Meeting with the Lord of the Arctic


17 September 2013

Today, during a sampling station in the ice between Pevek (Russia) and Tuktoyaktuk (Canada), we crossed paths again. A lone white polar bear joined us on an ice floe near our sampling station in the Beaufort Sea at 71° North.

The rosette had just been immersed for a dive to a thousand meters. Suddenly François Aurat, one of the sailors on board passionate about photography, exclaimed after checking several times with binoculars, “A swimming bear is coming towards us.”

Those not occupied with the instrument immersion were able to admire the aquatic advance of the largest land predator on our planet. Known for its speed of movement on the ice, the bear is nonetheless a very good swimmer, which most of us could see firsthand.

“He’s been swimming for several miles,” remarked our first mate Martin Hertau, who has experienced several Arctic seasons in Spitsbergen (Norway). “Bears can swim in deep water for two hundred miles sometimes,” Martin continued.

To see the difficulties of this lone male getting out of the icy water, it seemed he had indeed been swimming for a long time. With one last intense effort, the bear strove on with his hundreds of pounds and his fur soaked in water of the Beaufort Sea. An ice patch seemed to offer an advantageous refuge, as he appeared exhausted. Once on all fours and occasionally throwing a glance at Tara, he shook himself for several seconds and then ventured out on his new domain, a haven of rest and a new potential hunting ground as a seal circulated around the ice floes.

But in the end, fatigue seemed to overwhelm everything and after sniffing again in our direction and yawning several times at the crows, he lay on his stomach and then on his back, legs in the air.

It’s difficult under the circumstances to see this mammal other than an adorable teddy in its beautiful sandy-white fur. Yet he is here, like a lion in the African savannah, the perfect predator.

Then almost sheltered from our eyes, the bear dozed off, checking from time to time our position. Given the young male’s leanness, this most probably means he hasn’t fed for several days.

I hadn’t seen a polar bear since my participation in the Tara Arctic 2007-2008. With two more days at sea before arriving in Tuktoyaktuk (Canada), the Beaufort Sea has given us a unique gift just before entering Canadian waters.

Vincent Hilaire