by Sandor Carter
There is always a wonderful sense of trepidation when you set out on a new adventure, the anticipation of what might be. Those feelings and more were on high alert as we motored slowly through a light fog, along the coast of Barter Island in search of the world’s largest land carnivore and the apex Arctic predator, Ursus Maritimus, the polar bear.
We were four degrees inside the Arctic Circle, three men in a small boat, looking for an animal that could be bigger than our zodiac and likes to swim. Like any proper safari, the quality of experience is down to the quality of ones guide and in this case I had two of the best, a legendary Inupiaq hunter and a highly experienced Arctic expedition guide. We had just rounded a small bay, the sun was beginning to burn off the fog and there they were, a mother on the shore and two sub adults playing in the water, my first polar bears. Memories of Fox’s glacier mints came rushing back but it does not matter how many impressions you have or documentaries you watch, nothing can prepare you for the sheer size of a polar bear. An adult male can be 9 feet long and weigh 600kgs (1,300lbs), that’s the size of a Cape buffalo, only with teeth. We spent over an hour watching these bears and three things stood out and surprised me. Firstly, they’re not white, more of a yellowy colour, in fact their hair is almost transparent and reflects light hence them appearing so white on the ice. Secondly, and this should not be surprising but I was charmed by how tactile they were, the youngsters roughhousing, just like young lions do. Finally, I was astounded by their ability to stay in the water for such long periods of time. I had been told that if I were to fall in I would have three minutes before I probably expired and yet I watched these young bears playing and wrestling in the water for the best part of an hour.
It is hard to get an accurate number for the population of polar bears but most figures lean towards 20,000. That seems like a lot but the big issue is that their home is disappearing. Here’s the problem. Polar bears hunt seals off the sea ice and when the ice melts they generally stay on land and live off their fat reserves until the ice returns. Now the shrinking sea ice may just be part of the global cycle but right now, it is shrinking, that’s a fact. If the ice melts early and freezes late then the bears, ipso facto, starve.
Of course the two young bears in front of me were blissfully unaware of their predicament and continued what was obviously a great game, under the watchful eye of their mother. That is until they got bored, when they shifted their attention in our direction and began swimming towards our boat – which was starting to look small again - at which point we left. As a wildlife guide I know when something is extraordinary and what I had just seen was world-class.