Read time – 3 minutes
Sometimes there comes a day which breaks so many wildlife records that it will be indelibly etched on memory rather than megapixels, one where so many contributory factors combine to produce animal alchemy, a grail from the very top drawer.
Polar Bears in Spitsbergen
Kennedy and Pearl Harbour are dates people remember but burnished onto the memory of one hundred polar disciples is the 1st July; can there really have been such a day? It started fortuitously and just got better. We pawns – insignificant brush strokes across this huge coruscating glacial canvas; the players were Polar bears drawn in by a whale carcass.
From protective mums to gambolling cubs, large males digging out berths like Italian ice-cream sellers scooping out large Neapolitans, to young cubs tumbling into the depths and shaking vigorously from the ignominy of their falls. Bears in front of glaciers, bears route marching and then the touching moment as a mother permitted her young charge to drink from her nutritious optics.
Memory cards were filled quicker than MP’s expense sheets and it was impossible not to feel a ridiculous but understandable ownership of these extraordinary animals. Ursus Maritimus, these were Ursus Maximus, ivory gladiators in a glittering coliseum.
The most precious commodity on any wildlife holiday is time. Time when it matters and today in this land of twenty-four-hour daylight there was time in abundance. Most importantly there was time to put the precision optics down and assess the remarkable highs away from the bears.
Gulls, kittiwakes and terns circling above the whale carcass, vast mountains towering above, a tumbling cobalt-blue glacier groaning in the distance and sea ice crackling like Rice Krispies in a bowl. This was the stage, but before long one’s eyes returned inexorably to the bears as they balanced on an old whale vertebra, carving out the choice cetaceous cuts.
It shouldn’t have got any better, but astonishingly it did as the polar late show threw up three more new bears sashaying across the ice like pneumatic Russian ice maidens bathed in a boreal glow only the privileged, bold few ever get to see. The weather lifted today, the ghostly stygian portals parted to reveal priceless treasures.
This was one of those days; this was one of those expeditions. Today was a selfless gift that kept on giving. We were not even meant to come north on this expedition, we were only going to give this fjord a cursory glance and go out for an hour or so.
Gambles like this one are bold plays; they court disaster yet this flirtation can fortune the brave. This was a power play on epic levels; seldom can there have been Zodiac rides like it. Let’s revisit it again: twelve bears including tiny cubs, one dead whale, two score of glaucous gulls, three dozen fulmars, one troublemaking skua, three terns, two snow buntings and one hundred awe-struck Arcticians.
This was not a cameo on a charcoal-coloured beach or a Churchill vagrant trawling over landfill sites but an extravaganza set in a vast towering amphitheatre with every polar Pantone colour accessible. Just remarkable and no, not normal.
Remember this day; remember it on the train, tube, M25 or North Circular. Remember it when others are describing their tedious holidays and remember it when you talk to your children and then their children. Today was not usual but it was worked for.
Proper work: no line-managing, all-day meetings, nauseatingly patronising PowerPoint presentations or focus groups by coke-fuelled, stripy-shirted consultants, just good honest graft. It paid off. In spades. I am not sure there will ever be a day like this again.
This pilgrimage without a timetable is thankfully not everyone’s cup of tea but fortunately, everyone here has swallowed the ethic whole and benefited accordingly. Around 100 years ago the most famous polar line of all was uttered. In deference, it could have been written for this remarkable day: ‘We’re just going outside, we may be some time.’
View all polar expeditions to Spitsbergen below.