Close Encounters of the Furred Kind

In June and July last year, I was involved in a research cruise to the Arctic Circle. Our track started in Immingham in the UK, and ended in Reykjavik, Iceland. In between, we visited the Greenland ice shelf, Svalbard and the Barents Sea, all in the name of saving phytoplankton.

Our cruise track through the Arctic

Our cruise track through the Arctic

Now, before heading out on this trip, there was one animal on the top of my wishlist. I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. Ursus maritimus, the largest terrestrial predator in the world and ambassador for the impacts of climate change. Yes, I’m talking about POLAR BEARS, people. Our PSO (Principle Scientific Officer, basically the head scientist) for the trip informed us in pre-cruise meetings that we would indeed be in polar bear territory, especially around Greeland, but that he couldn’t guarantee that we’d see any. Sometimes on Arctic cruises they see many, sometimes they see none. I kept my hopes small on that front to avoid the crushing disappointment I’d feel if we didn’t come across any at all.

We didn’t reach the Arctic sea ice until a couple of weeks into the cruise. I cannot tell you how excited I was for this. I had spent many years reading about and watching documentaries on the polar regions, and now I was finally going to experience this for myself. It was unreal. The whole area was untouched by humans, it was (rather sadly) so hard for me to comprehend how unspoiled and remote this place was. All of us gathered on the front of the ship to watch as we barged our way towards the East Greenland Current. The ice started as just a few chunks here and there, then a floating collection of small floes, before becoming a more continuous, thick ice sheet.

ice clouds

sea ice edge 1

sea ice edge 3

The sounds the ship made when it hit the larger chunks of ice were initially alarming (a horrendous metallic groan, like the whole thing was about to break), but faded into background noise once we were used to it. Everyone was far more captivated by the scenery anyway. We were followed by an armada of kittiwakes, which seemed to be making the most of the fish we were disturbing from under the ice. Most exciting for me was the appearance of the ivory gulls, an extremely rare bird. It is found only in the high Arctic, and is the only pure white gull in the world. They were so beautiful against the brilliant blue sky, they almost looked supernatural.

kittiwake 6

Of course, the one thing everyone was keeping their eyes peeled for was a polar bear. I knew it was a tad optimisitc, we’d only been in the sea ice for about 2 hours, it wasn’t like a bear was just going to walk up to the boat… right?

Well, I was wrong. While I was distracted by the ivory gulls swooping gracefully around the ship, someone spotted a bear through a pair of binoculars off in the distance. By this time, most people had gone back inside the ship and were eating dinner, with only a small group of us still outside, apparently determined to find something, anything. I rushed over to port side, along with the rest of us diehard wildlife spotters, and used my camera’s zoom to try and see the bear for myself. I took a few pictures – a yellow smear on a white background. It came a little closer, but was still a long way off. More photos. I remember looking at the little screen on my camera, zooming in a bit and smiling at the fact that at least the blob was distinctly bear-shaped.

blog bear 1

blog bear 2

I would have been happy with that, really. The captain made an announcement, stopped the ship and soon everyone had returned to the front deck. There was palpable excitement that we had this distance glimpse of such a rare animal. Everyone had cameras at the ready, taking as many snapshots as they could. And then it decided to come closer.

blog bear 3

And closer.

blog bear 4

Pretty soon I found that I could see the bear just fine with my own eyes. At this point, I kept blinking because I was sure this couldn’t be real. But the bear just continued coming closer until it couldn’t have been more than 20m away from us.

polar bear welcome

polar bear 3

polar bear

polar bear 2

I made sure that I regularly looked above my camera to just stare at it. There was a sort of hushed awe that had fallen over everyone. I’d never seen a bear at all, let alone a freaking polar bear. Its fur was so shaggy, its paws were enormous. It was a magnificent creature, its head alone must have been at least twice the size of mine. The fact that the bear had chosen to come to us made me feel all the more humbled. We were in its home, its realm, and it had decided to cross our path. I could see it continually processing what I imagine was an overload of information. It regularly smelled the air, no doubt getting a good whiff of our dinner. When you think about how completely barren and silent its habitat is normally, this must have been an incredibly confusing encounter for the bear. Thankfully, he was curious enough that he hung out by the boat for a good ten to fifteen minutes.

Eventually, once the bear had decided that he couldn’t eat us without a significant amount of effort on his part, he left. After it disappeared, I turned to a few of my friends and finally started being outwardly excited, which mainly manifested as, “Holy crap, did we just see a polar bear?!” It was like I’d remained calm to make sure I could take the photos, then just degenerated into a flailing mass of over-stimulation. For the rest of the evening, the spirits of everyone on board were infectiously high, and I couldn’t wait to email my family with some of the pictures. It was truly a magical experience, and one that will stay with me for the rest of my days.

bye polar bear

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14 thoughts on “Close Encounters of the Furred Kind

  1. Hi, I am a Marine Biologist / Conservationist. I have been trying to become involved in research cruises or trips also.
    I was wondering how you were able to? Most of my research has been by computer, unfortunately. I have been research the social structure and communication of cetaceans, specifically Orcas. Please email me at ocngirl458@aol.com I would love to network with you n possibly learn what you have learned. Look forward to hear from you.

    • Hi Kim, thanks for commenting πŸ™‚ I was lucky in that the research cruises I’ve been on were already a part of my PhD from the start. My project is part of a large UK consortium, which got funding to do 3 research cruises on ocean acidification, and my PhD was built into the funding to have someone taking part in the cruises to look at phytoplankton productivity. So I really didn’t have to do anything except apply for the project. Your project sounds like it would benefit from some field work for sure, so I’d try and find out what institutions near you (or near the places you’d like to study) have research vessels of their own. In the UK, this would be British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, but I don’t know if you’re based here. Often you can join existing cruises if there is space (so long as you bring the stuff you’ll need), I think you need a LOT of grant money to be able to charter the ship solely for your own project. If you still have more questions let me know and I can email you instead! Hope this helps a little.

  2. Brilliant account of a magical encounter! I love the fact that you apparently couldn’t quite make up your mind whether the bear was a he or an it. Pitfalls of the English language I guess. Thanks for letting us take part in this encounter.

    • Thanks Sandra! Yes, I know, got a little confused with pronouns haha! I have always assumed this bear was a male, mainly from the fact he was on his own, but I tried to be impartial πŸ™‚ But… then I forgot about being impartial. I might have to edit that… Hope all is going well in your new tropical home, by the way!!

  3. That is so amazingly cool! Your photos of it are beautiful. Could you tell from far away whether it appeared to be a male or a female? I love the one of it facing the camera head-on, totally staring you down with zen bear intensity. Congrats on this once-in-a-lifetime experience! πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Kylie! It’s kinda difficult to accurately know if this is a male or female, but I’ve always assumed he’s a male because he’s on his own (females at that time of year would have cubs), and how wide his head is and far set his ears are (in bears that usually indicates a male). This guy was clearly healthy and well fed – and we did see a couple of skinny bears that were clearly not as successful hunters as this one – so that made me feel it was unlikely it was a female who’d lost her cubs. This was probably far more detailed a response than you ever wanted, but now you know how to sex polar bears. Put it on your resume! Also, I too enjoyed his zen bear intensity, made it all the more awesome!

  4. Incredible photos, Laura. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. I’m so jealous and thrilled that you’re off having such fantastic adventures. ❀

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