After trying Dicksonfjorden without seeing much wildlife, the afternoon sun is casting longer shadows on the mountains as we enter adjacent Ekmanfjorden. We first see a couple of walruses, some sticking their heads out of the ice with their long tusks, and then come to the edge of the ice. A bearded seal pup is lying motionless on it, and quite soon, a glaucous gull starts to pick away at its back. The pup does nothing to defend itself, and when it rolls over, we see a deep cut in its side, with intestines sticking out. Was it attacked by a bear before? That could explain the serious harm. The mother swims by, looking helplessly at the defenceless pup, and the gull stays close, picking away every now and then without ever really attacking the poor pup. Eventually, it decides to escape: it glides into the water, disappears under the ice, and we never see its little head again. The mother seal continues to swim by, and will probably never know the grim fate of her pup. We now spot two polar bears, not far from the glacier wall, and while watching them through binoculars, one of them mounts the other. We have turned into voyeurs: we watch the mating process of two polar bears in their huge bedroom. The process goes on for hours, and when we come back from dinner, they are still enjoying themselves. We have all the time of the world to watch, and when they finally decide they had enough, they move on, and catch a seal. We now watch how they devour the animal, how they clean their bloody heads, and how the birds are patiently waiting for them to finish, so they can pick on the leftovers. An arctic fox runs across the enormous ice field. A spectacular evening! We would not know we would be back here in more than a week for an even more spectacular day.
A short knock on the door wakes us up: "Polar bears!", followed, a few seconds later, by "Zodiacs!". After sailing around the south of Spitsbergen, nearing the end of our expedition with our heads full of unforgettable images of stunning arctic landscapes, polar bears in the distance, arctic foxes, beluga whales, glacier, icebergs and much more, we are back at Ekmanfjorden. Excitement runs through my veins as I quickly dress up in the special suit that should keep me warm for hours. When we are out on deck, one of the guides points towards the fast ice where a polar bear has just caught a seal and is in the process of finding a proper place to eat his fatty breakfast. The arctic beast is pretty far, like we have seen others before, but the difference is that we now, finally, will go closer in the zodiacs. We impatiently wait for the zodiacs to be in the water, and then set off for the edge of the ice. Cameras click constantly as we make our way through the icy water, with pieces of ice floating everywhere. When we reach the ice edge, the motion of the zodiac gone, we get a better view. The bear is still quite young, and seems to play with the seal, taking long breaks between eating frenzies. He drags the carcass around, puts it in the water, cleans itself as well, and then continues. All the while, a group of glaucous gulls is watching the bear. They know that, eventually, the bear will leave the carcass alone, probably leaving chunks of meat as well. Polar bears are mostly interested in the blubber of the seals. It is May, and they are now trying to eat as much fat as possible before the summer makes hunting seals more difficult. I try not only to look at the scene through my lens, but also take the camera away to see the bigger picture, and enjoy these special moments. To my surprise, the others decide they want to go back to the ship for breakfast and a rest, and I am surprised to find that I am allowed to stay behind with one of the guides in the only zodiac that will stay behind.
With total silence around us now, the guide and I are much more into the scene that is unfolding right before our eyes. The polar bear is never really idle. It walks up and down, drags the carcass, then somehow thinks the carcass is still alive and jumps on it like crazy to make sure it is dead. It takes the carcass into the water again. Leaves it lying on the ice, while it dips into a waterhole, lying on its back, playing like it were a hot tub while the gulls cautiously move closer to the remains of the seal. Then, we see a big adult polar bear approach from a distance. It moves quite fast across the white world of snow and ice, and accelerates into a full run. All this energy, just to chase the younger bear away from the area he has been using ever since he killed and ate the seal - the remains of which are still being chewed upon by the gulls. The young bear gets the message, and sprints away, the big male is satisfied with this assertion of his power, and stands still. Things seem to be calmer now, but then, the younger polar bear starts walking our way, jumping effortlessly from one piece of floating ice to the next, until I need to zoom out, and wonder how close this beast actually is. When I take my camera off my eye, I am surprised to find it at a short distance. When we look back, we see that the pieces of ice through which we have driven to be as close to the bear as possible, have been pushed together by wind and current, effectively blocking our escape route. The guides discuss who will shoot the bear if necessary, while we wait to see what the animal will do next. While it looked like a small one next to the adult, it now appears like a mighty strong bear. It walks by, and then lies on a chunk of ice. We now make our way out of the ice, and while doing so, see how the bear swims around a basking walrus with her pup, and attacks it from behind. Surprising, given that it has just devoured a seal. The mother quickly pushes her youngster into the water before gliding in herself. Even before reaching the lumpy animal, the bear hesitates - rightly so, as the tusks can do major damage. We follow the bear until we see it frolic in the snow. Its furry belly gets exposed, its enormous claws are now visible, and whenever it yawns, its big teeth come clear. A true king of the arctic! Later that fantastic afternoon, we are back in the zodiacs, and follow the male bear walking the coastline, through deep snow, skidding down slopes, lit by backlight in gullies, walking a ledge full of icicles. It has been numbered: a big 27 painted on its lower back. Polar bears are endangered and protected, and efforts are being made to keep track of them. When it eventually climbs a steep slope, again showing its surprising agility on the terrain it is made for, we return to the ship, full of fantastic memories that will probably last a lifetime.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Ekmanfjorden (Svalbard and Jan Mayen). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Ekmanfjorden.
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