28 Feb Polar Bear; The Spirit of the sea ice.
I was sailing in the Ortelius, a Polish construction icebreaker ship that had once served to the Russian Academy of Sciences in its polar research. The eternal sunshine of the Arctic summer, sparkling 24 hours a day in his turquoise piece of the sky, made shine the icy vastness of an infinite polar pack ice. We were next to Nordaustlandet, which is an island of the archipelago of Svalbard located northeast of Spitzbergen, its main island, in the middle of the Arctic Circle. We had been sailing for 4 days around the islands, filming and photographing those lonely landscapes in appearance but still home of a rich fauna, composed of the few survivors of the massacres that the whalers of the XVII century had perpetrated in these remote waters, to take advantage of the precious seal and whale blubber that was used at that time as fuel. But those days of mass extinctions that took emblematic species such as walruses to disappear completely from Svalbard, were fortunately flew away. Now the ships like my boat, Ortelius, which are dropped by these icy wastes, have other much nicer purposes because although the hunting remains, actually its main objective is only photographic. And in that set I was, eager to fulfill the dream of being able to portray the authentic spirit of the sea of ice, the largest land predator of all mammals in the planet; the polar bear.
We were sailing in parallel to those Brown islands, almost like chocolate, bare of vegetation as a result of the cold tundra. One of the things that most caught my attention on that navigation was the color of the sea. The sea in the Arctic is very dark, a gray almost black which contrasts even more with the ice floe. In that moment, still surfing open water without further indication than some small floating iceberg, detached from the numerous glaciers that flowed down the valleys of the islands until its death in the sea, while i was distracted photographing fulmars ( Fulmarus glacialis ) that pursued our boat flying above the deck in rapid passes, someone shouted “over there”… It was my first whale of the expedition and the second that I had seen in all my life. I ran swiftly to the deck area where I had heard the commotion coming, at the time just to see barely a water jet released at high pressure of about 6 meters high that came like a geyser from the surface of the calm sea. I pointed my camera with nervousness towards the sea area where I had observed that jet with the hope that the leviathan made a new act of presence. Fate did not disappoint me and suddenly, before my eyes, pulled his immense breathing holes an enormous fin whale ( Balaenoptera physalus ). Then a huge body began to emerge from the waters, meters and meters of brown meat arched without end in front of my camera until finally appeared a small dorsal fin and a huge tail that in stealth and agile lash sank in the abysses of the black Arctic Ocean. Without any doubt that the trip promised great experiences although at the moment of bears, nothing at all.
But our luck would change gradually, so one of the days in which we were going to go ashore by zódiac, in order to observe a colony of seabirds closely, we could detect far on a hill, the presence of an apparent cue ball in movement that contrasted markedly in the mossy brown of the cliffs by walking at a slow but sure pace. With no doubt it was a polar bear that went straight to those cliffs hoping to catch a fledgling chicken that had the misfortune of passing near her hungry mouth. Although it was exciting intuit in the distance the silhouette of the polar bear through my binoculars, for me was not enough. I wanted more. I Began to seriously doubt if I would get a recognizable snapshot of the great white colossus. Days later, during another of our approaches to the coast by zódiac to take photographs of one of the breeding colonies of guillemots and other seabirds that in the short Arctic summer inhabit the most inaccessible cliffs of Svalbard, I could see a bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), the favorite prey of polar bears. Everything was an indication that the sea ice should not float already very far. And it was precisely there, in the floe, where I had my hopes of having a better sighting of the bear.
I remember one morning when I just got out of bed and withdrew the iron cover of the porthole of my cabin to catch a glimpse of the outside. It looked like an ice cream, and never better said, as the sea was completely covered by an enormous rind of drift ice that in some areas collided forming a continuous and immense ice plate. We have finally arrived to the polar pack ice, the kingdom of the polar bear. After a large breakfast I went out to the deck to gaze at the sea, now turned into a white immensity under a sun that seemed anchored at half height above the horizon. All that reached beyond my sight was ice. The silence was absolute, powerful and at the same time beautiful. The peace was so immense that I thought if it were possible that I would have passed away without knowing it and at that moment could be sailing in heaven. It was then when a paging announcement took me from my reverie. Two polar bears were coming toward the boat walking down the ice floe. Binoculars and camera in hand I headed swiftly in pursuit. And there was one of the bears. Still far away but already close enough to make a shot recognizable and acceptable. The animal certainly was in search of their favorite livelihood, the seal.
