I witnessed a polar bear kill – but that’s not what I will remember most about my Arctic cruise

Bear with me: the mother polar bear on the hunt in Svalbard, near Norway
Bear with me: the mother polar bear on the hunt in Svalbard, near Norway - Rebecca Badger

I was reaching for the marmalade when bear ecologist Chris Morgan shadowed the doorway. “Layer up, everyone. There’s a bear and two cubs on the ice.”

The dining room emptied. Seven layers of clothes and three minutes later I was out on deck with 11 other guests, two guides and Chris. Our binoculars scanned a magnificent monochrome landscape: black mountains, grey scree, white sky reflected in a glassy sea, shining like molten silver.

Far away across translucent “fast” ice attached to a deceptively low-slung glacier, a creamy polar bear was leading her 18-month-old cubs under a cliff along a narrow shore looking for food. “She’s heading for the eggs!” shouted Morgan across the wind as a pair of barnacle geese shot into the air.

“The geese are doing well here,” reassured Rickard Berg, an impressive Norseman who has guided over 80 expeditions such as these around Svalbard, the archipelago of islands named the “cold edge” by the Vikings that lies a thousand miles north of the Norwegian mainland. Yet even Rickard had never seen a bear kill. Our expedition leader, Dutchman Rinie van Meurs, author of The Future Polar Bear, The Impact of Vanishing Sea Ice on an Arctic Ecosystem, who can spot a polar bear six miles away and has 200 expeditions under his belt, had seen only a handful.

Heseltine with expedition leader Rickard Berg (left) and bear ecologist Chris Morgan (right)
Heseltine with expedition leader Rickard Berg (left) and bear ecologist Chris Morgan (right) - Brenda Phillips

Going for the kill

Climbing diagonally up a sheer rocky slope, then snowploughing back down, nose in the air, our bear made hunting seem relatively easy. But it never is. It’s an equation. Bears need 70,000 calories a week (three or four times what a human might require); a kilo of seal yields 4,500 calories. However, seals are slippery, can outswim a bear and have to be caught from the ice. On average, bears catch one in every 10 they hunt, so they need to temper the energy exerted with their chances of a kill; eggs are a useful snack en route.

“She’s in the water!” cried Lisa, who had flown from San Francisco to join Morgan’s expedition. For 35 years the Lancashire-born ecologist has been tracking and recording bears – be they grizzly, black, brown, spectacled, moon, sun or polar – either in documentaries or in his podcast, The Wild. He is one of the experts who has teamed up with Polar Tracks to lead expeditions through the polar region, alongside Arctic guides.

Bears need to consume 70,000 calories a week
Bears need to consume 70,000 calories a week - Rebecca Badger

Our hapless bear wasn’t having much luck. Seven seals were lazing on floating islands of ice but they were jittery. One by one they popped into the water just as she got to them. Then suddenly everything changed. Back on the ice now she gave an unseen signal. Her twins lay down. She crept forward stealthily, eyes focused, before stopping short, paw mid-air, and studying the ground. Then she pounced and vanished into a hole. A few seconds later she reappeared, dangling a thrashing seal pup from her mouth by its tail. She had done it.

In another place, possibly watching a BBC Wildlife documentary from the comfort of a warm sitting room back home, we might have felt empathy for the hapless pup, but there was no pity here. The polar bear was a mother with two cubs to feed. From the awed silence erupted a cheer.

Rickard looked mesmerised. Finally, he had witnessed a kill. “That was awesome. I have seen many bear hunts but to see them actually catch a seal in front of you, to watch the communication between mother and cubs. Well, it’s a moment which has to be experienced to understand the magic.”

Annabel's ship, the MV Polar Front – a former Norwegian weather ship
Heseltine's ship, the MV Polar Front – a former Norwegian weather ship - Annabel Heseltine

The threat from climate change

But should we have been there at all, to see that moment? What we were witnessing is a rare and vanishing phenomenon. Scientists have calculated that climate change may mean that the ice will have gone by 2044 and with it the polar bear. Without ice the seals cannot come up to breathe and pup, and the bears cannot hunt the seal.

Acknowledging their self-interest in tourism, Rinie and Rickard chewed over that dilemma for me. But of course, it isn’t the ships (now limited to 200 passengers and of which I saw only three on a nine-day trip in the Arctic) that are the real problem. It’s what’s happening in the rest of the world: Rinie and Rickard see us as ambassadors able to tell others what we have seen.

And for all the drama of witnessing a rare bear kill, it was simply a curtain-raiser for the series of Arctic memories I compiled during that cruise.

