Having spent the night moored silently in the pack ice, we awoke to bright sunlight on the mountains of Spitsbergen’s north coast and the ice-filled ocean around us. Easing our way north-east through the floes, everyone was eagerly scanning the ice for wildlife, and, in particular, for the off-white form of a polar bear blended-in to the white world of the ice. After around three hours of searching, and much to everyone’s delight, we located a polar bear on the ice, several hundred metres ahead of the ship. As we approached it, with the Stockholm gently easing itself through the floes, we came upon the carcass of a narwhal surrounded by a large flock of glaucous gulls as well as a number of ivory gulls and skuas. The bear was some distance from the Narwal, but by its proximity and the telltale, dark blood marks on its face, it had been feeding on it. The bear was an approximately 12-year-old male in reasonable condition, whose very full belly suggested he had eaten a large amount recently. He was lying on the ice, and stood up warily as we approached, before a short distance and making a shallow scrape or ‘day bed’, which he lay down in. A second bear, which was also male and of a similar age and size to the first, was spotted soon after we found the first – he had been lying-down when we first approached him, and had then gone into the water and swum away from us towards the north.
Not long afterwards, the first bear moved back to the narwhal carcass and began feeding again. While doing so it pulled it much further out of the water, giving us a better impression of the size of the animal and of the defining mottled, black pattern of its skin, which distinguishes it from its close cousin, the beluga. The other distinguishing feature, which is the narwhal’s tusk, was not visible as the head was under water, and would not normally have been present anyway if the animal was female.
After leaving the bears, we went south towards the flat plain of Reindyr Flyta, the broad, flat promontory protruding from the north-west coast of Woodfjorden, and separating it from Raudfjorden. As we navigated the ice, with the Stockholm seemingly effortlessly splitting and parting floes, we had good sightings of a bearded seal, and two small groups of walrus. One of them, a young male, appeared to have recently fended-off a polar bear attack, as he had two pairs of puncture marks 30-35cm apart on the left side of his neck, the width of the bite of a polar bear, with the puncture marks having been made by the canine teeth on the upper and lower jaw. Other marks on the right and left shoulder areas of the walrus showed where the bear had latched onto it with its claws cutting-in to the very thick hide of the walrus as it bit into its neck, though the walrus had managed to throw it off, and escape into the water.
By evening, the sky had completely cleared, providing a stark contrast to the jagged, white mountains running along the north coast – sentinels facing silently towards the frozen sea and the North Pole lying only 600 miles across the ice. Later, we beached the front of the ship on the ice, intending to stay there for the night. After another excellent dinner, we got off the ship and stood on the ice, giving us an alternative sense of the vessel and a bear’s-eye view of the ice. Later we had two watches running for the night; one for the security of the ship in case the ice moved or it slipped from where it was beached, and a second to keep a look out for wildlife and for bears coming too close to the ship.