How I Saw my First Wild Polar Bear

Rachel Nonoo

22 Jun 2016

Seeing a Powerful Predator in the Flesh...

We’d been in the Arctic for a few days, and today rather than searching for bears or watching out for narwhal on the floe edge, we’d decided to check out the ‘bird cliff’. Above me, thousands of kittewakes and murres were perched on the cliff, some mating, some performing possibly the most bizarre fighting ritual I have ever seen, pecking and squawking at each other until they hit the ground, then flying to the same spot half way up the cliff to do it all over again.

We spotted some polar bear footprints and our guide told us they were fresh, but I must admit part of me was thinking ‘yeah right, there is no way I’d be one of the lucky people to actually see a polar bear in the wild’. Then he just disappeared, so we carried on exploring the cliff, getting as close as we could to the birds without disturbing them and clambering over ice cracks in the biggest boots I have ever worn (the insides of which were akin to walking on a duvet).

Yeah right, there is no way I will be one of the lucky few to see a wild polar bear...

But then, he’s back, hushing us to silence and gesturing for us to get into single file, pointing to the flat icy plains beyond which, to me, looked totally empty – until I looked through the binoculars. Any there it was, an actual real polar bear lying on the ice over a seal hole, presumably waiting for lunch to leap into its mouth, and next to it no less than two polar bear cubs. Even from this distance, their presence was heart-stopping and I started planning my escape route, just in case…however, I now fund myself crouched in single file awkwardly walking towards this massive predator and her two sons, of which neither were cute and cuddly looking, but absolutely massive in size and starting to notice us. Their heads had perked up and they appeared to look straight into the lens of my binoculars where I stood, and they slowly started to walk towards us. I looked around and no one else seemed to be panicking so my sense of safety was restored as I watched them, the distance between us decreasing until their mother rounded them up, and presumably telling them that we taste no good and that they should get back to the seal hole.

After the cubs had done this twice, the mother called them away and they walked off into the distance, clambering a small (from this distance anyway) iceberg and using it as a look out on the way.

Once they had disappeared beyond the horizon, I felt the tension release from my shoulders and a real sense of ‘how long have we been watching them for?’ We made our way back to the cliffs totally in awe of what we had just seen, not even needing to explain to each other how amazing it was. This group of less than ten people, in the middle of the Arctic, on ice just metres deep, out of their comfort zone, just saw three polar bears in the wild. How amazing is that. I’d love to hear about anyone else’s experience with polar bears in the wild, please share with me.

If you’d like to go and find polar bears for yourself there are so many ways to see them, from cruise expeditions in Svalbard, to luxury lodges in Churchill and camping on the floe edge of Bylot Island (like me). Get in touch with us and we can design the perfect polar bear experience and journey into the extraordinary.

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