Heseltine and her group on the hunt
Heseltine and her group on the hunt - Annabel Heseltine

Every day MV Polar Front – a former Norwegian weather ship with a reinforced hull and deep draft of 4.5 metres designed to plough through ice – carried us down deep fjords, fractured by jigsaw puzzles of chilly turquoise ice slabs, in search of minke whales, walruses, reindeer and little awks. The experience was consistently exhilarating, humbling and addictive.

Quickly, we learned the signs. Rinie, Rickard or Chris would spot something, whereupon there would follow a hushed conversation. Then, after briefing us, they would call out the Zodiacs – the brand of rigid inflatable boats used on polar expeditions to take passengers away from the mother ship towards sites of interest. As these dinghies were lowered into the water, we rushed for our overalls, lifejackets and muck boots before clambering down a steep ladder to leave the security of our mother ship for an unpredictable sea where we were at the mercy of the elements.

Cold comfort

I always put everything on – two base layers, a mid-layer, a fleece, waistcoat, down coat, a windcheater as well as collars and four head covers (a hood, hat, balaclava and windproof) – and yet still the cold found unguarded crevices in my neck and clutched at my fingers. On some days, the decision on whether or not to take a photo involved a precise calculation that weighed the likely quality of the picture against the time it would take to remove my gloves to press the button and get them back on again.

But here you cannot stop taking photos. The glaciers, in particular, are dazzling. Deceptively small from our ship, they are in reality huge: 40-50ft high and nearly a mile wide. They engulf every valley.

Annabel (wrapped up warm) with her favourites: the walruses
Heseltine (wrapped up warm) with her favourites: the walruses - Annabel Heseltine

Every day brought another surprise. At one point, scanning the horizon, I saw an Arctic fox, its fur a patchwork of black and white as it navigated the change from winter to summer coat. Morgan told me: “Foxes eat birds and eggs, but the birds aren’t here in the winter so they team up with a polar bear and live off the remains of its prey.”

On another occasion we made out stocky reindeer in their fluffy white coats. It was time to make landfall. Safety and security was always taken seriously; both Rinie and Rickard carried guns. They would order us to stay in the Zodiacs while they unpacked and loaded them and then set off to do a quick recce, shouting loudly. Sneaking up on a polar bear is not a good idea (and nobody wants to have to shoot one of the 3,000 bears left in the Arctic simply because some tourists thought it would be interesting to get too near them).

The walrus of love

'Huge bulbous creatures which roll through icy water like we might languish in a steaming bath': the walrus at rest
'Huge bulbous creatures which roll through icy water like we might languish in a steaming bath': the walrus at rest - Annabel Heseltine

But it was the walruses which did it for me. Huge bulbous creatures which roll through icy water like we might languish in a steaming bath, they seem to wallow without a care in the world (happily, walrus hunting was banned in 1952). They can be dangerous, though. As we set off from the ship, Rickard explained how a Zodiac’s hull is divided into five independent sections to protect it from the attack of an angry female walrus or her counterpart, the frisky younger bulls (if they attack one section, the others will keep the dinghy afloat).

I thought the polar bears, the bear kill and the walruses would be the highlight of the expedition, but in fact it was the wilderness itself that overwhelmed me. That afternoon we travelled further north and eventually hit the magical 80 parallel north that marks the point where the sun is visible for 24 hours during the summer solstice. At first we couldn’t see anything because of the fog, but then the mist parted to reveal ice glinting in the sun for miles and miles around us: a white desert with no horizon. Even Rickard took out his camera.

A few hours later, I returned to linger a little up at the front of the ship. It was midnight. The sun was still shining; the north pole was barely 600 miles ahead of us. We were further north than Nasa’s climate-change monitoring station in north west Greenland and 500 miles north of Alaska.

I am not a great sportswoman. I will never climb Everest, dive the deepest ocean or fly into space, but just then, standing alone in some of the wildest landscape in the world, I was quite possibly the person furthest north on the entire planet. And that is an experience I will never forget.


Annabel Heseltine travelled as a guest of Polar Tracks Expeditions (polartracksexpeditions.com) which offers tailor-made trips on ships carrying 12-50 passengers to the Arctic regions, including to Norway, Greenland and Iceland with world-class guides and wildlife specialists, from £7,000 excluding flights. Chris Morgan can be contacted for privately curated expeditions to the Arctic and other wilderness regions. For more information see chrismorganwildlife.org or email  info@chrismorganwildlife.org

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