At lunchtime in the Arctic one day (oh, how I like that phrase!), I decided the trip couldn’t get any better – I’d just seen a colony of walruses and was musing on their amazingness. Little did I know what awaited in the afternoon …
Did you know that walrus colonies steam? I didn’t. From afar, as we silently approached in the zodiacs at very low speed so as not to alarm them, we could see clouds rising from the shore above the animals. It was hard to tell how many were in the herd as we could only see them on the near edge, but it might have been hundreds – and they are huge, up to 3.2 metres and 1200-1500 kg! They are thigmotactic, meaning they like to huddle together and touch each other. These were certainly very, err, thiggy – and very curious about us.
Several slid into the water, coming to investigate each boat. We stopped at the prescribed distance, but the walruses hadn’t read the guidebook so just kept coming. The big males here are red on the neck – the blood capillaries are close to the skin’s surface to lose heat. It was about 2 degrees C (in the air, and the same in the water), but they have so much blubber (as insulation from the cold) that when they haul out on land to warm up, they sometimes need to lose built-up heat. The warty lumps on the male necks are called ‘bosses’ or ‘tubercles’, and are thought to be a sign of maleness or old scars from fighting.
Calves are born without tusks, which become visible around the age of two. Some of these had very long tusks, which males use for fighting each other, or fighting off polar bears and orcas (whose menu they are on). They can live up to 40 years.
Walruses dive to the sea floor, using the sensitive whiskers (technically called ‘vibrissae’) to detect mussels. They jet water from their mouths and wave their flippers to uncover the bivalves on the seafloor. The special shape of the mouth allows them to create enough pressure to literally suck the molluscs out of their shells, and if you’ve ever tried to open a live bivalve you’ll know how hard that is.
There’s a bear out there!
While we were having lunch, the ship continued to follow the pack ice to see what we could see. A naturalist was stationed on the bridge at all hours in case of anything interesting popping up. Sure enough, when he called over the intercom, ‘Polar bear to port!’ we all raced up to the top deck.
It was hard at first to get my eye in – a bit like trying to see a bird in a canopy through binoculars. The sheer whiteness and brightness were almost overwhelming, but I finally saw her. I’d been looking for something white, but she was cream. The hairs are actually transparent but the light reflects to get the cream or white effect. The skin is black to help absorb warmth from light.
Can you see the bear in this shot? Then imagine it about twice as far away, because I zoomed in a bit.
She was meandering in a casual fashion, as isbjörnarna (plural of isbjörn, Norwegian for ‘ice bear’) are wont to do, looking totally at home and relaxed. Someone noticed a bearded seal to the right – and it was obvious the bear did, too. We watched in fascination as over the next 15 minutes or so she snuck up on the seal – lunged at the last minute – and missed! Aaargh! At this point my camera decided to malfunction, so I have to rely on my roommate’s photos. (It recovered by the next day.)
After the seal dived into the water, the bear rolled around a bit on the ice to squeeze the water out of her fur. The naturalists estimated she was healthy and 3 or 4 years old, since cubs stay with their mother for 2 years, then go out on their own, and females are thought to start breeding at about 5. They are smart and have flexible behaviour, learning all the while. The most dangerous time for them is when they leave their mother, as they have to learn ‘on the job’, so to speak.
She then noticed us and started over. She stayed for quite a while looking up at us (wistfully? hungrily?), then dived back into the water and swam off. A couple of the naturalists said they hadn’t seen that sort of behaviour before – and she would probably have walked happily up the gangplank if it’d been lowered!
Bears chase down and feed on seals on the ice and, tragically, with the ice diminishing year by year (Svalbard is the fastest warming place on the planet), they are finding it harder and harder to find enough food. Scientists estimate that the Svalbard population will be gone in a couple of decades. It’s sad to think of the possible fate of this lovely isbjörn.
One of the Canadian naturalist crew had a stunning necklace carved from polar bear claw and walrus bone, by Inuit craftsman Greg Morgan. Even if you can afford his carvings, you wouldn’t be allowed to import them into Australia, or even out of Canada.
Another day we saw several of the polar bears’ favourite food – bearded seals. They seemed cool (literally) about us creeping past quietly while they half-dozed in the sun.
Just kidding – we saw only one. They are Antarctic birds.