Polar Bear Sighting, Svalbard

Jun 10, 2018 - National Geographic Explorer


It’s just a small dot on the horizon, but a significant one—a slightly different kind of white smudge against a uniformly icy landscape. And yet it moved, steadily, closer, bigger. Our minds tried to make sense of what our eyes were seeing, struggling to comprehend what we know is something so much more than just a growing collection of pixels on our camera screens. Closer and closer it approached. Then we could see it without the aid of our trusty lenses and binoculars: powerful limbs strode towards us, carrying that massive body of fur, fat, and muscle over the ice, easily stepping over gaps. There is a certain unmistakable confidence in the way this animal covers ground, a surety of foot, and an innate ability to discern which route to take. A shattered myriad of sea ice sheets was pushed together in this flow, as if one utterly gave up before finishing a jigsaw puzzle. As the white bear drew nearer still, we saw that, at times, it would languidly slip into the frigid saltwater gaps, unperturbed by the near-freezing temperatures. Being the largest thing around by far while trying to be stealthy is a tall order, but something that we can relate to as we stared silently from our steel ship that must have filled a considerable portion of the creature’s field of view.

As big and bulky as they are, polar bears must stalk and sneak up on their prey, catching seals unaware lest they slip away into the safety of the depths below. This is tricky work, and even an experienced animal working under ideal conditions will fail more often than not. The diminished and fractured state of the sea ice does not bode well for the bears to find many seals this spring when they depend on this period to put on weight. Yet this individual we saw calmly regarding us still appeared well fed and healthy. He or she calmly regarded us from a distance, causing everyone to peer down over the bow and allowing us a truly rare experience that will remain engrained as a highlight of this voyage. It was a pure moment of awe to be able to encounter such a magnificent beast in its wild and unforgiving habitat at the top of the world.  A single dot on our memory, but a significant one.

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About the Author

Ian Strachan

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

One steady constant in Ian’s life has been the ocean. Born by the rocky shores of mid-coast Maine, his family repatriated to far north Queensland in Australia early on in his life where he became a dual-citizen and sparked his passion for exploring new environments. Living only an hour away from the Great Barrier Reef served to direct, if not focus, the exhilaration of discovery and set him on his current path. Returning to native soil for education, Ian was fascinated by altogether too many subjects, leaving him with a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Psychobiology, focusing on animal behavior and perception, and with minors in Astronomy, History, and Environmental Science.

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