After reaching a maximum latitude of 81.25 degrees North, the farthest north National Geographic Endurance has traveled in her time at sea, we spent the night cruising southward toward Nordaustlandet. In the morning, we were greeted with a drastic change of scenery. Expansive, butte-topped sedimentary mountains gave way to long fjords. Here, bits of sea ice came into view as we made our way to Palanderbukta.
We boarded our Zodiacs and headed for land to do some morning exploring. Various groups strolled through geologic time as they encountered Mesozoic-aged carbonate rocks, teeming with life from a previous time. Now in the Arctic desert, these rocks and fossils gave us reminders of how warm and far south Svalbard once was! The keen eyes of the groups found several plant species hiding in the rocky landscape—tufted saxifrage, purple saxifrage, and whitlow grasses. Lichens in bright oranges and greens decorated the rocks shaved away from the glacier’s path. One group encountered a reindeer with a young calf, just two weeks old! Another group found remnants of a polar bear skeleton with its skull, vertebrae, and ribs intact. Its teeth were a clear indication that these apex predators do not feed upon vegetation! An unexpected but wonderful surprise awaited the groups as we made our way back to the shore. We were whisked away in Zodiacs to encounter several walrus swimming in the fjord. We watched in silence as the immense bodies of the walrus entered and exited the water until finally, a big heave signaled it was time for a dive. After a fulfilling morning, we headed happily back to the ship for lunch.
Our original afternoon plan of leisurely cruising was cut short by the best reason of all—polar bears. Word traveled through the bridge of a mother bear and two cubs nearby. Everyone sprang into action to get another Zodiac operation executed in hopes of getting a closer look at the bears. Zodiacs were loaded, layers were donned, and we headed out into the polar afternoon.
By the time we got there, the polar bear family was in the midst of enjoying a seal carcass. An ivory gull hung nearby—another surefire sign that we were in the right place for polar bears. With bellies full of seal, the bears sought a place to get comfortable. They stretched out in a patch of snow, and the bear cubs began to nurse! It was incredible to see a polar bear in her maternal role providing for her two cubs. After the suckling, the three laid down for a nap. The bears slept soundly, readjusting their position every once in a while to keep close to one another. We stared in wonder for quite a while in near silence. The ocean gently lapped at the remnant ice tucked close to the land, icicles extending just above the waterline. Arctic terns flew near the bears, their calls sounding gently in the polar symphony.
As we headed back to the ship, everyone grinned from ear-to-ear with rosy cheeks. Mugs of hot chocolate greeted us and began warming us from head-to-toe. We knew how fortunate we were to be in awe of such Arctic wonder.