As I was writing my previous post, someone sent me a link about a polar bear attack on Spitsbergen this morning. One person was killed, three injured. Given the timing, it seems likely that they were sleeping when the bear attacked, and that in the melee, the bear was shot and people were injured trying to fend it off.
It’s a terrible thing that this bear was killed — it doesn’t happen very often — and a terrible thing that this group of kids had such a searing experience. We saw that group before we left, marshaling on the pier, waiting for the pack ice to clear enough to set off on their trek.
One of the news stories talks about the kids’ buoyancy and excitement on seeing their first bear, which echoes ours. We went from nervousness about having a rifle with us to a kind of jokiness, singing the toddler song about the stompy bear, or reciting the Bulgy/Algy bear rhyme. But Christian’s rifle was always with us, and we never strayed far.
It’s the tension of the wilderness, this kind of exploration, where the very purpose of being there is to have some kind of encounter with polar bears, with the edge of comfort, to perch in the breeding colonies of arctic birds to get as close to what it possibly could feel like to their experience. And it’s impossible to forget that we’re just additional creatures in a bear-eat-bear world.
One afternoon during our trip, the fog had settled in tight, and we watched a David Attenborough film about polar bears. I was perched on the narrow stairs, a ridge digging into my back, feeling slightly seasick, but I was fascinated. Baby polar bears are teeny tiny when they’re born — about half a kilogram — and they emerge from the mum when she’s hibernating and continue to grow for several months before the spring, squirming around on her breast and suckling. (Finch’s perspective as a biologist on human birth as “having reached the evolutionary limit in terms of head/brain size” does take me aback a bit ;-)).
Cubs stay with their mums for a couple of years, first being fed, but learning how to hunt and fend for themselves. (The Attenborough film has hilarious footage of a cub determined to stomp through the ice to get at a seal but his tiny little feet can’t quite manage it). One of the things the mums need to do is defend their cubs from other bears, who will eat them, given half a chance.
The first bear we encountered had a huge wound on her rump, which we could guess came from this kind of fight.
She was also ringed with some kind of radio collar, so was clearly a bear with a history with humans. And here, had found the skeleton of a whale she could continue to pick at.
We saw a total of 14 bears on this trip, an affirmation of the strength of the polar bear population. Each one had its own personality, and some of the time, we were close enough for long enough to have a snippet of a Story of Bear.
The second bear didn’t do a whole lot, but it did have the distinction of not being collared or otherwise drawn too close into human life. (Finch didn’t like that first bear at all, the collar a huge reminder of too close intersection of humans into the wilderness — though one of the other women on the trip noted that her daughter sponsored polar bear research and that, in fact, this might be one of “her” bears).
Bear #2 was just… a bear. He ambled out, came close, curious, wandered away.
The next memorable bear was my favourite, sauntering aggressively from one small island to another inside Liefdefjorden (“love fjord”), shaking himself off and rolling around, hunting for and catching a fish.
I crouched in the net rigging of the ship, intensely scrutinizing this bear for close to an hour, until we were called for dinner and I unwound my stiff self and hopped precariously down. But not before I caught him shaking himself dry.
There were other bears, including one mama with two cubs.
This trio could have been the “special encounter,” in many ways. We were close to the islands they were wandering, and we persuaded the captain to let us launch a zodiac to get even closer. We drew lots for seats in the first trip, and tried to do the same for the second, but all of the bits of paper flew into the sea. We moved into more of a “whoever wants to go” mode, and I stepped back in favour of paying clients, eying the soaking wet group from the first trip with some trepidation.
For some reason, I couldn’t find the “spark” in photographing this group, becoming (unreasonably) a little frustrated that the trio wouldn’t arrange themselves neatly in one spot… so I put down the camera and just watched them for a while, cresting the hill, moving apart from each other, coming back together, cubs exploring on their own and always coming back to the unit.
After that trio, we had two more bear experiences. My favourite was the one we called “the hunting bear.” We saw him first on a beach, then followed him as he plunged into the water, swam forcefully and focused,
and lunged after a female common eider.
The bird flew around, squawking and flapping, and ultimately escaped. We thought she was trying to divert attention from chicks, at first (why not just fly away?) but when we inspected the photos, we couldn’t detect any chicks.
It’s a strange thing, watching this kind of interaction — you don’t know who to root for. You know the bear needs food, and you know that the duck serves the bill nicely. But they’re both so real, so alive in this one critical moment. I cheered that the duck managed to get away — and then I worried about the hungry bear.
In the Svalbard museum in Longyearbyen, this quote was posted on a wall:
“The ability to adapt, and the art of resignation, are some of what is needed by those who shall live in Svalbard.”
It was written about people, but it equally applies to the plants, the ice, the creatures of Svalbard. Thwarted by the duck, our hunting bear plunged back into the water and promptly tangled himself up in eating kelp.
We couldn’t get very close during the kelp eating, but with our binoculars and telescopic lenses, we watched him roll around and chomp on kelp for about 20 minutes. Resilient, adaptable, essential.
I would have been happy with Hunting/Kelp Bear as our final experience, but we had one more gift. Another mama and cub, on a set of windy islands. First the mama, her dirty head demonstrating that bears aren’t so concerned with grooming themselves, like cats…
We loved this brave little cub, who was curious about us and who set off for a nearby island by himself.
And who then, just feet away from us, peered directly at us.
Fuzzy, incredible strength. This bear will be a survivor.
And… this fuzzy strong little bear that will be a survivor isn’t a kelp-eating vegan. Kelp in a pinch, yes, but unfortunately, the campers that wandered into its hungry territory ran smack into the paradox of Svalbard, of any wilderness experience. We’re in their land, and it’s a violent, predatory land. Hungry adult polar bears fight females to use their cubs for food. The kittiwake corpses below a breeding colony were testament to the danger that bigger gulls pose.
Every species has its own adaptive resilience — thick walrus skins and tusks, ferocious arctic terns willing to attack predators many times their size, seal agility on land and water, the guillemots that herd their young into the sea as soon as possible — and death of the younger, smaller, weaker is just part of the tapestry.
I don’t know how to make meaning, really, of the death/injuries of the campers and the death of the bear. It’s a terrible thing to be violently mauled, and a terrible thing to have to shoot a bear — and, polar bears are the most predatory of creatures. As Finch put it, our choice, if we don’t to be eaten by them, is to flee like a seal or to shoot them. In the broader rhythms and notes and squawks of this kind of land, we are just creatures who are part of the terrible, predictable, discordant melody.