Polar Bears Here Polar Bears There in Spitsbergen

It was like a fire alarm. When the captain announced a polar bear sighting, all of the passengers immediately dropped what they were doing, grabbed their gear and ran as fast as possible donning cold weather clothing as they ran to the spotted site. “Where is it,” we asked each other and then click, click, click, click, and click as hundreds of cameras photographed another priceless polar bear riding or walking a floating ice sheet while hunting its favorite snack.DSC_0844

It didn’t matter if we were in the shower, on the treadmill, eating, sleeping or visiting with new friends, we all instantly ran to the polar bear site to fulfill our dream of seeing a real live polar bear in Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway.DSC_0830

Such was life onboard the MS FRAM as it circumnavigated Spitsbergen near the Arctic Circle when the 200 passengers would hear their favorite words, “a polar bear has been sighted”.DSC_0882

Seven times this happened by luck on the MS FRAM on the July 23, 2015 sailing around Spitsbergen. “You never know when we will see a polar bear in the wild” Corinna Skrindo said. “So we inform the passengers on this Hurtigruten cruise no matter what time it is because the passengers come on this cruise with a big wish to see polar bears.” DSC_0800

We saw two Polar bears in Woodfjorden sleeping on land. It was 5:20 AM and 79 degrees 41.3’ N and .013 degrees 41.3’ E when Captain Rune Andreassen woke us all up to tell us of the first sighting. Our hearts were pounding as we awoke from deep sleep and it took a few seconds to realize what he had said.  “Polar bear sighted” keep ringing in our ears as we grabbed jacket, gloves and hat to go to the freezing outside spot where our first polar bears were.DSC_0824

The bears were sleeping on land. And we expected to see them only on a floating ice sheet section from the frozen fjord. But, no, they were just snoozing on Makeoyane Island land, taking a rest from a busy day and night spent looking for their favorite meal, the seal. “That is not a polar bear, it is a clump of ice,” I said to June. But after looking at my photos up close, I discovered it was 2 real live polar bears males just sleeping away. And we all celebrated our first spotting. But we wanted to see some bears standing. DSC_0848

An 80-year-old wheelchair-bound man from Germany went on this cruise just to see a polar bear. “And when you showed him your first photo of that sleeping polar bear, his wish came true,” his son, told me. “And he slept all day after that and was so happy.” DSC_0972

By now, the MS FRAM was going south when we started seeing standing polar bears between 79 and 78 degrees North as we sailed for 5 hours through broken sea Ice sheets at 3 nautical miles per hour in late July.  Luck had for us 4 more polar bears going about their daily lives. And every time the captain announced a sighting, we all took off like running a marathon to see each polar bear because every second counted. It was a priceless sight to behold. DSC_1005

And we were rewarded each time with another awesome photo of a polar bear. One time we were running from one side of the ship to the other as polar bear after polar bear was spotted.DSC_0392

It all happened because of our Captain Andreassen.  Updates on the condition of the sea and frozen ice shield are not available on weekends and it was Sunday. The captain talked to a ship in the area that knew of the sea conditions and had been through this route on the east side of Edgeoeya Island. So the FRAM captain made the decision to go through this broken sea ice route down the eastern coast of Edgeoeya Island instead of taking the planned itinerary route on the western side as the passage between the islands to the west side was still frozen. DSC_0774

“Because our MS FRAM captain’s decision, we got to see almost all of Svalbard and polar bears,” expedition leader Steffen Biersack said as he showed us the old and new route on the map. “We saw much more of Norway’s special northern islands of Svalbard, including Hopen, an island that very few people have visited.” It was wonderful music to our ears as all 200 passengers on this Hurtigruten MS FRAM ship had come on this cruise for one thing mainly, polar bears.DSC_0083

“We went BEAR spotting, Biersack exclaimed.  Had we taken the planned route that was still frozen solid, we also would have been delayed. With this decision, we remained on schedule and saw polar bears.”DSC_0485

Going through broken ice sheets was just incredible and a one-of-a-kind experience in itself. Huge sheets the size of half a soccer/football field would crack in several pieces as our ship hit them. And when it did, it made a sound like severe thunder and would jolt the ship like a little earthquake. The sea birds were chirping, ice was cracking and thundering, and several polar bears were walking from broken ice sheet to ice sheet looking for seals. It was beyond exciting and priceless. It was a 24-hour experience that we included on our list of top wild life experiences in the world.DSC_0844

We saw 4 polar bears walking on the broken sea ice as we passed through it slowly. One bear stopped and looked at us as we went through his territory so that is when I snapped THE photo. That bear was wondering what was that big thing that was slowly moving through his ice, we guessed. Any way, he gave us a perfect photo of a beautiful polar bear.DSC_0919

