Bear family 2

Good morning, and what a morning it is! We’re in amongst the islands of the Franz Josef Land archipelago at the moment, and after a nasty gale the weather has cleared. Now we’re cruising slowly through the ice-locked islands under blue skies, high clouds and in a light breeze. It’s spectacular!

Polar Bear Info

The islands here are still beset with ‘fast ice’; the solid remnants of winter’s deep-freeze, and we’re cutting a swathe as we go. It’s fascinating watching the bow wave of the ship moving through the ice, which flexes and warps almost like a sheet of rubber as we go. It’s almost hypnotic. The ice of course cracks as we move through it, and so our broken wake is wider where the floes are thicker. Here, although the ice is still frozen ‘fast’ to the land, it’s thinner and is starting to decay under the summer sun. Everywhere we look seals are hauled out on the frozen sea, basking in the sunshine. They look like tiny black sausages, scattered around the shimmering surface of the ice; Polar bear snacks laid out on the world’s biggest dinner plate! Where you find ice and seals, you’ll find bears, and in fact we just watched an adult female polar bear hunting by a seal hole, waiting patiently as her single cub sat obediently behind her, neither moving or calling. It’s all about patience for the bears… They spend their entire lives waiting it seems: during the hunting season, when the ice is present, they wait by breathing holes, hoping for a seal. Then, after the ice has melted away, these huge, powerful animals head for shore and wait some more, patiently counting the days, weeks and months until the winter brings the ice back and they can once again resume their hunting. These bears take patience to a whole new level. They’d make great Buddhists!

Bear on ice

We watched this bear hunt for a good while, but it didn’t have any luck this morning. We didn’t intrude or approach, but left the way we’d come. The bear didn’t feel compelled to come closer to us either, and that’s fine by me, as the less comfortable bears are with people, the better. Close interactions between polar bears and humans rarely end well for both parties, and in most cases end particularly badly for the bear, which in reality is likely to be shot. Avoiding ‘bad interactions’ with bears is a very important part of what we do up here as a tourist outfit. We categorically never feed bears, or attempt to lure them with food, as any association a bear develops between food and people is likely to end in a death, most often the bears.  Something else we work very hard to prevent, is to worry bears. If we scare a polar bear it’s most likely to run away. This might not seem like that big a deal, but it is. At the very least we might interrupt a hunt, possibly leading to starvation for the bear. The more immediate risk though is that polar bears aren’t built to run. They’re built to swim and, whilst on land, to wait. Polar bears can move very quickly, but their main hunting technique is to sit by the edge of a seal breathing hole and wait, sometimes quite literally for days on end. When a seal comes up to breathe the bear snatches it with its meat hook-like claws, hauls it out and dispatches it, normally with a bite to the head. If you make a bear run over long distances you may kill it through heat exhaustion. Polar bears are so well insulated by fat and fur that even comparatively short bouts of exertion can cause them to overheat quickly. Imagine running a 400m race on a summer’s day wearing thermal underwear, a woolly jumper and a down jacket… That’s how a polar bear would feel if you made it run for one kilometre over the frozen ocean, even with air temperatures around zero degrees Celsius.

Bear family

The Franz Josef Land area is thought to support a population of around 3,000 bears, which is a fairly high density. Once in the sea ice you see tracks all over the place, even sometimes many hundreds of miles from land. Being heavy animals, the bears leave deep tracks, especially in the softer ice which melts under the persistent summer sun. So, even after fresh snowfalls old tracks stick out quite clearly. We pass then continuously. But, don’t be tempted to try and follow the tracks with the eye, not in broken drift ice anyway, for individual ice floes are continuously moving with the currents, colliding, rotating and shifting. So, like some kind of icy, two-dimensional Rubix cube, tracks become disjointed and more often than not lead nowhere. Still, they’re fun to see, and it’s a nice reminder that life is all around us!

So, this story of the bears leads quite nicely into some questions that the RSGS sent me recently, one of which was about how and why we keep ‘polar bear watch’ from the bridge of the ship. I’ll list the questions below and answer each one as best I can. I hope the answers are interesting, and please, if anyone has any other questions about anything we do up here, let someone at the RSGS know and they can email me. I’ll do what I can to answer.

Bear with blood on face


Q & A:

1: “Have you seen a decline in the number of polar bears in recent years?”

This is an interesting question, and the answer isn’t straight-forward. I personally work all over the Arctic, from Svalbard to Greenland, the far north of Canada and, of course, here in the Russian Arctic. Polar bear populations vary from place to place, and it is very hard to say unless working in the same spot year on year. This year is my second in Franz Josef Land, and we have actually seen a lot more bears this year than last year, even just in the short time since the season began. There seem to be a lot around these islands. But, I know from speaking to the Russian National Park officers who are with us that there were two very bad ice years in 2012 and 2013, and bear populations suffered then because without ice they cannot hunt properly. The apparent increase this year might be a delayed response to the improved ice conditions in 2014.

So, from my perspective… I really don’t have the experience to give an authoritative opinion, but there seem to be a lot around this area.

2: “What are the reasons for ‘polar bear watch’?

