When last we left William Fortescue, the team was celebrating having spotted polar bears for the first time during their gruelling Arctic expedition. With the party still in swing, another cry goes up that stops the merriment short.
Bears In The Blue Pt. 2
A tentative call of “I think I can see another bear”, came from Moira - one of our ridiculously eagle-eyed expedition leaders. Except it was not just one, it was three. A male was chasing a female and her cub, we assumed in a bid to mate.
They were the far side of the fjord and so, despite it being the early hours of the morning, the crew were awoken, anchor raised, and MV Villa sailed across to take a closer look.
By the time we arrived, the bears had split, mother and cub headed one way and the male another. Our ‘get as quickly in to all your warm clothes as possible’ routine was now in full swing, and had become a well-oiled machine.
Leaping into zodiacs we found the mother and her cub, fast asleep on the ice, still a few hundred meters from the shore line.
We were unsure if they would wake up any time soon, polar bears live as efficiently as is possible, and so sat on the floor of the boat, passing a hip flask amongst ourselves to keep warm.
The cub stirred first, clearly deciding enough sleep had been had and, like all youngsters, set about irritating its mum. Luckily for us, this prompted her to wake up, check the scents on the air, and turn directly towards us.
Finally, six days in to searching, we had a bear coming straight towards us.
Over the ice she came, all the way to its edge, cub running alongside in her wake, separated from us by just a few meters of open water. Her presence was as captivating as the entire environment. Equal to if not greater than the mountains in which she lives.
My camera was in overdrive, its shutter beating as fast as my heart, adrenaline running through me just as fast as it had two hours previously as I plunged in to the water.
For two epic hours, we followed mother and cub as they explored the ice edge, checking the water for the scent of seals, their go to prey, the cub making each of us on the boat laugh out loud as it checked the water, got too excited, fell in, then clambered back out again.
The images I was taking were ones I had not even allowed myself to dream of when heading to Svalbard. Hundreds if not thousands of visitors here never get within 100 metres of a bear, and here we were just a few meters from two.
While in many parts of the world I put ‘luck’ like this down to persistence, in the Arctic there really is a huge element of luck involved, and on that day it was on our side.
As elated as were at that moment, a lot of the trip was spent under a cloud of inescapable worry. As eager as I was to write this article and focus on the positives, we cannot ignore the precarious position the Arctic is in.
As you read this, the Arctic ice is melting. This is normal. Every winter, as temperatures plummet, the sea surface freezes and ice covers almost the entire arctic ocean. As winter fades to spring, the ice starts to melt, as has always happened. What is scary though, is by how much.
At its coldest point, in the depths of winter, the sea ice covers 6 million square miles. An area almost twice the size of the USA. In the summer of the 1980’s, the summer ice would still cover 3.8 million square miles.
This, vitally, allowed the female bears, who had spent their winters on Kvitoya, hibernating and raising their new cubs, to return across the ice to the Svalbard archipelago. A crucial journey as Svalbard is richer in prey.
Now though, we are losing 27,000 square miles of summer ice a year, so the coverage has shrunk to just 2.8 million square miles. A loss of over 25%.
In essence, this means the mother bears and cubs, rather than having to cross sea ice, something they can do with relative ease, must swim. This in turn burns considerably more energy, puts more pressure on hunting, more pressure on competition for food and will, ultimately, lead to a decline in polar bear populations.
In an effort to not leave this article on a negative note, for that is so not what I believe my trip to have been about, this is by no means set in stone.
There are still ways to protect the arctic.
Research has shown that if regulations are kept and we are able to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F), we can drastically halt the decline to polar bear habitat, and as a result populations.
It is why choosing to work with responsible, sustainable brands like Finisterre, is now more than a luxury, it’s a necessity.