Friday, 9 September 2011

My first Bear, Little Auks and a walk on Smeerenburg

Arctic Tern fishing

This extract is taken from my diary and was written while drinking hot coffee in the bar, glowing with excitement while sailing through the High Arctic.

‘It's sometimes hard to believe where I am, sitting here in the bar, warming myself up after a day spent photographing the beautiful and wild Arctic. A few minutes ago, I was sitting on my ass, face red, having just fallen down in the Zodiac, as the swells buffeted us against our ship, the Akademik Ioffe. We had just been photographing Little Auks at a large nesting colony on the cliffs in the bay. They are real little characters: fat, with beautiful curved eyes, set in a dark brown head, with white eyelids. Real characters. The climb to them was up some steep cliffs, and over many a large boulder. In fact it is quite a surprise that we all escaped unharmed, except for Elliott, our photographic guide, who hurt his wrist. I had been photographing perched on a boulder, foot wedged between two for stability, and only open ocean below me. I do get vertigo, but here I seemed fine, completely distracted by the plethora of life around me.

Little Auk Flutter

Giving me 'the eye'

The Little Auks have very small wings- in fact they are just big enough to fly. The reason that they weren’t graced with easy flight is that they were instead graced with an amazing swimming ability. They dive to great depths in search of fish, and they do so with a delicate ease and great agility. When they come in to land on the cliffs where they breed, the same cannot be said. A landing is more like a bounce, but they are hardy birds, and they don’t seem to take it too badly. One may wonder why they breed in such precarious positions? The reason is that if it’s hard to get to, there is less chance of a fox or Polar Bear raiding the nest. It also means that us humans have to put in a lot more effort to take a good photo!

A bear on the beach...

This morning, day two of our trip, we saw Nanuk- our first Polar Bear. We had just landed to go for a walk, and the first group had walked for about 5 minutes and was watching a seal when they realized a bear was in turn watching them. We heard the call over the radio, having just piled off our zodiac, and immediately began looking for him while the leaders fussed around, getting us to put our recently discarded lifejackets back on.  We were then shepherded onto the boats, for the bear’s safety and ours, as there is no use in our foolishness causing the death of a beautiful bear. I was on the boat in a second, after snapping off two very quick and very poor quality shots. My first Polar Bear ever!!!

Watching a boat full of tasty humans

Smelling us?

We then took to the sea, and watched him pacing it toward the spot where we had been not 15 minutes prior. He was beautiful, a cream- coloured coat with black eyes and black pads on his ever so huge paws. We spent over an hour with him! During that time I filled a memory card, and we got stuck on a small sandbank and had to get out and push ourselves off it. Not all of use, obviously, but enough that it raised the intent interest of the bear. The people on the other boats said that while we were stuck the bear kept his eyes on us, wondering if he was about to get an easy meal! It was incredible- what a special animal to see, what a special memory. It was also our first clear day, and the fjord was beautiful: snow capped mountains, a glacier and our bear.

Glacier on the opposite side of the bay

‘Our bear’ then swam across the small fjord and climbed the opposite bank, chased a couple of reindeer, before wandering off over the cliffs, leaving us smiling and me shaking with excitement…’

During summer, bears lose up to a kilogram of body weight a day.

Bears will even eat seaweed during the long summer months

Shake- off!

Atlantic Puffin- one of my favourite birds!

This bear was fat and healthy having obviously fed recently.
 The area where we had stopped that day is called Smeerenburg and it is home to an old whaling station. The bay used to be full of whales, and its difficult to imagine what it may have looked like, all those whales before the whalers stuffed them in the blubber ovens. It is said that looking out over the water, one would have seen hundreds of the beautiful creatures, frolicking and feeding. When I looked out I saw none- a sad testament to what humans can do to the planet.
I can honestly say that that day is likely the most excited I have felt in my whole life. We had seen a bear- the whole reason for this trip- and the one animal I had never dared dream I would see for many a year. Thinking back on it now, I still smile, and get a shiver of excitement. I can so clearly remember him, and how I felt watching the apex predator of the Arctic, and the largest predator on land as he took a stroll through Smeerenberg.

Bear tracks and zodiac after we re- landed at Smeerenburg

Walking tour of the old whaling station

With my dad in the beautiful Arctic- the trip of a lifetime!

Remains of an old blubber oven on Smeerenberg, AmsterdamOya

Lifting anchor after a very special day on the Akademik Ioffe


  1. Hi Laura
    Thought I would check your blog and find out where you have been lately and happy to see you and Trevor made it to the Arctic.
    How exciting for you, especially seeing those magnificent polar bears, they are so beautiful and quite a change from the African wildlife !
    Interested to see your lovely pics of Namibia too, we nearly went to Etosha this year.
    We are heading back to Dulini again next year, it seems we too just cannot keep away from the place.
    Happy travels,
    Vicki and Rob [Dulini March 2011]

  2. Great to hear from you! It was amazing to see the bears, an absolute dream come true.
    If you get the chance, would highly recommend an Etosha trip, its very different from other parks, dry dusty and with huge game concentrations in the right season (July- Nov) If you ever need help planning, please just let me know!
    Great that you are back to Dulini, we are off to River lodge soon- they are a special set of lodges for sure. Hope you have an amazing trip!!