An Arctic Food Fight

Michael Murray

22 Oct 2018

NWS client Michael discovers that table manners are somewhat lacking in Svalbard...

On our fourth day at sea in Svalbard, we were enjoying coffee and croissants and looking forward to a landing on Kvitøya. Over the tannoy our chief guide told us that he had seen a polar bear with a kill on an iceberg. Our ship had stopped. We had time to finish breakfast and get ready and then we launched the zodiacs.

The weather had been so calm we had deviated from the usual routes, and headed right up to the pack ice. We reached it at the 82nd parallel and were rewarded by the incredible sight of some 2,000 harp seals basking on the ice floes. It was impossible to get close to them. We tried paddling the zodiacs toward the seals, but they are much too wary and just slid into the water.

The sea was still like a mirror so we pressed on to Kvitøya, which is about the most easterly and remote island in the Svalbard Archipelago. Here was our bear!

We approached slowly, our guides ensuring that the bear knew we were there. He looked up briefly but didn’t stop eating. As we got closer we noticed something in the water. It was another bear that had arrived unnoticed by the bear that was feeding on the ice. In no time the second bear had hauled himself onto the ice and went straight for the first bear. He took one look at the size of the second bear which, despite being dripping wet was significantly bigger, and he backed off.

He tried being submissive hoping they might share, but the second bear was having none of it. He wanted him gone. The first bear slipped into the water and from there tried a bit of a rally, but by now he was at a distinct disadvantage and he didn’t try very hard. He swam away unhurt and able to feed another day – and in any event he had had about an hour feeding before the second bear arrived.

The victorious bear was huge. He had a cauliflower ear and scars up the length of his nose. This was clearly not his first fight. He took no notice of us or of the gulls squawking impatiently on the iceberg, waiting for their turn.

The prey had been a bearded seal but it was pretty unrecognisable by the time we got there. The guides identified it by the shape of its tail flippers. There was a surprisingly strong smell. I’ve smelt it before in meat markets, and although fresh, it is still an unpleasant smell. The bear didn’t mind. By this time he had blood all over his snout and paws which he used to hold down the carcass while he tore at it with his teeth.

After about an hour he had finished all he wanted. He stood guard for a moment, then turned, slipped into the icy sea and swam away. The frenzied gulls were ecstatic.

Squabbling and pecking each other, they attacked whatever was left of the carcass with great energy. They too were covered in blood, and as we circled for one last time we could see a skeleton with a distinctive tail flipper, and the ice was returning to its frozen silence.

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