The next morning around 10 a.m. we were going through a different section of broken sea ice when the Captain announced another bear sighting, and this one was eating a seal. Well, this became an emergency because we had not seen a real live polar bear eating a seal. And there he was just eating away and dragging his food with him. “He was dragging his food because he was real close to the ship when we spotted him” explained Corinna, the assistant expedition leader. “The ship scared him so he just picked up his food and moved away to safely eat his breakfast.”DSC_0921

Every sighting was an emergency to us because every second that passed, a polar bear would be moving further and further away from the ship. Several times when we saw one, it was a few hundred yards/meters from the ship and telephoto cameras were needed to record those beautiful bears. And cameras clicked away and produced some awesome shots of 7 bears on this cruise.DSC_0808

Besides the excitement of polar bear sightings, we did see other wild life.  While visiting Moffen Island, the most northern we sailed at 80 degrees 01’, we saw a herd of walruses on the beach.DSC_0077

On Torellneset Island, 2 herds of walruses were bunched up on shore about 300 meters from our polar circle boats, and all were male with long tusks. The island consisted of small loose pea gravel and walking on it was like walking through sand. Each step we took we would sink down about 4 inches. And each step brought us closer to those stinky males. The stench got stronger and stronger as we approached because we were downwind from them so they couldn’t smell us.  As a result, they were not scared and remained calm so we could photograph them. DSC_0222

Male and female walrus hang out in separate herds except for mating. Tusks were showing everywhere and occasionally a fight would erupt among 2 males and then they would settle down for a rest. Close to this herd of males was another herd of walruses, sex unknown. It was a very foggy day on the island, making for a mystical looking photo of them that seemed out of focus.DSC_0348

DSC_0356After viewing the herd of walruses, several of us decided to slowly walk back to the boat that brought us to the island. As we did, 2 walruses were in the water swimming around and checking what we were doing on their island. Occasionally, they would stick their heads up to see us and that’s when we got THE photo. They ended up at the small boat, checked it out and then left. We wondered what the bull walrus told the rest of the males about us. Could it be that we were all alike in our blue coats, we wondered.DSC_0096

At Alkefjellet, we saw a wall of natural columns in a sheer cliff more than 100 meters (300 feet) high. The landscape of the cliff was formed like individual columns which have been dissected out of the cliff by erosion that followed the columnar structure. A large breeding colony of Brunnichs Guillemots was the main attraction of the cliffs. Many thousands of birds occupied almost every square inch of the cliffs during this summer breeding season and many were flying around.DSC_0110

DSC_0142Beautiful birds were everywhere on this cruise. We saw Northern Fulmer, Glaucus Gull, Ivory Gull, Arctic Tern, Long Tail Skua, Kittiwakes, Little Auks, Red Throated Diver, Barnacle Goose, Brent Goose, Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan and many more different kinds of Arctic birds.DSC_0958DSC_0934DSC_0770

DSC_0546But we didn’t see just wild animals. Glaciers were often just waiting for us to experience them and we did. Several people chose to hike the glaciers while others chose to walk around the area and others just experienced them from the ship. A good time was had by all. But most of all, a good time was had experiencing those polar bears even though they caused us to lose sleep, delay a shower, eat our meal cold or stop the treadmill.  It was all worth the priceless fire alarm adventure.DSC_0511DSC_0892DSC_0988DSC_0015DSC_0865DSC_0374

Photo Copy ©  2015 

Canada North America

Arctic Inuksuk & Polar Bear Jail

On a recent trip to the Canadian Arctic tundra to see polar bears, my Tauck World Discovery tour took me to Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay to see an Inuksuk.

I had never heard of an inuksuk and thought that it looked like a stack-of-rocks traffic cop giving directions. Then I learned that the Inuit people have been building these rock stacks since ancient times to act in the place of messengers, sometimes to indicate a good hunting or fishing place, a spot where surplus food is stored, the way to a certain place or a trail across the tundra.

While observing that 15-foot-high inuksuk on Hudson Bay, I wondered if it was pointing the way to a polar bear. I turned my head and saw our first polar bear from the comfort of our warm tundra vehicle, a converted school bus. This 850-pound bear got down on the ice and rolled like an acrobat, ending up on its back with all four feet up.

That bear, then, just got up and continued walking to an area with small bushes to lie down with his back to the fierce-blowing wind and snow like nothing awesome had just happened.

Every now and then, the polar bear gets to wait out the wind and snowstorm in the comfort of the polar bear jail in Churchill. The town has a law that polar bears cannot come within five miles. Fourteen bears had violated that law when we were visiting and were in jail. Some were repeat offenders, as they continued to come to town looking for food and interrupting people’s way of life. They eat in jail and when the jail is full, they are taken back into the tundra to give others a priceless experience.