Entering the pack ice with gentle determination, our ship the Ortelius made steady and sturdy progress further north. Frequent shudders undulated through the ship, passing through every deck and reminding us that even in this robust ship; it is still the ice that dictates where we go and what we do.
Time to explore the sea ice
We were above 80° North and surrounded by a jagged ice field. Having just departed the northern tip of Svalbard where we had spent the previous few days exploring the fjords and Sjuøyane, it was now time to explore the sea ice. Our experiences up to this point had been filled with good fortune: whether climbing to the tops of hills, exploring along an ice strewn beach or observing a polar bear from the Zodiacs – the weather had been working for us each and every day. Clear skies illuminated the peaks of Svalbard; sunshine warmed our cheeks and the gentle breeze barely produced a ripple on the sea.
Searching for polar bear
Now as we entered the ice after sailing north from Sjøuyane we could see the fog bank in the distance. Fog in the pack ice would smother our chances of finding what we were looking for: more bears. But on board Ortelius the bridge team are well used to the ice and the fog. Navigating us away from the ominous veil of fog, the Captain continued onwards with confidence as the Ortelius pulsed her way through the ice. Everyone was out on deck or up on the bridge scanning the ice; searching for any speck that might be a polar bear. Yellow ice, dirty ice, dark shadows and tired eyes can all deceive the very best of polar bear spotters. But this evening the sun was shining and the visibility was as good as it could be, the Captain having navigated us into the clearest conditions.
100% confirmed polar bear sighting
There comes a moment when you are 100% sure you have seen a polar bear. You can be certain it’s not yellow ice, dirty ice, dark shadows or tired eyes. Maybe it’s the characteristic lope as the bear moves across the ice. Maybe it’s the outline of its face – the black nose and small eyes being unmistakable. Maybe it’s as simple as the bear popping up from behind an ice ridge merely metres from the bow of the ship. However and whenever the moment arises, it feels wonderful. This moment came in the early evening just a couple of hours after Ortelius had entered the ice.
David Berg was the first of the team to spot the bear and as soon as it was 100% confirmed as a bear sighting the bridge team began their calm and well practiced navigational approach. The bear became clear to see with the naked eye as Ortelius edged slowly closer and those without binoculars had their moment of feeling wonderful as they found the light yellow spot wandering across the ice. In such situations the bear must be allowed to dictate the encounter so as the ship slowed we all looked on in anticipation, waiting to see what the bear would decide to do.
Polar bear wandering the icefield © Erin McFadden
The bear looked healthy and although not fat, it was also not dangerously thin. Marauding the ice all winter, this bear had clearly been successful in predating upon seals in times of plenty and by mid-summer was obviously still doing well, despite its shrinking sea ice habitat as the weather warms.
A delightful feeling
To see a healthy and strong polar bear in its natural habitat is a delight. The power of this bear was perceivable from our vantage point on board Ortelius. Silence swept across the decks as we watched the polar bear limber across the ice with its soft but lethal padded paws. It appeared disinterested in the gigantic ship that had emerged through the ice - perhaps it had seen many before. Instead it continued on its journey across the ice, licking the air to pick up any traces of seal that might be lingering in the light wind. We too continued our journey, steadily and sturdily sailing through the ice.