The polar bear ( Ursus maritimus ), whose males can measure 2.6 m long and weigh 400 kg, is despite its appearance of innocent stuffed, a fierce predator who no doubt even in attacking the man, being also the most carnivore among all the bears. Their most precious dams are the ringed seal ( Phoca hispida ) and barbed seal ( Erignathus barbatus ) although if the hunger strikes and the occasion is given, the polar bear is able to eat almost anything, from carrion whale stranded on a remote beach, up eggs and chicks of seabirds as we had already had occasion to observe. The favorite hunting technique of polar bears is the ice searching of the dens where seals hide their offspring under the ice. Thus, that traveler heavy bear, that raised his snout to sniff the air, was hunting. We could observe how after a few broken ice blocks, the animal stopped beginning to trace the area like a hound. Finally the animal was raised, perched on its two hind legs to drop his weight on his front legs, after a jog, crushed the ice impetuously with the intention of breaking it and access the lair of a seal. But on this occasion there was no luck for the bear. The lair was empty and the animal continued its leisurely walk along the ice sniffing the cold air and ice, nuzzling flush. The bears need to accumulate a large amount of fat to withstand the polar winter and especially females, when they are pregnant. The females of the polar bear dig a hideout in the ice or in any slope of land near the sea where they take refuge from October to April to overwinter and give birth to their offspring, he must sometimes endure periods of up to 8 months without trying one bite, living of its large reserve of fat. The small cubs, usually twins, which at birth, an event that occurs between December and January, weigh about 0.6 kg, grow fast inside his lair of ice. His dozing mother feed them with nutritious milk containing up to 36% fat, which makes the puppies to leave their den in spring reaching a weight about 11 kg. The young cubs will remain with their mother for two years, after this time they secede reaching reproductive age over 4 years A curious feature that occurs in these animals and a sample of their perfect adaptation to cold weather conditions is that after copulation that usually occur in April, the new embryos are not implanted in the female´s womb until the fall. This delayed implantation is an adaptation of these animals to match farrowing with periods of hibernation where in the interior of the dens, next to his mother, the defenseless and tiny babies are more protected. As I watched the wily bear lying motionless with his nose pointing to a blue puddle between the ice, waiting for a seal poked his head, I realized that the purpose of my trip was fulfilled.
It was July 31. A riot in the foredeck aright me that something important was happening. As usual, camera in hand, I approached to the place when people were speaking nervously. I asked… what happens?… Do a bear! muttered one of the crew members while placing a finger on his lips motioning to lower the voice. Where, where? I asked flustered. Right here, my guide replied in a low voice. When I looked over the side I was totally surprised to see how an animal about 300 kg in weight, of a gleaming white, black snout and small black little eyes, advanced straight to us just a few meters from the ship’s hull. That bear came so close that I could hear the crunch of snow beneath his enormous hairy paws while walking. I pointed him with my camera, he looked at me and rose up in front of me…an authentic white leviathan with almost 3 meters hight was sniffing me to know if I was edible.
According to the IUCN (International Union for the conservation of nature), in its Red List of species, the polar bear is listed as vulnerable, that is why hunting these animals is prohibited except for traditional and cultural uses in the case of the Inuit, popularly known as Eskimos, and always under strict annual quotas presets. This situation occurs in the whole area of influence of the Inuit people that includes Greenland, Canada and Alaska. Thus, globaly, Canada is the only country that allows hunting polar bears in its territory. As a whole it is estimated that this legalized hunting eliminates a year between 700 and 800 bears, which in an estimated total population of between 20 000 and 25 000 bears, represents close to a 4% of all bears in the world. To this should be added the deaths by poaching that only in Russia can reach around 200 specimens per year.
Another factor that threatens the survival of the largest plantigrade in the world is the concentration of pollutants brought to the Arctic by ocean currents and that here are concentrated despite being uninhabited regions and apparently pristine. The low temperatures of the polar sea where dissolve these pollutants easily, make low rates of degradation, so that these toxic substances remain a long time in the medium, which contributes to their accumulation. Pollutants absorbed by plankton are passed to fish after being devoured by them and from there to the rest of the food chain with an accumulative effect, furthermore, as the animal in question is larger, accumulates in their tissues, especially in their body fat, more polluting. The polar bears eat mainly seals and their fat. Being at the top of the food pyramid, that is why they are significantly affected. Current studies on the effects of these pollutants on the health of the bears are scarce, but it is known that in certain population such substances affect their hormonal and immune system, which might endanger the species.
Currently scientists studying the climate of our planet not just agree on whether the global warming is due to global explainable natural phenomena, or whether on the other hand, it is because of our pollution. However, the studies carried out by the NSIDC (National Snow and Ice Data Center) of the United States, which is the highest authority on the matter, confirm that despite the fact that the melting of the ice floe follows a pattern oscillating and non-linear, with the years, the trend in the Arctic is to reduce its icy surface, contrary to what happens in the Antarctic ice shelves. If this trend continues, the polar bears, exclusive to the north pole, and they need of sea ice to carry out his technique of seal hunting, could be affected. However, these animals, tremendously adaptable and opportunistic, have already begun to acclimatize by changing both, their customs and also their diet in certain places like the Hudson Bay. Here, the sea ice, some years takes longer to arrive than expected and it is for this reason that the bears spend long periods in mainland feeding of berries and other foods of terrestrial origin, something similar to what their cousins, the grizzly bears, do. For all these reasons and despite many threats currently hanging over the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic, adaptable and resilient polar bears seems that for now, will continue walking between land, sea and ice, to fascinate the scientific or the intrepid traveller able to venture into these unexplored polar solitudes.
The Ortelius resumed the navigation while the polar bear, in the opposite direction to our progress, walked away with the same parsimony with which it had arrived. Gradually his yellowish white big body was dwarfing and fading with the immensity of the sea ice. The fog began to clear again the contours of the blue line of sky on the sea ice. I turned off the camera. The time came to put heading south and return home to tell this story of bears, ice and silence to all of you.
By Javier Marcos.