A polar bear attacks: Pyramiden’s shadow (part 4)

This was not going to end well for the seal. Or for the seal-enthusiast.

A pyramid-shaped mountain soon loomed at the end of the fjord, the namesake of the dilapidated Russian mining town of Pyramiden at its foot.

Staring across the water the face of Nordenskiöld, the biggest glacier in the archipelago, 11 kilometres wide and 22 long.

Adding to the ambience it now started to snow. Large wet flakes coloured by sunbeams that pierced the low clouds, and made the water, cliffs and ice shimmer. It was a majestic scene entirely unbefitting of warm tinned beer.

When looking for polar bears, the trick to remember is they are not actually white, but a more egg-shell yellow. Another trick? Look for the prey. Where the food is, the bears are.

Three yellowish humps by the shoreline turned out to be more belugas. These are usually fascinating animals, especially when seconded on covert operations for the Russian military; but right now they were getting boring.

We pulled out from the glacier and headed towards a solitary bearded seal on an ice float.

From 50 metres we watched it, motionless on the ice, while the captain steered the boat closer for a better vantage point. The seal photographer excitedly clicked away with her enormous camera, while Yvonne made-do holding the binoculars up to her iPhone.

In my enthusiasm for seeing a seal with a red beard (us gingers must stick together), At first did not realise something else was afoot. A commotion was stirring on board.

The ice was empty except for the seal. Was it just another beluga?

Then sure enough, a small ripple in the water behind some small blocks of floating ice. Two ears and a nose. Definitely a bear. And she too was positioning for a closer look at the seal.

Having seen my fair share of polar bear clips on YouTube, I realised with a chill the bear was stalking the seal.

I recalled the narration of the video: “The polar bear can hold his breath for minutes. And calculate the seal’s exact position.”

Essentially, in this text book move, the polar bear sneaks up invisibly behind the seal’s float ice, dives underneath, then jumps up in front and grabs it. Text-book ninja.

This was not going to end well for the seal. Or for the seal-enthusiast, who’s mega lens had basically deposited her alongside it on the ice float.

The seal looked out towards us with baleful eyes. “Behind you!” I wanted to shout, but my voice had died to a whisper and my legs were shaking uncontrollably.

It might have been due to the excitement, but I suspect it was more likely the primal fear of being in the vicinity of an 800kg apex predator, and the unbearable tension as we awaited the hapless seal to be hastily whipped into a carpaccio.

And, to be fair, I also wanted to see that kill.

The bear slipped under the ice float, and held its breath for at least 30 seconds, as did we.

When it did leap out, it was paws first, clawing for the seal. Where was the damned thing? It had slipped off into the relative safety of water with split-second timing.

The bear dived down again, another 20 seconds under, then resurfaced. There was no red mist in the water. The bear shook its head. Missed.

What happens now? We stayed looking at the scene, the guide as ecstatic as we were to have witnessed such an attack.

Not many tourists will admit it, but for most, seeing a bear means a yellow speck in the distance, or else a dead one stuffed in a ferocious pose in an anodyne setting such as the post office. 

Given the excitement, I’m not sure at which point we realised the bear had resurfaced from under the ice, and was casually swimming towards us.

Polar bears spend most of their time in the water, and have been known to swim more than 500 km in one go. That’s going to become useful once all the world’s sea ice melts forever, and they’ll need to reach France in order to feed.

In short, they might look cute and ungainly, but they’re incredible adept in the water.

There’s a neural phenomenon that in moments of stress your brain shuts down its audio intake, concentrating on visual stimulation only. And so it was I only dimly became aware the guide had started to yell loudly, in Norwegian, to the bear.

Seen through the lens of my iPhone, the bear was still about 400 metres away. Which means it was actually only 30.

“Stop, hey bear, stop.” At this time of year, the shore ice is breaking up, leaving many small ice floats in the water. These are perilous for the engines of small boats. If the skipper is not careful, the boat can get blocked in.

She yelled to the captain: “Start the engine. Let’s go.”

The bear continued its improbable doggy paddle towards us. Our boat was about 12 metres long and had room for 12 passengers and 2 crew. Accommodating a bear would be tricky, but not impossible.

The engine kicked into life, and we did not delay any further in reaching the open water of the fjord. The bear looked at us, shook her head again, and swam to shore.

As we headed home, the bear shrinking into the distance and now preoccupied with rolling in the snow, to our right the bearded seal had resurfaced. Nonchalant once more on the ice. 



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