My job was to search for walrus. Up until this point on our 10 day trip to the northern reaches of Svalbard, a group of islands off the north coast of Norway, we had seen just a few glimpses of these notoriously skittish creatures. I ventured alone by zodiac further inside the fjord, to a gently curving strip of beach which is a known haul out for walrus while our group of passengers and guides explored the decrepit ruins of a 17th century whaling outpost and hiking the stout rocky hills on the north west side of Sorgfjorden near its mouth.
Long tails of scattered cirrus clouds reflected on the glassy calm water engendering the feeling of racing through liquid sky. Approaching the sandy point, I slowed my boat to a crawl hoping not to disturb any blubbery creatures concealed along the shore. I scanned the area with my binoculars, but could see nothing but sand and rock framed by a treeless expanse capped by pyramid shaped mountains hemming flat glaciers into this little pristine valley. I decided to keep exploring to see what Sorgfjorden might offer and drove deeper into unfamiliar terrain.
Optical haze or 'fata morgana' is a layer of air near the ground where warmer air flows upwards and colder air descends. The mixing of the two refracts and bends light making it very hard to identify subtleties in the landscape and creates mirages. Mirages like this enormous polar bear making its way across the expansive glacial outwash plain towards the coast. I watched for a few minutes until I was sure, and radioed Graham, our Expedition Leader to inform him of my discovery.
The decision was that a complex logistical operation would to begin on the other side of the fjord to get hikers and kayakers in zodiacs and get them over to see this bear. My task was to watch it and keep an eye on its location. With the bear still more than a kilometer inland, I decided to intercept him where I surmised he would come off the low lying glacial outwash plain and onto the shoreline. I zipped over to my spot and cut the engine 50 meters from shore, grabbed my 400mm lens, and waited. Sure enough he came right towards me - either from sheer luck or my delicious unwashed scent. This was a good sized bear stretching about 3.5m from snout to tail, but looked fairly lean. Deposited on a barren stretch of coast like this by the unseasonably early retreat of sea ice, bears are forced into scavenging meals and fasting instead of hunting seals - their favourite prey. Skinny bears tend to be desperate and dangerous, but judicious in their weakened state.
As he transitioned off the dirty snow and onto the beach, he stretched his long neck upwards to sniff the air. We made eye contact for a few very long seconds. Never breaking our gaze, he slowly lowered his gigantic head, adopting a tenuous hunting position. Cautiously, the bear mechanically crept its way straight towards me as I fired shots from my camera. I was so excitedly transfixed in this moment between the bear and I, that the world outside my viewfinder disappeared completely.
Wading slowly into the water, the bear was beginning fill the frame and, still intently stalking me, was pushing the limits my comfort level. I tore the camera out of my hand and returned to the back of the boat to start my engine. I wanted to keep this bear on shore for everyone to see and also, not get eaten. I turned the key and the engine sputtered and died. The bear kept creeping out towards me and was now only 25 m away. A quick thought went to my rifle sitting inanimately in the front of the boat, but I decided my time was better spent at the engine. I looked down into the water, cloudy and grey with glacial till and could see the silhouette of my propeller sitting on the sand. The bear was now 20m away. I hadn’t notice how far I had drifted since turning off my engine, inadvertently marooning myself.
I frantically rocked the engine back and forth to free it from the alluvium, hoping I didn’t suck too much sand into the water intakes. With the propeller unconstrained, the engine roared to life. I slammed the gears into reverse and gunned the throttle away from danger. This did not spook the bear as much as I would have thought as he stood there in knee deep water, still watching me, less than 20 m from where I sat obliviously taking photos a few minutes earlier.
- June 2015