After another sleepless night, my morning coffee on the bridge, and breakfast with my fellow Fellows and our naturalist mentor Karen Copeland, I was ready for a morning excursion!
We were anchored at Rosenbergdallen, a broad valley at the northwestern corner of Edgoya island. Hikes promised to be quite scenic with the chance of reindeer encounters. However, the waters were calm enough for kayaking, and I could not pass up the chance to paddle in the high Arctic. Ellen decided she wanted to hike, but Aimee was game to share a kayak with me.
I stepped out on deck on the port side and looked out. It was truly like I had woken up in a different world. In every direction, ice floes of all sizes dotted the sea surface like scrambled white puzzle pieces. I crossed to the starboard side and looked down. An ice bear looked up at me and I was too stunned to grab my camera. The bear's dark eyes held my gaze for a moment and then scanned the ship. By now, the bow below was filled with guests, who pointed lenses of all sizes at the bear. Our ship was not moving, but I watched as the bear moved closer to us. This bear was curious!
The naturalists have shared so much about polar bear biology and how well these bears are adapted to their cold Arctic environment. This particular bear was definitely a more healthy weight. Thick fur, a tough hide, and a layer of subcutaneous fat (blubber) insulates against the frigid air and sea temperatures and acts as an energy store for summer fasting periods. Polar bears are known to be excellent swimmers, powerfully moving through the water with their paddle-like paws. Observing this bear made clear the ease with which bears move between water and ice. I watched the bear use its sharp claws grip ice floes to pull itself up.
This polar bear's coat appeared bright white, though a yellowish coat is most common. This color obviously camouflages the animal on the ice, and I can attest that the bears are very difficult to spot! The hair follicles of the coat are actually clear and hollow. Hollow fur transmits the sunlight (much like a fiber optic thread conducts light) to the black skin underneath, where it is absorbed as heat.
Polar bears do not hibernate, but they are able to adjust their metabolic rates depending on the availability of food. However, female bears do slow down for pregnancy, birth, and nursing in the cozy confines of a winter den they dig in the snow. Generally, females mate on the ice during the early spring but can delay implantation until they successfully den.
Perhaps this female bear has already mated and will give birth in the winter. Maybe, as the sunlight returns, she will nudge her cubs, now large enough to trek, out of the den and begin teaching them about life on the ice and how to hunt seals. I can only hope this and other bears continue to have the ice they need. Their survival depends on it.
All photographs by Cristina Veresan unless otherwise indicated.
Read the Lindblad Naturalist Daily Expedition Report (DER) here.