Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
There was tension in the cold, crisp air. Drama, climax.
The sun shone brightly on the ice all around us. Our latitude then was 81°50’1”N, about as close to the North Pole as we would ever come on this voyage, deep into the loose pack ice that had formed over the sea north of Svalbard. The ice was hunting grounds for polar bears. And right now, a female polar bear was slowly but assuredly approaching a ringed seal resting on his belly.
“But where is it?” Silly me, never very skilled at spotting wildlife at a distance, asked my fellow passengers. Chris, a tall young NHS worker from England, pointed me in the right direction.
At some point not too long after visiting Antarctica in March of last year, the thought began to occur to me to visit the Arctic as well, to complete the circle, as it were, of the (Polar) Circles. After way too much hemming and hawing, I bought my bunk on this ship named after a Dutch cartographer and flew into Svalbard to catch it.
Svalbard is a fascinating, albeit tiny, place in its own right. Once a desolate outpost of whalers and trappers and coal miners, it was annexed by treaty to Norway in 1920 but remains not quite a part of it. Just as the early hard-scrabble settlers came from many countries, and just as its main town Longyearbyen was founded by an American industrialist John Munroe Longyear, so the demographics of today’s Svalbard remains a surprising smorgasbord. Everyone who worked at my guesthouse, for example, was apparently Filipino. The Norwegian government has worked hard to transform Longyearbyen from a hard-drinking company town of rough miners into a “proper” place where families could live. There are now not one but two(!) kindergartens. I wonder what it might be like to grow up at 78 degrees north.
Even with the attempt at civilization, reindeers and arctic foxes and even the occasional polar bears still wander confidently down the main street. Right before I arrived in Svalbard, I came across new footage of a polar bear climbing through the window the Svalbard radio station and ransacking the kitchen before guiltily squeezing through the window again to beat an ignominious retreat. Right before I left Svalbard, I spotted an arctic fox skipping down the road to the airport. The most economical way to see the wildlife of Svalbard, it seemed, might be to get a chair and some warm clothes and simply sitting down by the roadside in Longyearbyen. Given enough time, all the species would eventually pass by.
But I’d booked my passage on the Ortelius, and it promised a far more deliberate way to see the wildlife. We would sail north along the western edges of Svalbard to the pack ice that typically formed each June north of the archipelago. Polar bears, apex predators of the Arctic, had adapted over the eons to pursue and kill their favorite meals here, particularly the ringed seal.
Now, on the fourth day of our voyage, we were witnessing an expert hunter in action.
To understand what was about to go down, however, you need to appreciate a few things about the biology of both bears and seals, both the predator and the prey. The polar bear, the ursus maritimus or “sea bear” according to its Latin name, is classified as a marine mammal just like the whale or the dolphin, precisely because it makes its living on sea ice. But obviously it’s much more closely related to its land-based cousins than whales are. Though the polar bear is an excellent swimmer, it is far outclassed in the water by the porpoise-shaped creatures that have spent thousands more millennia in the sea, including its prey, the seal.
Conversely, on solid ground, including the ice on which it likes to lounge around, the seal is far less agile than the bear. If the bear catches the seal on the ice, it’s game over. But if the seal manages to get to water before the bear claw strikes, then the bear will have to find its dinner elsewhere. For this reason, seals often dig a “breathing hole” in the ice right next to where they hang out. In the event of a bear attack, they would try to dive through the hole to get to the water beneath.
The young ringed seal, still oblivious to the bear coming his way, had built himself such an escape hatch. And it must have afforded him a sense of security. After all, he was right on the edge of it, and with the slightest tipping of his body he could escape through it.
The bear continued to approach, crouching down just as humans would do to be as stealthy as possible, looking up now and then to check on the status of her target. Suddenly the bear paused.
Polar bears can be highly adaptive, even cunning, in their hunting strategy. The bear must have seen how close the seal was to his breathing hole. And as an intelligent hunter she now modified her strategy. At the edge of the ice floe, she now took a deep breath, gently lowered herself into the water, and disappeared.
For a moment even our guides wondered what might be happening. Had the bear given up in the face of the apparent difficulty of the hunt? Surely the prospect of a good meal would entice her at least to try. But then, where did she go?
Another moment later, we had our answer, and it came with an exclamation point. Out of sight, beneath the pack ice, the bear swam to where the seal’s breathing hole was. Now with an explosive force — she must have dove deep and then charged hard upward — the bear burst out of the breathing hole like a buried giant waking from a long sleep. Before the poor seal could comprehend what had happened, the bear had slashed him hard with her claws and put an end to his life.
For a while afterward we watched the bear dig into her hard-earned meal. For a while we watched the ivory gulls descend around her hoping to scavenge a bite here and there. There was something incongruent here: the baby face of the polar bear juxtaposed with the violence that she had just displayed, with the red seal blood now staining the snow as well as her snowy fur. But here was unvarnished, honest truth. And the juxtaposition was only incongruent to us silly humans; the bear saw no contradiction between her cute-as-a-button visage and her skills as an assassin. She was what evolution made her. She played her part in the drama of nature just as the seal and the gulls and the krill in the sea.
That night I read some Bruce Chatwin. The word “berserk,” he pointed out to me, comes from Old Norse for “bear skin,” referring to ancient Nordic warriors who would put on bear skin to channel the ferocity of the beast.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."