Lorna Polar Bear

A Tale of Three Bears

Natural World Safaris

Liz Stagg

11 Aug 2022

A Tale of three bears

It has been three long years since I got my passport out and boarded a plane. I was excited and nervous, at the same time. On my return, a friend said I must have felt like a bird that got its wings.

As we set out aboard Kinfish our expedition leaders, Hadleigh and Mats, had decided to head west, out of Isfjorden and then north. No gentle pottering to get our sea legs, they were on a mission, with our best interests at heart. We headed out to the open sea: to go via Forlandsundet would have meant waiting four hours for high water to allow Kinfish to safely navigate the channel.

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We did a long overnight passage in a lumpy sea to reach Sorgattet and Smeerenbergfjord or ‘blubber’ fjord, in the northwest, where Dutch whalers hunted bowhead whales nearly to extinction.

In Fugelfjorden we clambered into zodiacs, wearing our floatation suits for the first time. The cold winds blew down off the Smitjodbreen glacier.  In the evening, in Indre Norskoya, we were able to watch two polar bears feasting on a whale carcass. The whale had probably been crushed in the pack ice and the carcass washed ashore. The bears, with their powerful sense of smell, could detect it from several miles away. 

As food was in abundance there was no fighting or even bickering. They had worked out their ‘pecking order’ and took it in turns to feed. One bear ate its fill of blubber and wandered off to digest. The second bear came to feed on the glistening pile, tearing at it to get a mouthful. It was wonderful to see the bears with access to a very plentiful food source, displaying so many natural behaviours – feeding, licking their paws clean, then climbing over the rocks and scraping out a shallow sleeping den in the deep snow on the hillside. Two bears, interacting with each other and in frame is extra special. A third bear appeared the following day to join in the feast.

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I love a collective noun and discover that the collective noun for polar bears is an ‘aurora’. Do three bears make an aurora I wonder? It was a sighting which was all about bear behaviour and we were privileged to be there to witness it.

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We stayed at anchor in Fugelfjorden and in the morning went back to see the bears, still feeding on the diminishing pile of blubber.

In Hamiltonbukta the fog had descended so we headed to Raudfjord. There’s no fixed itinerary with the small ships – it’s all about where the ice is and what the weather is forecast to do. Although the fog remained it was a magical day, we cruised in zodiacs under a low, misty, pale grey sky. It was ethereal, gliding gently, transported to another world. Shapes in ice, sculpted by wind and sea, emerged from the soft grey mist, firing my imagination. When visibility is low the sounds have a greater impact – crackling, popping glacial ice, sploshing water and raucous bird cries – making the music of the Arctic.

Just to add to the ‘aurora’, a fourth bear was spotted on a drifting ice floe. The bear was looking for a meal, moving in and out of sight from our low vantage point in the zodiacs. This was a lovely sighting, a cream coloured bear on ice, with a majestic mountain rising from the fjord.

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We landed to walk to a walrus haul out on the shore at Gullybukta. Arctic terns, with their camouflaged ground nests nearby, skittered around, protectively attacking should anyone get a bit too close. Despite their aggression they look like angels on the wing.

Walrus can be curious and cantankerous. Most of the huddle were asleep on the beach but a few flopped into the water to come and look at the strange creatures who had landed in their vicinity. Their tusks serve as hooks, helping them haul their mass of blubber over the sand but also provide weapons. Their thick skin bears the signs of past battles.

We had the opportunity to walk to the kittiwake and Brunnich’s guillemot nesting cliffs at Ossian Sarsfjellet. An Arctic fox had been snacking on an egg, stolen from the vertiginous colony. The turquoise shell lay empty and abandoned as the fox ran up the hillside – a flash of white fur, its winter coat still in place, for now.

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Kinfish was moored to the fast ice in the bay at Samarinvegen, using ice anchors. It provided a tranquil overnight stop ahead of our short walk on the ice. The ice was covered with puddles and narrow cracks which lead your eye to the shore.

Much further south, in Hornsund we landed at Gnalodden bird cliffs, rising steeply from the tundra which at this time of year is carpeted with purple saxifrage – the first flower to bloom in Svalbard’s short summer. An old trapper’s hut remains, reminding us of the history and survival measures needed here.

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A herd of Svalbard reindeer, who had dared to graze too close to the skuas’ nest, were attacked.  The skua, with its beak wide open, tore chunks of fur off and pecked at their backs. I’ve never seen reindeer move so fast.

We celebrated our sightings and, for some, a newfound love of the Arctic, with a cocktail at the Captain’s dinner which was a joyful occasion except that it marked the end of the trip.

Thank you to Captain Rickard, Hadleigh & Mats, Andy Mann, all the lovely crew and fellow passengers for another wonderful adventure up in the icescapes of Svalbard. I have a feeling I’ll be back. I know I’ve said that before, but I’ve joined the AA ‘Addicted to the Arctic’ club.

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