The Gulf Stream exerts its effect right up to skirt the North of Svalbard, resulting in a denuding of the ice around the islands in the Summer months, which meant finding pack ice for hunting bears was not far off impossible around the archipelago. So the captain decided to head North through the night, away from Spitsbergen, to reach the edge of the ice – this meant being around 600 miles from the North Pole. Although no further North than some of the Svalbard islands, the returning cold currents we were heading for created longer lasting ice for this time of year. The journey through the night was very calm, and we had been informed that we would reach the beginning of the ice by 4am. Some hardy souls took this to heart and were up at the crack of (continuous) dawn, but the sensible amongst us failed to miss out when the first of the ice was met much later in the morning (around breakfast time to be precise). The drill for the day was to stay on the ship and patrol the edge of the ice, which also entailed the ship navigating through loose ice floes, and scan for wildlife. The morning session wasn’t bad, with the odd (presumed) Harp Seal followed by a young Hooded Seal on floating ice – apparently a very uncommon sight here. The first two Brünnich’s Guillemots conducted a flypast, and a reasonable number of small groups of Little Auks were either flying past or swimming close to. Just before lunch, a group of at least 8 Harp Seals were spotted swimming away amongst the ice.
After lunch, it was decided that better ice needed to be found, so the ship headed back into open water in a westerly direction until more ice was located. This decision proved to be spot on. Shortly after reaching the ice, a huge concentration of resting Harp Seals (perhaps ~2000) was discovered lounging in a loose group along multitudinous ice tables. And where there are groups of seals in the Arctic . . . ! A polar bear was spotted swimming towards the edge of the group, with an obvious intent. It took some time to reach the first of the menu, and it demonstrated almost perfectly how to hunt a seal on ice. It took a sneaky peak over the ice, disappeared, then rushed from under the water on to the ice – almost perfect but not quite, since the seal managed to escape into the water, despite having been bitten by the bear.
Undaunted it mounted another ice table to simply pick up the single seal which was laid there, as if it was either injured or already dead. The bear carried its prize a little way, seemed to take a few nibbles, and then played with the body a little, walking away a few metres each time. Then the amazing happened – the seal was still alive and tried to escape. Over the next half an hour or so, the bear played with the poor captive, sometimes entering the water, only to lunge back out when the seal tried to escape. Finally dead, the bear grew bored and abandoned its kill, leaving a carcass only stripped of its skin and no more! Some patience watching the scene paid off, when a single Glaucous Gull feeding on the remains was joined eventually by a couple of Ivory Gulls.
This should have been sufficient as an experience, but the Polar Bear was picked up again, swimming towards another group of seals, which were wiser to the approach, but it did appear shortly after with another kill. The skin again appeared to be the main target, but with less play (this seal seemed dead straight away) than the first. According to the bear expert on board, this was surplus killing, and had not been documented by this species before. While the weather had been cool (~3-5oC), the visibility throughout was good, but the fog began and light but freezing drizzle pushed down from the North, so the ship turned around with the intent of heading towards the next day’s destination.