We’re up in the high Arctic, in Svalbard. I’m a guest for a few days on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise. (It’s a bit of a misnomer at this time of year because the sun never sets, so—to paraphrase Hemingway—the sun also never rises.)
As we are slowly leaving Isfjorden (Icy Fjords) 78º N and 13º E, a boat called Better Moments hails us via radio. They ask for Larissa Beumer, who has coordinated my visit and much of what happens on board day-to-day. They know her. When she gets on the radio they tell her where they are and that they’re looking at the first polar bear they’ve seen all season. “Let’s go,” we agree. Easy decision!
At first I see no bear. With my binoculars I am looking along the beach. I see that our wildlife guide Tom Foreman has located our bear so I look up higher toward where he is looking.
There, far up from the beach. Like a slightly yellowed patch of snow. Lying down a mound of dark gray scree halfway to the ridge. Big! A male. Chin of bear on bare ground, resting. But not asleep.
Yawns. Sits up. Big. Fat—which is encouraging in these lean times, when shrinking sea ice is reducing food for polar bears. There, look at that face!
“Polar bears are incredible to be around,” says Tom. “They’re individuals just as much as humans. Some run from the sight of humans, some are not frightened of people, noisemakers—.” Some are terrified of helicopters, but Tom tells of one big male who stood up and tried to grab a helicopter that was trying to haze him away from a camp.
As I’m watching our bear starting to stir, Tom says that polar bears are highly intelligent learners, “problem-solvingly smart.” He describes one female who showed her cubs how to catch seals by repeatedly dragging a seal she’d killed, by the tail, back into the hole in the ice—and then taking it out by the head, as if, “this is where they come from, this is how you grab them.” She ate the seal from its midsection down, leaving the upper body entirely intact, then made holes in the snow and repeatedly put the seal in, covered it, and took it out—or let the cubs dig it out—then snapped off the lower portion, ate as much of it as could be eaten, and took the intact upper body to a crack in a pressure ridge, tucked it in, and removed it in front of the cubs, “Showing, like, ‘these are places where seals come from, this is how we find them.’” Some bears, he says, specialize in breaking into cabins in particular individual ways, such as learning to remove the one piece of wood under a window and taking out the whole window frame.
Now he’s standing up. Moving off. A heavy shouldered, big-bellied slow, deliberate stride. In. No. Hurry. The huge white cone of his head, buttoned by a black nose at the terminus of so ample a neck, waves slowly back and forth. Filtering the air. For something? Anything. Attention directed up-slope. Catching the scent of a reindeer? An arctic fox?
Polar bears hunt mainly seals, mainly on and around sea ice. In summer—like now—they come ashore and generally do not eat much, living off their fat and losing weight until the sea freezes again. There isn’t much for them where there isn’t sea ice from which to hunt seals. As the Arctic warms and ice shrinks away, there is more and more time with less and less ice, so less and less food.
Ice melting over vast areas can leave polar bears stranded far from the sea ice they need to reach so they can hunt properly and feed well. Off Alaska, one bear with a cub made a mind-bending continuous swim of 687 kilometers (412 miles) over nine days to reach the sea ice; she then walked an additional 1,800 kilometers (over one thousand more miles) across sea ice. But she did not find enough food to make up for the extreme effort. During that time of stress and deprivation she lost: more than a fifth (22 percent) of her body weight—and her year-old cub.
On land, polar bears can eat whatever food they find, from grass to dead caribou and so on. But what you will eat when you’re starving is not a guarantee that you’ll survive starvation. Facts are: shrinking sea ice is making polar bears generally thinner, reducing the number of cubs and their survival.
Hunger is bringing polar bears increasingly into Arctic villages and into encounters with people, often ending fatally for the bears. A recent study from the University of Alberta, Canada says, “If the climate continues to warm and eliminate sea ice as predicted, polar bears will largely disappear from the southern portions of their range by midcentury. They may persist in the northern Canadian Arctic Islands and northern Greenland for the foreseeable future, but their long-term viability, with a much reduced global population size in a remnant of their former range, is uncertain.” Svalbard remains a polar bear stronghold, for now. We are here and this well-fed bear is here.
Now, moving off that hill and disappearing behind another mound of stony ground. Now walking toward the right. Nice side-view.
Walking onto one isolated patch of snow on this stony shore. This is a too-warm bear who wants some coolness. Gouges a hollowed-out cradle of snow to lie down in. Stretches out. Bares the soles of tennis-racquet feet. And then, cool as a cucumber, happy as a clam, fully out, goes to sleep.
I wish him vast ice and good hunting and long life. Pleasant dreams.
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Carl Safina’s recent bestselling book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel is newly out in paperback. See Carl’s TED talk here. He is Stony Brook University’s Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, and founder of The Safina Center.