Polar Bear Watching in Svalbard – Secret Atlas Guest Story
Polar Bear Watching in Svalbard by Csilla Kiss
I was dreaming of seeing polar bears in their natural habitat and after some research I decided to go to Svalbard on a small cruise in the hope of glimpsing them. Fast forward 2 years and I am on a flight to Longyearbyen. Sitting next to the window granted me the first view of the hilly island, the home of polar bears.
After a few days of discovering Longyearbyen – we embarked the ship with the fellow passengers and sailed off to our course around the island.
While the Svalbard area is home to about 3000 polar bears – the landscape up close looked vast vs what it seemed from the plane and I realized it will be harder to see a polar bear than I thought. The captain’s bridge became our place to look for polar bears and our guides, photographer and even the captain kept scanning the landscape with binoculars.
We learned that polar bears appear yellowish on the sea ice, and to look for them next to ridges on the ice as that’s where their favorite prey, the seals, have their breathing holes.
We broke for dinner and were alerted that a polar bear had been spotted. We grabbed our gear and dressed in layers and headed for the deck where the zodiacs were being put on the water.
We approached the sea ice and watched as pretty far away a mama bear and her cub were eating a seal. Our photography guide Florian recognised the mama bear as Misha – a 17 year old female he had photographed the year before.
We were there for maybe 30 minutes when we spotted another bear – a huge male.
Polar bears have a very keen smell and blubber from the seal is their absolute favorite food. They can smell it from up to 20 miles / 32 km away. The male bear came to steal the food from Misha and the cub.
The mama bear was not happy about this and tried to scare the big male away but he was having none of it and chased her and the cub away. There was a moment you could see that Misha was really worried, she kept nudging the cub with her nose to run faster and away from the male.
He chased them in our direction, giving us an amazing opportunity to shoot the chase and get a few close ups on the cub too.
Later the big bear returned to eat the seal while mama bear and cub settled for a nap in a safe distance from the male.
We also returned to our vessel to warm up and sleep and agreed to check in in the morning. If the bears are still there we return.
Morning could not come fast enough and we learned that the bears are there. We skipped breakfast and went out with the zodiacs in gorgeous sunshine, and perfectly still sea to watch our bears. While we were sitting and adoring the bears 2 new bears popped by.
One of them was courted by the male bear – the event looked like dogs sniffing each other but also the big male allowed the female to eat from the seal carcass – so it seemed like a proper date with dinner too.
During this time, the other bears walked around the sea ice looking for more seals and sometimes going for a swim to cross a broken passage. All their steps were measured, no unnecessary waste of energy yet progressing with an impressive speed. They reminded me of elephants – even when not in hurry their steps are so much bigger than that of a human. This however did not mean that they were graceful in their movements as the below picture is a testament to it.
We also moved around with our zodiacs – granting the bears a bit of privacy from our watchful eyes. We came across an area where we could see the path of a polar bear as it climbed out of water. To be honest – it gave me chills – it felt very real that we are in polar bear territory but obviously there was no bear in sight.
The last bear we met was Grinch – the daughter from Misha.
As a yearling she was chased away by a polar bear last year and by all accounts, she should have died (being too small to survive on its own) but by that time she had learned some unique skills from his mom, which enabled her to survive the winter.
She mastered the skill of hunting a deer – a skill not many polar bears possess. This is also how she got her name – our photographer captured her playing with the food – while eating it – and gave her the name Grinch.
In front of us, Grinch behaved like a goofy teenager. She was playing around in the snow, chased sea gulls, went for a swim and rolled around in the snow.
I feel extremely lucky and grateful to have had a chance to spend a day polar bear watching in Svalbard. Their future is tough with the arctic warming 4x faster than the global average – and sea ice rapidly disappearing – yet bears like Misha and Grinch give hope that they continue to adapt and do it with a content smile on their face.
Csilla joined Secret Atlas on A Natural Wonders of Svalbard Photography Tour in May 2022
If you are interested in finding our more about polar bear watching in Svalbard please read our guide here.