We keep a polar bear spotter on the bridge of the ship at all times. This is important for several reasons. The first is that as a tourism operator, we want to be able to show bears to the passengers. Seeing bears is one of the main reasons people come on ships like this one, and we want to help people achieve their objectives. Of course, passengers can spot bears too, but a piece of yellow ice can look a LOT like a bear, and there is a LOT of yellow ice on account of the abundant algae which grown here. So, we keep staff on the bridge to try and maximise our chances of seeing bears. Of course the Russian crew are also excellent bear spotters.

Secondly, if we are planning on leaving the ship, either to walk on the ice or land on an island etc,  we need to be comfortable that there are no bears around. We never, ever want to be ashore with a bear. This could end very badly, either for us or the bear, as I described earlier in this blog. So, it is absolutely essential to keep a lookout to reduce the chances of stumbling across a hungry bear. Of course it sometimes still happens, as bears can be hard to spot, and also move surprisingly rapidly. Fortunately, in my time in this industry (almost four years now) there haven’t been any ‘incidents’. Flares have been fired to scare off bears which appeared unexpectedly, and one warning shot was fired last year, but no injuries to either people or bears, thankfully. This really is SUCH a big deal for what we do, and we would be absolutely devastated if a bear was to be killed as a result of our activities here. It is what we work very, VERY hard to prevent, and so keeping a good lookout from the ship is an important part of that.

Thirdly, we have on board with us four Russian Arctic National Park officers from Arkhangelsk, whose job it is to oversee what we do, help educate our passengers about the Russian Arctic and to study the wildlife whilst here with us. They keep careful records of what we see and where we see it, so watching for bears and monitoring their numbers is a big part of what they do.

So, there you have it. We look for bears for sightseeing, for safety AND scientific research purposes. Essentially, we cover as many bases as we can, and all it takes is a good set of eyes and some decent binoculars. Oh, and time as well.

3: “What is a ‘Zodiac’ that you mention, and why is it dangerous?”

A ‘Zodiac’ is an inflatable power boat. The company, ‘Zodiac’, is French, but there are lots of other brands of course. Zodiac seem to be the most robust though, and so almost everyone in the polar regions expedition world uses them. It’s become an industry term for any inflatable really.

We normally use the Zodiacs to get people ashore, and also to go on safari ‘drives’, what we call ‘Zodiac cruises’. Up here however, there’s normally waaaaay too much sea ice to launch the Zodiacs though, so most of our off-ship operations are conducted with the helicopter. Pretty much everywhere else we work though e.g. the Antarctic Peninsular region, Greenland, Canada Zodiacs are our daily workhorses. They’re very tough and very safe, for the most part, but like any activities in remote areas or anywhere on the ocean, they can be a dangerous environment if people aren’t prepared or properly briefed. I’m a qualified powerboat handler, as are most of our staff, but passengers very often have no experience on the water, so we have to be very careful to brief everyone and be vigilant whilst ferrying people around, especially as water temperatures are usually around zero degrees, and weather can change VERY quickly. For us drivers though that can be great fun!

4: “What luxury items do you take with you to sea?”

Ha! Good question! Funnily enough this season I didn’t bring much at all! The one item I did bring from home was a bag of Tetley tea bags, as Brittish ‘builder’s tea’ can be really hard to find overseas! So, that’s my one ‘luxury item’ for this Arctic season. Normally though, in Antarctica, I get a bit more creative. We usually have at least one stop in Stanley (Falkland Islands) and I make sure to stock up on UK stuff while we’re there. My top five items are: British beers (dark ales are especially hard to get outside the UK), Tunnocks caramel wafer biscuits, Irn Bru, milk (it tastes different in foreign countries!) and, believe it or not… tinned haggis. Yes, I LOVE haggis!

To be fair, we’re pretty well looked after on these ships. You don’t really need anything, but tastes of home go a long way toward morale. On the 50 Years of Victory, we’re especially lucky as almost all large Russian vessels are kitted out with a sauna and swimming pool. It’s a big part of

Russian culture, spending time in the sauna, or ‘banya’ as they call it. Believe me, an indoor swimming pool, on an icebreaker, moving through thick ice, when the pool is below the waterline… It’s one of the most surreal swimming experiences you’re ever likely to have. The vibrations and the noise REALLY carry underwater. I’ll make a video for you.

5: “Do you have huskies aboard?”

No, no huskies aboard. We never have dogs on the ships. In fact, dogs are illegal in the Antarctic (where we work during the ‘other’ half of the year) as they are considered ‘biological pollution’. We do however encounter huskies ashore, especially in Greenland, where they are a huge part of the Inuit way of life. All of our shore operations and travel are done on foot, armed of course, in case of polar bears.

6: “How much do people pay to be on board?”

It varies, and I don’t know the details, but I understand that for a berth on this North Pole trip passengers pay a minimum of 25,000 US Dollars. This is the most expensive single trip we run, by quite a long way.

I hope all of these answers are interesting! I’ve got to go now, as I’m on helicopter ground crew duty very soon. Time to get saturated with jet fumes!

A big wave from the freezer! Cheers! Colin