Silver Explorer Arctic Adventure, Day 9: Polar Bear Hunting

Nanook of the North

Polar bear! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Polar bear! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Entering the misty fjord known as Woodfjorden early this morning, in hunt of the elusive Polar Bear. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Entering the misty fjord known as Woodfjorden early this morning, in hunt of the elusive Polar Bear. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

With a bear sighted on a nearby island, Silver Explorer's Zodiacs were quickly lowered to the water. Guests embarked shortly after, and we were off! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
With a bear sighted on a nearby island, Silver Explorer’s Zodiacs were quickly lowered to the water. Guests embarked shortly after, and we were off! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Commanding my Group 4 Zodiac: Expedition Team member Kate and her cool-blue sunglasses. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Commanding my Group 4 Zodiac: Expedition Team member Kate and her cool blue sunglasses. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Within minutes, we were zipping along at a considerable pace, eager to make it to the Polar Bear before it disappeared. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Within minutes, we were zipping along at a considerable pace, eager to make it to the Polar Bear before it disappeared. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

"Hunting" a polar bear is a tricky thing, though. It requires a lot of time and patience. Guests were urged to whisper to each other and not make any undue noise. I loved it - it's like being on safari in the Arctic. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
“Hunting” a polar bear is a tricky thing, though. It requires a lot of time and patience. Guests were urged to whisper to each other and not make any undue noise. I loved it – it’s like being on safari in the Arctic. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
On the hunt...and then...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A guest on the hunt…and then…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...Polar Bear! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…Polar Bear! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

At last: our first Polar Bear in the Arctic! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
At last: our first Polar Bear in the Arctic! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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:

Alternating places with other zodiacs to ensure that all guests had a good view, we tracked this polar bear for nearly an hour. All told, we were out in the elements for nearly three hours. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Alternating places with other zodiacs to ensure that all guests had a good view, we tracked this polar bear for nearly an hour. All told, we were out in the elements for nearly three hours. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Looking back towards the Silver Explorer at anchor. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Looking back towards the Silver Explorer at anchor. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Zodiacs were run quietly and a respectful distance was kept at all times. This is the one instance when I wish I'd had a telephoto lens. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Zodiacs were run quietly and a respectful distance was kept at all times. This is the one instance when I wish I’d had a telephoto lens. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Finally, we bid farewell to our polar friend...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Finally, we bid farewell to our polar friend…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and made our way back to the waiting...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and made our way back to the waiting…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...Silver Explorer. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…Silver Explorer. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

In the afternoon, we pulled up near a magnificent glacier...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
In the afternoon, we pulled up near a magnificent glacier…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...so guests could participate in the Polar Plunge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…so guests could participate in the Polar Plunge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Or a Polar Swim, if you like! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Or a Polar Swim, if you like! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Tonight, the Captain's Farewell Cocktail & Dinner were held. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Tonight, the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail & Dinner were held. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It gave guests a great chance to thank the crew of the Silver Explorer, all of whom have done so much for us. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It gave guests a great chance to thank the crew of the Silver Explorer, all of whom have done so much for us. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

The view at Midnight: stunning! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The view at Midnight: stunning! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests in the Panorama Lounge come up with an innovative way to record...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests in the Panorama Lounge come up with an innovative way to record…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...the end of a very special day - and the beginning of another. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…the end of a very special day – and the beginning of another. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

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.

Dream. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Dream. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Silver Explorer Arctic Adventure | Live Voyage Report

Day 1Arrival in Oslo
Day 2Embarking Silver Explorer in Tromsø
Day 3Bear Island
Day 4Burgerbukta, Svalbard
Day 5Magdalenafjorden
Day 6Adventures at the Polar Ice Cap
Day 7Torellneset and the Ice Blink
Day 8Hiking Fakesvagen
Day 9Polar Bear Hunting
Day 10The Abandoned Settlement of Ny London
Day 11Longyearbyen, Fog, and An Extension of Our Voyage
Day 12Longyearbyen! Embracing Delays
Voyage Recap

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