polar bear – particularly a mother polar bear nursing young cubs – needs an extraordinary diet in order to sustain itself. The reduction in sea ice due to climate change has resulted in bears travelling further than they might typically have to find food; this has led to several documented cases of polar bears actually drowning in their attempts to reach pack ice or shore.
The polar bear is moderately endangered – and that makes our sighting today all the more special.
Some pictures of our incredible morning:
Because of our altered morning schedule and our extended touring, our plans for a Zodiac cruise in the afternoon were instead replaced by a visit to a nearby glacier so that guests could participate in the Polar Plunge.
The sun struggled to peek through the thick layers of fog, mist and cloud that obscured it, but managed to light up the events that took place on the port side of the ship. Interested guests could come down – so long as they didn’t have any pre-existing heart conditions – to the embarkation deck on Deck 3 in order to take part in this time-honoured tradition.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Polar Plunge is essentially a jump into frigid water. I’ve seen it done in Antarctica, and now here in the Arctic.
I didn’t do it myself, but I did celebrate being in the Arctic in my own special, icy way.
To me, today was expedition cruising at its finest: a complete reversal of previously-published plans in favor of an opportunity that presented itself. Our Expedition Team sighted a polar bear. That sighting was confirmed. The navigation team on the bridge came up with a plan of action. The able-bodied seaman dropped what they were doing to winch the Zodiac rafts down from their perch on Deck 7 into the sea. The Food & Beverage department tweaked the timing of lunch to accommodate our expected late arrival back to the vessel.
All of these things had to happen as a team; if any one faction said, “no – we stick with the plan”, our entire day would have fallen apart. Instead, the entire team here onboard Silver Explorer came up with a brand-new plan, on-the-spot, and implemented it for the benefit of their guests. That, to me, is the sign of a great expedition cruise.
After being trapped in the fog all day and well into the evening, we abruptly sailed out of it just before midnight. Like a car exiting a tunnel, the sudden brilliance of the sunlight abruptly blinded those of us having drinks in the Panorama Lounge.
As the clock rolled over to midnight, the most brilliant sun we’ve seen all trip shone brightly, illuminating the mountains off to our port side in shades of tinted amber. The sun never really sets here, but this was the closest we’ve gotten to “dusk” yet. And it was mesmerizing. It became almost impossible to pull myself away from it.
I watched the scenery from my suite for a long time. I went out onto the balcony and started snapping photos; exhausting one memory card and filling up part of another.
It was the final act in a day littered with surprises.