Polar paws

There are two types of polar paws on Svalbard: those of the arctic fox and the polar bear.

I find bears interesting, possibly because we don’t have any in Australia (no, a koala is not a bear),  so I can’t get up close and personal with one to see it where it lives. Not that that’s advisable – years ago I was visiting the fabulous Yosemite National Park in the United States with an American friend, and naively expressed a wish to see a bear (along with other non-Australian animals, like deer, squirrels, beavers …).  She said, “No, you really don’t!” and proceeded to tell me why (the most compelling reason being that we didn’t want to be bear lunch and that was a distinct possibility if we saw one – or it saw us).

Eight species of bear are recognised: Asiatic bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), brown (aka grizzly) bear (Ursus arctos) and polar bear (Ursus maritimus). There’s also a grizzly/polar bear hybrid, but it’s not counted as a separate species.

I’d seen a few bears in zoos (sun, grizzly, polar), but it’s far better to see them in the wild (safely, for both bears and humans) as an animal cannot really be understood when it’s separated from its native landscape. When I at last saw a real, live polar bear in its homeland of the Arctic, this was forcefully impressed on me. Despite the harshness of its Arctic lifestyle, the polar bear looked so comfortable, so right in its place, limber and full of grace and power. This young female bear was doing what all bears do – wandering the sea ice in search of live seals, or, on land, washed-up whale coprses on the shore. (When our chance encounter with a polar bear happened, my camera decided to spit the dummy, but Bruce Moore has kindly allowed me to show his photos.)

Polar bears endlessly patrol the ice in search of food, even in the harsh conditions of very sub-zero temperatures, winter storms and 24-hour darkness.


Although they are excellent swimmers. they keep out of the water when they can, to avoid getting too cold.

Even in the harshest of winter storms, only the females with cubs will be comfy in a deep den – the others have to dig a spot to lie in and settle down to let storms rage over them, and they have to roam to find food whatever the weather. They need about one ringed seal a week to keep in condition. Mothers with cubs hibernate through winter and use their own body fat reserves so they don’t have to hunt through the four or five months of harshest part of the year. They are very hungry when they come out of the den.

Intelligent, aware and adapted to its environment …

Polar bears are actually classified as marine mammals, because they spend most of their lives in (they are very good swimmers) or on water (in its ice form).

After she missed catching the seal, she turned her attention to the big ship nearby.

Cold is not really a problem for them as they have a thick layer of blubber and black skin that absorbs the sun’s warmth. The fur, too, is specialised – it’s actually transparent so that sunlight can penetrate to the skin for warmth, and had two layers so that air is trapped for insulation. It looks white (actually a cream colour), the perfect camouflage, because of the way light is reflected off it.

Polar bears have an excellent sense of smell – they can detect prey up to a kilometre away. They can also detect a seal in the water beneath a metre of ice and compacted snow. They have a kind of home territory but don’t defend it as such – the timing and place of appearance of food is so variable that there’s no point. They mostly wander on their own but can be more sociable when there’s plenty of food about.

“Our” bear saw a seal in the distance resting on a floe, and sneaked her way via ice and water so very, very close. At the last minute she charged, but the seal was faster and dived into the water. Polar bears are good learners, so she would have stored that experience away for next time. After she got out of the water, she spent several minutes rolling on the ice to dry off her fur, so that she wouldn’t get too cold (air between the hairs is a much better insulator than water). Cuteness overload ensued!

After hanging around the ship for about half an hour, she finally decided she was on a hiding to nothing, so strolled off. There is a myth that polar bears outnumber people in Svalbard, but in reality there are only about 270. It was such a privilege to se one of them.

Walruses, seals and a polar bear, oh my!

Walruses rule!

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 walruses came up very close to us. One even poked a zodiac with its tusks.

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.

You can see the steam coming off their bodies

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.

Arctic terns hovered, possibly looking for fish disturbed by swimming walruses.

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.

Rolling to get rid of cold water in the fur; photo by Janet Spillman

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!

Hmm, there’s a big white ship smelling of humans over there; photo by Janet Spillman

I’m just like those cute fluffy toys – won’t you come play with me?; photo by Janet Spillman

I’m mostly harmless, really I am; photo by Janet Spillman

Ah, what the heck – I give up!; photo by Janet Spillman


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.







Longyearbyen graffiti – the most northerly graffiti in the world?

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.

Bearded seals

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.

Next post will be on Arctic birds.