Monday 29 August 2011

Bear City!!

This morning we went Polar Bear watching from the Polar Cirkel boats.  If you’re not jealous, you should be.  It was an incredible experience.  We had heard reports of a whale carcass washed up on shore.  Knowing that whale carcasses attract Polar Bears we decided to investigate.  As we approached the northern shore on Edgeøya in Freemansundet we counted at least thirteen bears!
There was hardly anything left of the whale. Along the shoreline you could see scattered vertebrae, many of them still connected to one another.  There were large jaw and rib bones and other unidentifiable bits of the skeleton. It was a baleen whale but we couldn’t get close enough to tell which species.  That had something to do with the seven Polar Bears in the immediate vicinity of the carcass.  It was much larger than a Minke Whale and smaller than an adult Fin Whale. 
I pictured a scenario where the whale had died at sea from unknown causes.  Eventually it would have bloated and then floated from gases formed in the body cavity.  Then, like all the drift wood in the area, it was probably deposited by currents on this remote beach.
It looked like most of the meat and blubber had been stripped clean, yet these nearly bare bones were still enough to attract at least thirteen Polar Bears.  That tells you something about how little food there is in this area at this time of year for the bears. Most of the bears looked to be in reasonable shape.  There was however, one very skinny adult bear that appeared rather weak. It waited lying submissively near the whale bones. At times it would get up and half-heartedly paw and sniff at the remains.  There didn’t appear to be enough to interest even this starving bear.
Later in the morning a rather plump female bear lumbered down to the beach.  She was wearing a large tracking collar.  She plopped herself down beside part of the carcass resting her head on the vertebrae thereby proclaiming to the other bears in the area, “this is mine.”
Expedition Team getting ready at Kapp Lee
The bears were not bothered by us in the Polar Cirkel boats.  Indeed, they mostly ignored us.  It was unlikely that we were their first visitors.  By 13:00 almost everyone on the ship had seen the bears including many of the crew. 
In the late afternoon we landed at a beautiful spot called Kapp Lee which was further south and west on the Island of Edgeøya. Once again there was the reminder of the extensive hunting that happened in Svalbard.  The area above the beach is littered with old Walrus bones.  On the north end of the beach you could see the tracks in the sand where Walruses had recently been hauled out, perhaps even earlier this same day.
Walrus bones at Kapp Lee
Just above the landing site were three small huts.  One of the huts was in an interesting octagonal shape that had been used by Norwegian trappers. 
View from 279 metres at Kapp Lee
We had the options of going on a short or long hike.  The Expedition Team stressed the importance of walking in single file, especially in the wet muddy areas.  Despite their warnings of the possibility of getting stuck knee deep in the mud, several people wandered off the preferred track and needed rescuing from the sucking sludge.
The long hike continued up a dry, easy slope on the back side of the cliffs of Kapp Lee.  Along the way we could see reindeer grazing on distant slopes and even found several fossil fragments. At the top we had a fantastic view where we gathered for a group photo.  The hike took three hours to complete.  This time, on the way back, everyone made sure to stay in single file through the muddy areas!